House debates

Tuesday, 17 June 2014


Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Measures) Bill 2014; Second Reading

7:16 pm

Photo of Lisa ChestersLisa Chesters (Bendigo, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

The Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Measures) Bill is another example of broken promises by this government to the Australian people. In starting my speech today, I want to touch on a couple of things that the member for Bowman just raised in his contribution. The member for Bowman and I are co-chairs of the group Parliamentary Friends of Early Childhood. Elements of his speech struck me because, in every event that we have held so far in this term of parliament, every speaker and every organisation has said that quality matters. Every speaker has said that our national quality framework is world-class and other nations are looking to Australia to adopt our very own national quality framework as it stands. So the comments made by the previous speaker attacking quality matters and attacking the framework strike me as quite odd because, even when we have the industry experts telling us that the reforms by the former Labor government were making a difference, we still have those in government saying the complete opposite.

There is the claim about paid parental leave. I find this also quite amusing because this is a government that in all other areas of IR is completely opposed to any form of pattern bargaining. This Liberal Party government is ideologically opposed to collective bargaining and workplace entitlements like annual leave and sick leave. My question to the government is: now that you are paying the paid parental leave for people, replacing wages for people, will you start to pay annual leave for people? Will you start to pay sick leave? Will you start nationalising all of industry and taking on the whole role of managing the Australian workforce?

On this side, we recognise and respect collective bargaining. The other side keeps talking about public servants and how they get replacement of wages. Absolutely they do, because they, through their union, collectively bargained for that right. What we have said on this side is that every woman who has a child or a parent who wishes to take paid maternity leave should get some payment. The employer and the workers, through collective bargaining, can then top that up. But what we have seen from this government is a skewing of workplace relations and moving into the space of almost pattern bargaining. If they want to have a debate about pattern bargaining, then bring it on, because I reckon that there are a lot of industries out there and a lot of workers ready to have the debate about bringing back pattern bargaining. But that is exactly what this government is proposing to do with paid parental leave.

As I said, this bill is another broken promise to the Australian people by this government. In opposition the coalition said that they were opposed to freezing the childcare rebate cap. They said that they would continue to fund childcare services through the national quality framework and better wages for low-paid educators, yet in government they have done the exact opposite. When it comes to the critical area of early childhood education and care, this government have broken a number of promises that they made to the Australian people before the election. These decisions are not only broken promises and they are not only mean decisions that will hurt families; they also do not fit with the government's rhetoric about productivity and participation in the workforce.

Let's start with the changes that they are proposing to make to the childcare benefit. The childcare benefit is means tested and it is targeted at low- to middle-income families. The payment increases as your income decreases and it increases as to the number in the family. In my electorate of Bendigo, in suburbs like Golden Square, this particular benefit enables women to get back to work. They are on lower incomes and they have two or three children. This benefit helps them get back to work. This bill will see $230 million ripped from the assistance that helps over 889,000 families who rely on it, including many in my electorate of Bendigo.

The education department told a Senate hearing looking over the bill that almost half a million families will receive less support as a result of these changes, but that is where the information stops. Another critical problem with this bill is that it is rushed policy. It is rushed legislation in this parliament to try to bring it on before families really know the impact, before there can be proper scrutiny and proper engagement with the industry and the families that will be affected. It shows utter arrogance and disdain for Australian families. It shows that the government will press ahead with these changes without taking into account the proper assessment of the financial impact to families. I believe that these changes will also take away the financial benefit of parents returning to work. It will simply be too expensive for one of the parents to return to work, and they will choose to stay at home because it costs them more in child care than what they earn in wages. And what do we know? It will be predominantly women who end up staying at home to care for children.

Perhaps this is the government's plan. Perhaps this is the Menzies in the Prime Minister coming out—that 1950s view that the role of women is first to raise children and then maybe think of a career. These changes will have a huge impact on workforce participation for parents, particularly mothers, those with one or more child and who earn a low income. And let's also be clear about the incomes that women earn. We have still not caught up in the gender pay gap. Women still work predominantly in industries which are lower paid. There will be pressure on them to drop out of the workforce because they are not receiving the support that they need from their government when it comes to meeting the cost of childcare fees.

The research also backs this up. Just a one per cent increase in the gross price of child care sees a resulting decrease in mothers' employment of 0.7 per cent. Every per cent that childcare fees increase, we see a decrease in women participating in the workforce. At the moment, the childcare rebate is non-means tested and covers 50 per cent of the out-of-pocket costs of care. This is where the government also fails to understand the direct link between wages and the quality and cost of care. We have heard speaker after speaker speak about how outrageous the national quality fund was, how it was really unfair and so on and so forth, but what it did was ensure that some of our lowest paid workers—who have skills and an education—got a pay rise of between $3 and $5 an hour that did not increase the cost of fees for parents. We on this side of the House know that, the moment fees increase, women and parents cannot afford it and step out of the workforce. Again, the cuts to the childcare rebate are another broken promise and will have further impact on women's participation in the workforce.

As I have stated, in opposition the coalition opposed freezing the childcare rebate. The Prime Minister even wrote to every childcare centre across the country, claiming that he would freeze the index on the childcare rebate, that it would be an unfair burden to place on families not to increase it. Yet now in government the Prime Minister has done the exact opposite and he is cutting assistance across the board to early childhood education. As I have mentioned, there has been a cut to early childhood educators' wages. Before the election, the government promised that they would honour the commitments made under the Early Years Quality Fund to increase the wages of qualified early childhood educators.

It is vital that we increase the wages for our early childhood educators. It is because of low wages that the sector has a high turnover. These are not low-skilled workers; these are people with a qualification, with a cert. II, cert. III, diploma or even degree, yet they are still on minimum rates of pay. Because of the low wages, there is a high turnover in the sector, and I know this from talking directly with educators in my electorate. They say to me when I am in their tearooms talking to them: 'I love my job. I find it rewarding. But I want to buy a house and, on my partner's income and my income, we simply cannot afford to buy a house because the wages in early childhood education are so low.' Educators are moving in with family members in order to pay their bills because the wages are so low in this industry. It is another broken promise by this government.

Yes, we acknowledge that the long-term correction of wages in this sector needs to be done through Fair Work Australia, but what the Early Years Quality Fund did was provide the early money to help bridge the gap until we got to that point, because Fair Work Australia does take time. It does take time to get the result that these educators are looking for. The Early Years Quality Fund was created as the first step on a very long path to professional wages, and it was essential to address the turnover issue being experienced in the sector. Every week 180 educators are leaving, driven away because of low wages—not because they do not like the job, not because of job satisfaction but because the pay is literally too low for them to survive on. This cannot continue. As an early childhood educator said at the time the fund was created: 'This fund is recognition of my professional skills and qualifications. It's the first step towards a professional wage, and I'm excited.' She was not the only one who was excited for the first time to be recognised in her pay for her quality, for her education and for her skill.

This is why early childhood education and the investment in it is so important. We also know through the research that the first five years are the most important to a person's life. It is when 90 per cent of the brain's development occurs. That is why the national quality framework, which has been so attacked by this government, is so important. It is the framework that sets up early childhood education as education. It is making that fundamental shift from care to education. If we acknowledge in the science and the research that the first five years are the most critical then it is time we acknowledge them in the sector and invest in the sector properly.

Labor and I are not alone in saying that; the industry agrees. Wendy McCarthy from Goodstart said just recently, on Lateline:

… paid parental leave money will be much better put into investing in the first two years. Then women will go back to work.

If you want the best for your child then you want the best education. When asked the government's role in achieving this, Wendy replied:

The Government's role is to fund it.

She is not alone. The Australian Childcare Alliance and Early Childhood Australia have also said that the money that has been allocated for the paid parental leave scheme would be better invested in the early years, supporting the sector and supporting quality.

Quality does matter. If our nation's goal is to increase women's participation in the workforce then the solution is quality early childhood education and care. Parents want, and deserve to know, their children are going not just to a care institution but to an education institution. Without quality, affordable and accessible early childhood education and care, the Prime Minister's proposed paid parental leave scheme cannot succeed. It will not entice mothers back into the workforce because after six months what happens to those children? That is the critical flaw in the government's proposal. What is the plan? Come clean and tell women what you are really planning? Is it for them to stay at home? Is it to go back to the 1950s view of the world where women stayed at home and took care of the children while the husband went out to work? News flash to the government: the world has changed. What women want and what families want is quality early childhood education and care. That is why I join the shadow minister in opposing many measures in this bill and supporting the proposed amendment she has moved.


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