Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Improving Assistance for Vulnerable and Disadvantaged Families) Bill 2020

Ms WELLS (Lilley) (16:24): I rise in the House today to speak about the childcare crisis in this country. Affordable child care is one of the most tantalising promises of modern Australian civilised society, but it's also one of the most broken. Our modern economy cannot function without a system for nurturing our littlest citizens. So confounding is the childcare economy that, despite the sticker shock for parents, looking after children remains a very poorly paid job. What we on this side of the House know from talking to parents and from talking to educators is that the system isn't working.

There are now 1.36 million Australian kids accessing childcare services—972,000 families across Australia. It's a big part of the country. The government's latest quarterly data, which came out in March 2019, has been released, and it confirmed what we already know to be true, which is that childcare fees are still going up. They're still going up despite the big reforms the government brought in in their second term that promised us things would get better. The cost of long day care, which is the type of child care that most people use, has increased again to approximately $14,328 a year. That is the cost of a fairly ritzy private school education in Brisbane per year. When the Liberals were elected, families paid, on average, $11,016 a year. That is a staggering 30 per cent increase in childcare fees since the election of this government.

At a time when cost of living is increasing and at a time when wages are stagnating, families are being crippled by ever-increasing childcare fees. The truth of the matter is that this government's new childcare system has failed. It has failed at putting downward pressure on fees. It has failed to address the problem. Now here we are, debating amendments to childcare legislation with no proposed vision and no proposed plan to fix the childcare crisis in this country. In fact, we appear to be tinkering around the edges with no indication from this government that we will even debate childcare legislation again this term. There is nothing coming down the line to assist 972,000 Australian families. It is so disheartening that we can do so much to get here to this parliament and we can have so much opportunity in this parliament, yet we fritter it away by doing so little when we have the ability to do so much more.

This is an issue quite dear to my heart, as you might be able to tell. At this point I have to refer to some notes on my phone because when it was in my diary to write this speech I had my toddler at home with me because I could not get a spot for her in child care that day. So for the purposes of sharing with the people in this House who do not understand what living the hustle is like for Australian families, I thought I would share a little of my experience with child care.

On the day of our successful 12-week scan with Celeste we toured two childcare centres near our house and enrolled her at both of them—at the 12-week scan. I don't think she had a fixed due date at that time—she certainly didn't have a name and she didn't have a gender—but she had to be enrolled, because that is what the waiting list situation is like on the north side of Brisbane. When Celeste was seven months old, a place for one day came up at one of our preferred childcare centres. We had to take it, because that's how you get a foot in the door—you take the spot. So she went in two months earlier than planned for a day a week, and I had to find additional work outside of my substantive employment to pay for that day a week, because that was the only way we were going to get her in. At nine months I returned to work and Celeste went to child care for three days a week. At 12 months my parents agreed to take her for an extra day per week so that I could campaign for preselection and then, when I won that, for the federal election. Not everybody has grandparents around. For us, my side of the family are the only people who live in Brisbane, in terms of being able to care for Celeste on an ongoing basis. That stayed the case until the election.

Something that people have talked to me a lot about is how Celeste appears in my campaign photos. People ask: 'Is that because you are trying to demonstrate what it's like to be a working mum running for parliament?' Unkind people ask: 'Is it because you're trying to politicise your child? Are you trying to use her as a weapon or an asset?' The reality is that Celeste appeared with me on the campaign trail and Celeste appears in so many photos because often the only way for me to get to a function was for her to come too. I suspect Celeste has had more canapes than many lobbyists on the federal campaign trail!

That was the reality for me. I got through it because I knew it was temporary—win or lose, come 18 May. I just had to get through that period of months. But it's not a temporary reality for many Australians. We have an unpaid-care crisis in this country where we and our economy are so dependent upon unpaid care provided by mothers and grandmothers and aunts and fathers and grandfathers and uncles, both caring for their children, who we're talking about today, and also caring for our elders. Our economy is reliant upon millions of hours of unpaid care given by Australian families and Australian workers. If you look at the aged-care inquiry and the crisis going on in aged care, you see it's just the same. The system is underfunded, because for too long we have been entirely reliant on the unpaid care given by Australians. This federal government owes everyone a lot more than that.

Returning to the childcare crisis of today, I have a mum squad. We all have our childcare problems from time to time. One of my friends only got a spot for her toddler because once we got Celeste into her child care we arranged for the other centre to give Celeste's spot to Archie directly. We should not have a childcare system that, if you move from interstate and need a childcare spot at somewhat short notice, relies on your knowing some fanatically organised person and federal MP who can give you a spot that they've got as a backup. That's not how our system should work.

My parents care for Celeste for a day a week. They went overseas, because they're retired. They worked hard their entire lives and they worked hard to be able to go overseas for periods of time in their retirement. Our childcare system collapsed for that six-week period, because losing that day a week that we relied upon them to look after Celeste meant that we had to find temporary solutions. So at the time I was meant to be writing this speech—and I seriously intended to give gravitas and considered policy thought to this 15-minute speech—I couldn't do it, because I was painting watercolours instead, because there was nobody else around. When I was elected to federal parliament, it took 5½ months to get Celeste that fifth day at child care, 5½ months of us making week-by-week temporary arrangements—my husband taking carers leave; my husband taking annual leave; an elaborate system of neighbours, mum squad and brunch members looking after Celeste to get us through until we could get a permanent spot. That is not how things should be in a modern, developed economy where we claim to look after our littlest citizens and the parents who care for them. We need to do a lot better. I would like to reiterate that this is a failed opportunity today for us to address some of the serious structural reforms in the industry. We can speak to the flaws in these amendments and the merits of the amendments but, at the end of the day, it is disappointing that they are minor amendments that will not address the crisis of child care in this country.

I want to read aloud a letter that a lady named Peta gave to me. I have toured many childcare centres in the six months since I was elected to parliament. They are a heart-warming and very fuzzy way to spend your morning, and I recommend the experience to everybody in the chamber. When I go around and meet people for the first time at community groups and businesses and community events I say, 'If you could send one message to Canberra, what would it be?' This lady gave me an answer at the time but came and found me a few weeks later and hand-delivered this letter. Honestly, early educators are just the best people in the world! She said:

My apologies Anika,

You asked me a question about my message to Canberra and, to be honest, I hadn't considered the question prior to being asked.

You see, as an educator I turn up to work day in and day out and give my all and I make myself physically, mentally and emotionally available to the 22 children in my care.

I, to the best of my ability for those 6 contact hours, push aside my personal life and become a nurturing, encouraging, patient, knowledgeable TEACHER.

I don't often think about or consider the people that have "MADE THE RULES", that make all of .the decisions that decide what my job is and how it should be done and what EXCEEDING PRACTICE should look like.

I love my job, and I struggle to call it a job because that word "job" doesn't do it justice. I'm passionate about being an Early Childhood Professional, I believe on some level it's what I was created to do.

So, upon pondering your question further, these are my thoughts about our sector, about our work, about our children and families and about our future:

1. Is the current early childhood education and care system serving the right people with the right purpose?

Families, more commonly nowadays, BOTH parents are working harder than ever, longer hours than ever to make ends meet for their young families, but the loss of childcare cancels out earnings. It's a LOSE/LOSE scenario. We need to find a WIN/WIN scenario for early childhood education and care.

We are on the brink of losing our precious kindergarten structure because parents cannot meet the demands of the workplace and fit in with our hours—however the kindergarten program is a highly valued and regarded institution in the community. Long day care should not be the ONLY option for our young children.

2. If we are struggling more than ever to get students (school leavers) to consider studying teaching and also to retain new & existing teachers we must take a step back and ask WHERE/HOW we are failing our teachers?

Stricter regulations, ratio pressures, time constraints, impossible expectations handed down from "desk-sitters" is not the answer to training and retaining HIGH QUALITY EDUCATORS! Assessing services on one set of standards and then re-assessing on another tougher standard is sending mixed messages and de-grading the hard work, the high quality work, the exceeding work of experienced, dedicated and passionate practitioners.

   …   …   …

So you see, this "job", this calling that I love so much, that I live for is under threat.

And do you know who is going to pay for that? Our most precious "commodity", our children, the future of our nation, our future world leaders. What message are we sending them?

We've got to get real about early childhood education and care and we MUST ask ourselves, is our current early childhood education and care system serving the right people with the right purpose?

Thank-you for your time.

That is Peta, from C&K Nundah.

Touching on the issue of kindergarten and funding, I'd like to finish by talking about something I didn't expect to discuss in an early childhood and childcare legislation debate, and that is the Trump family, currently ensconced in the White House. Previously I have not had many positive things to say about the Trump family. You might recall from my first speech that it was a combination of being diagnosed with autoimmune disease and falling pregnant with my first child, who was born early—a daughter—while watching President Trump being sworn in on the hospital television that acted like a lightning bolt to spur me on to what was then a federal political preselection. But I will give the Trumps this credit: in the midst of a presidential budget process which is generating controversy for its drastic spending cuts, Ivanka Trump, senior adviser to the President, is forcing a conversation about increasing the availability and affordability of child care. She said:

You have care providers who are working at below poverty wages, you have parents who can't afford the care and you don't have a robust ecosystem of facilities because it's a low-margin business with high liability.

She continued:

So, it's like just a fundamentally flawed system.

This billionaire heiress, this mother of three, gets it, and she gets it in a way that this federal government does not get it. I want to make the point today that, if you are a third-term federal government and you have to be given advice on how to be in touch with the working families in your country and how to better support them in raising their children, then you are out of touch. I condemn you for being as out of touch as that.

In 2018, President Trump signed into law a $2.4 billion funding increase, which provided a total of $8.1 billion to states to fund child care for low-income families. Contrast this with our federal government, who refused to guarantee funding for two years of universal preschool. Contrast the Trumps, who are doing a series of roundtables across the country to learn from early childhood educators and businesses about what needs to be done, with this government, who has referred this out to a private consulting firm to see what they have to say about funding for childcare arrangements. It is astonishing that Australia is one of only a few advanced nations to offer no subsidised early learning to three-year-olds, despite several major surveys and the Gonski review calling for just that. We would have, and you should do it now.