Voice of the Family
16 January 2017 at 8:10 am
Jo Briskey is the executive director of The Parenthood a not-for-profit movement of Australian parents and carers, working to gain positive policy changes through lobbying government and business. She is this week’s Changemaker.
The Parenthood represents thousands of mums, dads, grandparents and primary carers who want a voice in the issues that matter most to parents particularly relating to education, health and the support of good parenting.
Having trained as an educational developmental psychologist and worked in implementing child and youth health and mental health government policy, Briskey brings a wealth of experience to her role as executive director.
The mother-of-one, who is pregnant with her second child due in April, has more than a decade of experience in advocacy, strategy, policy development, stakeholder engagement and political campaigning.
Under her leadership The Parenthood, Australia’s largest collective movement of parents, has grown to a national reach of over 57,000 parents.
She is passionate about community advocacy and empowering people to engage in the political process.
In this week’s Changemaker, Briskey talks about the benefits of early learning, making sure parents are at the table when decisions are made and whether, in light of David Leyonhjelm’s comments on childcare, you should need a qualification to become a senator.
What drew you to the not-for-profit sector?
I guess for me, I’ve always been interested in working in the space of helping people really. I trained as a psychologist but got involved in government policy and looking at how we go about improving the lives of others and then got into the advocacy space.
What drew me to The Parenthood was the sense of empowering others to have a say on issues that matter to them. So that’s what I find most valuable out of the work that we do.
What does a typical day for you entail as executive director of The Parenthood?
A typical day is never the same! I guess it is going through our campaigns. A lot of it is driven by keeping up to date with announcements that are made by government, by business, looking at what are the issues that might affect parents in particular but also then making sure we are progressing each of the campaigns that we’re running at the moment, planning out next steps for them, responding to media, helping to generate media to try and shape the national debate on some of the issues that we campaign on. Just essentially making sure that we continue to build and grow the voice of parents.
What are the organisation’s current priorities?
Probably our largest campaign that we have been running, essentially since… The Parenthood was established at the end of 2013… is around the affordability and accessibility of child care or quality early learning and care, so that is definitely a major priority for us. We’ve sort of been involved in this space ever since the federal government announced that they would be reviewing and looking at how to improve the accessibility and affordability of childcare in Australia, and unfortunately we still haven’t seen a resolution to that yet. So that’s a main priority for us.
[One] of the other major issues that are affecting parents at the moment, and still around government policy, is the proposal to make some significant cuts to the family tax benefit system. This is of great concern to us, given the extent the cuts would hit single parent families, and families on low incomes the hardest. So that is a really important campaign for us to ensure that we can protect those families and ensure those cuts don’t go through.
Those two campaigns are now connected because the government is asserting that the only way they can fund their new childcare reforms is by making those cuts to the family tax benefit system. So it is a little bit complicated for us. Because obviously we want the government’s reforms to child care, the $3 billion investment, to go ahead, but can’t see that money coming from the families who are already struggling and cannot afford to lose the support they receive. They are two big priorities for us.
I guess the other major one we’ve got at the moment is paid parental leave and looking at how we stop the government from making cuts to paid parental leave. So we are a little bit government focused… but obviously these are huge issues and government policy is always going to affect families the greatest but we campaign on a variety of different issues.
Essentially we are a platform that enables parents to get engaged and have a say on the issues that matter to them, whether it is government policy or whether it is [something else]. One of the first campaigns we ever ran was around the advertising that Aldi had, they were advertising junk food as one of their healthy lunchbox items in their catalogues and parents started a campaign with us to stop Aldi from doing that and we succeeded. So these are some of the other campaigns that we run, it is not necessarily purely government related.
How do you rate the federal government’s proposed $3 billion child care reform package?
Overall it is positive in the sense that a large percentage of families, in particular the families that are members of The Parenthood, would see cost relief in their childcare fees if the reforms go through.
The challenges that we have with the package as it exists right now, and what we’re trying to work with the broader child care sector on, is getting the government to reform some of the aspects around the stricter activity test, so that is the eligibility for the government subsidies. The government will be looking to introduce a far stricter activity test that would require both parents to be working, or studying or volunteering in order to be eligible for the subsidy. This is very problematic for us because we see… it is imperative that every child, irrespective of what their parents are doing, has access to quality early learning and care. So we are really concerned about the impact that this activity test will have on those families who won’t be able to meet the activity test, who will struggle to meet the activity test and what happens to their kids. This is the first time we’ve ever seen the possibility that families will get no subsidy whatsoever if they fail to meet the activity test and given the cost of childcare is significant even with government subsidies, many families will not be able to afford child care at all without the support of government subsidies and so those kids would miss out. So we’re really concerned about that, and we’re working with the sector to try and provide some alternative solutions to government to hopefully lessen the impact of that or ensure that especially vulnerable kids don’t miss out.
The other concern that we have, which is a bit broader, is the focus that has been from the government that this is purely about getting parents into work, the package is called Jobs for Families, and the sense that they are missing a critical point of childcare being early learning. And that is actually where the government gets it’s best bang for buck, is in investing in giving more kids access to early learning to set them up for school, to set them up for life. Research continues to show that if kids, especially kids from disadvantaged and vulnerable backgrounds, access good-quality early learning before they go to school they have a better chance to do much better at school.
Why is early childhood education so important?
Right now so many kids start developmentally behind, especially children from vulnerable backgrounds. They start behind their peers right from the get go, from day one of grade one of school and can’t catch up because it is quite simply too late. Whereas had they gone to early learning prior to school we see that they do much better. Especially kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, but every child benefits from a level of early learning prior to school.
It is just disappointing that the government still seems to view the primary purpose of child care being about workforce participation of parents as opposed to learning for kids.
Senator David Leyonhjelm has come under fire recently for saying childcare workers are merely “wiping noses and stopping the kids from killing each other”. How do you respond to this?
Obviously, like many parents and in particular educators, we found that terminology offensive and clearly ill-informed and not aware. [He does not] understand or have any knowledge of what goes on in our early learning centres right now. It is obviously an illustration of a now very historic view of what childcare is. It used to be babysitting, it used to be just childminding, just looking after kids but it is not anymore. The government has recognised the evidence that this is the opportunity to instil early learning, a love of learning, getting our educators qualified in understanding child development, learning how kids grow and learn and being able to provide the opportune environment for those kids. That is what childcare is about. So, Leyonhjelm [was] incredibly, incredibly offensive.
I’m a mum of a three year old in child care, she goes to child care four days a week, we call it “school” in our house and I found on behalf of the educators that work with my child everyday, I was deeply, deeply offended by his remarks. I was also offended on behalf of my daughter as well in terms of she deserves the best and she is getting the best at the centre she is at and this says we’re just going to lock kids in a room and make sure that they don’t kill each other. It is just such a backwards and ignorant characterisation of what goes on and just demonstrates he has no idea. Which is sad, well not sad it is actually scary, because he is an Australian Senator, he is involved and will be integral in the decisions that are made that will affect our kids and yet he has no idea.
Some of our campaign work recently in response to Leyonhjelm comments has started to question whether we need a qualification before you become a senator… We have an image on our Facebook at the moment and it is doing extremely well, it seems to be something that is everybody is thinking about given those comments.
Through your work what is your ultimate goal?
The primary goal, which we see we are succeeding in, is making sure parents are at the table when decisions are made and when discussions are being had around important things like the future of childcare and early learning. Obviously these changes directly affect parents and their children, so that is essentially the primary goal for The Parenthood, making sure that the parents have a voice and that we give the parents a credible opportunity to influence the decisions that affect their lives.
Obviously then, once giving parents the opportunity to have a say and to help influence the decisions that are made, that we see positive outcomes from government decisions. We are obviously hoping to see the government go ahead, make their investment into early learning, make it more affordable and accessible for families but without that money taking away the payments that other families depend on. So that’s a massive goal for us.
We hope that by putting the parent voice forward, by enabling parents to share their personal stories, to talk about how these decisions will affect their lives and their children’s lives, we can help, convince and inform decision makers before they make these decisions, before they enact these decisions and that in doing so they change their minds and we get a positive outcome. The same goes for parental leave, we hope that by putting the parent voice forward that these politicians understand the impact that their decisions have on these families and that they change their mind. That is obviously for particular legislation that is being put forward but we want to continue to have a positive influence on where governments go next on the issues that affect families. I think for me one of the most important things for The Parenthood to do is that genuine and positive link between the voices of families and parents and politicians and the decisions they make. That’s our primary objective.
How do you find time for yourself outside of work?
Funnily enough The Parenthood is a very family friendly workplace, a very flexible workplace, which is very valuable. So while I do work a lot and do a lot of work on weekends, especially with the media, it always seems that the stories that affect families are in the Sunday papers, but I always make time. I am thankful that I have the opportunity… to go and pick up my daughter from childcare, not right at the end of the day, sometimes I do depending on the day, but often I can go early to pick her up and being able to be with her on weekends. I actually work four days and have a day with my daughter Gweny [Gwenevieve]. Again, notionally, I have the full day, I still have to do a little bit but it is something that the organisation obviously values and in terms of being able to balance work and family, which is incredibly beneficial to me and obviously my family and my daughter.
Gweny is very excited to be a big sister, I think she doesn’t quite understand the impact it will have in terms of her not being the centre of attention because she is also the only grandchild for both sets of grandparents so she gets spoilt rotten so it will be interesting when there is another child in the mix, but I know she’ll love it.