Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Subsidy) Bill 2021 

Ms WELLS (Lilley) (18:13): [by video link] In speaking on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Subsidy) Bill 2021, I want to firstly thank the member for Dunkley, who graciously stepped in and took the place ahead of me because I was sprinting back from dinner, bath and bedtime at my house here in the electorate of Lilley—a very calm and restful time, as all parents would know. It was an example of why virtual parliament needs a bit of work, I think, to make it as flexible as caregivers need to contribute both in the parliament and at home. It was also an example of the member for Dunkley's tireless advocacy for parents and working parents and being a champion for them in all circumstances, whether it is in her electorate of Dunkley, like the caregivers she has just been championing or whether it's her colleagues like myself. Thank you very much to the member for Dunkley. I know that she joins me in hoping these ongoing lockdowns, all of the sacrifices required, do also provide this place, this federal parliament, with the opportunity to work on cultural change and work on how we can be a more flexible place so that more caregivers—whether it is the caregivers of very young children, or the caregivers of their elderly parents, or the caregivers of anybody in your family or neighbourhood who you give care to in our community—can make a contribution in this place. I would highlight that both the Speaker and Serjeant-at-Arms have been at pains to help me through this process and I thank them for it.

I'd also like to take this opportunity to note that the Morrison government has scheduled a childcare debate for between 4.10 pm and about 7.00 pm which is the worst possible moment of the day for parents of young children, who wish to contribute to this debate, to manage both those young children and the parliament. Until we have more champions, more people with that lived experience, in senior roles making those decisions in this place we will continue to have circumstances such as mine where we're trying to juggle both dinner, bath and bedtime at home and important legislation—legislation that I came to this place to fight for—at the same time, at the witching hour. We can do better. We can do better if it's front of mind. I urge the Morrison government to give that some thought.

I also want to thank the early educators who have spent some of today looking after my four-year-old and all little ones across South-East Queensland whilst we endure another lockdown. While many more people are working from home in this lockdown, our early educators continue go to their work every day, work which is on the frontline of this pandemic, putting their own health at risk so that other essential workers can go to work. I personally would like to thank the educators who allow me to do my job today representing the constituents of Lilley in this parliament.

The Morrison government has been dragged kicking and screaming every step of the way to introduce a policy that actually addresses the skyrocketing price of child care. They have yet to address the systemic workforce issues in this sector. I have had childcare drop-offs with two children under five that have been easier than trying to deal with the Morrison government on this important policy area.

We have heard reports, from a coup in the LNP caucus, about men in the government spitting the dummy about this very bill because they want to incentivise mothers to say home with their kids. And note they didn't say parents. They did say mothers. We've seen a government senator, who's own office is in Chermside, in my electorate of Lilley—childcare fees have increased by 3.8 per cent in Chermside in just the last year—who does not support childcare subsidies because he says, 'Dorothy did not say there's no place like child care.'

I welcome the Morrison government to table this bill even if they are going to sit at the table and sulk because at least we are here and at least we can debate it. In saying that, I'm extremely disappointed to hear that the Morrison government might be voting against Labor's technical amendment to this bill. They still have to make their minds up I guess. But to automatically except services from collecting the childcare gap fees from families during a government imposed COVID lockdown is supremely unfair. While families have been instructed to stay at home during lockdowns, childcare centres have remained open as an essential service for essential workers. However, in Queensland families staying at home who are not sending children to child care, who are doing the right thing, who are following the medical advice, are still being charged gap fees by centres as they are legally required to levy those fees.

This week my electorate office has been bombarded with calls and messages from northside parents who have been told that they need to keep paying their gap fees, but they cannot take their child to child care because they are not classified as essential workers. Kate is a great hardworking Lilley mum. She's a mental health worker. Both Kate and her husband are working from home. Kate was told by her service provider that they cannot accept her children at her childcare centre during lockdown because there are two parents at home. Kate, who is a mental health worker, now has to do mental health checks on her clients in her car so that she is not interrupted by her kids. That is something that the Morrison government is endorsing by not voting with our amendment tonight.

Hayley is another Lilley mum who contacted me in a very similar position. She was told by her provider that she also cannot bring her son to child care because she's able to work from home. But she's still being slugged with the gap fee. She now finds herself in the position of having to work from home as an accountant whilst also looking after her son as a single mum. I don't think that's good enough.

Kiara, another Lilley mum, who contacted me while I was actually drafting this speech, has found herself in the same frustrating situation. Kiara and her husband juggle online meetings while working from home and while entertaining their three-year-old and six-year-old. Kiara's outside-school-hours-care provider waived the fees for her six-year-old, but Kiara and her husband still have to pay back their three-year-old's day care fees. These fees aren't cheap. This is a lot of money to not receive the service whilst trying to work at the same time.

These are just three mums who have contacted me in the last couple of days to ask me for help. Imagine how many northside families out there right now haven't had the bandwidth to reach out to their federal member for help and are instead just copping those gap fees, even though they can't use the service. Clearly, there are not enough government members trying to juggle working from home with their caring responsibilities. It's literally impossible to give 100 per cent of your attention to both.

The minister has the ability to help Kate, to help Hayley and to help Kiara. The minister has the ability to help every single parent who is balancing caring responsibilities with working by giving childcare centres an exemption from charging those gap fees, but is deliberately choosing not to. It is ridiculous that the Morrison government would expect families to continue to pay gap fees during crucial lockdowns when their children are at home and when they are doing the right thing by keeping their children at home. It is such a shame the Morrison government isn't willing to work in a collaborative and bipartisan manner and to accept Labor's proposed amendment to help early educators, service providers and families who are trying to do their best during lockdown. The Morrison government has bungled early education and child care throughout the entirety of this pandemic, and it is the parents, the children, the educators and the providers who have paid that price every step of the way.

As a mum of three kids under five, all of whom go to child care, I truly understand the toll that childcare fees take on the household budget. Under consecutive LNP governments, childcare fees and the costs have been out of control. In 2021, under the watch of the Morrison government, Australian families are paying more out of pocket for child care than ever before. I would cite the latest ABS data or the department of education data or the Productivity Commission data to prove this, but I don't have to because every day I'm talking to parents on the northside who have sent their child to child care over the past three years; they will tell you that their household budgets are being crushed by these ever-increasing fees. Childcare fees are skyrocketing, and federal government support has continually failed to keep up.

Since September 2013, when the LNP came to power, childcare fees nationally have increased by 37.2 per cent. Between December 2019 and December 2020, childcare fees increased by 3.8 per cent in Chermside, by 5.4 per cent in Nundah and by a whopping 8.5 per cent in Everton Park. Child care in Brisbane costs on average around $112 per child per day. The average monthly mortgage payment in Brisbane is $1,885, or $62 a day. It is roughly twice the cost of your mortgage per day to put your child in child care in Brisbane. It is a huge amount of money. Childcare costs on average absorb 27 per cent of the household income, of a family's income, which is on par with about 30 per cent for the average mortgage. UNICEF found that Australia is one of only eight countries where child care consumes at least a quarter of the average wage, ranking our system a dismal 37th out of 41 countries.

While this bill promises to help families bear the burden of childcare fees, the relief won't last for long or help a large percentage of families. The government have taken it just far enough so they can take credit for introducing childcare policy reform without having to concede they have been on the wrong side of this debate for the last eight years. This policy will only provide a small amount of relief for a small minority of families for a short amount of time. Documents from the Morrison government's own education department predict that childcare fees are going to rise by 4.1 per cent every year for the next four years—substantially outstripping inflation, to which this childcare subsidy is pegged. The vast majority of families will get no additional childcare subsidy support under this policy.

In contrast, Labor has a plan to bring down the cost of childcare fees and to keep it down for 97 per cent of families. Only Labor has a plan to make sure that early education is affordable, accessible and high quality for working parents. Under Anthony Albanese, a federal Labor government would scrap the $10,560 childcare subsidy gap, which often sees women losing more money from taking on an extra day of work. We will lift the maximum childcare subsidy rate to 90 per cent, and we will increase childcare subsidy rates and taper them for every family that is, together, earning less than $530,000 a year. We will direct the Productivity Commission to conduct a comprehensive review of the sector with the aim of implementing a universal 90 per cent subsidy for all families. Importantly, we will task the ACCC with designing a price regulation mechanism to shed light on costs and fees and drive them down for good. To put it simply, Labor's plan for cheaper child care goes further for Northside families and it benefits more families for longer.

Labor's cheaper childcare plan does not differentiate on the size of the family, has no age cut-off and applies to all children using outside school hours care during primary school. Labor's childcare plan will leave one million families better off than they are now in paying childcare fees, which is four times as many as the plan of the Morrison government. Analysis of the Parliamentary Budget Office modelling shows 86 per cent of families in the childcare system will be unambiguously better off under Labor's plan. Any extra support the Morrison government provides to families with two children will be temporary as it will be ripped away when the family's oldest child goes to school. In contrast, Labor's boost in support will be provided for every child for the entire time that they are in child care.

Labor is on the side of families. We always have been and we always will be. We know what access to affordable child care means for our families. We know that affordable child care does not just benefit families; it provides amazing bang for buck as an economic investment. A review by PwC into the value of early childhood education and care in Australia found that, for every dollar we invest in child care, the country gets $2 back through productivity and workforce participation. That is amazing bang for buck. Our plan for cheaper child care will reward working families and allow more second-income earners, who are usually women, to work more and contribute to our economic recovery as a nation. We will keep working to fix Australia's broken childcare system, which currently locks out more than 10,000 families because they just cannot afford it. We will keep working and we will keep fighting because we know that affordable early childhood education and care is not just vital infrastructure for parents and children but also vital infrastructure for Australia's economic recovery. Australia needs an early education and care system that ensures early learning is affordable and accessible for families, will keep educators in jobs and will protect the viability of our childcare providers. I thank the House.