House debates

Wednesday, 22 March 2017


Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Jobs for Families Child Care Package) Bill 2016; Second Reading

9:58 am

Photo of Kate EllisKate Ellis (Adelaide, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Education) Share this | | Hansard source

What an absolute farce this government has been from day dot when it comes to dealing with child care for that culminates in us being here today after they wasted two years. For two years they have argued that we could not possibly be having this debate about childcare changes in this chamber until they were linked to the cruel cuts which they have been pursuing. For two years they have left every Australian family using our childcare system—every child and every parent who has not been able to return to the workforce because of inadequate childcare assistance—in the lurch. It was all because the now Treasurer had the bright idea that he would come up with these reforms but they could only be progressed if they were linked to cruel cuts that robbed other Australian families.

After two years of total inaction—after two years of letting down the system and of letting down families—finally today we see, at the last minute, that the government have now rolled over and reverted to their old version of the bill so that we can finally have the debate in this House about the childcare reforms that were put forward in the last Abbott government budget. That is how ridiculous this government have become when it comes to the Australian childcare changes. But, we should be relieved. At least finally this parliament can have a discussion about the Australian childcare system, about what is required and about why it is that the reforms put forward by the Turnbull government—first put forward by the Abbott government—remain entirely inadequate to deal with the challenges that the Australian childcare system faces. That is because, whilst after two years they may have finally dropped the link to their cruel cuts, they still have not fixed the fundamental flaws which remain in this package.

When the government first announced this package, the entire sector—Labor, early childhood experts and Australian parents—pointed out that there were some fundamental flaws in the reforms that needed to be fixed. When the Senate inquired into this bill not once, not twice but three times, they reported back on the fundamental flaws which were in this bill which would see vulnerable and disadvantaged Australian children going backwards in terms of access to critically important early childhood education in this country. Yet today, after two years of total inaction, we finally have this debate and the government still has not fixed the fundamental flaws in this bill.

Let us just place it very clearly on the record: Labor absolutely stands for improving the Australian childcare system. We stand for improving assistance to Australian families and, perhaps most importantly, we stand for ensuring that Australian children have access to the quality early childhood education which we know that they need and deserve. However, we will not support a package which will see some of the most disadvantaged children go backwards when it comes to access to early childhood education. In the government's reforms, they have many measures which we would support. We would support simplifying the system. We would support measures to try and limit the inflationary nature of childcare fees. We would support ways of offering better assistance to children with disabilities. We would support a range of elements in this bill, but, again, we call on the government to fix the fundamental flaws which I will now outline for the House.

At the moment in Australia, every child has access to two days of subsidised early childhood education. We know that the majority of Australian childcare centres currently bill on 12-hour days. Every Australian child has access to 24 hours of early childhood education and care per week. Under this proposal put forward by the government, that 24 hours is cut to 12 hours. What that means is that some of those children coming from very disadvantaged families and some of those children who might come from unsafe environments at home are currently spending two days a week in a safe, secure environment where they have access to quality early childhood education. But this government, despite the fact that they want to spend over $1½ billion additionally, want to see those children go backwards in terms of their assistance, and Labor will stand up and fight for these children.

The government will say that this is about workforce participation and that this is about parents and the decisions that they make, and we will absolutely stand up and fight for ways that we can improve and increase particularly women's workforce participation. But I will tell you what Labor will not do: Labor will not punish vulnerable children for the decisions that their parents make, and, ultimately, that is what this bill will do. This bill will ensure that some of those children who may come from dysfunctional families—dysfunctional backgrounds—are denied access to early childhood education, when all of the research in fact suggests that early childhood education is one of the most effective ways of breaking the cycle of disadvantage. We know that the changes to the activity test in this bill will have a devastating effect on far too many Australian children, and, again, we call on the government to fix these flaws.

I do understand that the government does not always take Labor's word for the problems within their policies, so I am now going to quote, for the government, some of the other experts who have pointed out the flaws with this. Mr Bernie Nott, from the Early Learning and Care Council of Australia, told the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee recently:

The evidence is clear that children benefit from access to high-quality early learning, particularly from two days per week, as articulated in the evidence brief tabled with our submission.

…   …   …

However, we fear that the childcare proposal currently before the Senate will cut access to early learning in half or, worse still, to zero for some families earning less than $65,000 per year. Children from up to 100,000 low-income families could be worse off as a result. We therefore recommend that the package is modified to ensure all children have access to at least two days of early learning.

Labor agree. We also agree with Dr Cassandra Goldie from the Australian Council of Social Service, who also stated to the recent inquiry on the bill:

Our concerns about the childcare bill are directly associated with what we believe and what the experts have also confirmed will be the effect of this, which is that we will move away from enabling access to early childhood education and care of a minimum of two days per week, which is considered to be the minimum that should be available to children …

We know that Mr Paul Mondo, the President of the Australian Childcare Alliance, stated:

From our perspective, we have come to this minimum requirement of 15 hours as one of the ways of trying to ensure that that service provision is over the two days.

And, of course, Sam Page stated:

If you are on contract work or you take short-term work or you are in a casual labour market, you are going to really struggle to meet that activity test all the time. So, where we have identified improvements to the package, it is to try to stabilise participation for those children.

We know that there is a very, very long list of not just Labor, not just childcare providers, not just early childhood experts, not just academics, not just Australian charities and not just Australian parents but a broad cross-section of people who have been absolutely unanimous in their view that the changes to the activity test which are proposed in the bill that is currently before the parliament are unacceptable and would do untold damage to Australian children who are vulnerable and who deserve this parliament's support. So Labor will oppose these changes before the parliament today until we see this, as one of the fundamental flaws in the bill, amended and fixed by the government.

We know that this is a position that has been advocated by the Australian Childcare Alliance, Early Childhood Australia, the Early Learning and Care Council of Australia, Family Day Care Australia, the Early Learning Association Australia, the Creche and Kindergarten Association, UnitingCare Australia, Mission Australia, Anglicare Australia, the Benevolent Society, Social Ventures Australia, United Voice, the Parenthood, Affinity Education Group, Goodstart Early Learning, KU Children's Services, Early Childhood Management Services, SDN Children's Services, Bestchance Family Child Care and the list goes on and on.

Despite the fact that the government have had more than two years, they have still not done a single thing to address this fundamental flaw. Today, like yesterday and the week before and the week before that and the months before that, I stand here to urge the government to fix the flawed activity test in this legislation so that the parliament can get on with the job of trying to assist Australian families.

Vulnerable Australian children should not have their access cut at a time when the government is throwing millions and millions of additional dollars at the childcare system. It would be simply immoral for us to just stand here while the government say: 'We want to put a few extra dollars into the pockets of middle-income Australian families and we are not going to worry about those poor kids. We are not going to worry about those children who actually have the most to gain from quality access to early childhood education.' Labor will stand up and we will fight for those children and we will fight for those families.

We know that analysis by the ANU shows that these childcare changes will leave one in three families worse off—330,000 families will be worse off and 126,000 will be no better off. Over 71,000 families with an income level below $65,000 will be worse off.

Something that is really important for this parliament to note is that in recent decades the way that we have used this whole sector has changed. There was a time when this sector was set up that it was largely seen as a babysitting service so that parents could return to work. That is no longer the primary aim of Australian early childhood education and care. Both sides of the House have now been convinced that the evidence is overwhelming about the importance of investing in early childhood education for all Australian children regardless of the decisions that their parents make. We know that 90 per cent of brain development occurs in the first five years of a child's life. We now have not just international evidence but Australian evidence that shows that those children who have access to quality early childhood education go on and prosper. They have improved educational outcomes. They have improved health outcomes. They have improved social outcomes. They are less likely to end up in the juvenile justice system. The list of benefits goes on and on.

The Australian example itself shows that those children who have access to quality early childhood education in the year before school are already scoring higher in their year 3 NAPLAN results. This is what we are talking about. We are actually talking about one of the smartest investments that government can make in ensuring that children have more opportunities than their parents and grandparents had before them. But also, if we just want to look at this in terms of dollars and cents, this is one of the smartest investments that governments can make in boosting our future economic growth, in cutting down on our future welfare bills and in ensuring our future job growth and employment prospects.

So we stand here today once again saying, 'We want the government to fix this bill.' It is not Labor's intention to try to be obstructionist when it comes to improving the childcare system. We do not for one second stand in this parliament and say, 'We think the system is perfect and we don't think that anything more needs to be done.' That is just not the case. But what we do say is that we cannot with our eyes open support changes which will send vulnerable children's access to early childhood education backwards. We need the parliament to do better than that. We need to the parliament to be better than that. We need to stand up for those children who are absolutely relying on us to ensure that, for at least two days a week, they have a safe, secure and educational environment that they get to spend their time in. That is one of the bottom lines for Labor in this debate.

Unfortunately, that is not the only flaw in this government proposal. We also know that as part of this package the government is proposing that they end the funding to the budget based funded childcare services. Just for those who may not be up with all of the abbreviations and acronyms that operate within government, the BBFs are services which were set up decades ago in communities—often in remote Indigenous communities but also in other communities where the system simply would not work, where the market was just not viable and where parents were perhaps just not able to pay fees and children would not have had access to this environment unless the government stepped in and funded them directly. That is why for decades now the government has directly funded budget based funded services.

Having visited some of these services firsthand, I can tell you that some of them are not that flash. Some of them might be little more than a tin shed in a remote community. But they are a place where children will be safe, where they will have access to healthy food and where they will have access to early childhood education. Some of them are actually much more advanced and are really operating successfully. But we know that the government cannot just walk away from these services.

As part of this proposal the government said: 'Oh, no, it's okay. We'll transition all of those services into the mainstream.' The parents accessing those services will be able to pay fees and receive childcare assistance from the government, just like any other parents in Australia. But we know that, for many of the services, it is just not going to work. That will not be viable, and they will close down as a result of that. Evidence of this has been presented time and time again. Yet, the government remains locked into the position of, 'It's not a problem; there's nothing to see here.' More recently they have said, 'If there are problems, we'll fix them up later. But just trust us and pass this legislation.'

Labor stands here today to say that it is not good enough for the parliament to stand up once a year and talk about closing the gap. It is not good enough for us to stand up and talk about how we are faring, but not to consider, in every piece of legislation, the impact that this legislation is going to have on the gap. We know that access to quality early childhood education is one of the most important investments that we can be making to close the gap. The government cannot just turn their back on Budget Based Funded services, and Labor will not turn our back on the Indigenous children who are relying on us to stand up and fight for them in this proposal.

We also know that it is not just Indigenous children who are at risk as a result of some of the proposals in here. In fact, we have heard that there are a number of regional services whose funding is also in jeopardy and who are also in danger of being shut down, particularly mobile services. Members from regional communities will be familiar with the services that travel from one community to another, ensuring that those families have access for at least a day or two to early childhood education. They get on the road, pack up and drive to the next community, and offer some relief and important childcare expertise. Clearly, these services are not funded in the same way that we fund the service around the neighbourhood corner, and they cannot be. It is just not a viable option. But that is what the government is currently proposing. The government is currently proposing, 'We'll just transition them into the mainstream. They'll be fine; if there's a problem, we'll deal with it later.' Well, regional families deserve better than that.

Anne Bowler, the chair of the National Association of Mobile Services, said:

The funding reform proposal will no doubt ensure the closure of up to 90 per cent of the current BBF mobile children's services across rural and remote communities in Australia.

This is evidence that has been presented before this parliament—to Senate inquiries—and that every member opposite has just chosen to ignore. This is the chair of the National Association of Mobile Services saying 90 per cent of those services, which are vitally important for regional families and regional children, will close. But we have not heard a peep out of the National Party about this. We have not heard a peep out of the Liberal Party about this. Nobody seems to care about these children and these parents, except people who sit on this side of the House and, I should be clear, on the crossbench. We know that the member for Indi has taken up this cause herself and has been arguing for them. This is a flaw. The government needs to guarantee that it will not just let these services close their doors and that, before we support this proposal, it will come up with a real assurance for the parliament that it will stand up for regional mobile services as it will for the Indigenous BBFs.

I spoke about the impact on the Indigenous BBF services under this proposal, but I want to turn to what some of the experts have said about this. Professor Fiona Stanley—of course, a former Australian of the Year—has said of the move to transition these Indigenous BBF services into the so-called mainstream:

It will fail. Every service that I can actually think of in the children's area that is mainstreamed after Aboriginal control, fails. And it fails because the services that these Aboriginal-controlled people are providing, provide a whole range of other things that are very protective and culturally important for Aboriginal children and their families.

SNAICC, the peak body that advocates for Indigenous children, has said:

It is like putting a square peg in a round hole, trying to jam it in and make sure it fits. We know that it is not going to, because we are going to have splinters everywhere. What is going to happen to our services? In 2018 they will have to close their doors.

That is what the experts are saying about that. We have talked about what some of the experts are saying about the activity test and we have talked about how all of the experts and early childhood stakeholders have come together, agreed and urged the government to fix the flaws in this package so that we can get on with delivering childcare relief.

Labor reiterates those calls today. We say it is totally unacceptable that, after two years of inaction, we still have this same proposal before the house today. We say that we cannot support this proposal in its current form and that we need these flaws to be fixed. But we also say that this bill is going to go to the Senate and we would suggest—from the way that the government have sat back and put their feet on the table when it comes to childcare reforms since they announced them in Tony Abbott's last budget, but now, all of a sudden, there is an urgency to this debate coming on this morning—that this is going to be dealt with fairly quickly. So we say to the government that, when this legislation goes to the Senate, we are absolutely willing to sit down and negotiate with the government on ways that we can fix these flaws and come up with outcomes that will assist Australian families. But what we are not going to do is just sign up and go in with our eyes open about what some of the impacts of these terrible pieces of policy will be.

There are a number of other flaws in this package. Personally, I am deeply disappointed. When we know how important it is that we have high-quality early childhood education, and we have gone through the fights and it has been settled that the National Quality Agenda is important and needs to be permanent, it is totally unthinkable that the government would cut professional development for our early childhood workforce. For the life of me, I do not understand how this government justifies cutting professional development for our early childhood educators by saying, 'That's all been done now.'

We have a crisis in our workforce when it comes to early childhood education. We have a crisis which is caused not only by unacceptably low wages but it is also caused by the fact that this is a workforce that has not been valued and shown the respect it deserves. We should be investing in this workforce and we should be ensuring ongoing professional development so that everybody is equipped with the all of the latest tools to get the best out of each and every child.

Since this package was first announced, my personal situation has changed markedly; in fact, I was very pregnant when this package was first announced. I now see firsthand the benefits of my child accessing early childhood education and I see firsthand the benefits of him being in the care of qualified professional early childhood educators who actually know exactly what they are doing in educating, in teaching, in caring. And we should not walk away from that. Professional development is really important and it is deeply disappointing that this government is looking to invest more money in child care but is entirely cutting professional development for our educators altogether. That is deeply disappointing. As I said, if the government fixed the flaws, some of which I have outlined here today, then Labor would get on board and support this package. But there are a few things that we would not do. We would not, as the government seems to be saying, suggest that this is some kind of a silver bullet—that all of a sudden the early childhood education and care sector is going to be fixed because of this reform package. That is just not true.

There are so many things that this package does not do. It does not, as I mentioned, do anything when it comes to workforce strategy, when it comes to supporting our early childhood educators, when it comes to professional development. But it also does absolutely nothing when it comes to issues like waiting lists. If you talk to Australian parents, yes, affordability is a very big issue for a large number of Australian parents but there are also Australian parents who cannot even yet grapple with the issues of affordability because they cannot find a place to begin with. These are the Australian parents who are being placed on waiting lists where they stay for one, for two, for sometimes three years—that is, three years that they are unable to return to the workforce, three years that they are unable to find a place locally for their child. Yet this package, which I have heard the Prime Minister and the minister say is the most important reform when it comes to child care in decades, does absolutely nothing to address the issue of waiting lists.

This package does absolutely nothing to outline the long-term position that we need to be working towards when it comes to early childhood education and care. Labor believes that we cannot just continue tinkering around with a decades-old system which was designed for a different purpose than what we use it for today. We invest a huge amount of taxpayer dollars in the Australian child care system, and rightly so. We know that if those dollars are well directed, it is an incredibly smart investment. But it is time that we had a broader debate about whether this is actually a system which is delivering for Australian families, whether it is a system that is delivering for Australian children and whether it is system that is delivering for Australian taxpayers. I think that if we really ask those questions, the answer to every one of them would be 'no'. That is the debate that this parliament should be having: what is Australia's vision for quality early childhood education into the future, and how do we go about getting on the pathway to delivering that? There has been a lack of vision in this debate. It is a debate that has gone on for years and years with no action but it has also put itself up as the answer to all of Australia's childcare problems and it just is not that.

So Labor will oppose the measures currently before the parliament in their current form but we again reiterate: we are up for the job of sitting down are working with the government to fix some of the flaws in this package. We want to see a package go through the parliament which can offer some greater assistance for Australian families. We want to see Australian children better supported. We want to see this sector and this workforce supported by this parliament but we think that this bill in its current form falls short. We will negotiate with the government and we hope that we will get to a point that the parliament can pass these measures knowing that they will add some improvements to the current system.

But we do not for a second suggest that what the government is offering in these reforms is the answer to Australia's childcare problems. We do not pretend for a second that the job is done. The government might like to pat themselves on the back and think that that is the case. Labor will keep working because we actually know that Australian children, that Australian businesses, that Australian parents, that the Australian economy and the Australian education system rely upon Labor to continue to be the leaders when it comes to Australia's childcare system, to be the leaders when it comes to quality early childhood education and care. It is something that we have proudly done not just for years but for decades.

Labor have always led the way and we will continue to lead the way by looking at the big picture, by looking at the longer term and by looking beyond the very narrow scope that the government have taken when it comes to their solution of fiddling around with payment systems a little bit more. This falls short in its current form, but we hope that the government will get it to a point where childcare improvements can be delivered for Australian families, and Labor are up to the job of working to ensure that that is the case.

10:28 am

Photo of Susan TemplemanSusan Templeman (Macquarie, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is really disappointing to be standing and speaking about a piece of legislation, the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Jobs for Families Child Care Package) Bill 2016, that is such a lost opportunity, and that is why we cannot support it in its current form. I acknowledge my shadow minister and her sincere offer to work with the government to fix some of the flaws in this legislation. It is hard to support a piece of legislation that is going to leave one in three families worse off, particularly when we are talking about families of below school-aged children.

It is interesting to be standing here not as someone who has children in child care. I have children in their 20s so this takes me back to several of decades ago. I think it is worth noting every mum, every dad asks themselves deep questions about child care: is it the right thing to do? What kind of child care is right?

I think child care means different things for different families, and unfortunately this bill does not address the needs of a variety of families.

Let me talk a bit about what child care means to me. We call it child care, yet it is early education. We know now—the research tells us—the amazing development that happens in the brain between zero and five years of age. We know that this is when children have exponential growth, if it is fostered and if children's brains are allowed to flourish in a supportive and safe environment. We know that that will have benefits going forward for decades and decades, for their whole lives. In fact, that means that there are benefits for society. So it seems very short-sighted to me to introduce legislation that is going to make it harder for the most-disadvantaged children to get the supportive, educative preschool environment that we know would deliver enormous benefits.

When I look at the issues being raised here, with one in three families worse off, one issue is that those impacted by the activity test will find it really difficult to access early child care. We have talked about the number of hours that children will be entitled to. It is currently 24 hours. That gives some families a respite from the challenges of raising a child in an already difficult environment. It is also giving children a respite from families. This has been looked at by the Productivity Commission. They acknowledged that children at risk of abuse and neglect benefit the most from high-quality early childhood education to improve their life chances, yet it looks like this same group of children will be most disadvantaged by this legislation.

We know that many children and families face really complex problems with lots of interconnected causes, but all the research tells us that, if children can attend a high-quality, integrated early childhood education and care service, that allows them access to a range of services. It can improve children's cognitive development and learning in the short- and long-term. It is very short-sighted to deny families and children that opportunity, when an investment at this stage can forestall further investments and greater investments many years down the track.

In my own family's experience, it was thanks to quality early child care that my son's speech impediment was picked up. My son is now 22, and he travels the world performing on stage as a musician. He lives a life that many 22-year-olds would dream of, but he does not do it with a speech impediment, and that is thanks to his quality childhood teacher at preschool picking up that he was not pronouncing some of his consonants properly. It is really well known that children who have speech impediments have a much higher likelihood of ending up in the juvenile justice system. The research is in; the University of Sydney has done a lot of work in this area. Knowing that we as parents had quality child care gave me enormous confidence. Something that could have impeded his transition to school, his confidence at school and, therefore, his ability to really thrive at school may not have been picked up without that. It is wonderful to know that quality child care can do that. But it is so disheartening to see that, in this legislation, we are going to make it so much harder for all families to access that sort of support.

Spending money on early childhood actually has a significant boost to the bottom line as well, with the research showing economic returns from early childhood investment of up to $16 for every dollar invested. That is a 16-fold return—$16 for every dollar. It is a massive return on investment. The highest return that you get is for vulnerable children, yet here we are with a piece of legislation that, because of the access test and the activity test, is going to make it harder for those children to access it. What is more, there does not seem to be any additional safety net put in place to prevent disadvantaged families from slipping through. So that is one problem I have with this legislation.

The other area that concerns me is workforce participation. We hear a lot from those on the other side about self-employment and people running small businesses. It is no surprise that many mums now work from home, run their own businesses and are self-employed. That does not always equate to a steady, even income. Women choose to do that because it is the only way they can juggle family responsibilities. If you think of my electorate on the outskirts of Sydney, where it is a two-hour commute to and from the city each way, you can see why mums would choose to try to establish themselves and work from home; often that means self-employment.

This legislation has a workforce participation test that is going to make things even harder for those people. If you do not have a steady income, it is going to be really hard to justify what you are doing on a regular basis. Anybody who works for themselves—the other side seem to think they have the exclusive right on this; if that is the case, they should know this—knows that it is not always the same amount of work every week. It ebbs and it flows. So it seems strange to me to put into legislation something that makes it even harder for people with casual work or who are self-employed—those sorts of precarious work situations—to access something that actually helps them do that work. Is there not some irony in this? It is one of those catch 22s that we see all too often in ill-thought-through legislation from those opposite.

Let us also talk about the amount of access to early childhood education. I want to touch on this in particular. The minimum number of hours are being cut from 24 hours to 12 hours. For some people, 12 hours will provide only one day of early education, and we know that, as a minimum, it needs to be two days. In spite of spending an additional $1½ billion dollars, we are actually going to see kids going backwards. That is why this is such a lost opportunity.

It is not just me saying this, speaking as a mum who has agonised about the sort of early care that her children would have. Like many mums and working mums who had to make decisions, I have been through a range of child care, from family day care to long day care to preschool to parent-run preschools—the whole gamut of things. With two children you try lots of things to try to get the right combination. This family assistance legislation should be assisting families as they make those really difficult decisions. It is such a shame that it has taken several years to get to this point and be left with such a lacklustre solution, which is not a solution at all for one in three families.

Let's look at the other people who are saying this if you do not want to take our word on it. The organisations that have called on government to make sure that vulnerable and disadvantaged children continue to have access to at least two days a week of early education include the Australian Childcare Alliance, Early Childhood Australia, the Early Learning and Care Council of Australia, Family Day Care Australia, the Early Learning Association of Australia, the Creche and Kindergarten Association, UnitingCare Australia, Mission Australia, Anglicare Australia, Gowrie Australia, the Benevolent Society, Social Ventures Australia, the Brotherhood of St Laurence, United Voice and The Parenthood. You might say, 'Oh well, you'd expect those organisations to say that sort of thing.' Let's look at the providers who also think that it is vital for the educational outcomes of the children they care for—the ones they are preparing for an easy transition to school; the ones we do not want to see fail in kindergarten and their first year of school when it would cost so much more of taxpayer dollars to uplift them to the same standards. Of course, thanks to the failure of the other side to support Gonski, the kids who are now entering child care will not have the benefits of Gonski.

The providers who see that there needs to be more than 12 hours of child care include the Affinity Education Group, Goodstart Early Learning, KU Children's Services, Early Childhood Management Services, SDN Children's Services, and Bestchance Child Family Care. In my electorate we have providers from a range of the organisations that are providing child care in the Hawkesbury and the Blue Mountains to children who absolutely deserve to get the best possible education. What is more, their families deserve to have the support they need so that they can either continue working or know that their child is having the benefit of a safe and secure environment. It is not just those families who benefit from it; the whole society will benefit from knowing that we have done the best by our children.

This is not something that will affect me as a parent. My children are beyond that, but it will affect me and many others as grandparents. If you fail to properly support families to pay for quality child care, you are forcing them to fall back on other supports. Of course, we know grandparents are the ones who are picking up a lot of the slack in this area, not necessarily because it is absolutely their first choice. Most grandparents tell me they love looking after their grandchildren from time to time or a day or two a week. Most of them, though, say they do not necessarily want to be the full-time carer for a grandchild. That is not what they planned in life. My mother has played a huge role in helping to raise and care for my children and she still does that for my niece and nephew, who are only in primary school, but as legislators we cannot shift the burden to that part of society as we seem to do so often, saying, 'The government's saying there's not enough money to do more than this. Let's just make the community pay it.' The community is pulling its weight in so many ways. From what I see, the majority of the community is what the other side would call 'the lifters'. They are pulling their weight, they are volunteering, they are looking after grandkids and they are contributing to society in a range of ways. Any flaw in this policy is only going to put a greater burden on that age group. I have to say that I am not sure my children would love having me as the carer for their children. Perhaps in the interests of my children's sanity, we should relook at this package.

This side of the House is very happy to try to fix these flaws. It is not too late. It is not too late to take a principled decision and say, 'You know what, the youngest part of our society is actually a great place to invest, supporting the educational outcomes for the youngest children in our society so that they have easier transitions into primary school and mothers feel less guilt about going to work.' This place knows all too well the pressures of working parents and how important it is to know that, when you are working—I do not think it matters whether you are male or female—your children are being cared for and educated in the best possible place. Sadly, this legislation does not help achieve that. I urge the government to think again on this. It is one thing to split the bill, but it is another to go forward with such a flawed piece of legislation.

10:43 am

Photo of Emma HusarEmma Husar (Lindsay, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make a contribution and to support the member for Adelaide, followed by the member for Macquarie, on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Jobs for Families Child Care Package) Bill, both of whom, like me, are parents. Make no mistake, the revised bill has the sole purpose of stripping money from those who can least afford it. It attacks low-income families again and it attacks single parents, Indigenous families and our most important people, the young people of this country. The government is absolutely shameless. Only a few short days ago, thousands of low-paid workers across Australia were told they would be losing their Sunday penalty rates, resulting in a significant cut to their take-home pay, and here the Liberals are again making a decision that goes after the little guys. Here they are talking about cutting payments and leaving 1.5 million Australian families worse off. Here they are, just weeks after the shameful Closing the gap report was handed down, talking about cutting Indigenous childcare and early learning programs. They have not yet been able to point out or to explain how pushing 300 Indigenous and mobile providers into mainstream funding arrangements will work, and they have not been able to guarantee that these services will not be forced to close. This is two-thirds of our Indigenous early education centres.

There is nothing agile or innovative about this agenda; there are just cuts to programs that were designed to assist those who most need it. There is no progress to be made or advancement for a fairer society; there are just plain old cuts to those, again, who can least afford it. No wonder the people of Australia think so little of the people in here, particularly of those in the government. The constant need to rip away services from those struggling people in our communities is deeply offensive. It illustrates perfectly the priorities of this Liberal government.

In fact, the following groups, which were mentioned by the member for Macquarie, have said just how bad it is. You have representative organisations including the Australian Childcare Alliance, Early Childhood Australia, Early Learning and Care Council of Australia, Family Day Care Australia, Early Learning Association Australia, Creche and Kindergarten Association, UnitingCare Australia, Mission Australia, Anglicare Australia, Gowrie Australia, The Benevolent Society, Social Ventures, Brotherhood of St Laurence, United Voice and The Parenthood. These are groups attached to the area that we are speaking on—early childhood. They are the representative bodies. I would refer to them as the experts; I would definitely not refer to the government in here as the experts in this field.

If hearing from the experts were not enough for this government, we then flick over to the providers, whom again, the member for Macquarie already mentioned. We have the Affinity Education Group, Goodstart Early Learning, KU Children's Services, Early Childhood Management Services, SDN Children's Services and bestchance Child Family Care. I make a rule when I have a decision to make: I consult widely and I usually defer to the experts. So I am quite confused as to why the government would not listen to those people who are experts in this, rather than being obsessed by a budget bottom line and wanting to give $50 billion to corporations and to take money away from those who can least afford it.

Despite being warned about the serious flaws in their childcare changes for years, they have not done anything to fix them. The ANU says that the childcare changes will leave one in three families worse off, 330,000 families worse off and 26,000 no better off. That is almost half of all families—550,000 in total—that will be worse off or no better off. Seventy-one thousand families with an income below $65,000 will be worse off. The harsh activity test will leave children in 150,000 families worse off. Where do the government think that these families are? Do they think they are some kind of mythical creatures—unicorns, maybe, prancing around the bank of a river somewhere? These people actually exist; these people are our future. They are the young people in this country that we, as the leaders of this country, should be stepping up to support.

We are going to hear Mr Turnbull. He will say this is about reforming—

Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I remind the member for Lindsay to refer to members by their proper titles, please.

Photo of Emma HusarEmma Husar (Lindsay, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Deputy Speaker. We will hear the Prime Minister, the member for Wentworth, Mr Turnbull, say that this bill is about reforming the childcare system so to make it easier to work and so people can afford child care. What he will not tell you is at least one in three families will be worse off. That is one in three. Go down to the local shops and choose, out of all the families that you see passing you, which one out of three you are going make worse off.

Under the new activity test, 150,000 families will be worse off. Most of those families will obviously come from low socio-economic backgrounds and some of the most disadvantaged parts of Australia—some of whom I have the very great privilege of representing in this place. The government want to take the activity test from two days access to just one day. These rules will make it more difficult to secure child care for children whose parents are part-time or casual workers, meaning that many working mums and dads who need more childcare assistance at the moment will actually end up with less. The 300 Budget Based Funded childcare programs, which service mainly rural, remote and Indigenous communities, are facing the axe. More than half of families accessing these services will face an increase in their fees of $4.40 per hour. That might not seem a lot to those on the government benches, but, when you add it up over multiple hours and often multiple children, it is a lot. The increase in fees across the course of just one day can be the difference between having food on the table at the end of the week or not.

I mentioned penalty rates before; I am going to come back to it now. For a family that are already facing a $77-a-week pay cut out of their weekly pay packet—their take-home pay—the government want them to now spend more money on child care. This will be the impact of the changes, and I think that, sadly, too few people on the government side of this chamber are willing to face up to that reality. Clearly, not enough people around the decision-making table truly understand how these increased costs will hurt families. That assumes that their childcare centre is even able to remain open. Modelling by Deloitte Access Economics shows that two-thirds of early childhood education services will have their funding cut and many will have to close their doors. When the Closing the gap report was handed down, we saw a Prime Minister talk the talk. Now, he is walking away from the very people that he stood in this chamber saying that he supported.

The experts have warned of the consequences. The deputy chairperson of the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care has said:

These changes will diminish our kids' potential to make a smooth transition to school, compounding the likelihood of intergenerational disempowerment and unemployment. Children will fall behind before they have even started … and suffer greater risks of removal into out-of-home care.

I am not an expert on the Closing the gap report, but I have read it. If the government bothered to read what was contained in that, those things that SNAICC is saying are going to affect our young children are some of those targets that we seek to improve for our Indigenous communities. The government claim to take seriously the issues of Closing the Gap, but they do not take seriously a plan to close that gap. It is absolutely unbelievable. False sincerity is one thing, but the people in this country are slowly starting to wake up to this very poor excuse of a government.

My message to the Prime Minister is clear: hands off low-income families, early childhood education and our Indigenous early childhood educations services. You cannot make all these cuts and think young kids will not be affected. You cannot slash the payments and the support and think you will not put serious pressure on parents who are doing it as tough as they are, especially when we cut the take-home pay by up to $77. These are real people, who are in pain, which this government is very well inflicting on them.

The legacy of 1.5 million families being worse off as a result of this decision is not one I would be proud of in government. In the interests of these Australian families I call on the government to reconsider, because the families are already doing it tough. They are trying hard and are struggling to get by and they do not deserve the callous cuts that will only make it harder for them. In fact, the Prime Minister has no legacy to leave behind, as was evidenced yesterday by his lack of an answer in question time. He could not point to his greatest achievement. He was offered the opportunity a couple of times to provide an answer, and I think on a TV program over the weekend. I am happy to assist the Prime Minister, because I would like to be helpful where I can. His greatest achievement, to him—and I will spell it out very slowly—is to buy his way into this place and cling to power by the skin of his teeth, not by providing leadership on the things that matter to working Australians. There are no prizes for guessing: most ordinary Australians are not obsessed with the 18C legislation changes and they are not obsessed with mentioning Bill Shorten, Labor and the unions 150,000 times, like we see on the other side in this place every single day. They are concerned with things like cuts to child care and access.

The Prime Minister and his Liberal team want to reduce the amount of time for which children can have access to child care. That absolutely is not an achievement. When we talk about child care it is very important to remember what this actually is. Yes, it is a service to which mum and dad can drop their kids off in the morning, then go to work, earn a day's pay and then come home at the end of the day. But speaking as an early child care educator and someone who has studied primary school education, the years 0 to 7 are the most critical years for development and children. The neuroplasticity of the brain is still developing and they are still forming pathways through their brains through those connections. So early-childhood education is incredibly important for kids because it actually enables them to be educated, to have peer-to-peer mentoring with their playmates, they learn through experimentation and they learn from quality childcare educators. That is something this government just does not see the value in.

We are always asked by those on the opposite side want our plans are. They are so obsessed by us they want to know what we would do in this situation, because they actually do not have a plan their own. We will stand up for the children of this country and do whatever we can to make sure that this government does not reduce the time they can spend on getting an early education. I do not know how the Liberal members, by cutting access for families, expect us as a nation to have improved educational outcomes. I understand that they have an ideological obsession with attacking low-income families, but in a practical sense how do they actually see this working? Cutting access to early-childhood education, or child care as we are calling it in here, is actually going to disadvantage us as a nation, when we are trying to educate these children for the future.

We have a social safety net in this country for the most vulnerable families, because we value everybody getting a fair go. We know that when our neighbour and our neighbour's kids are looked after and doing well the rest of us are looked after and are doing well. What does it say for us as leaders in here if we are not supporting low-income families and those who most need access to child care, by cutting it away. We have recognised for a long time that these kinds of measures keep kids away from crime, keep local economies afloat and give dignity to all Australians, which is actually a human right. So, educating our young people is important, and it is important to every single Australian.

The government seems to forget that, so I am quite happy to speak on this today and provide a very timely reminder for them. In the end, the people they are going to cut this from will suffer, and the communities around them will suffer the most. It is something this government ought to remember but they seem to ignore it quite casually here on a daily basis. Their cruel cuts are unending and I believe there is absolutely no shame. So, here we are again, defending our lowest paid most vulnerable families and children. This government is desperate to cut money in any way they can from people who are already disadvantaged, and the community is waking up to their agenda. They still want to press on with this idea of $50 billion for big business, which has been proven this week to add $4 billion of debt in interest to the bottom line.

On the childcare package, the desperate attempt to link the dud policy with the vicious cuts has been called out for what it is, even though they have decoupled it now. As a mother I have accessed preschool and child care and my children's lives have been enriched by that experience. The Turnbull Liberals are holding Australian families to ransom. It is an attack on low-income families, who are actually doing their best to build a better life for themselves. As a member of this House I would not seek to do that to any child in this country, whether their family and $65,000 a year for $165,000 a year. I expect that this government would have some decency and ensure that our most vulnerable Australians are not going to be left behind.

10:57 am

Photo of Cathy McGowanCathy McGowan (Indi, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I am so disappointed to be here today, because we have missed an opportunity to provide services that meet the needs for rural and regional Australia. I have to say that the politicking with this policy, connecting core funding responsibilities of child care to welfare cuts, splitting the bills in the Senate, and then the reintroduction, is even more disappointing. To me it is a clear sign that someone in the system, someone in the government, is missing the point.

While I commit to continue to work with the government and with departmental staff and service providers, people like Ann Bowler and Rod Wangman, they will continue to do the services in our community and we will make the best of this. But what it clearly shows is that there is no overarching policy for rural and regional Australia about how we should be treated. As a result, we are working backwards and playing catch-up. We are trying to fit policy to the needs of particular communities and we are failing.

In addressing the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Jobs for Families Child Care Package) Bill 2016 today, I specifically would like to call Senator Birmingham into the House. Today, Senator Birmingham had a letter published in my local paper, the Wangaratta Chronicle. I will use some of his comments to refute his arguments. Senator Birmingham, I am looking forward to you watching and reading this speech and telling me where I have it wrong, because I am not politically grandstanding. I am not here for any other purpose than to represent my community. I am here because you came to our community. Together with me, you listened to everything my community had to tell you. We have met with your staff, we have met with the Labor Party, we have met with government, we have met with all the crossbenchers. We have put hundreds of hours into this particular topic. We have given it everything we have, because what we wanted to say to you is: there are problems, and we could work together to fix them up. We had great trust, in the beginning, that you would listen to what we had to say. When you came to Wodonga and spoke to the TV cameras and said, 'Trust us; It will work out,' we really wanted to believe you.

But, sadly, we are back in the parliament today with the original bit of legislation we started with. So there was an opportunity to try the whole process again, to re-move our amendments, to go through all the work that we did a couple of weeks ago with the omnibus legislation, but we are not going to do that. We are going to call it a loss—a really sad loss. And, in calling it a loss, we will be gracious and we will work together to make it work better. I give you and all the government members here my commitment that we will do everything we possibly can as Independents never to be in this situation again. We will focus 100 per cent of our time on getting a really decent policy on rural and regional Australia—a policy that commits to deliver comprehensive services that meet our needs. We have learned our lesson on this single issue, and we will not be going there again.

Let me address your specific points, Minister. You said:

The Turnbull government's early childhood education and care reforms have been comprehensively designed with regional Australia in mind.

That is good to know. When we put up amendments to this House, so that we could test the logic of that, they were knocked down by your government 70 to 72. Your government was not prepared to back this up by getting the statistics that would show us that the reforms had worked. So I ask you to reconsider those amendments in the Senate. Come back to the House in six or 12 months time and show us that the reforms have worked. Frankly, I do not believe they will have. Minister, you also said:

Families in cities, in regional centres and in the bush know that our early childhood education and care system is not working for them.

We all agree with that. We would like a system that did work for us, and we agree with your statistics: the system of mobile child care, as it has been funded—or budget based funding services—absolutely needs reform. But the sad thing is, we do not think you are reforming it in a way that is going to work. You say in your letter:

Many of the services in regional and rural areas are part of a scheme set up 40 years ago that limits the amount of funding they can get from the government and stops them from growing to support families.

Interestingly, Minister, my community tells me that exactly the same problems are built into this legislation. It is a grant based process, limited to a maximum of five years. It does not allow for new services to be instigated into the long term. We believe that many of the problems in the initial program are running out again, so I would be very keen to have you and your department's staff tell me how this system is avoiding those problems, because everybody in my community tells me it is not. You talk about the plans the government has. You say:

Rather than reduce their support we plan to increase it and provide more opportunity for services to respond to changes in their community.

We are supporting services onto a new model of funding that targets increased support towards those families working the most and earning the least, while our ‘Child Care Safety Net’ worth $1 billion will help services that might not otherwise be viable—like some mobile education and care services in regional and remote communities.

That is great, but the thing is it is not going to be policy driven or needs based—we are going to have to apply for grants. Minister, you have told me there will be a designated amount of money out of that $1 billion that we can apply for, but it still will be short term. It will not be enabling us to build the workforce and the capacity that we need in our rural communities. I need to say here that what makes rural communities special is that we do not have childcare centres. Because we do not have childcare centres, most of the service, which is designed for centre-based care, is not relevant to us. So the subsidies do not apply, and if we cannot get the grant we do not have a service, or, if we have not got the people in the community to apply for a grant, we do not have the service. Minister, you said in the letter to the Chronicle:

Firstly, the services will have access to the child care subsidy—

that is no good if we do not have child care—

which will allow growth in funding per child for the first time.

Sure it would, if you have a childcare centre. But if you live in the towns that I live in, we do not have childcare centres, so the subsidy is irrelevant for us. For you to print that in the paper, as if it works, is so wrong. Thirdly, you say they will 'access the $110 million Community Child Care Fund'. I beg your pardon; that is the fund and the grants—I just made a mistake around the childcare safety net. But that is the fund, and that is so limited and will go nowhere near to meeting the demand we are going to have to provide child care for the particular groups that I care about, which are farming families and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families.

It is not just me who says this is not going to work; Fiona Stanley, who was Australian of the Year, got on the phone. She was really, really upset about the changes that you are going to make. She is not convinced that you have got it right. I am not convinced you have got it right. My community is not convinced you have got it right. You keep telling us that you have got it right, but you have not come forward and said how our rural and farming families will be able to create new services that will last for the next 20, 50 or 100 years, which is what our sister cities will be able to have access to. They will have services that work. There are clearly things about this package that are good; they are really good if you are town based and you have access to a service. They are no good if you live in the country and you do not have access to a service. And no-one is saying the changes to the funding will work. Minister, you also say:

We will also remove red tape that currently stops child care services from only operating on certain days or for limited hours, which should also help regional Australia …

For sure, if you have a service. But if you do not have a service, what do you do? You apply for a grant, if you can get it, for one or two or three years. Minister, you are not instigating a mainstream service into our communities. You continue:

Overall, official analysis shows our reforms are set to benefit around one million families across the country.

We have no argument about that. What we are asking is this: how are you going to make sure that, in the long term, our farming and Aboriginal families have access to the services?

Your letter goes on. You say that the amendments recently suggested are already addressed through the package and are unfortunately more about political grandstanding than supporting Australian families. We could not see it there in the package. We cannot see how the things that we have asked for are addressed. You talk about the guidelines. The guidelines are not in existence yet. The guidelines will have to be drawn up after this legislation is passed. Of course we are happy to have input into the guidelines and we will try to make them work; but guidelines are not legislation. They do not force whichever government is here in parliament to do what it needs to be doing. It is a matter of 'Trust us—we will look after you.' Well, we did not want to do that. We actually wanted to make sure that the changes that you have promised deliver what your government said they would do and that you must report back to parliament on how they are going.

It is true, Minister, that you say you have provided me with the information; but none of it has satisfied me. It is true that you say you will continue to engage and speak with me and hope that we will appreciate how your changes will make child care more affordable, accessible and flexible for Australian families. Sadly, I am not convinced. I am not convinced because the people in my community are not convinced. I am not convinced because people come to my door and say, 'Cathy, this is not going to work. Can you go to parliament and represent us?' I am not convinced because the experts in my community have asked me, as their representative, to come forward and make their case.

We have lost. This legislation will go through the House today. It will go through the Senate. I am sure that there will be some really good outcomes from it. We will continue to work.

I would now like to move in my closing comments to how we could have done this better and how we could have made this work. The little bit of my conversation that I am really wanting to talk about is the opportunity that the minister and the government have to work with the regional ministerial task force. If I could bring in my final comments here, to finish on what I hope is an optimistic note, I am really pleased to see that there are five Liberal members and three Nationals on this task force. There are some very key people, including the minister for this particular legislation. So that is a positive step. I am really hoping that you can work, as a ministerial task force, to look at child care, transport, telecommunications and education; to look at our young people and how we operate in rural and regional Australia; and bring it into a whole so that we do not have to come here to the parliament every single time and fight the same battles, saying, 'Child care is not working for us; public transport is not working for us; the NBN is not working for us; changes to higher education were not working for us.' It is so time consuming and it lacks vision.

What we are hoping is that the regional ministers task force will take this lesson to heart. It is a great opportunity to deliver a coherent regional policy that ensures that all regional Australians have access to really good government services. Hopefully the task force will focus on the budget that is coming up. Hopefully the budget will deliver our long-requested budget impact statements as part of that private member's bill that I moved to amend the Charter of Budget Honesty Act, calling on the government, if it makes changes that impact on rural and regional Australia, to come and tell us first what the effects will be. Do the money, do the economics; do not do that last. Let us understand how the budget is actually a budget that includes rural and regional Australia in its planning and design. I am really hoping that the ministerial task force takes a look at that legislation, and when we get the budget in May it has really clear financial indicators of how budget measures are going to grow—ideally that will be the case—rural and regional Australia.

In October 1999 the Hon. John Anderson hosted a regional Australia summit here in Parliament House. I had the real pleasure of being here. As a result of that summit John Anderson set up the Regional Women's Advisory Council. Could I really encourage the government to take a leaf out of the book of past members—of the National Party in this case. That summit worked. It did really good relationship building. It created a task force. It created a combined, bipartisan approach to policy. So can I ask the regional ministers task force, if it does nothing else, could it call another summit? Could we invite John Anderson back? Could we get him here in parliament telling us what he did that worked so well? He was an outstanding minister and he did such great things for rural and regional Australia. We have a really opportunity now to do that same sort of thing again, and not put us back into the wilderness of coming into the parliament and having these really scrappy debates about child care. It should be at such a higher level, and we should be able to build our trust together and not be arguing through letters to the paper about what does not work.

In bringing my comments to a close I will say how disappointed I am. I am really disappointed in the politics of this. We deserved better. I am sorry the minister has not been able to come to the table and deliver for Aboriginal families and for us in rural and regional areas. We will continue to work with you on the guidelines to make the best we can out of that. We will continue to ask for statistics to come back into parliament so that we can get a real sense of how this program is rolling out. Then we will work to make the amendments we can in the future. Thank you for the opportunity to speak today. I look forward to meeting with you, Minister, and working on how we can make the best out of this very poor circumstance.

11:13 am

Photo of Christopher PyneChristopher Pyne (Sturt, Liberal Party, Leader of the House) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the motion be now put.

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the motion be put.

11:24 am

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that this bill be now read a second time.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.