I rise to speak briefly on Senator Pratt's motion to refer to the Senate Education and Employment References Committee a reference about early childhood education. I want to say at the start that early childhood education and care is an essential service. It should be universal and it should be free. I say this not just from a rights perspective. There is a compelling case for free and universally available early childhood education and care because it has enormous benefits for children and enormous benefits for families. Of course, it has enormous benefits and is good for women. It also has enormous social and economic benefits for our whole community. It leads to a more equitable society.
I have been a beneficiary of affordable early childhood education and care, as have my children. I would not have been able to study or have a career if I hadn't had that benefit. But I can tell you it didn't come easily. The early childhood education opportunities and child care that were around where I lived when I was studying were completely unaffordable. I was lucky that a few students at the University of New South Wales got together and lobbied the university to open the first cooperative childcare centre at the University of New South Wales. I cannot thank enough the early childhood education and care workers at that centre and across the board who educate and care for our children, our little ones. I agreed with Senator Walsh when she said that they are some of the lowest-paid workers in our country. That is completely unacceptable. If we do value education and if we value care for our children then we must, as a priority, value those people who provide that education and care.
But I guess we also have to acknowledge that in our patriarchal society caring work has long been seen as women's work. It's undervalued, and that has created a heavily casualised and underpaid workforce in this particular sector, which is early childhood learning and care. This is not an accident, to be really frank. The entire system, and practically our entire economy, really relies on the unpaid and underpaid work of women in caring roles and on the skills and difficult work done in early childhood and childcare centres. That is simply an extension of this underpaid work.
I think this inquiry is important because it will examine how to fund early childhood education and care well. Every day I meet people in the community—especially women—who tell me that most of the salary they're earning goes to pay for early childhood education for their children. That's not a country that we should be aspiring to. We should use exactly the same logic as our public schools, where education is free, for early childhood education and care because that's where our children are going to be set up for the rest of their lives.
I'll conclude by saying that it's important to inquire into how we can fund early childhood education and care to be fee free. We did it in the pandemic with the stroke of a pen, but then a few months later the government took us back to the old broken system. And it is a broken system; it is hard for people to afford that system but it should be an essential and universal service. I commend this motion to the Senate and I hope that we can agree to start off an inquiry so that we can move towards a system which is universal and fee free for every family and every child in this country.