18 March 2021
Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Early Childhood Education and Care Coronavirus Response and Other Measures) Bill 2021
Ms WELLS (Lilley) (10:32): It's serendipitous that my first speech on a piece of legislation—on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Early Childhood Education and Care Coronavirus Response and Other Measures) Bill 2021—after coming back from the birth of my twins is about childhood education. Their diaries are full at the moment; otherwise, I could've had you maybe feed them a bottle from the chair, like they did in New Zealand!
Like with so many Northside families, access to a supportive care system comprising family, friends, early educators, colleagues—and a boss who loves babies!—has allowed me to come to work today. Child care is essential family infrastructure, and it is essential family infrastructure that I, like so many parents across the Northside, could not manage without.
I would like to start by thanking our early educators for their heroic work throughout the pandemic. It really was brave of them to go to work every day, particularly with the kinds of conditions that this federal government currently allows them to continue to work under. While many workers had to stay home during the COVID lockdown, our early educators continued to go to work every day, on the front line, putting their own health at risk, so that other essential workers could get to work. Unfortunately, our childcare workers and early educators were not always treated like the essential workers that they are by this government. But, rest assured, on this side of the House, you are our champions.
Labor will always support early educators. We welcome the changes which reduce red tape on services and families, and we will support this bill. It's nice to be able to debate this bill on child care at all, after the education minister introduced new childcare rules last year without allowing debate to happen. This bill retrospectively clarifies and states the circumstances where the secretary can declare emergency and disaster events and make business continuity payments, thereby providing a bit of legal certainty to actions taken last year and retaining the BCP as an ongoing policy response available to government. It removes the legal requirements for services to send weekly session reports to the department during emergency or disaster events, reducing the red tape burden on the services during these events. It extends the tax return deadlines for 2018-19 to 31 March 2021, to provide more time for people who have not lodged their returns due to the pandemic; removes the two-year cut-off point for people to lodge their tax returns and be eligible for the childcare subsidy; and ensures that emergency or disaster events do not count towards the 14-week period of nonattendance, after which a child's enrolment is cancelled. There are a few other minor tidy-ups, which have no adverse impact on families, so we support them.
However, this bill isn't perfect, and it should be amended to work as efficiently as possible for educators, for service providers and for families. Labor's technical amendment to take the exemption out of the minister's rules and put it back into the act would trigger an exemption from fees as soon as the state government declares one, and it is an amendment that would do just that: make things more efficient. Whilst families have been instructed to stay at home during lockdowns, childcare centres have remained open as an essential service for essential workers. However, families staying at home have still been charged gap fees by centres as they are legally required to levy those fees. The minister has the ability to give centres an exemption from charging gap fees and did so during the second Victorian lockdown of 2021. However, the government has deliberately chosen not to grant exemptions for the most recent lockdowns in Perth, in Adelaide, in Melbourne and in my home town of Brisbane. It is ridiculous that the Morrison government would expect families to continue to pay gap fees during crucial lockdowns, and it is a real shame that this government isn't willing to work in a collaborative and bipartisan manner and accept Labor's proposed amendments to help early educators, service providers and families.
It isn't surprising that we are here today fixing drafting errors and ambiguities in the COVID response legislation passed last year. The Morrison government bungled early education and care throughout the entirety of the pandemic, and it was the parents, children, educators and providers who paid the price every step of the way.
First, their free childcare policy, like most announcements from this Prime Minister, was not quite what it seemed, and it left many providers struggling to stay afloat and families without access to care. I hosted a Zoom roundtable with early educators from my electorate of Lilley with our shadow minister for early education, the member for Kingston, and the early educators were exasperated—that's probably putting it politely. They were struggling to keep their doors open after their funding had been slashed. They had to cut their opening hours, they had to cut staff, they had to cut staff hours and they had to cut places, to try and balance their books. Family day care educators were excluded from JobKeeper entirely, leaving them to do the same job for half the pay. Families were being denied places, and that included healthcare workers at The Prince Charles Hospital, which was one of the foremost places for dealing with COVID on the northside.
Then the government ripped JobKeeper away from early educators altogether—first off the boat—creating further pain for the sectors and for the families that they look after. This decision tells you everything that you need to know about how this government values work. The male-dominated construction sector received targeted taxpayer stimulus. The childcare sector, which is 97 per cent female, was the first to have its funding ripped away. This sent a very clear message to early childhood educators: you are not essential. What a slap in the face to them after everything they have done.
To replace JobKeeper, we then had the exceptional circumstances fund, which was exceptionally good at refusing to approve funding applications. Only 39 per cent of those applications were approved. The government boasted that 98 per cent of early learning services stayed open during the crisis, but that doesn't really show the whole picture. The government's own limited survey found that a quarter of services were not financially viable and they were losing money every day. And when you think it couldn't get worse, the Morrison government resorted to their natural position, which is to blame everybody else but themselves. This time it was the providers' fault. This government sent strongly worded communications to providers threatening their funding if they didn't have enough places and enough hours, knowing full well services are not funded to do so. Shockingly, they set up a hotline and encouraged families to dob in early education providers. This is truly disgraceful. I don't know why this government is so gung-ho on dobbing, but it isn't Australian.
A government member interjecting—
I'll take the interjection. If that was the case, why don't we set up a dobbing hotline for employers doing the wrong thing, or for the billions of dollars that have been paid out via JobKeeper in dividends and in executive bonuses? Where is the dobbing hotline for that? I'll leave it with you.
The Prime Minister should come to the chamber now and apologise to our early educators for how they have been treated over this past year. Maybe send him a text. Government data and anecdotal evidence I've collected from northside families prove that our early education system is broken. It is vital, but it is broken. It was revealed last year by the department of education that 25 per cent of families were still waiting for their reconciliation of the 2018-2019 childcare subsidy. This means that the government has withheld money from some families for over a year, including during an economic recession. It's not a standard that they would accept in reverse and not a standard that they have ever accepted in reverse. In the same period, the government collected $130 million in childcare debts from families, despite ongoing concerns about the accuracy of their debt collection system. The hypocrisy is staggering but, at the same time, unsurprising. The government are gung-ho when they are accusing families of owing them money, but they are more than happy to move at an absolute snail's pace to hand money back where it is rightfully owed and needs to be returned to Australian families.
Childcare fees are skyrocketing, and the federal government's support is failing to keep up. In the last 12 months, childcare fees have increased by 9.6 per cent in Nundah, 5.8 per cent in Chermside, 8.8 per cent in Everton Park and 6.2 per cent in Sandgate. Parents will soon be no better off under this government's once-in-a-generation set of reforms than they were under the previous scheme, which ended in July 2018. Childcare fees have soared by 35.9 per cent since this mob came to power in 2013. 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, which the childcare subsidy is pegged to.
These fees are hurting families and locking parents, particularly women, out of the workforce. Data from the Productivity Commission has shown that almost 300,000 Australians are not in the labour force due to caring for children. The proportion of parents who say that they are not working due mainly to the cost of child care has skyrocketed to 23 per cent. According to ABS data, access to affordable child care is the main reason women can't increase their participation in the labour force.
The Morrison government need to stop burying their heads in the sand and acknowledge that their system is broken—a system that was authored by the now Prime Minister back when he was Treasurer. There are a number of valid, progressive early education policy reforms that we should be legislating right now to fix these issues. We could be scrapping the $10,560 childcare subsidy cap, which often sees women actually losing money from an extra day's work. We should be increasing the childcare subsidy rate, and we should be lifting the maximum rate. But, instead of debating these measures that would actively improve the lives of Australian families, we in this chamber are constantly correcting the stuff-ups of the Morrison government.
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 doesn't just benefit families; it provides amazing bang for the buck as 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 increased productivity and workforce participation. That's amazing bang for the buck.
While female workforce participation rates in Australia have been steady rising over the past four decades, they remain low for women with young children. I recognise that, in many cases, this is a matter of personal preference—more power to you. But I have also spoken to countless women who would like to work extra hours but are deterred from doing so by the high cost of child care and the little or no extra take-home pay they receive from those extra hours, after losing income support payments and paying personal income tax. Last year, I spoke with Chloe, a single mum in Chermside. When I asked her how the rising cost of child care was impacting her life, she told me that she had been forced to turned down increased work in the past because the income she would receive from that extra work would have been outweighed by the cost of putting her son into day care for the extra days. She said he was relieved that he would be going to school soon.
For working parents like Chloe, Federal Labor has a plan to make sure that early education is affordable, accessible and high quality for every child. A federal Labor government will introduce the working family childcare boost to cut childcare fees and put more money into the pockets of working families straight away. Childcare fees in Australia are some of the highest in the world. Under this plan, Labor will scrap the $10,560 childcare subsidy cap, which often sees women losing money from an extra day's 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 earning less than $530,000. This reform would help 97 per cent of Australian families in the system. It would save somewhere between $600 and $2,900 a year for families. No family would be worse off. It is an excellent system, and it is a credit to the member for Kingston for coming up with it.
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—work that the now Prime Minister, then Treasurer, should have done years ago.
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 vital infrastructure for Australia's economic recovery. Australians needs 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.
I will continue fighting for northside families every day to make sure that quality of life improves for all, regardless of their income. With three children under five, we have three in child care this year, so we pay three sets of childcare fees every week, and I truly understand what that cost looks like on the family budget. I also understand what the difference would be if we could raise the rate and the cap so that people could access more work because they had access to more affordable child care.
In my remaining time, I would like to give a shout-out to the educators who look after my young family, who go above and beyond helping me to manage all of this, this great privilege that it is to be the member for Lilley, whilst parenting very, very little children. They help me juggle. They meet me at the car park to bring in two capsules at a time. The logistics involved in having twins is very tricky—a shout-out to the multiple-birth parents out there. Next week is Multiple Birth Awareness Week and I'll have more to say about life as a multiple-birth parent then. But I could not do this without my early educators. I won't name the centre, but they know who they are. From giving me an extra block of chocolate when they know that I've had a bad day, because they're watching my social media, through to getting saturated by the rain helping me carry two capsules and a four-year-old out to the car—I couldn't do it without you. I thank you so much for everything that you do. I'm so disappointed that this government doesn't provide you with the working conditions that you deserve, and I will continue to fight for you every day that I have the privilege of being in this place.