House debates

Thursday, 8 October 2020

Matters of Public Importance

Child Care

3:17 pm

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

I have received a letter from the honourable member for Kingston proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the House for discussion, namely:

The government's lack of a plan to fix child care and support families get back to work.

I call upon all those honourable members who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.

More than the number of members required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

Photo of Amanda RishworthAmanda Rishworth (Kingston, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Early Childhood Education) Share this | | Hansard source

Australia is in a recession. Many Australian families are doing it tough and Australian women are also doing it particularly tough. Since March, approximately 200,000 women have lost employment and 110,000 have left the labour force. Thousands of families are in danger of being left behind.

The government can try and stimulate business and consumer demand all it likes, but the economy won't recover as quickly as it should if people can't afford to go back to work, and they won't be able to afford to go back to work because this third-term government has no plan to help them. This government is so out of touch with the needs of Australian families, it's snapped back to the Prime Minister's own designed subsidy system in the middle of a recession—his subsidy system that had a 4.6 per cent hike in fees in 2019 when inflation went up by only 1.8 per cent. The out-of-pocket costs soared by 7.2 per cent in a year, in the latest data released. That is money out of the pockets of families doing it tough. This third-term government has now overseen a 34 per cent increase in fees. This evidence shows that family budgets are under serious stress from the costs of child care.

Many in the community thought that the government had had an epiphany when, in April, they announced free childcare for essential workers. Many thought, 'Finally—a long overdue recognition that the community can't function without early learning and that early learning and childcare are essential services.' Unfortunately, this was poorly designed, as with many things with the government, and put an effective cap on the places in the free childcare policy, so many families missed out. For those families that did get a place, it was desperately welcome relief going into a recession.

But the government's epiphany on the importance of affordable early education and care did not last long. In July we had the snapback—the snapback to the future, to the higher fees system that Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister himself, designed.

Many families are now faced with having to pay higher fees at a time when they desperately want to go back to work. They're going to have to decide whether it's worth it. I've been contacted by many women and families who are devastated by the Prime Minister's decision to provide nothing extra in this budget for early learning and care—no reform, no plan, nothing to make child care more affordable. Of course this abandonment of families comes not long after the Prime Minister abandoned educators working in the childcare sector. He threw them off JobKeeper and hid behind an empty employment guarantee, which has meant nothing to educators who got sent home with zero pay. Educators, like families, deserve better from this government.

This week the government announced a record budget deficit and $1 trillion of debt. You would expect with spending like that in a budget that nobody would be left behind. You would think that with spending like that we would see some long-term economic reform from this government. You would expect them to take the opportunity to look at what needs to be done and do the heavy lifting to get our economy back on track. But that is not the reality for this government's budget.

The budget virtually ignores the impact that COVID has had on women and families. There's some paltry funding for the Women's Economic Security Statement, but Scott Cam got more attention from this Prime Minister than women did. There is no plan to deliver a more accessible and affordable early education and care system. There is no plan to remove the financial disincentive for second wage earners to go back to full-time work. There is no plan to help families with the costs of child care. There is no plan to increase women's workforce participation.

There was a report in The West Australian today. The Prime Minister was pressed on where his plan was, why he didn't do some reform and why he didn't do what many economists have been calling for—actually address the issues of child care and women's workforce participation. His response was weak. He said that he might consider some reform in the future, but there was absolutely no commitment at all. There was an opportunity on Tuesday night for the Prime Minister and the Treasurer to address what families in Australia have been calling out for—that is, support to go back to work and support to ensure that they have more money in their pockets and are able to put food on their table. That is what the Prime Minister and the Treasurer could have done, but they didn't.

In the article the minister's office provided a different excuse for not having a plan. They said that first they would have to convince the public of the benefits and then they would have to craft some meaningful reform. What has the education minister been doing? He has had plenty of time in that role to talk about the importance of early education and care. He has had plenty of time to lay the groundwork to get the public to understand what affordable childcare means. Of course, he has had plenty of time to craft some meaningful reform. I'm not entirely sure that that excuse stacks up.

Of course, we know what he has been doing. He has been making university harder for students to go to. He has been picking ideological wars with our universities. He has been making it difficult for people to get apprenticeships in trades. I've got some advice for the minister: spend some time developing a plan, spend some time crafting meaningful reform and work harder in talking up the benefits of early education. We do know that that is unlikely to happen. It is unlikely because this is the same minister who said at the last election that extra investment in early education and care was akin to communism. It is no wonder that there hasn't been any effort put into some meaningful reform and crafting an actual plan. The mums and dads of Australia should not hold their breath when the Prime Minister makes the vague statement, 'Sure, we'll look at it,' because this minister will push back and say it's just communism.

We know that the Prime Minister has ignored really important facts—the fact that families and women, in particular, do best when they can secure the work they want and work the extra hours and extra days they want. We need a childcare system that is designed to facilitate that. Unfortunately, the childcare system that the Prime Minister himself designed has too many barriers for women to do that. The fact is that the system he designed incentivises women or the second wage earner to work three days a week and no more. They actually lose money, in many cases, if the second income earner works four or five days a week. My question is: was this a deliberate decision in the system that this Prime Minister designed? The Prime Minister does seem blind to the impact that the current system has on women and families, and we saw that in his answer today. We also saw that from the Minister for Education, who could barely speak about families in his answer to questions about those doing it tough and those who have barriers put in place because of the cost of child care.

The Prime Minister is so desperate to be blind to the plight of women that I'm going to explain it in a way that he might understand. When we talk about investment in child care, investment in supporting women's workforce participation and support for families, it's not just good for the women and men who can work more. Absolutely, those second income earners can earn more, they can put more money into superannuation and they can actually build a career doing something that they love, but it's not just about that. Investing in early learning and child care boosts workforce participation, and boosting workforce participation increases economic growth. Don't believe me. Don't believe Labor. That is what the experts are all saying. That is what the economists are saying. We can grow our GDP by investing in women's workforce participation, and the best way to do that is by investing in child care.

How can people who have lost their jobs get back into work and get back into jobs if they can't get affordable child care? It is time that the Prime Minister and the Minister for Education turned their attention to perhaps designing something that works, spending some time on reform and investing some money. Otherwise, our economy will not recover at the speed it needs to. We want to see that. We want to see people being able to afford to go back into jobs, and I urge the government to— (Time expired)

3:27 pm

Photo of Dan TehanDan Tehan (Wannon, Liberal Party, Minister for Education) Share this | | Hansard source

There was a lot of hot air in that speech, but there was nothing there when it comes to a plan from those opposite for the childcare sector. As a matter of fact, the only thing we heard was them crabwalking away from the policy that they took to the last election. They're saying, 'Wait four hours.' I'm looking forward, in four hours time, to hearing from the Leader of the Opposition that they will not be taking a policy to the next election which will spend taxpayers' dollars topping up private sector wages. We all remember that policy that Labor took to the last election. We all remember that. And it's funny because, after the election, we had the shadow minister saying: 'I had nothing to do with it. It had nothing to do with me. I don't know where that policy came from.' She crabwalked right away from it. Then we had the shadow minister for employment saying, 'It had nothing to do with me.' Those who want to know what bad policy looks like, go and have a look at the policy about propping up private wages that the opposition took to the last election. Then have a look at the quote from Bob Carr. Have a look at what Bob Carr said about that policy.

Photo of Scott BuchholzScott Buchholz (Wright, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Road Safety and Freight Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

What did Bob say?

Photo of Dan TehanDan Tehan (Wannon, Liberal Party, Minister for Education) Share this | | Hansard source

Bob Carr said it was a brain explosion which could not be explained. And it's true, because they wanted nothing to do with it and then the shadow minister for employment wanted nothing to do with it. It was one of those policies that dropped, and everyone went, 'Ugh!' It was a bit like something that appears in a bath when you're bathing young children—everyone just goes, 'Ah!' It was an extraordinary piece of policy, and I look forward to hearing from the Leader of the Opposition tonight when he gets up and admits this by saying: 'The policy we as the Labor party took to the last election was an unmitigated disaster, it was rushed and it wasn't thought through. We had no plan. We admit we got it wrong.' That would be a good start of the Leader of the Opposition's speech tonight.

On this side, we're implementing our plan. It was a plan that went through this parliament just over two years ago, and it was a plan which was designed to make sure that we were supporting those on the lowest incomes to get their children cared for. It was a good, sensible policy. Our childcare plan is targeted so that those who earn the least receive the highest level of subsidy—those who work, train or study the most receive more hours of support. It is good, sensible policy.

CPI data shows that our changes on average across the country have delivered real savings to families, and this is something that those opposite find very difficult. Our policies have reduced out-of-pocket costs by 3.2 per cent from July 2018 to March 2020. It was a plan which was designed to support those who earnt the least and it was a plan designed to have out-of-pocket expenses for families reduced, and it's worked.

One of the key things that the Morrison government has done throughout this pandemic is make sure that our childcare sector has been sustained and has remained viable during this pandemic, because we understood from the very start that, if we were to get out of this pandemic and this health induced crisis, it would be incredibly important for the childcare sector to be there and to be viable to make sure that working families were able to get their children looked after as they went back to work. It has been successful, and I can say that because that's what the sector itself says. I take this opportunity to thank the sector for what they've done throughout the pandemic, and I thank them for working with the government to make sure that the policies we put in place were right and sustained the sector.

Outside of Victoria, we now see demand in our childcare sector at greater levels than what they were when we went into the pandemic. That's how successful we've been at carrying the sector through this pandemic. You only have to look at what's happened in the UK, in the US and everywhere else across the world to sit back and be able to say, 'Here in Australia, this is one of the policy settings that we got right.' I thank the sector, because it was their hard work, their advice and their engagement with the government which enabled us to do that.

This is what Elizabeth Death from the Early Learning and Care Council of Australia has had to say:

'We applaud the Government's commitment to ensuring that early learning and care services could survive the COVID-19 pandemic,' … 'The Government's financial support for sector viability was absolutely critical and valued.'

The Australian Childcare Alliance president, Paul Mondo, had this to say:

"We commend the government for recognising the unique circumstances facing Victorian early learning services and for continuing the extensive support offered to our vital sector since the beginning of the pandemic."

…   …   …

"This Recovery Payment, coupled with the extension of the Activity Test exemption, ensures financial viability for Victorian service providers during a period of economic uncertainty," … "It allows all Australian families up to 100 hours of subsidised care each fortnight, regardless of any recent changes to their income or work activities in the COVID-19 climate."

There you have it from the sector itself: our measures—$900 million all up, still ongoing in Victoria to support them and still ongoing with regard to the activity test changes we made for the whole nation—are supporting the sector as we grow out of this pandemic.

I say to Australians: be very careful about what those opposite say about child care. Don't listen to what they say; have a look at what they have done. Because, the last time they were in office, as we heard, we saw fee hikes as high as 50 per cent. On this side, it's 3.2 per cent below; for those opposite, it's fee hikes over 50 per cent. So don't listen to what they say; listen to what happens. Look at their policies. Look at what their policies have led to. Look at the policy that they took to the last election, which they couldn't wait to walk away from. That is the type of approach that you get from those opposite. I haven't even started yet on why the unions and how the unions drive the policies of those opposite, but I'll leave that for another day.

Another thing that our package has done, which those opposite seem very reluctant to acknowledge, is that it has increased workforce participation. As a matter of fact, overall workforce participation was the highest on record in August 2019 for men and women, at 66.2 per cent, as a result of putting in place a plan and a policy which incentivised workforce participation and which incentivised people, if they weren't working, to be training, reskilling, educating or volunteering, to make sure that, when there were opportunities for them to join the workforce, they were able to do so.

So what we've seen is a plan. It's a plan which has been put in place and implemented over the last two years. It's a plan which has seen out-of-pocket expenses reduced by 3.2 per cent. It's a plan which has seen over 70 per cent of families have out-of-pocket costs of less than $5 an hour per child and, for nearly a quarter, pay less than $2 per hour per child for centre based child care. So it is a plan that has worked. It's kept fees down. It has increased workforce participation, and it has enabled us to carry the sector throughout this pandemic so 99 per cent of providers are viable and offering services to make sure that Australians can get back to work.

3:37 pm

Photo of Joanne RyanJoanne Ryan (Lalor, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] I'm pleased to rise today to speak on this matter of public importance and pleased to follow the minister. I note that, in his whole 10 minutes, not once did he address the issue here, and that is that, in the budget that was delivered on Tuesday night, there is not one new measure. There is nothing for early education and child care. There's a trillion-dollar debt but nothing for early education and child care.

Let me be clear: parents' capacity to access quality early education and child care is not an indulgence. It is a productivity imperative. It's an economic recovery imperative. There couldn't be anything more important in a community like the community that I represent. The government has done this budget and said that it's all about stimulating business and consumer demand. It can do that as much as it likes, but, unless the parents who live in communities like mine can get back to work—and the only way they're going to get back to work is if we have a viable, healthy, affordable, quality early education and childcare plan.

We know that lots of things during this pandemic have changed. We know that lots of people are working from home. We know that there are a lot of people working from home while they're supervising their children, and we know that they've found that incredibly difficult. We know that many women and many men have had their hours cut or lost their jobs completely. We know that to get back to work the families in electorates like mine need to be able to access early education and child care without prohibitive cost. They need to do this for lots of reasons. There are lots and lots of parents in the electorate that I represent that have drained their superannuation balances during this recession and they need to get back into full-time work to rebuild those balances. This is particularly important for women. They need to be in full-time employment. They need to ensure that they can take the next steps on the promotion ladder. They need to be at work. They need all the impediments to their being able to work full-time removed and that's what this government has failed to do this in this budget.

There is a structural issue in accessible early education and child care. It is around a hurdle that is in front of working families where it costs money for both parents to go to work full-time, where one wage earner is better off only working three days a week rather than five. That impediment could have been removed on Tuesday night and this government chose not to remove it. It is typical of this government. We saw it during the pandemic. We saw it from the hapless minister when he had to move time and time again to change his policy, to change the way he was dealing with child care, to ensure that people could still access it, and to ensure that the sector survived across the pandemic and across the recession.

The budget on Tuesday night has shown us that in a thousand pages there was no plan for early education and child care. The COVID crisis has shown us just how important affordable and accessible child care is for families, for women, for children and for our economy. It was an absolute missed opportunity. There is no plan to reduce childcare fees to support parents going back to work during the deepest recession in 100 years.

Economists have told us that a $5 billion investment in child care would boost GDP by $11 billion a year. The Grattan Institute has reported that to us. But today we've seen, once again, the minister responsible in this space stand in the House of Representatives, and rather than address the issues confronting the Australian population and working families, he chooses to walk out of the chamber and not address it. He chose not to address it in cabinet meetings. He chose not to get it on the agenda when the government was going to go into a trillion dollars debt. And yet he was not there arguing for more to be done for child care for working families in electorates like mine.

3:42 pm

Photo of Andrew GeeAndrew Gee (Calare, National Party, Minister for Decentralisation and Regional Education) Share this | | Hansard source

The cold hard truth of this matter is that this coalition government saved the childcare sector in Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic. That's what happened. We saved the childcare sector. Make no mistake about it, that's what happened over the last few months.

When the COVID pandemic hit in those very dark days of March the childcare sector was crying out for help. Parents were crying out for help. They would've been calling our electorate offices. They were calling mine and saying, 'We need you to come and help.' Emergency service workers were at risk of having to stay at home to look after kids. Frontline health workers, teachers, everyone was saying, 'We need help,' and the government answered the call. That's what the coalition government did. We answered the call with $900 million of additional funding during the COVID-19 crisis—which still hasn't totally left us. Nine-hundred million dollars was what it took to keep the childcare sector going. We made sure that those frontline health workers didn't have to stay home, that they were there and available for the community when the community needed them through some of the darkest days that this country has seen in its entire history. We were there and we enabled 99 per cent of 13,400 services to remain open and viable. That, given the circumstances, is an incredible achievement. In terms of country Australia, $391 million was provided to 3,334 services in regional and remote areas.

In the budget that's just been handed down, there's a record $9.2 billion in funding for child care. So the childcare sector has been saved and there is record funding for child care in this budget. We recently announced additional support for Victoria's regional childcare sector, with around 700 services sharing in an estimated $55.8 million from the early childhood education and care recovery payment. We know that the federal government wasn't responsible for what's happened down in Victoria. We still don't know who was. At the inquiry, we saw the conga line of bureaucrats and politicians saying, 'We don't know what happened.' That was Victoria. It reminded me of talking to a teenage child: 'What happened?' 'Don't know.' 'Who was responsible?' 'Don't know.' We should send the teenagers down to Victoria to sort it out. They would have done a better job running hotel quarantine than the Victorians did. But we've been there for them. We have saved the sector across Australia, but we've also saved the sector in Victoria.

Under this government, low- and middle-income earners can get up to 85 per cent of their childcare costs rebated, so we've delivered for low- and middle-income earners. Out-of-pocket expenses and costs for the vast majority of families are less than $5 per hour per child. We have also reduced out-of-pocket costs by 3.2 per cent from July 2018 to March 2020. So this policy is working. This policy has reduced costs for families and this policy, which the coalition government has implemented, is responsible for saving the whole sector from destruction.

Photo of Scott BuchholzScott Buchholz (Wright, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Road Safety and Freight Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

With a $9 billion spend.

Photo of Andrew GeeAndrew Gee (Calare, National Party, Minister for Decentralisation and Regional Education) Share this | | Hansard source

As the minister rightly points out, with a $9.2 billion spend. If you combine that with all of the other policies in the budget to support families getting back to work, it is a very holistic approach that we have adopted, not only for the childcare sector but right across the economy, with the JobMaker hiring credit and getting our young people back to work. I can remember the recession of the eighties when youth unemployment in some parts of Australia was as high as 20 or 25 per cent. We are investing in skills, training and apprenticeships. There is more money for pensioners, helping them get through this difficult time. There is a new manufacturing policy, with $1.5 billion targeting key sectors of our economy. And, most of all, there is tax relief for 11 million Australians, estimated to create 50,000 jobs. The coalition government is not only creating jobs. We have saved the economy and we've certainly saved the childcare sector. So we will keep doing that, and Australians can be assured that we will always be there for them. (Time expired)

3:48 pm

Photo of Mike FreelanderMike Freelander (Macarthur, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to speak on the matter of public importance—namely, the Morrison government's lack of a plan to fix child care and support families to get back to work. This government is very good at picking winners and losers—in fact, creating winners and losers. Whether it be in university education, health or housing, they pick the winners and losers. This is certainly true in child care. The government has demonstrated time and time again a complete and utter lack of understanding of the needs of working parents and young and new families.

As a paediatrician, I know early childhood education is very important in later development of speech and language, social skills, analytical skills and, later, resilience and long-term success in a modern society. I represent a diverse and rapidly growing community. My electorate of Macarthur is experiencing exponential population growth, and a large number of new families are moving into the area with young children. Many of my former patients are starting their next phase in their adult lives—having a family, moving into new homes, working in new careers and looking at how they can best fulfil their lives. What they know is that, if they want to succeed in our society, if they want their children to succeed, it depends on education, and that education starts in early childhood. Many, many studies have shown that children who receive two or more days of early childhood education prior to starting kindergarten have better educational, social and health outcomes. This was becoming obvious in the 1970s, yet a comprehensive plan for early childhood education in Australia is lacking. My own daughter lives in Germany and won't come home, partly because she can get full early childhood education for her children while she works full-time. She can't get that in Australia without paying more than she would earn for it.

This government has created winners and losers, as I've said, and this budget is a very good example of that. The problem is that the losers in the early childhood education space will pay for it for the rest of their lives. I often see children with speech and language difficulties and physical problems, such strabismus, hearing loss, developmental delay and even cerebral palsy, that were not picked up until they started school. As a paediatrician, I know how important early intervention is, yet this is something that the government doesn't quite understand. I've long promoted the 'first thousand days' policy as a way of improving outcomes in health, education and the future for young children. All children should have access to high-quality early childhood education regardless of parental income. This is a simple matter of justice and equity. Again, this government picks winners and losers in early childhood. We know that efforts to improve parental outcomes will improve the outcomes for their children. A comprehensive childcare plan should be available for all children and their families regardless of where they live and regardless of the parents' social standing.

The reality is that this government is leaving people behind. Time and again I question why this must be so, and I can only come to the conclusion that this government is happy to have a community that is divided. This government does not have a plan to fix child care, and it has no plan to support families getting back to work, particularly women. If those opposite had a plan to support job creation, we would have seen an entirely different budget, one that planned for the future on a whole range of issues, not just early childhood education. Since March, approximately 200,000 women have lost employment and, unfortunately, 110,000 have left the labour force altogether. In Macarthur, far too many families and individuals are being overlooked by this government. The Prime Minister's lack of a plan for child care only exacerbates the economic challenges and the economic differences that we are seeing across the country. Under the watchful eye of the coalition, families saw their childcare fees hike by almost five per cent in 2019. It's not good enough. This tired, third-term government lacks ideas. We cannot underestimate the impact of the Morrison government's lack of understanding and incompetence in child care, in my community and across the country.

3:53 pm

Photo of Katie AllenKatie Allen (Higgins, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As a working mother of four, I'm acutely aware of the pressures working families face each and every day. It can feel like there's not much time to focus on anything other than supporting our families. I know the pressures on families through the COVID pandemic have been immense, particularly in my home state of Victoria. They've been supervising children to do their school via Zoom—most parents now have a newfound respect for teachers—supervising toddlers, who'd rather throw their food than eat it, and providing mentoring and support for anxious teenagers as they lose their peer group support. At the same time, Australia's COVID-19 economic recovery depends on working families being able to return to the workforce. Our government has been there, and we'll always be committed to increasing workforce participation, especially amongst women.

Before COVID, we were proud that women's workforce participation was at a record high. Before COVID, we were proud that the gender pay gap was at a record low. It is here that I wish to acknowledge the contribution that my predecessor, former member for Higgins the Hon. Kelly O'Dwyer, made to these amazing outcomes through her championing of the Women's Economic Security Statement. This is a plan to support women that has delivered in spades by increasing workforce participation and decreasing the gender pay gap. It is a plan that has been updated in the most recent budget, with a doubling of our contribution, taking our commitment to $240 million. The Morrison government understands that female participation in the workforce is not just key to the individual prosperity of individuals and families but key to the future prosperity of our great country.

We were committed to affordable and accessible child care before COVID, we have been committed to affordable and accessible child care during COVID, and we remain committed to affordable and accessible child care in the future that lies ahead post COVID as we rebuild our economy and our lives. In 2018 this government introduced a suite of reforms to the childcare sector to slash out-of-pocket expenses. I'm proud that ABS data shows that costs to families remain 3.2 per cent lower than under the previous childcare package. The government supports a targeted approach to child care. This means those families who earn the least receive the highest level of subsidy, at 85 per cent. On top of this, we provide additional support for those doing it particularly tough. A 95 per cent subsidy is available for families who are transitioning to work. A 120 per cent subsidy is already available for families who are experiencing financial hardship. In most cases, this is free child care.

We knew, going into this pandemic, that our response was going to hinge on the availability of our essential services workers to do their jobs to the best of their ability. We were going to have to ask them to put themselves on the line to keep Australians healthy during this time. But, to ask our essential service workers to do this, we needed to have confidence that they had confidence in their childcare arrangements. Because of the lockdown, no longer could you drop your children over at Grandma's or have a neighbour look after them. Informal childcare arrangements have been incredibly difficult through COVID. This is where the Morrison government has stepped up to the mark and kept the childcare sector afloat. We worked with them to make sure that we could get through this crisis. This resulted in around a million Australian families receiving fee-free child care and allowed the many important childcare services right across Australia to remain open. In fact, 99 per cent of them remained open during this crisis.

As we pivot to the economic recovery from COVID, we recognise how important child care is going forward. In the 2020-21 budget, the government will pay a record $9.2 billion in childcare subsidy payments, which will grow to $10.7 billion in coming years. This is an extraordinary amount of money. We recognise that Victoria, in particular, has been going through difficulties and we understand that the $372 million Child Care Recovery Package, particularly for Victoria, means that Victorian services can continue and can receive this recovery payment through to 31 January 2021.

On this side, we recognise the importance of affordable and accessible child care and how it promotes workforce participation, growth and female economic empowerment.

3:58 pm

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

Before we had COVID, we had a problem in child care. Now let's be realistic. The care of children is the responsibility of both parents. But, often, the secondary wage earner is a woman, and the family measures the costs of child care against that second wage. What will it cost to go back to work? What will be lost on child care? How much better off will I be or will we be financially once those childcare fees are paid? Will it be worth the mornings trying to get me and the child out the door—not the good mornings, not the mornings where your child eats their breakfast and happily wears the shorts that are clean and remembers that today is Teddy Bear Day and pops their bear in the bag, but the bad mornings where nothing goes right and, just as you're about to race out the door, a three-year-old mashes a banana into your suit, maybe with a grin, maybe with a tantrum. We've all had those mornings and asked ourselves, 'Is this worth the money?' I'm two decades away from having had those mornings, but women tell me that not much has changed. Kids are still kids, and the system designed by this Prime Minister still incentivises women to work three days a week but no more. They actually lose money for working four or five days a week. Before COVID, childcare costs were rising. The government subsidy system had a 4.6 per cent hike in fees in 2019 when inflation only went up 1.8 per cent. Out-of-pocket costs soared by 7.2 per cent in the year that we have the last data for. This third-term Liberal government has now overseen a 34 per cent increase in fees so that child care costs as much as an extra $3,800 a year.

Another major flaw in the government's approach to child care is that they don't view early education as just that. Play based education is crucial for brain development in the under-fives. Those opposite seem to see it purely as babysitting, but it is so much more than that. Quality early learning is the most effective use of the education dollar. On this side of the House, we see spending on early child learning as an investment, whether that's an investment in the educators who guide the children or investment to fund a child's attendance.

On one of these measures, COVID showed us another way. Families were given free child care. I'll say from the outset that the model used by the Morrison government was far from perfect for the childcare centres in the Blue Mountains and Hawkesbury. The sector wasn't consulted about how to keep the doors open and keep their staff employed. There were what I will kindly call unintended consequences that came from not understanding the sector and not bothering to speak to them before announcing to the world that things would change and, in fact, would change in just a couple of days. As further changes occurred, even those were not communicated directly to the sector, but they had to hear about it via the media. Directors of early learning centres went through hell at that time and, along with their workers, deserve our thanks for demonstrating the role they play as absolutely essential workers.

For many of the families I have spoken to, aside from some guilt in not paying when they felt they still could, the change was a revelation. This was particularly so for women whose work is not necessarily regular, such as casual workers who might get more work some weeks than others, workers who need to be flexible to meet employers' demands and self-employed people whose work goes up and down. For the first time they didn't have to do that calculation in their head about whether it was worth a day's child care, and it was liberating. People were able to say yes to whatever work was available, and often those people were women. But the liberation was short lived.

Knowing that 200,000 women have lost work in this Morrison recession so far, we know how many we need to see back at work, so let's be plain. The question is: how can people go back to all these promised jobs if they can't afford child care or if they lose money for working? Women's economic security is best secured when they can work the days and hours that they want. As well as boosting our kids, investing in early learning boosts workforce participation, and boosting workforce participation increases economic growth. That's why it's such a surprise that not only was there no plan for social housing or aged care in this budget but there was also no plan for child care in this budget. When it's such an important piece in the puzzle, it's unbelievable that, in a trillion dollars, they couldn't find a cent for child care.

4:03 pm

Photo of David GillespieDavid Gillespie (Lyne, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As a father of three adult children who all went in their early years to child care, I realise the full importance and the formative nature of early childhood education and care. In a lot of these debates in MPIs the other side always takes some supposed moral high ground, but two of the speakers said we haven't got anything in the budget for child care or for families, so I am flabbergasted. They must have earmuffs on. They must have closed their eyes and not listened to all the help that we put into the childcare sector during the COVID-19 pandemic. My goodness! There was a $1.9 billion rescue package to get the childcare system up and running again, let alone to get it to survive and stay viable during that. There's been a transition payment of hundreds of millions of dollars as well after the immediate shock and the free childcare period ended. I think there's exactly $708 million in that transition package.

The ABS has looked at the direct family cost for child care, and since the reforms in 2018, when the payments went directly to the childcare service, there was a 3.2 per cent reduction in direct cost for families. The reforms in 2018 were targeted. The whole aim of the exercise is to support those who need the most support. So low-income earners who were working, studying or retraining got more support. Seventy per cent of people are paying less than $5 an hour as a result of those reforms; 25 per cent of people are paying less than $2 per hour. There is more childcare subsidy for some special categories of people. People who are transitioning back into work can get up to a 95 per cent subsidy for the child care that their children receive. People who are in extreme financial difficulty basically get it for free; it's a 120 per cent subsidy. And special categories of people needing extra assistance—grandparents et cetera—are all catered for in this system.

The proof of the pudding is always in the eating, and figures show that in August 2019 workforce participation was at an all-time high of 66.29 per cent. In January 2020, as the COVID steamroller came through, female participation—those earlier figures I gave were for both male and female—was at its highest, at 61½ per cent, compared with 58.7 per cent back in 2013, when the coalition government became responsible for child care once again. If you look at the amount of activity in study, training or work, 56 per cent were reaching 48 hours of activity, whereas now it is 63 per cent. That's almost a seven per cent increase. As I said, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

Child care is really important. All of us on this side realise how important it is. And to have record funding going into child care—it's staggering, the amount we are putting into it now: $10.7 billion will be reached in the coming years. This current year, it's $9.2 billion. If you look at the figures back in 2013, it wasn't anywhere near that—billions of dollars less—and childcare subsidies were all chewed up in the first couple of months, and people were paying more directly above their equivalent subsidy rate. So, we have plenty of good runs on the record.

As I said, some of the people on the other side choose to ignore the facts. We all accept criticism where criticism is due, but surely we have a childcare system that, while it's not perfect—hey, we're not Scandinavia, we're not Germany; we're Australia—is better than the systems of many other nations in the world. It's better than it was in 2013. We've kept it afloat, kept it viable and kept the doors open during the pandemic with the restrictions in place. We have kept the centres viable. Yet the general tax measures in the budget will also help them. (Time expired)

4:08 pm

Photo of Lisa ChestersLisa Chesters (Bendigo, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

At the beginning of my contribution to this matter of public importance debate on child care, I want to pick up on a couple of points made by the assistant minister and the minister—first, the assistant minister, who said 'Yeah, we saved the sector in Victoria, and aren't we great!' You're responsible for the sector. The federal government is responsible for the sector. You need to step in and help the sector when it's in crisis. What happened in Victoria was disgraceful. We knew there was a pandemic. We knew people were losing their jobs. We knew centres were being forced to close. Yet this government waited until the sector almost collapsed before they stepped in to help. Educators were being stood down. Children were being withdrawn. Centres had their attendance drop to 16 per cent. They were literally about to close their doors—one did, in the minister's own electorate—before this government acted. If that's what you call saving a sector—that's about as good as trying to save people from the sinking Titanic. It was a debacle.

And that debacle is ongoing. Today we still have educators sitting at home on JobSeeker, not back at work. Today we have a government who first gave educators the opportunity to be on JobKeeper and then kicked them off when we still have a sector that is struggling to get back and when we still have a sector where, because of the COVID-19 health crisis in Victoria, attendance is still low. I do worry about the long-term impacts of that. But, somewhere along the way, this government changed the conversation from being around childhood education and care to being about child care. Let's remember: this is also about the education and care of our youngest Australians—the foundation steps towards primary school. The research says that the early years matter.

I do like to hear other people in the chamber saying, 'When my adult children were in primary school,' and I congratulate them on being at that stage of their lives. But, as a new mum with a daughter about to start child care in a fortnight's time, I find the system confusing. People in my electorate find it confusing. A lot of chats in the mums' groups on Facebook are about how confusing it is to apply for child care. Where do we sit in the system? There is confusion around free child care. What this government did was an absolute debacle, and they've made it worse.

If we want to talk about the facts and the costs around child care, let's do that. This government, now in its third term, has overseen a 34 per cent increase in fees. Childcare costs have gone up, costing more than $380,000 a year. If you want to talk about it in daily cost figures, in my electorate of Bendigo, your childcare fees per day could range from $94 to $130 a day. Basically, what families and mums say to me in my electorate is that, once you have two in care, it's unaffordable. Once you're trying to pay for two children in early childhood education, it's just not worth it.

As other speakers on this side have highlighted, this system is rigged against mums and dads who want to work full time. Once you have two parents on dual incomes working full time, the fees become so unaffordable that one parent ends up staying home or dropping back to part-time work. I've had pharmacists speak to me about this. I've had public servants speak to me about this. I've had mental health nurses speak to me about this. One mental health nurse said that, once her youngest finished early childhood education, she actually received more money and was better off financially with both her children enrolled in school.

That brings me to a point that the minister made. He had a crack at Labor's policy at the last election and about how Labor were trying to find a solution to help fund wages in the sector. First of all, is the minister trying to justify our early childhood educators being on minimum pay? Is that what he wants—women working in this sector with degrees and diplomas locked into minimum pay? Second, does he not acknowledge that this government—all federal governments—actually helps subsidise wages in a number of industries? Why is it that we put billions in to private school education but we can't put billions in to fund the wages of our early childhood educators? This government, when it comes to early child care and early childhood education, is out of touch. Its budget leaves women behind and continues to leave this sector behind. It needs to do better.

4:13 pm

Photo of Gladys LiuGladys Liu (Chisholm, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Morrison government supports working families and always will. Our childcare system is world class. It is cost-effective and efficient. The coalition government has a genuine commitment to supporting families. Labor only talks about it.

This year has, of course, been filled with challenges. Even in some of the toughest economic and social conditions faced by Australians, the coalition delivers. We have delivered record investment in this sector while making sure support is delivered efficiently. This financial year the Morrison government has delivered a record $9.2 billion in child care. This will grow to $10.7 billion over the coming years. I am proud to be part of a government that is supporting families.

One million families around Australia are being supported with access to affordable, quality childcare services. Families are also benefiting from the Morrison government's recent budget. Families will benefit from income tax relief, with low- and middle-income earners receiving tax relief of up to $2,745 for singles and up to $5,490 for dual-income families. This tax relief puts cash back into the pockets of families. The Morrison government knows that families deserve to keep more of what they make. We are delivering record investment but we are also delivering it with record efficiency. Our childcare system is working well because in 2018 we introduced once-in-a-generation reforms which saw out-of-pocket costs fall. Two years after these reforms, costs to families remain 3.2 per cent lower than under previous childcare packages. Our support is targeted. As the government, we ensure that those who need the support get the support. The benefits are clear: women's workforce participation has increased under our childcare package. I'm sure everyone in this chamber, including Labor, can agree that this is a good thing.

We know that the childcare industry was hit hard by the pandemic. Childcare enrolments were on a downward spiral and the sector was on the brink of collapse. It was the Morrison government that acted swiftly and effectively. The government provided a lifeline to childcare businesses by injecting the industry with a $1.9 billion recovery package and provided free child care to families. This kept childcare businesses afloat and supported those families that were struggling to afford child care. This funding kept 99 per cent of childcare services open and viable. The recovery package was followed by an additional $708 million transition package, with the return of childcare subsidies supporting services to provide care and wages for employees and supporting families with fee freezes and the relaxing of the activity test. It was another show of support to both families and child care by the Morrison government.

In some of Australia's most uncertain times, as a government—

Photo of Llew O'BrienLlew O'Brien (Wide Bay, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The time for the discussion has concluded.