Wednesday, 17 March 2021
Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Early Childhood Education and Care Coronavirus Response and Other Measures) Bill 2021; Second Reading
I acknowledge the contribution this evening of the member for Paterson, an extraordinary representative for her community in country New South Wales, regional New South Wales. She's an exceptional local member of parliament who was elected on the same day as me and also the member for Burt, who is here at the desk. Like us, she has worked hard each and every day for her community, for all the educators in her community and for all the parents and families in her community. She, like me and the member for Burt, is very proud of the childcare policy that the member for Greenway has developed. We look forward to prosecuting it more and more in this place and in our electorates. I thank the member for Paterson.
Labor supports the legislation before us today, the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Early Childhood Education and Care Coronavirus Response and Other Measures) Bill 2021, but equally I rise in support of the amendments put forward by the member for Kingston, Ms Rishworth. These changes to the original bill are technical in nature and seek to clarify drafting errors and ambiguities in the original legislation that was passed in haste due to the pandemic. This retrospective legislation clarifies and states the circumstances where an emergency or disaster event can be declared and business continuity payments can be made, thereby providing legal certainty to actions taken last year and retaining those payments as an ongoing policy response available to government—a sensible move. It removes a legal requirement for services to send weekly session reports to departments during emergency or disaster events, reducing the red tape burden on services during these events.
Further, it extends tax return deadlines for the 2018-19 financial year to 31 March 2021. I might add that that's the member for Paterson's 25th wedding anniversary, I think, and also my birthday—but I won't tell you my age! Extending the tax return deadlines is important because, as we know, the pandemic has wrought chaos on many Australians' bookkeeping and, alongside the stresses of ongoing job insecurity and potential school closures, it's understandable that many working parents have fallen behind on things like tax.
Could I just correct myself? I said that the member for Greenway had moved the amendment; it was actually the member for Kingston. My apologies to both members. It's the member for Kingston who has developed the childcare policy for Labor and done a great deal of work in that effort, and it is she who moved this amendment, which I support.
The legislation before us today removes the two-year cut-off point for people to lodge their tax returns and be eligible for the childcare subsidy. It also ensures that emergency or disaster events do not count towards the 14-week period of nonattendance after which a child's enrolment is cancelled.
We know that the government did not get everything right with its COVID-19 pandemic response last year, particularly in the early learning sector. The Prime Minister's free child care for everyone with a job was, like most of his announcements, not quite what it seemed. The main feature of the Prime Minister's free childcare system was the number of people locked out of free child care and, in turn, the number of services being driven to the brink of collapse right around this country. In 2020, Labor heard from early learning services from around the country that struggled to keep their doors open after their funding had been slashed. Services had to cut opening hours, cut staff and cut places to try and balance their books. Family day care educators didn't suffer a drop in enrolments but were expected by the government to work for half pay, because they had been unfairly locked out of the JobKeeper payments. Families were being denied places—including healthcare workers who had been asked to come back from parental leave to help with the crisis, yet they were the ones missing out.
It's no wonder the sector seriously struggled to deliver the Prime Minister's free childcare commitment, when they were being expected to do it with less funding. And, of course, the government's response was to blame the providers. They sent strongly worded communications to providers, threatening their funding if they didn't provide enough spaces and hours, when they knew the services weren't funded to do so. Incredibly, in a dire act of cynicism, they opened up a hotline and encouraged families to dob in early learning providers. When in doubt, set up a hotline—what a palaver! We saw the government seeking to blame childcare providers themselves, and the people who work there, for the mess of its own making. So what was the government's response to the mess it had made with the underfunded and poorly targeted headline-grabbing policy? It was snapped back to the old, confusing and expensively designed childcare subsidy system.
We in Labor know that childcare fees are out of control. Since the coalition was elected in 2013, childcare fees have skyrocketed by 35.9 per cent. Australia ranks 26th of 32 countries in the OECD for net childcare costs. In 2019, families spent 18 per cent of household income on early education and care. We're only 2½ years into the coalition's childcare system, and the benefit has been entirely eroded for many Australian families. The Prime Minister himself dubbed the system a 'once-in-a-generation reform' and promised it would make child care more affordable. It's been a very short generation.
Two and a half years later, families across the nation are paying too much for child care, and this is especially the case in my home state of Western Australia. The costs of day care at one centre in Perth reached almost $150 a day in 2019. Brett Thomson, of Schools of Early Learning in WA, said at the time that childcare fees are:
… becoming unaffordable—the CCS was supposed to address that, and to some extent it has, but a lot of upper middle-income earners are finding it pretty tough.
Some of them are the professionals who we want as working parents back in the workforce.
Under the coalition's plan, childcare fees have increased by 5.4 per cent in Kwinana and 5.8 per cent in Rockingham, both suburbs in my electorate. This is an outrage. The community can barely afford what it gets already, so to have an increase in childcare fees of nearly six per cent in both Kwinana and Rockingham is a disgrace. There are too many childcare centres in Brand for me to name them all, but I would mention the Goodstart Early Learning at Baldivis, who allowed me to visit last year. The workers at these centres, as all of us know, are frankly amazing. Time and time again, when I get to visit, I am astounded by their compassion, their commitment, their work ethic and their dedication to the young people of this nation.
The benefit has been almost entirely eroded nationally, showing the system has been a complete let-down for Australian families. Documents from the Morrison government's own education department predict that childcare fees will increase by 4.1 per cent every year for the next four years, substantially outstripping inflation, which the childcare subsidy is pegged to. This is further evidence that out-of-pocket costs for families will be higher in the years to come. We know, on average, parents will soon be no better off under the Prime Minister's once-in-a-generation set of reforms than they were under the previous scheme, which ended in July 2018.
Parents need a real plan to tackle skyrocketing out-of-pocket childcare costs, not the coalition government's broken system that they continue to cling on to. The Productivity Commission's Report on Government Services 2021 has shown childcare costs are locking Australian parents out of the workforce. Fixing access to child care, and, as such, women's participation in the workforce, will be a boon for the Australian economy.
ABS data reveals almost 300,000 Australians are not in the labour force due to duties caring for children. That's 300,000 people who want to work and cannot because of the skyrocketing costs of child care. At a time when Australia has limited opportunities to grow the workforce because of COVID-19 restrictions, we need these people to be able to get back to work. The rate of parents saying they are not working mainly due to the costs of child care continues to grow each and every day.
With the Morrison government itself predicting fee increases that will outstrip CPI for years to come, the hits will keep on coming for Australian families. There is now a mountain of evidence and data proving the coalition's childcare system has failed to keep a lid on childcare costs for Australian families, particularly those in my electorate of Brand.
Experts across the country and economists around the country have been calling for investment in child care because it is a win, a win and a win—good for parents, good for children and good for our economy. Australian women are much more likely to work part time and less likely to work full time than women in comparable OECD countries. Australia's female workforce participation rate of 73 per cent is above the OECD average of 65 per cent, but it falls in the prime parenting years. Australian women are much more likely to only be able to work part time because of childcare costs. The typical Australian woman with children of early caring education age works just over two days a week, and that is a loss to the workforce of Australia. Child care is supposed to support parents to work, but instead for many parents it is acting as a financial disincentive to work more or even at all. This is a particularly harsh barrier for women's participation in the workforce, for resuming their place in the workplace or on their career paths, and, indeed, for their economic independence.
Only Labor has a plan to bring down the costs of child care and to keep them down. Labor will introduce cheaper child care for working families, which will scrap the $10,560 childcare subsidy cap which often sees women losing money from an extra day's work. We'll lift the maximum childcare subsidy rate to 90 per cent and increase childcare subsidy rates and taper them for every family earning less than $530,000. It is a universal childcare program.
Cheaper child care in this country will enable parents to work as much as they want. It will ensure all children can receive a quality early education, no matter their background. Accessible universal child care will pay dividends back to our economy by increasing the workforce participation of women. Treasury has said that the three Ps are essential to Australia's economic recovery—participation, productivity and population. Labor's childcare plan addresses all three by unleashing the power of the female workforce. As was recently stated by the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Western Australia:
While there are many ways Governments can bolster the capacity of their workforces, the most exciting opportunity is to make it easier for women with young children to re-enter the workforce and work more hours.
The fact is women, particularly mums, could be essential to our recovery from this recession and to our long-term economic prosperity. Modelling on investing in child care from KPMG and the Grattan Institute found that the resulting growth to our economy from women working more could be worth up to $10 billion a year. That is the reason that it is not only families calling for childcare reform but also business leaders and economists right around this country. Under Labor's plan, the ACCC will be tasked with designing a price-regulation mechanism to shed light on costs and fees and drive them down for good.
Children are learning and developing from birth, and even before that. The nature of the interactions between a child, the adults around them and the environment, as well as the experiences to which a child is exposed, all contribute to a child's early learning foundations. The benefits of quality early learning for children in the year prior to starting school are largely undisputed, with evidence that immediate socialisation increases the likelihood of a successful transition into formal schooling, as children get older, and improves their performance in standardised test results in the early years of primary school. This is all as a result of participation in preschool programs. There's also evidence of the impacts on children's development of attending quality early learning from about one to three years of age.
Children's experiences in the early years of their lives can have profound impacts on their longer-term development. The environment within and outside the home is important. There has been extensive research on the impact of non-parental care on children's development. The Productivity Commission has said:
… … …
Overall, most Australian children are doing well developmentally. However, for many, it is a case of being born lucky. It is a case of being born into a family that teaches the child to read at a young age and that has the time to educate them or the money to pay for early childhood education. Those born without such resources often miss out.
Labor's plan for cheaper child care will reward all families and allow more second-income earners, who are usually women, to work more and contribute to our economic recovery. This is a win for the women of this country returning to the workforce. It's a win for the economy. But, most importantly, it's a win for the children of this country. It gives infants and toddlers the opportunity to learn more, to grow more and to have a sound start to their early childhood education. Most of the growth of a child's brain happens in these early childhood years. This country should take advantage of that and make sure it implements a system of universal child care. But only Labor has a plan for universal child care in this country, and only Labor will deliver for the women and children of this country and their education and prosperity.