Thursday, 19 October 2023


Education and Training Reform Amendment (Land Powers) Bill 2023



Education and Training Reform Amendment (Land Powers) Bill 2023

Second reading

Debate resumed on motion of Ingrid Stitt:

That the bill be now read a second time.

Ann-Marie HERMANS (South-Eastern Metropolitan) (10:04): I rise today to continue the debate about the Education and Training Reform Amendment (Land Powers) Bill 2023. As we know, this bill seeks to amend the Education and Training Reform Act 2006 to expand the state’s powers to acquire and develop land or to take on or grant other interests in land for the purposes of providing early childhood education and care and other associated services as part of the government’s Best Start, Best Life reforms.

We are very supportive as a coalition of making sure that our young people are provided with the early childhood education and care that they deserve and need. But according to the Minister for Education:

Specifically, this Bill will amend the Act to:

a) expand the minister’s powers to acquire land, either by agreement or compulsorily, or to take on or grant other interests in land, for the purposes of providing childhood education and care and certain other services associated with ECEC, such as maternal and child health services and community spaces, and

b) expand the purposes of the ETR Act as they relate to

a. the acquisition, use and development of land by the Minister, and

b. the provision of ECEC and associated services,

c) expand the principles of the ETR Act to recognise the importance of access to education during early childhood and state support of early childhood education where there is insufficient provision.

This is giving the minister an enormous amount of power. The purpose of the bill is to amend the education and training act to make further provision for the acquisition, use and development of land for the purpose of early childhood education, and whilst we are incredibly supportive of childhood education and understand the need to have this provision placed in there, it is incredibly important that I also stress that there is a sense of hesitation and there is a sense of concern that I wish to express on behalf particularly of the residents of Narre Warren North.

Also, in terms of Liberal Party policy, we do not really like governments coming in and telling people where they can live, how they can live and what they can and cannot do, and we certainly do not like the idea of them being able to take over people’s properties, which are their homes. We would all be very familiar with the movie The Castle and the struggle of these ordinary Australians to hang on to their own home, their castle. Commonly, landowner rights are affected by compulsory acquisitions when an authority seeks to acquire an interest in private land by compulsory process. I think everyone has the right to a quiet and uninterrupted enjoyment of private land by the owner, and this should be the cornerstone right of any owner of property. Having said that, that does not mean that we are going to oppose this particular bill, but I think it should be understood that as Liberals we do have a hesitation at the acquisition of people’s homes.

We also believe very firmly then that if you are going to take people’s homes they have the right to a very fair compensation and assurance that a proper process is followed. At the time the government acquired 130 residences; now it looks like that is in excess of 40 homes in surplus, which they are now trying to resell at higher prices. What a waste. You have taken people’s homes, and now you are having to re-look at how you are doing that. I just think that there needs to be genuine consideration in how people go about this process.

When it was initially announced, this policy was very much focused on the fact that the government was looking to co-locate these new childcare centres at school sites with government schools, which benefits parents and creates an educational precinct. I have seen this in operation in Narre Warren North, where there is a childcare centre near a primary school, and it does work well, although I must say many of the parents that use it do not necessarily send their children to the school that is next door ‍– but many do. And I think that the opportunity for choice is incredibly important in this, and obviously that is something that as a party the Liberals advocate very strongly – the element of choice.

Whilst I understand that the $14 billion Best Start, Best Life childcare, free kinder and pre-prep policy looks at putting in place 50 childcare centres across Victoria, I understand that 30 locations have been expressed but only four specific sites have actually been identified by the government to date, despite the fact that this was announced some time ago and these childcare centres are proposed to be delivered by 2028. It would be remiss of me to be standing up here if I did not once again advocate on behalf of the people of Narre Warren North, who are in my electorate, and raise once again the property at 154 Drysdale Avenue, Narre Warren North. So many local residents have protested against it, because they have genuine concerns – number one, because there are not the number of children in the area at all for a childcare centre, and yet this childcare centre will go ahead. Of course we all know that Casey council is under the administration of this government and that people have now been put into a position where they do not even have any ability to actually prevent this from happening. Their concerns are very genuine. I do have concerns about acquisition when it is not done properly. I have seen a number of government projects in the south-east take place where people have not done proper consultation with the residents, have not done proper consultation with the local stakeholders and have seemed to have just looked on a map and gone, ‘Oh, this’ll do.’ And I have seen that with the level crossings – ‘Oh, we’ll just block the road here.’

Sonja Terpstra: On a point of order, President, I do not think Mrs Hermans is being relevant to the bill. The level crossing removal authority and projects related to the level crossing removals are not relevant to this bill.

The PRESIDENT: I call Mrs Hermans back to the bill.

Ann-Marie HERMANS: The point is that making good decisions when it comes to locations is incredibly important. The development proposal for 154 Drysdale Avenue, Narre Warren North, located within the Highgrange estate, with plans for a $2.9 million early childhood education facility at the site, is to accommodate 110 places. Now, I can actually say right now: there are not the children available for a childcare centre like that in this area, and of course it will be offering kinder. There are major concerns.

Some of these concerns are that this area is residential; the proposed location for the centre is on a corner block intersecting a single-lane carriageway, Belgrave-Hallam Road, and Drysdale Avenue, which is one lane each way; and it is the only entrance and exit point for the Highgrange estate. Residents fear Drysdale Avenue, which has minimal on-street parking, does not have the capacity to accommodate the traffic congestion the centre would bring, calling it an accident waiting to happen. There is no public transport access along Belgrave-Hallam Road or Drysdale Avenue, so the access is going to have to be by vehicle.

Although we have understood the importance of being able to make available childcare centres in areas where there are not enough of them, a great deal of thought and care needs to be given to acquiring people’s homes – their castles. In regard to this particular bill, even though the principle of it remains good, if it is not delivered well by a government that is willing to actually do the hard yards and speak to the people who are genuine stakeholders, whose homes are at stake, then it is not going to be a really functional opportunity for many people, and it is going to bring heartache. Whilst we do support the concept of allowing the government to have this extra opportunity, it is the way that it will be delivered that I will be watching particularly in the south-east. I have no further things to say on this bill.

Sonja TERPSTRA (North-Eastern Metropolitan) (10:14): I rise to make a contribution on the Education and Training Reform Amendment (Land Powers) Bill 2023, and I will actually combat some of the things that Mrs Hermans said in her contribution. They were quite outrageous, some of the scare tactics and misinformation that were presented. But I am actually going to be relevant to the bill and talk about what the bill actually does, and then I will return to addressing some of those misinformed comments.

This bill is an important bill. It is about the ability of the minister to acquire land to deliver kindergartens and the 50 government owned and operated early learning centres. What might be lost on those opposite is that we talk about early learning centres, but there is child care, and we are talking about kinder and pre-prep. So child care is generally for ages nought to two, then kinder is three – the three-year-old kinder – and then pre-prep is for ages four to five, and then the kids go off to school in prep. That is an important distinction to understand, which is probably lost on those opposite. We have been talking about the fact that there are some areas within Melbourne that are called childcare deserts. Those opposite say, ‘Let’s have the free market do everything,’ because the free market wins everything –

Lizzie Blandthorn: Yes, because that works so well.

Sonja TERPSTRA:Yes, because it works so well. But the bottom line is the market has failed a number of areas in Melbourne where there is just no availability of child care. So what is the point, then? The point is, what, that those people are meant to miss out, or the kids are meant to miss out – and that is why the government recognises that there is a failure in the private market to provide that and the government is stepping in to address that failure.

To try and couch this bill as some kind of swooping in and picking up of property – the reality is that that is going to be highly unlikely. I was just talking to the advisers in the box and reading through these notes about what might happen in terms of land acquisition. Some of these places will be in growth areas where there are new communities developing, but also you might have a situation where there are infill developments happening. We know this is happening as part of our proposal to develop and have more housing, that you might have intensity in housing and infill development, and there may not be the capacity to accommodate children in those areas. But things are done by agreement, Mrs Hermans. You may not understand that. Things are done by agreement; where we can get that agreement, that will happen. So the idea that we are just going to be displacing families is completely ludicrous.

This bill is about supporting the early childhood education reforms so that we can build the infrastructure we need, because I might add there are now a number of councils who are adding to the market failure to be able to provide access to government-run kinder, because they are opting out of providing. They are saying, ‘You know what, we want to get out of early childhood education now.’ Some of these councils have historically owned much of the infrastructure for the provision of early childhood services, kinders in particular, and they are opting out. They are privatising, they are getting out of it and they will sell those assets. So again, they are adding more pressure into the system, not making it easier for parents to access early childhood education locally for their children. That is what parents want; parents want locally available early childhood education.

This ridiculous Kennett notion of choice and competition: I have never heard anything like it that applies to kindergarten. It is usually when parents are looking at sending their kids off to school. I am glad to say that the Victorian government has implemented a policy where children should go to their locally zoned school, because what we know is local schools are great schools. What happens when you have choice and competition is it residualises perfectly good schools. You do not go around choosing your local emergency department when you are having a medical emergency, do you, Mr McIntosh? You go to your closest local emergency department if you are having a medical emergency. What we know is choice and competition is bad for schools. It is bad for public education.

Returning to the bill, what we know is that the change that the minister will deliver –

Ann-Marie Hermans: On a point of order, President, I do think that the speaker is currently off track when she is talking about free will and choice for people in terms of their everyday life. I do not see how it is relevant to this particular bill.

Tom McIntosh: On the point of order, President, she is clearly talking about early education within that context – 100 per cent clearly talking about early education in the context of availability and proximity of education services and facilities.

The PRESIDENT: I will call everyone to the bill.

Sonja TERPSTRA: I will continue on this point about the availability of early childhood education services. This bill is actually germane to us being able to provide and increase the capacity for parents to send their children to early childhood education, because we are increasing the hours for three-year-old kinder and four-year-old kinder, which will now be called pre-prep. We are increasing those hours, so we need to ensure that we have the infrastructure to provide those services. I know those opposite hate anything with the word ‘public’ in it. ‘Public education: bad’ – always from those opposite. Again, the bill is straightforward. It will enable the minister to deliver the infrastructure needed to deliver the Best Start, Best Life reforms, including free kinder, which is so important. We know how important it is that children get access to quality early childhood education and the impacts that it has on their life outcomes, their education outcomes and their health outcomes. For every dollar we invest in early childhood education we get $17 in return in savings to the healthcare system and in savings to the juvenile justice system. These things are very well documented, but again, they are lost on those opposite.

It is critically important that we have this infrastructure, as I said, because a number of councils are looking to privatise and get out. They want to capitalise on the opportunity to sell their assets, and then by doing that they are limiting the availability of early childhood education. This is a critically important reform. Another part of the government’s policy on this is for co-location of early childhood education centres where that can happen, where there is already an existing school. These centres can be built on existing grounds, where there are public schools and they can accommodate that. But where there is not, there is a need to access more infrastructure and to develop that. As I said earlier, there are a number of areas in Melbourne – they are called childcare deserts – where there is no childcare provision. Child care is generally nought to two; then you have got early education, which is three-year-old kinder; and then pre-prep, as it will be called, is four-year-old kinder.

This goes specifically to where people have not been able to access child care or early learning. With the 50 government owned and operated early learning centres which we announced we would implement, what we have found is that child care has not been working for some families – so this is specifically about child care. The fees are high, and families have been weighing up the financial impact of going back to work. So of course this does not work for all families; sometimes they find they are paying very high fees. That also impacts women’s workforce participation. They are making decisions, and they think, ‘Well, I can’t afford to send my child to either child care or kinder.’ I know myself when I sent my children to three-year-old kinder I was not working at the time, and it was a decision we had to make as to whether we could afford it. We decided to send our kids, because it was the right thing to do for them.

We also know there is a shortage of places, and that is why we are establishing these 50 government-owned affordable early learning centres where there is the greatest unmet demand. The 50 centres will be up and running by 2028. The first four sites will be operational by 2025 and will be located at: Eaglehawk North Primary – guess what, no acquisition of land there, I am assuming; there is an established school – Moomba Park Primary School, Murtoa College and Sunshine Primary School. Amazing. The next 26 locations for centres have been announced as the following, and this is not in reference necessarily to townships, but when I go through this list you will be able to see and hear that there is unmet demand and need there: Creswick–Clunes, Dandenong, Foster, Frankston North, Glenroy, Golden Plains, Hallam, Heidelberg West in my region – and absolutely early childhood education and care is critically important in that part of my community in Heidelberg West, as it is right across my region – Kings Park, Lalor, Loddon, Maryborough, Melton South, Mildura, Noble Park East, Portarlington, Portland, Reservoir, Rochester, Rockbank–Mount Cottrell, Seymour, Shepparton, Hampton Park–Lynbrook, Numurkah, Werribee, and Yallourn North–Glengarry. Twenty more locations will be selected based on need.

The other important thing, might I add, when we talk about establishing these centres is that not only are we making available local, quality early childhood education and care, we are also creating jobs. There will be locally available jobs for people to go and work in these centres, whether you are a kindergarten aide, a teacher or a childhood educator. These are amazing opportunities for women as well, and men, to be able to work locally in these centres. That is a great opportunity. People want to be able to work locally, and especially if you have got young kids – it just makes your life a lot easier. So we are creating job opportunities along with this bill as well.

I know there are many grandparents. I remember when my kids used to go to kinder, we would often have special people come and volunteer. There is an amazing interaction between kids and the elderly. I know there is a really fantastic program at Maroondah Pre-school where the kids are brought to one of the aged care centres there, and the interaction between the kids in kinder and the elderly is absolutely beautiful to watch. I was really pleased to go and visit that program and see that in operation with Minister Stitt when she was the Minister for Early Childhood and Pre-Prep.

The opportunity is there to make sure that quality early childhood education is going to be a feature and a fixture of this government and its policies going forward. It is critically important. As I said earlier, we know that the benefits are demonstrable, and they show the economic benefits as well. As I said, for every dollar that we invest in early childhood education, there is a $17 return. So these things are critically important. We know that it just makes such a difference to young children; you can tell. When my children started prep I could see the kids that had been to kinder. You can see them developing throughout three- and four-year-old kinder, and you can see when they become school-ready as well. Once they start prep they are able to listen to instructions and they are able to sit on the floor and keep still and all those sorts of things. That is what kids get when they get quality early childhood education that is delivered by the government. You get that quality aspect so that kids are school ready, and it is critically important.

I might leave my contribution there. As I said, this bill enables the acquisition of land, and it is critically important that this bill passes in this chamber as it is a very important part of that to facilitate the rollout of our early childhood education reforms.

Melina BATH (Eastern Victoria) (10:26): I am pleased to rise to make a contribution on the Education and Training Reform Amendment (Land Powers) Bill 2023 today and to provide some context in relation to my Eastern Victoria electorate. There is a very interesting and good study produced by Victoria University, which was a nationwide research paper in 2022. That research paper looks into access to quality child care. We know that is very important. This is a universally agreed position: that quality child care, quality early intervention and quality early education can put our young people on the pathway to success and also enable parents who wish to return to the workforce, contribute to the economy and contribute to their region to access that to provide that flexibility and that choice. These are very important and really cornerstone services that need to be right across our nation and indeed Eastern Victoria Region.

The report identifies that 9 million Australians live in neighbourhoods that are classified as childcare deserts, defined as three children for every one childcare place. Unfortunately the Eastern Victoria Region is certainly part of that childcare desert landscape – three children for every one place. We are seeing there that demand is certainly outstripping supply. If you look at that, there is a scarcity that we want to drill down into.

There is not only desert but absolutely parched areas in Eastern Victoria Region. If I randomly look up some points of interest – some places of interest, some great towns – the number of places per child for Churchill in the Latrobe Valley is 0.131, so we are looking at almost five to seven young children needing child care for every one childcare place. If we look at Orbost – this is from the report – it is 0.0, so there is such a dearth, such a lack of childcare places in the wonderful town of Orbost, which is going through such turmoil at the moment with the closure of the native timber industry. In terms of Wonthaggi, another great region that is a growth area, people are streaming to that area to live, work and raise a family, but you are looking at 0.275, so you have got four children for every one childcare place there. We need quality childcare education for our later success in life.

What does this mean in terms of the workforce in our regions? If you look at, for example, Orbost, they have fantastic schools and they have a hospital there. They desperately need to have professionals who are willing to go to the regions. In attracting those professionals, whatever their capacity, whether it be a nurse, doctor, teacher or the like, they look to what services are there, whether there is good health care but also whether there are childcare places. And you can see the lack in – and I am just using this as an example – Orbost, and Omeo also is in that very clear classification of a childcare desert. That is an impediment for people to come to our regions and fill those positions. They want to see that their child will have great access to child care and a great pathway for life.

A Traralgon constituent came to me – I have raised this in the house on her behalf before, her frustration – who had a newborn baby. She put that newborn baby on waiting lists for six different childcare places in and around the Latrobe Valley. That child is now over 18 months old, and she is no nearer to getting that child into a childcare place. She herself, unfortunately, is part of the solution, because she is an early childhood educator who wants to go to work but cannot find access to a service that would enable her to be part of that solution of providing quality childhood education.

Out of the last 24 years we have had 20 years of Labor controlling the levers in this state – 24 years of Labor policy and 24 years of Labor at the helm. Now we see that if you look at great swathes of Victoria – I have spoken about just a couple in my Eastern Victoria Region – there are childcare deserts, not only in the city, in Melbourne, as was stated before, but across regional Victoria, and we need to do something about this. We need to be able to let those professionals and other parents have that access.

I raised a point in this debate, and I will go through it in greater detail shortly. Back in October 2022 the Victorian government announced 50 government-operated childcare centres would be ‘up and running by 2028’. Then there was a big list, and the locations were defined – 30 of them out of those 50. I will drill down into the contents of the bill shortly. Sometimes it feels like either the minister is not being well educated or the department is doing a random stab. What I would like is to have some clarification about this. They list ‘Yallourn North–Glengarry’. For those people who live in the area and know the area, they are 20 kilometres apart. They are not joint, sister towns. Are there going to be two childcare centres, one at Yallourn North and one at Glengarry, or is this just that the government has looked something up on a bit of a table and chucked it on there to make sure that there is something there for the Latrobe Valley?

I will endorse two childcare centres – one in Glengarry. We know that Glengarry is a wonderful little town, as is Yallourn North. Glengarry has had 100 residential blocks open up in recent times. It is certainly close, as both of them are, to major centres for shopping et cetera. It is a wonderful town and a fantastic local community. The progress association does an amazing job to care for their town. We see that it is a growing town, but is there going to be a childcare centre in Glengarry or is it going to be in Yallourn North? I would argue both.

There is an education inquiry happening in this place, in the upper house. The Yallourn North Primary School principal does an amazing job, and again Yallourn North is a wonderful town. There are complex issues around many of the students. It is a known low socio-economic town, and the principal there is doing a fantastic job with his staff and with the budget that he has, but access to a childcare centre early in Yallourn North is important. We have heard 2028. Unless the Allan government has a defined time frame, there are concerns that that will blow out. I will let others give us an indication that it will not be blowing out any further than 2028. Those are some of the issues that I would like clarified in the course of the committee of the whole. I know that there will be a number of questions.

The other point I would like to raise in relation to both public and private entities – and we need both; there needs to be that matrix – is that unfortunately in recent times we have seen the closure of a very dear and valuable service in the township of Moe. There was a childcare centre, the Moe childcare centre, that had been in operation for the last 30 years by Mr and Mrs Mason. I also note from speaking with them in detail that they accepted children who were in out-of-home care, who were on the protective services list, and when they had to close last year due to workforce shortages – and they had some very real and important comments around how some of those could be solved – they were absolutely concerned about what would happen to those very vulnerable children who were in kinship care or on that protective services list, under child protection. They were worried because they had known that they were a go-to location for the services of the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing, as it is now called, in one iteration or another. They were the go-to place, and they were very worried about those children, as are many of us here. It is a shame when the marketplace is getting squeezed and indeed there are not those solutions there. They had many solutions, and they had asked to have conversations with government to sort out some of these issues around workforce shortages. The government can come in and say ‘free TAFE’ and all of that, but there happen to be real channels of congestion, or lack of channels, and the importance of proper training. I feel sad for Mr and Mrs Mason, not just because they have lost their 30-year-old business but because it goes further to those childcare deserts that we see.

In relation to this bill, it amends the Education and Training Reform Act 2006 to extend the Victorian government’s current powers to acquire land, in addition to its operation of state schools, for state-owned kindergartens and childcare centres. We have heard some very valid comments from both Ms Crozier and Mrs Hermans, so I will not reiterate those, but I concur with the sentiments that they have. But I know from my own experience within my own family circle – that was the acquisition of land for the North East Link – that it can be very traumatic for people that have had to have their private land compulsorily acquired. The negotiations can be protracted and certainly create significant stress, and they can often feel that they have been ripped off in the process. I put on record that the government needs to ensure not only that compulsory acquisition will be fair and be expedited in a manner that serves those people from which land is going to be relinquished but also that it is done in the most minimal capacity. I know in speaking to some local CEOs of shires that there is often other public-owned Crown land that is available, and I would call on the government to certainly where possible – and I know it states ‘where possible’ – go to accompanying school land. That can be squeezed sometimes, but also look at reprioritising public land and coordinate that with the shire council.

Finally, with my last few moments, we see that this government has a track record of overpromising and underdelivering for Victorians. We see that with the Commonwealth Games, overpromising and now underdelivering – no longer is it on the table. We also see that there is an ever-growing list of burden and black holes in terms of the budget, and so we see those big budget blowouts. This government needs to keep on task in this. I have clearly said that there are childcare deserts in my region, and I could go on and talk about a whole raft of others, but we will not oppose this bill because we know that there is a need for future childcare centres. I would like some clarification about, as stated, Glengarry and Yallourn North. I would like to see that the next report from Victoria University certainly has far more green, rather than glaring red – parched childcare deserts – not only for Eastern Victoria Region but for all of Victoria.

David LIMBRICK (South-Eastern Metropolitan) (10:40): I rise to speak on the Education and Training Reform Amendment (Land Powers) Bill 2023. The Libertarian Party opposes compulsory acquisition of property by the state on principle, and therefore my position on this bill is very simple: the answer is no.

Tom McINTOSH (Eastern Victoria) (10:41): I genuinely love our Best Start, Best Life reforms, and I am going to be positive through my contribution. However, I do need to follow on from the barrage of negativity that we expect from the Nationals. I am going to talk through all the investment we are making in early education in Eastern Victoria, because Ms Bath failed to pick up on all that. She was talking about Orbost. I was there last week. She failed to mention the $8 million investment we are making in the co-located primary and secondary college and the investment we are making in health services. I was up at Bonang and Goongerah last week. The services we are putting in for tiny communities – we do not forget them. Whether they are remote, rural or regional communities, we are not forgetting any of them.

I will go through all this, but I think it is important just to touch on the question: why is the state government stepping into this space? Because the federal National–Liberal coalition government for their decade in power – like everything else, whether it be housing or whether it be anything where the government should take some responsibility; Ms Bath talked about ensuring that there is staff to fill these, the skills and professional services – just typically again took their hand off the wheel: ‘Let’s just let the free market do what it wants.’ The state government is stepping up and stepping in to fill the void with our 50 centres.

This investment in early education is so critically important. I am going to come back to the specifics of Eastern Victoria Region shortly, but I just want to talk about why it is so beneficial to us as a community for these investments to be made. First of all, for our children themselves, our future generation of Victorians, we are ensuring that we are setting up the 15 hours of three-year-old kinder and our 30 hours of four-year-old kinder. This is so important because we know this play-based learning develops our kids academically, emotionally and socially. There is just so much benefit to what we are rolling out. Importantly, by ensuring that this is available to kids across any economic background of Victorians, we are ensuring we are giving an entire generation equal opportunity to be their best, which sets our state up. As we invest and we roll this out, you are going to look down the track in 10, 15, 20 years and the wellbeing of this generation is going to be far enhanced, but the economic productivity of that generation will be too. There is just so much simply in what it is going to mean for our kids as they progress through their lives for this state.

What it also means for our families, our parents, to be able to get back to work is a double element on this which is just so, so valuable for families. When we look at this as a cost-of-living measure, we are reducing the cost burden on accessing early education, which helps kids get into early education, which brings all those things I was just talking through, but it also allows families to get back to work without having to worry: ‘If I go to work, I’m losing money before I even get out the door.’ So we are getting parents back to work, and of course predominantly we are getting women back to work, back in the workforce. We are ensuring they are getting their superannuation. They are not out of the workforce and being left behind while other colleagues pass them by in their career. I just cannot talk enough about what that means for our children and for our families. To the element of childcare centres, as I touched on before, there was a void left and the state is stepping in. This reform in its entirety – yes, there is kinder, but there is also child care – will make sure that everything I have just discussed can occur. I am so, so proud to be part of a government that does not just take cheap shots and point out problems. We have a set of values, and around that we form a set of policies. Then we drive that policy agenda, which takes time, but we are getting on with it, and over the next decade our three- and four-year-olds are going to be within the infrastructure, the early education settings that we are building, and we will ensure that those kids can get it.

It was fantastic to hear our two ministers, Minister Tierney and Minister Blandthorn, out yesterday talking about the investment we are making throughout TAFEs to ensure that we have a skilled workforce. It is a beautifully skilled workforce that is so important for our children. When you think of the relationship that is built between child and teacher over what could be one or two years of that period of their life, it is really something, as is having those educators being valued and respected as educators and having the training to be the best they can possibly be. Let us be honest, that can at times be a demanding job – it is amazing what they do – and for the government to support them and ensure that the workers are here just goes to the holistic vision of this government to ensure that everything is in place for that generational progress that we are committed to delivering. Of course the jobs are a fantastic element. We are going to ensure that more people have jobs. We heard about record low unemployment before. It is this investment in skills that ensures our future productivity.

I will come back to my region of Eastern Victoria, because there is so much good news to talk about. Every time I visit an early learning centre, talking to the committee, staff, parents and families, grandparents – everyone that is around it – it is such an important part of the community. I talked in a contribution I made yesterday about how, particularly in regional towns, building places of community is so important, supporting places of community – not having government seeing people as individuals and ripping services and those bases of community out but investing in them and putting them in. They are places like the Gumnuts Early Learning Centre in Sale, whose new building is open – I was there to open that a few months ago; the Korumburra school, which is going through its process at the moment, which I believe will be opened at some point next year; and the big facility at Leongatha, which I went along and opened with our parliamentary secretary Katie Hall a few months ago, which is an incredible facility, and such a big crowd turned out to celebrate that.

In Mornington we have the Herd Intergenerational Learning Centre. Many of us would have seen the ABC program about bringing together people in aged care and young people – the aged care home for young people. In Mornington they were out in front and ahead of their time in co-locating these two facilities, even putting windows in between the two so the aged care residents can sit and see the young childcare students playing. It is just such a beautiful thing. On the opening day there were animals and food, and it was a great celebration to see the two generations at either end of the age gap coming together. There is investment at Mirboo North; at Yarram that build is underway; there is Lakes Entrance; at Foster we have got upgrades plus another childcare centre coming; and Lucknow. There is just so much investment we are making across regions where we identify the need.

I want to pick up on some of the comments that were coming earlier from the other side, just trying to muddy the waters, saying things like, ‘We don’t need it, kinders are pulling out’ – trying almost by sleight of hand to encourage kinders to pull out of delivering a community service. It is quite bizarre. You have to have a look at future population growth, but you have to also remember that what we are doing is ensuring more kids get more access to more hours. So as we project that out, that means we do need more services and more teachers, as Ms Bath correctly pointed out, and we have the plan to deliver that. Again, it is that holistic view of what we are doing which has seen this delivery right across Victoria and very much so in the regions.

I really want to touch on a point. I was in Orbost last week, and I was really saddened to hear that a young kid in the town is just hearing so much negativity that he does not even see a future for himself in that town. I think there is a constant barrage of negativity, particularly from the Nationals, where we run our areas down and we talk our areas down rather than seeing productivity. We have, across regional Victoria, record low unemployment. We have people moving to the regions. There is demand on building infrastructure, building houses and providing services, unlike – I am on the record in here many times talking about the 1990s – the Kennett government, which ripped out the infrastructure and removed the services, and private industry followed suit and left the regions to founder by themselves. Buildings literally rotted into the ground. Community groups, sports clubs and schools – numbers dwindled, and they were closed.

We have the opposite problem now, and the opposition cannot make up their mind. If we go to invest, they say, ‘Don’t invest, it’s hitting the budget too much,’ like the regional package of $2 billion of investment across housing, across tourism and across community sports clubs. But then at the same time they are saying, ‘We’ve got a plan to invest in our infrastructure,’ which we are delivering. Many of the early education centres in Eastern Victoria Region I just spoke about are completed. More and more are being announced, basically, every day. Yet they are saying, ‘Will it be delivered in time?’ So on one hand we are being told if we build too quickly it is economically irresponsible – ‘Don’t invest in the regions’ – but on the other hand, ‘Quick, quick, invest more in the regions.’ It reminds me of the Greens when all they want to do is just find these little niches or toeholds for a social media grab to try and talk down long-term, sensible, sustainable measures. And I do worry sometimes, between the Nationals and the Greens, that it is really only the shade of green that is the difference for that constant negativity and talking of our people and our towns and our communities down.

Anyway, I think this is such a wonderful piece of work – that the government has made a long-term commitment and a long-term investment in our youth, in our families and in the future productivity of this state – I am very glad to have had the opportunity to speak on it.

Jacinta ERMACORA (Western Victoria) (10:53): I am very pleased to speak on the Education and Training Reform Amendment (Land Powers) Bill 2023, but before I start I would like to acknowledge the work of the former minister Ingrid Stitt, who is here in the chamber, on this bill and the whole reform strategy as well and congratulate Minister Blandthorn for taking the next step.

Matthew Bach interjected.

Jacinta ERMACORA: And I thank those opposite for the endorsement. This is about the little people of Victoria. Specifically, it is about three- and four-year-olds, who at this time in their lives are absorbing knowledge and experiences at an enormous rate through their daily lives and activities. We know that early childhood education emphasises the importance of providing enriching experiences that stimulate and nurture children’s cognitive growth. Three- and four-year-old children have started to enjoy play with other children. They have started to clearly say what they want. They are often developing a sense of humour and realising that other people are real, but they often struggle to calibrate their energy levels. Interactive activities at this stage of development can profoundly enhance language, problem-solving and critical thinking skills, and I think this goes to the absolute nub of the purpose of our investment in Best Start, Best Life: child care and early development. Problem-solving, language and critical thinking skills are skills we all need as adults to be able to manage the challenges of life, the opportunities of life and also the disappointments of life. This is where playful exploration and guided instruction can play a huge role in enhancing brain and social development for our littlest Victorians.

We know scientifically from years of research and studies what I think parents know intuitively: early childhood care and education make a fundamental difference to the outcome of a young person’s life and trajectory. UNESCO reported in April this year that the right to education begins at birth and that children’s first five years of life are crucial to their development. During their first five years children learn at a faster rate than at any other time in their lives. Cognitive and socio-emotional skills that are fundamental for their future achievements in school and later on as adults are formed during these years.

With such clear and overwhelming evidence indicating the importance of early childhood development, I am very proud of the Allan government’s focus on Best Start, Best Life reforms to early childhood education. This bill proposes an amendment to the Education and Training Reform Act 2006, empowering the minister to procure land for the establishment of kindergartens and the 50 government owned and operated early learning centres. This change will assist the minister to provide necessary infrastructure to implement the Best Start, Best Life reforms. This includes free kinder and pre-prep along with the establishment of 50 early learning centres, which will deliver affordable child care to communities most in need – and ‘most in need’ is what I would like to refer to in terms of regional communities as well. The bill provides authority to acquire land for educational purposes that already exist, primarily for school education. This will now ensure that the minister possesses the appropriate authority to develop infrastructure for early childhood education.

I would like to draw attention to clause 6 of the bill, which has the following two principles: (1) that access to education during early childhood is important for the wellbeing of children and the family; and (2) that all Victorians, irrespective of where they live or their social and economic status, should have access to education during early childhood. These principles embody the values of this government and demonstrate our commitment to early childhood. These are fundamental Labor principles and to my mind represent the very best of our government.

In Victoria the Allan Labor government is leading our nation in establishing the Best Start, Best Life reform strategy. This generational reform will fundamentally shape and profoundly influence early childhood education for decades to come. We want the best start possible for our children at the most important phase of their development, no matter the circumstances or where they live.

Research also shows that early childhood education investments yield substantial societal and economic returns. Specifically, for every dollar channelled into early childhood education in Australia, a return of $2 is seen over a child’s lifetime. The $14 billion committed over a decade to deliver the Best Start, Best Life reforms include the continuing rollout of funded three-year-old kindergarten. This alone has already transformed the lives of children and their families, helping greatly with the cost of child care and enabling many parents, particularly women, to return to work. We know that free kinder rollout for all three- and four-year-old children at participating services is doing just that. Over the next decade four-year-old kinder will transition to pre-prep, which will become a universal 30-hour-a-week program of play-based learning available to four-year-old children across the state. This will actually amount to a doubling of the educational opportunities available for children in their years before school. It will mean children have twice the amount of teacher-led, play-based learning time to develop critical social, emotional and cognitive skills that will set them up for life and for the following years of their education.

The Victorian government has also committed to opening 50 new government-owned early learning centres in the communities that need them the most. The first of these will be co-located on school sites at Sunshine Primary School, Murtoa College in my electorate, Moomba Park Primary School and Eaglehawk North Primary School and will be open before 2025, with remaining centres delivered by 2028. Portland in my electorate will also be receiving a new government-owned centre, with the department currently investigating site options to determine the optimal location for this facility. Which brings me back to the second principle in clause 6: that all Victorians, irrespective of where they live or their social and economic status, should have access to education during early childhood.

As I just mentioned, Murtoa College will be one of the first areas to have a government-owned early learning centre, located on the school grounds by 2025. I visited Murtoa recently and was impressed with the Yarriambiack shire councillors and chief executive Tammy Smith and the work that they are doing for their community. Murtoa is a small wheatbelt town in the Wimmera. The Murtoa Stick Shed website says that ‘murtoa’ means ‘home of the lizard’ in the language of the First Nations people, the Jaadwa language. Murtoa was a major historic grain receival centre, and today has a population of less than 1000 people, who are serviced by the Yarriambiack shire. Yarriambiack have advised me that they were listed among several other Victorian councils who face financial challenges. There is no doubt that our commitment to investing in the development of the littlest people in Murtoa is proof that we are governing consistent with our values.

The facility in Murtoa will provide long day care, three-year-old kindergarten and pre-prep programs. These programs will be delivered across three rooms, with space for up to 57 local children in the centre each day. It will also include a maternal and child health consulting room for local families – and of course a car park. We are locating the centre at the college to help parents avoid that dreaded double drop-off and to make child care and early learning accessible and convenient for working parents and carers. Getting rid of the dreaded double drop-off may not sound like a very big deal for some people, but I am quite sure any of us who have done the morning drop-off to kinder and then to school and then gone to work will appreciate that.

I would encourage everyone to visit Murtoa and in particular the Stick Shed. The Stick Shed, previously known as Murtoa No. 1 Grain Store, is the only remaining emergency grain store built during World War II. This structure is an enduring testament to iconic Australian ingenuity and a symbol of the growth and strength of the Australian wheat industry. It is a magical, almost cathedral-like space, and it was so good to visit it recently with passionate community members and committee members who manage that facility.

The Education and Training Reform Amendment (Land Powers) Bill 2023 will play a critical role in facilitating the delivery of our educational commitments. It will provide already existing land powers that are currently in place for the education portfolio to the early childhood and pre-prep portfolio and create a clear legislative power for other land arrangements, such as leasing. This bill will allow for the facilitation of this exciting and progressive change to our state’s education system. It allows children the same access to education no matter where they live. This is a fundamental equaliser for our society, providing equal access to public services, something governments have quite rightly provided in the past and what this Victorian government is taking to the next level with the Best Start, Best Life program. This bill is for the betterment of us all, and most especially it is for the betterment of our littlest, three- and four-year-old Victorians.

Matthew BACH (North-Eastern Metropolitan) (11:06): It is good to rise to also make a contribution on the Education and Training Reform Amendment (Land Powers) Bill 2023, which is necessary as a result of the government’s ongoing kinder privatisation scheme that it calls the rather ill-named ‘free kinder program’. It is good to follow Ms Ermacora, because I agree with so many of her sentiments. In particular I was pleased that she wanted to have a focus on clause 6, which spells out, quite rightly too, that:

access to education during early childhood is important for the wellbeing of children and their families …

and that:

all Victorians, irrespective of where they live or their social and economic status, should have access to education during early childhood …

It is partly for that reason, notwithstanding the fact that in many regards I felt Minister Stitt was a very good Minister for Early Childhood, that I was pleased with the recent changes made by the government to ensure that early childhood and child protection and out-of-home care could sit together now with Minister Blandthorn.

I note that Ms Ermacora said, undoubtedly correctly, that this clause embodies Labor values. I do not doubt that that is true. So I am heartened that those opposite now are seeking, as I understand it from her contribution and from the bill, to seek to raise access to kindergarten to the levels that Labor inherited when the last coalition government lost office. At that point over 98 per cent of Victorian children had access to kindergarten. That fell the year before last down to 83 per cent, which was very worrying, and thankfully levels of access have increased since then – however, not to anything like the 98.1 per cent that Minister Lovell achieved. So I do think that should be the benchmark.

There are many elements of what the government is doing in this broader space that I support and those of us on this side of the house support, and I do not doubt for one second the goodwill of both the former minister and the current minister. I have spoken previously in particular about my worries about a lack of access for vulnerable groups. Access in particular for children who have had experiences in the out-of-home care system have fallen significantly over recent years. But, according to the government, this bill and broader reforms, including recent ministerial changes announced by the new Premier, are at least in part designed to deal with those issues.

I also find myself agreeing not only with the previous speaker from the government benches but with previous speakers around this house about the immense importance of early childhood education. Some members of this house know that my daughter Phoebe currently goes to the local sessional kindergarten, and the educators there are so fabulous. I recognise Minister Stitt for the work that she sought to do, which I am sure will now be ongoing, to seek to raise the profile of early childhood educators in Victoria. I know that many early childhood educators – many kindergarten teachers, many other early childhood educators – have felt that for a long period of time, irrespective of who is in government here in Victoria or in Canberra, that the role that they play is undervalued in the community. I do not doubt that is true. Yet, as Ms Ermacora said, those who teach older children, as I used to do and as I will soon do again, actually are able to achieve far less significant benefits for those children than the teachers who work with children in their first five years. So, not wanting to talk down my former or future colleagues, if that is the way in which we look at these things, and I think it should be – regarding benefits for children – then all of us should continue to join together, as I think we have done recently in quite an effective way, to make sure that our early childhood workforce understands just how valued they are.

I have seen the immense benefit for my daughter through having fabulous kindergarten teachers. I attended my local sessional kindergarten in Princes Hill, and in my early years of primary school – despite a wonderful, stable family and despite excellent early childhood educators – I experienced real learning problems and was forced to stay down. But the specialists that I saw at that time were of a strong view that in actual fact there was a good base there for me because of the outstanding work of early childhood educators who had helped me at my local sessional kindergarten. Their view, and my mother’s view – she herself is a teacher – is that without that early childhood education at my local sessional kindergarten, I simply would not have been able to recover the lost learning that I experienced. So I am pleased by the comments of former speakers in this debate right around the chamber, pleased not only by comments made during Ms Stitt’s tenure as minister but also by actions and by the new minister and pleased that a continued bipartisan effort to seek to bolster the standing of our early childhood workforce in the community is going to be underway.

Members have spoken about some of the very specific elements of this bill regarding land acquisition. Look, I do share some concerns, notwithstanding the explanation of the government as to why this is necessary. I would note that the government does have similar powers to those gifted to the government through this bill when it comes to schools. So on that basis, despite my misgivings and notwithstanding some issues that still need to be worked through from our perspective, and I dare say will be worked through in the committee stage, I am of an inclination to not oppose this bill.

I also think it is interesting that the government is seeking to put in place more kindergartens that are government owned, and I do not oppose that. Certainly constituents of mine in the City of Knox have been very troubled recently by the announcement of the local council that as a result of the government’s botched funding model for its so-called free kinder program, as I understand it, every single council-owned kindergarten will have to close its doors, which then of course will have the effect of driving families to private providers. Now, there are some very good private providers, but I do not mind saying that on a personal level I have a predilection for our sessional kindergartens, so many of which are on council land and many of which are council owned.

That is a little bit of the backstory to some of the problems that we have experienced with this program, notwithstanding the fulsome support both through the election campaign when we heard of this initiative and also as we have learned more of the detail, as it has been fleshed out and as those in the sector have learned more of this detail being retrofitted to the slogan of free kindergarten. My hope still is that through this bill, through numerous elements of the program that Minister Stitt at the time announced, we will be able to see better outcomes for young Victorians and certainly an increase in the rate of attendance at kindergarten. I think it is a very good aspiration to seek to offer more hours. It is good to have former minister Lovell in the chamber while talking about access to kindergarten. As I said previously, Ms Lovell, under your tenure as minister Victoria topped out at over 98 per cent. That should be our aspiration, and I know it is the genuine aspiration of many members across the chamber and on the government benches to seek to reach those lofty heights again.

So I am willing to take the government and the minister at face value that elements of this bill will be important in seeking to do that again. I underscore once more the wholehearted bipartisan support on this side of the chamber for the importance of early childhood education and the dignity and respect that we all have for our amazing early childhood educators but also, for my part, how some good recent changes have been made in an effort to seek to ensure that, as has been the case previously, all children, coming back to Ms Ermacora’s contribution and clause 6, on these values, and all Victorians, irrespective of where they live or their social and economic status, should have access to education during early childhood. I think that is an excellent statement. Ms Ermacora again undoubtedly rightly said that is a Labor value. On this side of the house we would say also: well, that is one of our values. When we were last in government and Ms Lovell had this portfolio, there were very high rates of participation from Victorians from culturally and linguistically diverse communities and Victorian children who very sadly had had experiences in the out-of-home care system.

So I think, notwithstanding some potential challenges that we see with this bill that we will seek to flesh out in the committee stage, that there are numerous elements where we can join hands with those opposite, continue to seek to build upon what has been done recently and also not so recently in previous terms of government and seek to deliver on these excellent statements that the previous speaker focused upon – that access to education during early childhood is important for the wellbeing of children and their families and that all Victorians, irrespective of where they live or their social and economic status, should have access to early education during childhood.

Lizzie BLANDTHORN (Western Metropolitan – Minister for Children, Minister for Disability) (11:17): I would first like to acknowledge all of the contributions of members to this debate. This is my first bill as Minister for Children –

Matthew Bach: First of many.

Lizzie BLANDTHORN: First of many, absolutely. Can I thank Minister Stitt and her team for the advice they have provided to me and my office on this bill during the ministerial portfolio changes. Can I also acknowledge the Shadow Minister for Early Childhood and Education in the other place Jess Wilson and the Greens spokesperson for education Aiv Puglielli for the constructive way that they have engaged with my office and I am sure Minister Stitt’s office previously as well. Whilst this may indeed seem to be a small bill, it reflects the focus of this government on early childhood education and care. To take up some of Dr Bach’s comments before, on this side of the house we are certainly very pleased that there has been the creation of a children’s portfolio that does bring these issues around early childhood education and care together with maternal and child health and child protection and family services. If we can hopefully get right the first part of that – the maternal child health and the early education and care – then, as I know you know too well, Dr Bach, we can hopefully avoid too many children ending up in the critical end of that system.

I think it is really visionary of our new Premier Allan to bring these portfolios together in this way, and it provides enormous opportunity, again as Dr Bach pointed out, to put children above politics and to make issues that go to the health, the wellbeing, the education and the development of our littlest people in the state a number one priority. I think that will ultimately prove a great thing for the future of Victoria.

One of the proposals in this bill is to amend the power to acquire land in the Education and Training Reform Act 2006 to provide the minister with the ability to acquire land, either by agreement or as a last resort compulsorily, or to take on or grant other interests in land for the purposes of providing early childhood education and care and other associated services. Under the minister’s current powers, they are only able to acquire land for the purpose of preschool programs and not for other types of early childhood education and care or associated services. These amendments are fundamental in recognising the shift in the focus of the importance of early childhood education and care since the Education and Training Reform Act was enacted in 2006, including through the Victorian government’s landmark announcements of funded universal three-year-old kinder and pre-prep and of course the 50 government owned and operated early learning and child care centres, which have been spoken about at length this morning. Just one example of this shift is the amendment in the bill to remove the term ‘preschool program’ from the act and replace it with ‘kindergarten program’. This new term and definition reflects commonly understood terminology and the educational program that is being delivered to children before they are of school age.

Throughout discussions on the bill there has also been a focus on services associated with early childhood education and care, and it should be said that this definition is deliberately broad so as to provide flexibility around the types of services that can be provided alongside an early childhood education and care facility where the land has been acquired and allow for programs such as maternal and child health, parenting programs, community spaces, supported playgroups, family counsellors and allied health. That is just to name a few, but it is obviously fundamental to the notion of bringing together maternal and child health, family and support services and education and care all in a place where families congregate. By providing a non-prescriptive definition the bill allows for community spaces to be conveniently located and delivered alongside early education and care facilities where land has been acquired for this purpose.

I also draw the attention of the house to the explanatory memorandum for the bill in relation to concerns that we may only acquire land for the purposes of the associated service:

Substituted section 5.2.3(2) will prevent the Minister from compulsorily acquiring land for the sole purpose of providing a service associated with early childhood education and care.

This power and the focus of the bill are to provide the ability for the acquisition of land to deliver integrated early childhood education and care facilities alongside associated services like maternal and child health and supported playgroups where there is a need for those in the area. I am very pleased to commend this bill to the house.

Council divided on motion:

Ayes (36): Matthew Bach, Ryan Batchelor, Melina Bath, John Berger, Lizzie Blandthorn, Jeff Bourman, Gaelle Broad, Katherine Copsey, Georgie Crozier, David Davis, Enver Erdogan, Jacinta Ermacora, David Ettershank, Michael Galea, Renee Heath, Ann-Marie Hermans, Shaun Leane, Wendy Lovell, Trung Luu, Sarah Mansfield, Bev McArthur, Joe McCracken, Nicholas McGowan, Tom McIntosh, Evan Mulholland, Rachel Payne, Aiv Puglielli, Georgie Purcell, Samantha Ratnam, Harriet Shing, Ingrid Stitt, Jaclyn Symes, Lee Tarlamis, Sonja Terpstra, Gayle Tierney, Sheena Watt

Noes (3): Moira Deeming, David Limbrick, Rikkie-Lee Tyrrell

Motion agreed to.

Read second time.



Clause 1 (11:29)

Georgie CROZIER: I have got a number of questions for clarification about this bill. As I said in my second-reading speech, we have seen the government acquire land and properties through the sky rail corridor that they did not actually need to be able to complete the project. It was very distressing for those families and people that were directly affected, and it was incredibly difficult at the time. As I said, acquisition should never be done at a whim. It needs to be carefully considered, and it did cause significant distress and disruption to so many Victorian home owners. So what will the government do at this time when they are going to be acquiring land or property from private individuals or entities around acquisitions to cater for the needs of what this bill is actually going to do?

Lizzie BLANDTHORN: Whilst your question does not fall within my ministerial responsibilities, I just would make the comment in relation to the acquisitions that you refer to in relation to the Level Crossing Removal Project that they were voluntary acquisitions, not compulsory acquisitions. Those properties were not compulsorily acquired but instead were acquired as part of the voluntary purchase scheme. I know in relation to some of the level crossing projects in my previous electorate of Pascoe Vale there were some similar occurrences there.

But I do take your point: compulsory and voluntary acquisitions should always be a last resort. We should certainly always explore other opportunities for where the most appropriate site is, whether it be for a level crossing project or whether it be, in this instance, for the early education and care facilities that we are talking about building. Certainly, while the bill does provide ultimately for that compulsory acquisition in the same way as in relation to other education facilities, it is very much intended to be a last resort after exploring the options, which is why in many respects we have announced, for example, those four sites for early learning centres (ELCs) and the other locations – suburb locations, if you like. But we are doing the work to work out where the best place for those sites to be is. So there is a commitment from the government to work with local communities about where the best place for these facilities is and for any form of compulsory acquisition to be our last resort.

Georgie CROZIER: Thank you, Minister, for that response and for clarifying that the absolute last resort is acquisition. But I think as we saw with sky rail – and as you mentioned, it affected your electorate too, and it is affecting Mr Mulholland’s in terms of the North East Link project in his area ‍– there are many areas that are being affected currently by projects. So what community consultation will be conducted prior to any acquisition decision to determine beyond doubt that there is an unmet need for an early education centre in the area and that there is no alternative site available that would not require compulsory acquisition?

Lizzie BLANDTHORN: Certainly it is the government’s intention to work with local communities and our partners in the delivery of so many of our early education and associated services to understand both what the projected need is and where the best place is to meet that need. So it is absolutely intended that that work will be done to have that really thorough understanding of where these children are that need places and where the best place to build the centre is.

Georgie CROZIER: Minister, how will the government appropriately assess the opportunity cost of any site that they are considering for acquisition to establish beyond doubt that an early education centre is the best use of that land? I know that you have just said you will talk in consultation with partnerships and look at assessment, but apart from the talking, are there any other performance measures? What data will you use to identify the needs?

Lizzie BLANDTHORN: There are multiple criteria and multiple data sources that obviously go into informing these decisions, particularly in relation to where it is anticipated that there might be an inefficient supply of childcare places or relatively disadvantaged cohorts in terms of accessing childcare places as well. At a state level we are identifying locations of greatest unmet need through a data-driven process, which is a detailed exercise broadly looking at three things. Firstly, we will look at the availability of child care, the existing supply in communities. Secondly, we are looking at the estimated demand for child care in those communities and how much of that demand is not currently being met by the existing supply and, thirdly, the level of disadvantage in those communities as well. Obviously we know that two years of early education is better than one, and where we can support disadvantaged communities and be able to assist those communities by providing that opportunity is an important part of the decision as well.

Georgie CROZIER: Minister, how will the government ensure any landowners whose property is compulsorily acquired under this act are adequately compensated?

Lizzie BLANDTHORN: Obviously the cost of land acquisition for sites – and I know this does not go explicitly to the question that you have just asked, but it is partly related as well and potentially anticipates a question that I am thinking back to, having heard your speech yesterday. One, we are investing in the infrastructure, and the budget that was set in terms of the provisional budget that has been set aside for land acquisition does include the anticipated costs of that, but more broadly the overall framework for land acquisition also applies in the acquisition itself.

Georgie CROZIER: Just going on that line of inquiry about expected costs relating to the land acquisition program, the $14 billion Best Start, Best Life childcare, free kinder and pre-prep policy looks at putting in place 50 childcare centres across Victoria, and you have already mentioned that there are four locations already implemented. Thirty of those 50 locations have been identified. You have identified those sites. You have got 50 in total. What I am trying to say is you have got all of these 46, and 30 of the other locations have been listed in that preliminary information that I think is on the government’s website, but what about the other 16 that are outstanding? What are you doing about those sites? This was announced some time ago, and you are wanting to implement these to be delivered by 2028. Acquiring land is very expensive, and we have got an enormous debt in this state, and we are paying a huge interest bill on the government’s debt, so can the government provide any estimate as to how many sites they will need to acquire and how much they will need to pay for them to meet the objective of their Best Start, Best Life program? You have got four identified, you have listed another 30, but they are still outstanding, so how are you going to manage that in a budgetary sense?

Lizzie BLANDTHORN: Just to clarify, firstly, the number of sites and where we are in relation to delivery in I guess the three categories of them: so there are the four sites which will be delivered on land that is already part of the education portfolio, and they are the four sites that are these specific sites that we have announced. There are a further 26 locations which have been determined in a geographic sense, if you like – in a suburb, community sense. So we have announced those 26 locations, and currently there is further investigative work underway to determine the specific sites within the suburbs, the communities, including whether they can be delivered on existing landholdings. As I said in answer to I think one of your first questions, compulsory acquisition is absolutely intended to be a last resort. We are certainly looking at existing landholdings and other opportunities before we end up, as a last resort, at any kind of compulsory acquisition.

Then there are the remaining 20 locations, which will be selected through a rigorous process based on market and demography information, which we just talked through in the answer to your previous question about how we make those decisions, and that will be targeted to locations that have the greatest need. Advice about these remaining locations is expected to be announced by the end of the year, and we are confident that we remain on track for the completion of the program, of the 50 ELCs, by 2028.

Georgie CROZIER: I was trying to get the list in my previous question, and in answer to that you talked about the existing landholdings. Can I just have some clarification. You have got the four – Eaglehawk, Moomba, Murtoa and Sunshine – that have already been identified on existing landholdings. You said you were looking at the confirmed locations for the rest of those 30. So have landholdings been identified with those existing areas that you have listed? Am I correct in assuming that?

Lizzie BLANDTHORN: There are the four – Eaglehawk, Moomba, Murtoa and Sunshine – on existing landholdings, as in they are at primary schools for three of those and in the case of Murtoa at the college. In the case of the next 26, which takes us to the 30, we have identified the suburb and the community but the very specific location – the primary school or whatnot – has not been finalised. Then there are the remaining 20; we are doing further work to understand where in the Victorian community those ones would be.

Georgie CROZIER: Could I ask: the $14 billion figure from the Best Start, Best Life program – is any of that inclusive of any land acquisition that will be required?

Lizzie BLANDTHORN: Bear in mind I have been in this portfolio for three weeks, but my advice is that the budget itself has within it any anticipated funding required for land acquisition.

Georgie CROZIER: So that land acquisition will be part of that $14 billion?

Lizzie BLANDTHORN: Yes, that is my understanding.

Georgie CROZIER: The centres and kindergartens will need to be staffed with appropriately qualified teachers and educators, and we know that, like in many sectors, there is a workforce shortage. What is the government’s plan to increase the numbers of teachers and educators to meet demand generated by the Best Start, Best Life program?

Lizzie BLANDTHORN: If I can just supplement my previous answer, Ms Crozier, if you look at budget paper 4, page 37, which references land as well, that might provide some further clarity on our previous conversation. Certainly in terms of workforce we are growing kinder and we are growing early education, so of course we need to grow the workforce – it goes without saying. Since 2019 the number of early childhood educators and teachers delivering funded kindergarten programs in Victoria has grown by 50 per cent, but we know that by 2032, with our ambitious plan for Best Start, Best Life, we are going to need an additional 11,000 early childhood educators and teachers. We have the $370 million investment in the kindergarten workforce strategy, which is about both attracting and training early educators and teachers as well as retaining them and continuing to develop them. Certainly more qualifications are available via free TAFE and financial supports, and early childhood I am advised has been in the top five courses in demand in relation to free TAFE. We have also provided opportunities to join the sector through pathways such as the Aboriginal pathway scholarship program. So there are specific programs like that.

Also, in terms of both retaining and developing educators and teachers, diploma-qualified educators who want to become bachelor-qualified can access programs that we are delivering in partnership with universities. We are investing in additional coaching and mentoring. Indeed just yesterday the Minister for Skills and TAFE and I were at Gowrie Victoria in Carlton North announcing grants from the skills and training portfolio that go to more than $6.28 million for eight projects which are about upskilling the workforce in a number of different ways – the Early Learning Association Australia program, which was a pilot that will be delivered at Gowrie Victoria, for example. It is about innovative ways in which we help those educators train and develop. We need to attract more; we know that. It is an ambitious program – 11,000 by 2032 – but there are strategies underway, and we will continue to build on those as well.

Georgie CROZIER: Minister, the government’s so-called free kinder program implies that the government is fully funding kinder across the state, but we know that that is simply not the case. I have raised many times in the house, and I mentioned them in my contribution yesterday, some of the not-for-profits and independent kindergartens. The funding amount provided under the program to kindergarten does not meet the costs of many kindergartens and early learning centres, and it is leaving them in a deficit position. So how will the government ensure the viability of existing services in its program that you are putting out with that date of 2028 to have all of these on the ground and up and running?

Lizzie BLANDTHORN: Obviously the delivery of our Best Start, Best Life reforms is a key tenet of this government, if you like. As you have correctly identified, from 2023 we have had free three- and four-year-old kinder at participating services. There are already 140,000 children who are benefiting from that, and the rate for that is $2500 per child. The 15 hours of universal three-year-old kinder is currently in 2800 services between 5 and 15 hours. There is $270 million invested in this free kinder initiative. It is benefiting up to 140,000 children at the current point in time. All funded kindergarten services in Victoria are eligible to participate, and approximately 97 per cent have opted in. All services are obviously encouraged to provide the free kinder, but it is not mandatory. But as we know, two years are better than one, and the opportunity to have free kinder does really help families, certainly saving them. As the parent of a kindergarten student, I understand certainly in our kinder community how that has made a big impact on low-income families who attend our kinder just adjacent to the Carlton Primary School.

Georgie CROZIER: You have got the experience of having your child at kinder, and there are many parents in my electorate that have got their children at kinders. They are absolutely over the moon and cannot praise highly enough the programs and the educators who are so dedicated, but they are going to be under huge financial stress because the $2500 being applied does not meet their needs. The former minister knows this because I have raised it, and I raised it again yesterday. There are many families that are going to be disadvantaged, and those educators also, who provide terrific education. So either those kindergartens are going to have their programs cut or the educators will not be able to carry on the work that they do. How will the government help existing services meet the requirements for increased hours while also ensuring financial sustainability?

Lizzie BLANDTHORN: Free kinder is on top of the existing funding streams and means more money for almost all participating services. As I said, participation is not mandatory. All funded services in Victoria are eligible to participate and approximately 97 per cent have opted in, but they do not have to. So it is on top of the existing funding streams. That means more money for almost all services. The 2024 free kinder rate of $2563 gives a sessional service around 30 to 40 per cent more funding compared to average parent fees in 2022. For local government services, funding has increased significantly as well, going from an average parent fee of around $1750 per child in 2022 to $2563 in free kinder funding, which is an average increase of 46 per cent. Free kinder on top of other per-child funding means that the full funding offer is up to $8041 per child in metropolitan areas and up to $9208 per child in rural classified areas, plus significant school readiness funding for educationally disadvantaged children and other supports – inclusion supports and additional service level funding for local government and community-based early years managers. So we are in a number of ways delivering more services, more workforce and more funding to early education and care services and kindergartens than ever before. I know as a parent, as I am sure the parents in your community know too, it is having a really direct impact on the families within our communities, which we are here to represent.

Georgie CROZIER: You mentioned councils, and my next question relates to councils. We have seen two local councils indicate their intention to withdraw from service delivery. So how is the government planning to address the operating challenges faced by providers, particularly local councils, so that they can ensure continuity of service?

Lizzie BLANDTHORN: As you have mentioned, we have seen that two councils in particular have publicly made statements in relation to their kinders and the funding of those kinders. Ultimately both of those decisions are matters for those councils, and they will ultimately have to justify those decisions to their ratepayers, who expect that kinder will be something provided within their community. I would just clarify, though, for the record that in the case of Glen Eira council they have very particularly said that the free kinder reforms, the Best Start, Best Life reforms, are not what has impacted their decision, and in fact the mayor was quoted in the Age as saying the centres offered free kinder but it was not a factor in their decision.

As I said in answer to the previous question, we have invested in local kindergartens more than ever before, and again if you take the example of Glen Eira, in 2023 Glen Eira council received a kindergarten infrastructure and services plan support grant of $82,000; between 2022 and 2023 Glen Eira council received equipment and information technology grants for the three services, totalling $19,314; Glen Eira council operates a kindergarten central registration and enrolment scheme, and it received $26,000 in grant funding to contribute to the cost of operating the scheme in 2022; and Glen Eira council is of course also eligible to apply for the Building Blocks improvement grants to upgrade, refurbish and renovate their early learning facilities that include funded kindergarten programs.

So it is very disappointing that councils like Glen Eira council and Knox have made the decisions that they have, but they are ultimately decisions for those councils, and those councils will have to justify those decisions to their ratepayers.

Georgie CROZIER: I understand that you have provided that, but I think what those councils are experiencing more councils will be experiencing too. The overheads are rising. There are just huge costs that they are expected to deliver services on, and as we know energy costs are skyrocketing, whether it is for families, whether it is for business or whether it is for local government programs and service providers that are providing these services. So there is a big issue around the costs and the maintenance issues. I have already raised with the Minister for Local Government what she is doing to assist councils on this very issue. Those two councils are under pressure, but I am sure there will be more to come. Does the government envisage local councils playing a role in operating new services built on the compulsorily acquired land? If so, how will it consult with local councils to ensure their existing concerns about the operating environment under Best Start, Best Life are addressed?

Lizzie BLANDTHORN: I think it is really important at the outset to acknowledge that kindergarten and early childhood education is very much a partnership in our community, and it does take local government and not-for-profit centres. For the school sites as well as for non-government owned and operated, local government, they do have first right of refusal. But to the extent that they want to be involved in these programs as well, we absolutely intend to work with all of our partners across the early childhood and education sector, be they stakeholders, be they local government, and of course the schools themselves, about where these facilities are and the operations, the delivery of the free kindergarten programs and all of the other associated services and whatnot that happen around them. We know that the deliverance of early education and care is a partnership model, and we are committed to that partnership model.

Georgie CROZIER: Just in relation to schools, many of the schools are already under pressure and they have got increased demand; obviously as there is increased demand for earlier education, that is going to flow on to those local primary schools. So how will the government ensure acquiring land within or near existing schools does not create limitations or constraints on those schools for which demand may also increase in coming years?

Lizzie BLANDTHORN: Aside from ditching the double drop-off, we know that families who use co-located services, particularly disadvantaged and vulnerable families that have the option to use co-located services, often do better across a range of factors. Indeed one of the great things in creating this portfolio of children and bringing together maternal and child health with early education and care and with the family services and the critical services in the child protection space is that we are ensuring that there is that better connected service overall.

It is certainly the case that schools will be supported in the delivery of that as well, and they are a partner in both the delivery of the early education and care services but also then developing the relationship with those services to help ensure a better transition for the child that is going from kinder to school. That is not necessarily to say that every child at a particular kinder co-located with a particular school is ultimately going to end up going to that school. While we know in many respects it does create really good outcomes for the child to have that continuity, it is also not the decision that all parents will make. The choices about where they go to their early education facility and where they go to school are important choices in their family, and that will be maintained. So one does not necessarily equate to the other is I guess what I am trying to say. But of course it will increase demand. Our schools are demand driven, and we will continue within the schools to meet the demand that flows from those services.

Georgie CROZIER: Minister, regional Victoria faces several unique challenges when it comes to the delivery of early childhood education, so what if any planning have the government done under their Best Start, Best Life program to ensure the financial sustainability of existing centres in regional Victoria, support communities in regional Victoria to attract and retain early childhood teachers and educators and, finally, develop plans for appropriately located new facilities in consultation with regional communities?

Lizzie BLANDTHORN: We have probably traversed some of these topics across some of the previous answers by now. We have the four sites that are specific. We have the 26 sites by location – suburb, community – but we have not yet announced the specific sites. Many of those are rural and regional, and Ms Bath spoke to some of those earlier. There is work that has been done in regard to the delivery of new services within regional Victoria. There is also the investment that we are making in the operation and delivery of free kinder across the board and our Best Start, Best Life reforms, and there is also the work we are doing in terms of infrastructure, which of course is across the state.

In answer to your question before in relation to the workforce, we have also had an at-length discussion about the $370 million investment in the kindergarten workforce strategy and the importance of attracting new workers, training new workers, retaining those workers and developing them. We went through at length the types of programs and services that we have, the initiatives that we have, from free TAFE through to, as I said, the grants that the minister for skills and I announced yesterday, which are about training and retaining our workforce across the board. Indeed one of the young workers that we met at Gowrie Victoria yesterday was from regional Victoria; she was doing further development and training with the view to potentially being able to take that back into her community further down the track. So that $370 million investment in our kindergarten workforce strategy is very much designed not just for metropolitan Melbourne but for how we can attract, train, retain and develop those workers across the state as a whole.

Business interrupted pursuant to standing orders.