House debates

Tuesday, 17 June 2014


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

7:44 pm

Photo of Adam BandtAdam Bandt (Melbourne, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

In my electorate of Melbourne there are more women as a proportion of the workforce than there are anywhere else in Victoria. In fact, it is the second highest proportion of women in the workforce of any electorate in the country, with 49 per cent of the workforce being women. One thing that is crystal clear is that, if we value people's mental health and family stability and also if we value getting women into the workforce and being able to remain in the workforce, then affordable, accessible quality child care is vital.

In Melbourne the need is only going to grow. More and more people are choosing to live closer to the city. Our state government has a policy of knocking down small warehouses and building the tallest, most expensive thing that you can on the site. That brings lots of people into the city, which is a good thing, but increasingly we are finding that there is no planning for the childcare needs of the people who live in Melbourne.

We have a situation at the moment in Melbourne where 76 per cent of the centres have no vacancies for under-two-year-olds and 43 per cent have no vacancies for three- to four-year-olds. The centres that did have some vacancies were often inflexible—for example, they were only available on particular days. It is not at all uncommon for women in my electorate to have to juggle to get their child to different childcare centres on different days of the week.

Parents will usually spend on average between six and 24 months waiting for a place for their children. Some centres in the electorate of Melbourne have over 300 families on their waiting list. The level of unmet demand—the lack of child care places—in Melbourne is appalling. It is absolutely appalling. We know that these pressures developed under the previous government. I will be the first to say that the previous government did some good things about child care. Labor's focus on improving the standards of childcare workers, recognising their role as educators, and lifting the quality framework were things the Greens were pleased to support because they echoed our view that child care should be treated as an integral part in the education process for young children.

What was not recognised by Labor is that, if you increase the quality of the workforce, as one should, unless you put additional money into the system then the other two key elements of child care—accessibility, the ease to get a place, and affordability, making sure child care is within your means—will suffer. That is exactly the problem that we have seen and that is exactly the problem that we face. It was not made any better by the previous government's decision to abandon building 222 new childcare centres.

We are in a position where there is enormous demand and enormous pressure on the system, especially in inner-city Melbourne. We have to decide now which way we are going to go: do we value child care as a community or don't we? Then into the fray comes this government that says, 'Before we decide to do anything else after freezing some existing funds that were going to find their way into child care the first thing we will do is freeze the childcare rebate for a further three years and freeze the childcare benefit income thresholds.' Taking money out of the system is not the answer for child care at the moment. It is just not the answer.

I think in some respects the opposition needs to tone down its sanctimony on this because freezing the childcare rebate is in fact just extending a policy that Labor introduced. It was wrong then and it is wrong now. That part of it is wrong, but what the government is also proposing to do to the childcare rebate and the childcare benefit in tandem is going to hit low-income earners and it is going to hit a household that earns $60,000 somewhere in the order of $3,000 a year. That is a massive whack. Under the previous government it got to the point where some parents were asking whether it was even worth returning to work because of the cost of child care. To now take an extra $3,000 out of the pockets of a middle- to low-income family is absolutely appalling and wrong.

The sector is outraged by this government's decision to take money out of child care and so are centres in my electorate. Acacia Fitzroy Creche, which I visited a couple of times and which provides services to people on low incomes, believes that helping families get affordable child care is very important. It is a community childcare centre that works with many refugees, single parents and people from low-SES backgrounds.

That centre sees a lot of families who want to contribute and work but cannot get jobs without affordable child care. If parents cannot access child care, the kids end up staying home and falling behind in education. These are often children who have come here as part of a family from a refugee background, who have come in under Australia's humanitarian system. They are living in the flats in Fitzroy. The parents are struggling to break into the labour market or hang onto a job. They are reliant on low-cost child care to be able to stay employed.

Acacia Fitzroy Creche have said that, as a result of changes in this bill and the budget, they have decided to freeze their fees because they know that otherwise parents will not be able to continue. As a result, the staff are not getting a pay rise. Already underpaid staff are not getting a pay rise. They face a big problem with retaining staff, as many childcare centres do, and this is only going to exacerbate it.

What will that mean? It will mean that people—predominantly women—will decide to opt out of the workforce because they are on low incomes and they cannot, now, afford the cost of child care. So that will increase the unemployment rate. That is the effect of this government's policy that attacks, disproportionately, low-income workers. More women will no longer stay connected with their jobs, because they will not be able to afford child care.

Not everyone can do what Fitzroy Acacia Creche is doing. The other centres in my electorate have fantastic staff but many boards of management are tearing their hair out trying to make ends meet. There is plenty of money available for us if we decide that child care is a priority. For example, if the government chose to stand up to wealthy miners like Gina Rinehart and her associates and scrap the subsidies and concessions that they get—we do not even need to worry about a new tax if we make the likes of Gina Rinehart pay the same for petrol as everyone else in this country and stop give them subsidised diesel—$13 billion would be available for the budget. That $13 billion could build a lot of childcare centres, and would allow the existing childcare centres to expand.

It is ultimately a question of priorities. This government is choosing a priority in favour of the likes of Gina Rinehart—the government is letting her off the hook; she is, for all and intents and purposes untouched by this budget—and instead saying, 'We don't mind if the women in the Fitzroy flats are now no longer able to continue in their jobs because they cannot afford to send their kids to child care. They have to contribute.' A family on $60,000 has to contribute three grand a year, and that might be the difference between working or not, or child care or not. But the government says, 'We will let Gina off the hook. We will let our wealthy backers off the hook and the top end of town off the hook.' That is what this budget and this bill do.

So we will be opposing it. And that means, hopefully, that this will be opposed in the Senate as well. What is important, and what matters, is making sure Australia is a place where people look after each other, and where, not matter how much money you earn or where you come from, if you want to do the right thing and try and get into work, there will be a childcare place available for you. We are not going to discriminate against people on the basis of their wealth. That is what is at stake in this budget and with this bill.

I am pleased to hear that Labor may now oppose it—even though they proposed some of these measures in the last parliament—but I do want to address something that some of the opposition speakers have said. They have suggested that, somehow, having paid parental leave as a workplace right is somehow wrong when the money should be put into child care instead. If I had an unlimited pot of money, yes, I would probably go and build childcare centres, first and foremost, as well. But I say to Labor: if it is that important why didn't Labor put a 1½ per cent levy on big business and build new childcare centres? They did not. They did not have the guts to stand up to big business and raise the revenue that is needed to fund the services that Australians expect. Instead, Labor said, 'We're going to cut the taxes for corporate Australia and, as a consequence, we are not going to build 222 new childcare centres.'

So, I am not going to be lectured by the opposition about the lack of priorities or that, if you advance the cause of paid parental leave, somehow that is money that should be going to child care. If Labor really believed that they you would have acted on it, and they not. The proposal that the Greens took to the election was to put a new levy on big business for money that would not otherwise be there and use that to fund a paid parental leave scheme, and ask others to chip in so that we can have the child care that everyone deserves. So it is not an either/or. Labor does not come to this with clean hands, having previously proposed one of the freezes in this bill and having failed to act to build those new childcare centres that are needed.

But we have to deal with the bill that is in front of us. The bill that is in front of us will only do one thing—that is, it will make life harder for people on middle to low incomes, and take money out of the childcare system at a time when we need to be putting more money into it. For that reason this bill cannot be supported.

This bill, like many other budget measures, is going to be blocked by this parliament. There is only another week-and-a-bit to go before the Senate changes over. I tell you what—there are billions of dollars in so-called savings measures from the government, which are really attacks on the young, the old, the sick and the poor, which are not going to find their way through this parliament. I hope that after 1 July they will not find their way through the parliament, either.

There is a reason people have been talking about this budget for so long after the fact—and that is that people understand that measures like this threaten what is good about this country. They threaten what is good about this country. The Prime Minister is a threat to the Australian way of life and the principle of egalitarianism. It is our job, as the Greens, to stand up for those principles of compassion, sustainability and equality, and to defend that spirit that beats at the heart of this country—egalitarianism. That spirit says that we will not become a US style of society, where access to health care, access to education, and access to child care depends on your wealth. We do not want to go down that road. We value the fact that here in this country we look after each other. This bill is just one element of a very brutal budget, and I am very pleased that the Greens will block it.


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