Labor’s minister for early childhood education, Anne Aly, is well aware some people don’t agree with the new government’s plans to expand subsidies for childcare.
“I hear that argument from people my age, asking ‘why should I subsidise people? I did it tough’, but that’s why I say there’s a bigger piece here,” she says.
“It’s about the wellbeing of all Australian children. I don’t think there’s a person in Australia who would hesitate to say that if we invest in all children, that’s a good thing.”
In her third term in parliament, Aly, a professor and world-renowned expert in counter-terrorism before being elected, will be responsible for implementing Labor’s ambitious election agenda to increase childcare subsidies for nearly all Australians.
Anthony Albanese’s plan, prosecuted over several years in opposition, proposes to lift the maximum childcare subsidy rate to 90% for the first child in care, with all families earning up to $530,000 to receive the benefit. The policy promises that “no family will be worse off”. Labor has argued current childcare settings are seeing prices rise, and stay-at-home parents – usually mothers – are actually losing money if they seek to work extra days.
Aly says Labor will look to legislate the key election promises within its first 100 days, the first step toward what she called the “aspiration” of fully universal childcare. She has spoken of her own experiences of accessing childcare for her children while studying and escaping a violent relationship.
“Our policy is prudent and cautious, but will provide benefits to most families. It’s filling that urgent need,” Aly says.
“My inbox is flooded with people saying they can’t afford or find childcare. You can’t do it holus-bolus in one go, but in transitioning to the aspiration of universal childcare, this is the first steps of what we’ve promised to do.”
The member for Cowan was three weeks ago fighting for her political life on a razor-thin 0.8% margin in a seat the Coalition said it was heavily targeting. Now she sits on a far more comfortable 10.8% margin, courtesy of a swing of nearly 10% in the Labor wave that swept Western Australia and carried Albanese into the Lodge, and was this month named as one of the fresh faces in the new ministry.
“WA stands for ‘way ahead’,” Aly laughs, reflecting on her fast-changing political fortunes.
She says work is “already under way” inside her department to legislate the childcare changes.
“We’ve been saying all this time, the way to strengthen the economy is productivity gains. Childcare plays a big role. Women particularly, but not only, might be working two days a week but can’t afford to work more. That’s about productivity, but also gender equity,” Aly says.
“There should be no reason why women wanting to participate more fully shouldn’t be able to work because they can’t find or afford childcare.”
“The other argument is those early years are critical to development. If a child has good foundations in the early years, it carries on to later life and improved outcomes … Investing in early years means better outcomes for education, fewer challenges for children born into challenging circumstances, [less] antisocial behaviour and youth crime.”
Which is the intersection point, Aly says, for her other role – as minister for youth. In her pre-politics life, she founded the youth-led non-profit People Against Violent Extremism, which looked to counter extremist messages from terrorist groups and support young people at risk of radicalisation. Aly says she wants to bring the spirit of that work into her new job.
“What I used to do was driven by an understanding that young people want to belong. If they don’t find a sense of belonging, a group, they become vulnerable to negative group influences,” she says.
“That concept of belonging is important in driving a youth strategy. Whether they want to join work around climate change or housing, it’s about belonging and having a place in society they can fully participate in, in ways they want to.
“As we saw with the youth protests around climate, young people really want to have a voice and there’s no mechanism for that currently.”
Aly says new mechanisms will be developed for young people to contribute across a range of portfolios – nominating climate, housing, education, mental health and cost of living as issues where she wants Australia’s young people to have a bigger voice. Those mechanisms will sit inside a new Office for Youth in the education department and be co-designed with youth.
“They don’t need me to be their voice. I’m too old,” she laughs.
But more seriously, Aly notes that she doesn’t want to see young people treated “as a monolith or homogenous group”.
“There’s a lot of youth concerned about climate, but some South Sudanese youth are worried more about the fact one of their cousins got stabbed in Melbourne. I want to be inclusive: rural and regional youth, First Nations youth,” she says.
“The youth agenda isn’t dominated by a particular set of issues and circumstances or particular demographic … I’m keen on this being youth-driven. There’s nothing worse than an old person telling young people what they want.”