24 August 2020

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

Ms WELLS (Lilley) (12:07): This is actually the resumption of debate on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Improving Assistance for Vulnerable and Disadvantaged Families) Bill 2020 from discussion we had in June. It boggles the mind, really, that I come back to the House now to report that things have gotten worse for the childcare sector rather than better in the months the government have had to repair the damage they have done with the COVID response to an already crisis-ridden sector.

We know that things have gotten worse because we have uncovered more information about the status of the childcare sector since June—for example, information from the department of education, which shows that 25 per cent of families are still waiting for the reconciliation of their 2018-19 childcare subsidy. Just to be clear, we are in the 2020-21 financial year. This means that the government have withheld money from some families for over a year—not a standard I think they would accept in reverse. In the same period, the government have collected $130 million in childcare debts from families, despite ongoing concern about the accuracy of their debt collection system. The hypocrisy of this is absolutely staggering. The government are gung-ho when they are accusing families of owing them money, but they move at an absolute snail's pace to hand money back when it is rightfully owed to Australian families.

The second failure that we have seen from new information released by the department shows how high childcare fees had already gotten pre the pandemic. Fees had jumped by 4.6 per cent in the year to December 2019, with CPI only rising by 1.8 per cent in that same period. This was supposed to be reform brought in by Prime Minister Morrison, when he was the responsible minister. It was going to fix childcare affordability. This was supposed to be the fix, yet fees jumped 4.6 per cent in that year. With the childcare subsidy pinned to CPI, this data shows that the financial burden carried by families has been snowballing. Around the country the hit has been even worse. Brisbane families, who I represent, were slugged with up to a 14 per cent fee increase in child care.

Stepping back to these high fees in the middle of a recession will simply put child care out of reach for many, and that is to the detriment of us all. Families who have taken a pay cut over the past few months will now be forced to give up child care, and, in turn, parents will be forced to give up work. We've also had reports emerge since we last debated this in June showing the deep flaws of the additional childcare subsidy, which the minister claims is the panacea for supporting struggling families to access early education. This subsidy was shown to be wrapped up in red tape and completely insufficient to cover the tens of thousands of families now facing hardship.

All of this new information is evidence of a government that is letting families down when they are doing it tougher than ever. Its decision to snap back to its old, pre-pandemic childcare system has left many Australian families wondering how they will get by. They were already crippled by high childcare fees before the pandemic, with out-of-pocket costs soaring by 7.2 per cent in one year alone. Now, in the middle of a recession, when parents rely on mortgage and rent moratoriums, JobKeeper and JobSeeker to survive, childcare fees will simply be out of reach. If these families can't afford early education and care, it will hurt the parents. Without access to affordable care, many parents will simply be forced to give up or turn down work—a sacrifice most often taken by women. In the midst of a recession the last thing our economy needs is working parents being unable to take up work because they cannot find child care. One of the key levers to drive economic growth out of a recession is workforce participation. Yet here we are with the government making these policy decisions that, day by day, make workforce participation more and more difficult for Australian mothers.

It will also make the children suffer. Unaffordable child care means some kids miss out. They miss out on receiving an early education, which is of particular concern for our four-year-olds, who are at risk of starting primary school in 2021 already behind. We know that vulnerable and at-risk children, who stand to benefit the most from an early education, are the first to miss out in these circumstances. We know that this new information and these decisions hurt providers, because if families begin unenrolling their children from early education the resulting drop in demand creates significant viability issues for providers.

We're also now in a world where JobKeeper has been ripped away from childcare educators. The current situation in Victoria has shone a light on why early childhood educators still need support to stay connected to their employers. Without JobKeeper there is no guarantee that early childhood educators will continue to get paid if Victorian providers are forced to close due to a drop in demand or a potential government directive. If a provider shuts its doors, early childhood educators could be pushed onto Centrelink queues rather than receiving JobKeeper payments.

The Morrison government have bungled early education and care throughout the pandemic, and it is parents, children, educators and providers who have paid the price every step of the way. Their free childcare policy left many providers struggling to stay afloat and families without access to care. Now their snapback and removal of JobKeeper will create further pain for families and the sector. Australians need an early education and care system that ensures early learning is affordable and accessible for families. It needs to keep educators in jobs and protect the viability of providers.

With my remaining time, I want to bring to parliament—I faithfully promised someone who came to one of my mobile offices in McDowall—an idea to put to the government about how to help the sector. This person said to me: 'For a Prime Minister who is obsessed with high-vis, obsessed with construction and very keen to grab a shovel at every opportunity, why does he not use the recession and the policy responses he has before him to build more childcare centres? It gives him jobs for construction workers. It gives him infrastructure being built. It gives him high-vis announcements. It also gives more early educators jobs, which they desperately need right now, and it gives more Australian families places in childcare centres, which they need in order to participate in our workforce and work together to get our economy out of recession. I thought it was a good idea, I thought it had merit and I promised faithfully to bring it to Canberra and put it to the government. I will conclude my remarks at this time because I already had a good go at this in June. Thank you very much.