Wednesday, 17 March 2021
Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Early Childhood Education and Care Coronavirus Response and Other Measures) Bill 2021; Second Reading
As a working mother of four, I am acutely aware of the pressures that working families face every day. It can feel as though there isn't much time to focus on anything other than supporting our families. Child care has rightly been a chief concern for working families during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, Australia's COVID-19 economic recovery depends on working families being able to return to the workforce, and our government is committed to increasing workforce participation, especially amongst women. In order to do this, we need a strong and resilient economy that works for families. That is why the Morrison government has been, and continues to be, committed to affordable and accessible child care before, during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. The Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Early Childhood Education and Care Coronavirus Response and Other Measures) Bill 2021 is about ensuring continuity and clarity for Australian families while also futureproofing the childcare sector.
There are three aspects to this bill I would like to address. Firstly, this bill will ensure business continuity payments are payable during emergencies and disasters. Few could have predicted the worldwide upheaval of the COVID pandemic last year. Although we hope never to witness a global event of its nature again in our lifetimes, we must learn from the experience and put worst-case scenario protections in place. Indeed, we should take what we have done well in this pandemic and create a safety net in case of future disasters or emergencies.
This legislation has a view to the future and will look to safeguard the sector in the case of a future large-scale disaster or emergency. Under the Early Childhood Education and Care Relief Package announced by the Morrison government at the start of the pandemic last year, payments of the childcare subsidy and the additional childcare subsidy were suspended and, in their place, approved providers were given business continuity payments. The bill allows a secretary to make business continuity payments where a childcare service has been adversely affected by an emergency or disaster that may occur in the future. Of course, we hope, we pray, there won't be future disasters or emergencies, but this is humanity and we know that there could be another pandemic around the corner and disasters are an ever-present threat. This bill will allow business continuity payments to be paid instead of or alongside CCS payments.
Secondly, this bill will enable the extension of the first deadline for 2018-19 and will allow taxable income reconciliation to occur after the second deadline. This legislation will also ensure that families and childcare providers are not adversely affected by COVID-19 by ensuring that business continuity payments paid during the relief package period will not be offset against future childcare subsidies. This amendment will allow an extension of the first and second reconciliation deadlines. This means that the amount of the childcare subsidy that an individual was entitled to for a financial year can be reconciled against their adjusted taxable income for that year. This will assist families who are unable to meet their tax return lodgement requirements on time due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I had a number of constituents who had this very problem and who came to me seeking support with how to deal with this very issue.
Thirdly, this bill addresses the legal consequences of their relief package. The sudden onset of the COVID-19 pandemic saw legislation developed and passed at record speed. I will say that it is a sign of a competent and mature government that the changes that were required to provide support for not just the childcare sector but the full economy were on display, and I'm very proud of the Morrison government and its executive for the work that it has done. We have here, in the chamber today, the Assistant Treasurer, who was very central to that very important suite of changes that were made at record speed. Australians can feel confident and secure in the knowledge that they have a mature, dependable and reliable government at the helm during a crisis.
As we emerge from the pandemic, it is necessary to address some of the legal consequences of this legislation, as we are doing here today. For example, there is now concern that a legal challenge could result in individuals being entitled to CCS during the COVID-19 relief package period, resulting in a doubling up of government assistance. We know that it's important that taxpayers' money is properly distributed and that we don't have problems such as this. This legislation amends the Family Assistance Law to minimise the risk of legal challenge.
Another tweak we are making to the legislation is about concerns regarding the automatic cessation of enrolments. Currently a child's enrolment automatically ceases after 14 weeks of nonattendance, and absences claimed in that period may give rise to debts when the enrolment ceases. We are making amendments here to avoid the raising of debts due to a child being unable to attend care during the period of the relief package. I know this is a problem, because, in our home state of Victoria, there were lengthy lockdowns where children were unable to attend childcare providers for months at a time, so it is important that we be able to make changes to this legislation were this to happen again.
The Morrison government knows that Australian families require accessible and affordable child care that meets the needs of working families. We recognise that the three Ps—productivity, population and participation—are the keys to economic prosperity. Australia's COVID-19 economic recovery depends upon working families being able to return to the workforce, and the government is committed to increasing workforce participation. In order to do this, we need accessible and affordable child care that meets the needs of working families. We know child care is critical for lifting female workforce participation. I know this very personally, being a working mother of four, but I hear it so often from my constituents. Pre COVID, women's workforce participation had risen from 58.7 per cent in September 2013, when this government came to power, to 61.6 per cent in January 2020, which is among the best rates in the world. However, as a result of COVID-19, female participation fell to 57.5 per cent in May 2020. This is very concerning, but I'm pleased to say that there has been a recent rebound in female participation back to its record levels of 61.2 per cent in the February just past, 2021. This is an almost complete return of female participation to the workforce. It is something to be celebrated and acknowledged because it's a very important factor for our economic recovery.
As we know, economists estimate that halving the gap between male and female workforce participation could produce an additional $60 billion in GDP by 2038 and increase cumulative living standards by $140 billion. It is true that women play a very important role in the productivity of our economy, and we need to continue to support women all along the way. I'd like to make a special note of the Women's Economic Security Statement, which was inaugurated by the former Minister for Women and member for Higgins, the Hon. Kelly O'Dwyer, and acknowledge her work in supporting women in the workplace. In particular, the Morrison government is committed to seeing more women in high-skilled, high-paying jobs. That includes non-traditional industries such as modern manufacturing. We've heard from the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology, the Hon. Karen Andrews, and the work that she is doing to activate our modern manufacturing sector, which will have good jobs for women. That is why we are also investing heavily in women-in-STEM programs. That means that women can get into high-paying jobs, and that means that we can have a more productive economy.
It also means that affordable and accessible child care is more critical than ever. Indeed, childcare and workforce participation are natural complements. The Morrison government has been, and remains, committed to affordable and accessible child care. That is why the 2020-21 budget saw a record $9.2 billion in childcare subsidy payments, which will continue to grow to $10.7 billion in coming years. That is a huge investment in getting women back into the workplace. The Morrison government has also extended the relaxed activity-test requirements for all Australian families through to 4 April 2021. This means that families can continue to receive the same level of subsidised care as before the pandemic.
The Morrison government has been working hard to ensure that the sector continues to improve. The Morrison government has built on its strong record when it comes to child care, and important strides have been made over recent years. In 2018, as we heard from the previous speaker, this government introduced a suite of reforms to the childcare sector to keep a lid on out-of-pocket expenses. ABS CPI data show that the costs to families remain 2.3 per cent lower than under the previous childcare package. Under Labor, out-of-pocket costs in child care skyrocketed. It's under this government, and thanks to these reforms, that we've had a lid put on out-of-pocket costs and that we've seen an increase in women's workforce participation.
The government supports a targeted approach to child care. This means that those families who earn the least receive the highest level of subsidy, at 85 per cent. It's about supporting those who need help the most. On top of this, we provide additional support for those who are doing it particularly tough, with a 95 per cent subsidy available for families who are transitioning to work and a 120 per cent subsidy already available for families who are experiencing financial hardship. In most cases, this equates to free child care, and it's about helping those who need it the most.
The Morrison government's support for the childcare sector is critical, and it is valued by the sector and families alike. We know that the childcare sector faced decimation by COVID. I'm proud that the Morrison government gave the sector an incredible lifeline that kept families connected to their usual childcare centre. Every mother knows that children like stability and continuity of care. Quite simply put, children get attached to their caregivers, so it was incredibly important that families could continue to send their children to the same childcare centres that they had been attending pre COVID. It was with a sense of security and support that they could do that, and I'm very pleased that almost 100 per cent of childcare centres were able to stay open through COVID due to the support that the Morrison government provided. At the same time, we continue to futureproof this vitally important industry with the changes that we are making to the legislation offered on the floor of the House today. I commend this bill to the House.