House debates

Wednesday, 17 March 2021


Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Early Childhood Education and Care Coronavirus Response and Other Measures) Bill 2021; Second Reading

6:47 pm

Photo of Meryl SwansonMeryl Swanson (Paterson, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Defence) Share this | Hansard source

One of the two most shocking images as a result of COVID for Australians in Australia—aside from the terrible international images we saw of mass graves and people struggling to breathe on ventilators—was people queued up outside of Centrelinks, and the other was parents desperately seeking child care with this system on the brink of collapse. This government neglected to listen to the industry last year when the industry was crying out for solutions during the pandemic. It was only after Labor dragged the government to the table and stakeholders thumped that table loudly enough that the government—finally, begrudgingly, with the whites of their eyes showing in fear and knowing that they had to do something about child care because it was an economic fulcrum; we needed to keep people at work—came up with some sort of crazy package. Those opposite didn't understand the importance of the industry. Those opposite didn't understand how critical the educators in child care were, and they didn't understand the importance of it for our future either.

In a single month, my office had more than 50 interactions with businesses and parents who needed immediate support. Across my electorate of Paterson, centres and desperate parents contacted me with urgent questions that had not been adequately or promptly responded to by the minister or by the government. The Prime Minister's 'free child care for everyone with a job' was like most announcements from this Prime Minister—really not quite what it seemed. The main feature of the Prime Minister's free childcare system was the number of people locked out, adding pressure on the number of services already being driven to the brink of collapse. It really was a terrible, chaotic time not only for desperate parents and in some cases grandparents but also for those who worked in the sector and saw the honeycomb crumbling all around them.

Across my electorate, early learning services were struggling to keep their doors open after their funding had been slashed. Some services had to cut their opening hours, cutting staff. It was just so incongruous with the situation that was at hand. They had to cut places to try to balance their books. Family day care educators were expected by the government to work for half the pay because they couldn't access JobKeeper initially, despite pressure building on enrolments as people expected free child care, and who would blame them after their government had set them up to fail like this? Families, including healthcare workers, were denied places. If people take the time to the read the history of this pandemic, perhaps a hundred years from now, they truly will shake their head at some of the moments of incompetence demonstrated by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, his cabinet and his Liberal government, aided and abetted by the National Party. Family day care educators were expected by the government to work for this half-pay, which no-one else was expected to do, while families were being denied places, including healthcare workers. Some of those healthcare workers had been asked to come back early from maternity leave and do their duty. These people were trying to help the government. They were trying to help our country and the wider community at a terrible time, when their nursing skills and medical skills were desperately required, but their government wasn't making it easy for them.

During the pandemic the relationship between the government and the childcare industry was atrocious. I couldn't believe it as I watched the situation go from bad to worse. Professional educators, people who really understand child care and how it works—and I'm not just talking about the first thousand days of a child's life and how important it is for neuroplasticity and brain development and making these brilliant young minds the best they can be; I'm talking about the intricacies of running the business—often small business—of child care. Not all providers could access JobKeeper, because the government wanted to cherrypick the business models it supported, which was really very interesting. At first those opposite denied JobKeeper, saying the sector didn't need support. Then they gave them JobKeeper, but only after so much unnecessary anxiety and anguish. Interestingly this government seemed keen to support some in the sector more than others. If my memory serves me correctly, a few of the government's frontbench owe a great deal of their current wealth to the childcare industry, so it is flummoxing to say the least.

Then they set up the exceptional circumstance fund, which was a truly unfortunate name, to cover the one-third of early educators not covered by JobKeeper. Are you keeping up? It is confusing for those who know the industry, let alone parents who are strapped for time and trying to navigate a system like this. This fund was exceptionally good at refusing to approve applications, it would seem. It was often leaving businesses waiting months for support during the height of the pandemic. The latest data from the department showed that only 39 per cent of applications were approved. This is the exceptional circumstances fund that was supposed to help people in this exceptional circumstance that we all found ourselves in and yet only 39 per cent were approved. That is just appalling. Things were far from smooth and easy, as the government kept saying it would be. 'Free, smooth and easy'—it certainly was none of those things.

All this comes from a government that boasts that 98 per cent of early learning services stayed open during COVID. But this is a perfect example of a very superficial KPI. Those opposite really do love a bit of spin. Does the government know how many of that 98 per cent suffered from massive financial losses? Did the government bother to seek feedback about its botched measures? How many jobs did these businesses lose? How many years was the business set back? This government boasts it understands small business, but it really does little to support it, and it certainly does not appear to understand the childcare sector at all. It actively fought against a wage subsidy and then decided to compromise but offered only a half-hearted solution that left many businesses in the sector worse off.

As my colleagues have said, the government's limited survey found a quarter of services were not financially viable and were losing money every day. Is it any wonder that the sector struggled so badly to deliver the Prime Minister's free childcare commitment? How could this government honestly expect the sector to do this with a lot less funding? It really just makes no sense.

Sadly, these blokes opposite—they are mainly blokes—really like to think that they are the masters of the universe when it comes to budgeting and finance. However, these figures certainly demonstrate that they can't manage the childcare books, after eight years in power. They had tripled the national debt even before they had the cover of a pandemic to blame. COVID didn't send us backwards; we were already there. I wonder what Mr Howard, the former PM, must think. Whilst he certainly did some good things like gun reform, I think most people will attest that he was not the best Treasurer we have ever had, and Josh Frydenberg is an even bigger embarrassment.


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