House debates

Wednesday, 9 December 2020

Matters of Public Importance

Child Care

3:20 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 childcare system failing to support Australian families to work the hours they want and need.

I call upon those 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—

3:21 pm

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

This third-term Liberal government have quite a few blind spots: their blatant lack of regard for accountability in aged care; their lack of respect for probity when they use taxpayers' funding, and all the rorts that go along with that; their obsession with undermining workers' rights; and, of course, what we are here to talk about today—their blind belief that the childcare system they designed is actually delivering affordable and accessible care for families, despite evidence showing that it's not. And it's not just a little bit of evidence; it's a truckload of evidence.

Fees have increased by almost 36 per cent since they were elected and by 8.3 per cent since they launched the new subsidy system just over two years ago. Families are now paying, on average, almost $4,000 more per year for child care. The minister likes to quote how much out-of-pocket costs are per hour, as if this is some sort of meaningful measure for a mythical family who needs one or two hours a week! For the rest—who need 10 to 12 hours a day, who pay daily fees, three to five days a week—his comparison is absolutely meaningless. They know they're paying thousands more a year. We know they're paying thousands more a year. It's time that the Liberal Party admits that these families are paying thousands more per year.

The government, at the time of the new childcare subsidy system, called it:

… the largest reform of Australia's child care system in a major win for Australian families.

Now that is the Liberal Party's spin machine in overdrive, because the delivery to Australian families has been absolutely the opposite. They've been suffering under fee hikes, which has been noted not just by this side of the House, not just by countless reports, but, indeed, by the OECD. It has noted that Australian families contribute 37 per cent of early childhood education and care costs. This compares to the OECD average of 18 per cent.

Australian families are getting a dud deal from this government! Not only do we have Australian families paying higher out-of-pocket costs, but we have 100,000 families who are locked out of the system because they just can't afford it. Things will not get better, with the Department of Education, Skills and Employment—the minister's own department—predicting that fees will increase by 5.3 per cent over the next year. This will be well over double the inflation rate, if not more, and it means that the real value of the subsidy will continue to decline. This is a point that the government has refused to acknowledge: time and time again, their subsidy's value has declined and been in freefall for the last two years.

Multiple independent reports show the workforce disincentive rate that is a design feature of this government's childcare system. The fact is that many secondary income earners are working for free if they want to work the fourth and fifth day and pay for child care as well. It is a system designed to support part-time work for the secondary income earner and does not encourage full-time work. We know that women have been hit by the COVID-19 recession. Payroll jobs worked by women have fallen by 3.1 per cent since the beginning of the crisis. The female unemployment rate is seven per cent, and it's eight per cent for females seeking full-time work. The female underemployment rate is 12 per cent, and 92,000 women have exited the labour force since March. They've just given up.

The minister responsible has already vacated this portfolio—perhaps he's getting set up for the trade portfolio!—but I am sure that the minister at the table will brag about how much extra funding the government is providing for the childcare subsidy. But the increase reflected in the budget is due to higher childcare fees and lower wages. This is not something the government should really be bragging about. The extra spending has nothing to do with dealing with the structural problems that exist that work as a disincentive for so many women to go back to work.

Families know there is a problem and so does the IMF. It just released a report on strong, sustainable, balanced and inclusive growth, where it calls on Australia to invest in childcare spending to increase female labour participation. So it's not just us on this side of the House, it's not just families right around the country, it's not just businesses and economists; the IMF has directly called on Australia to lift its game. The head of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency agrees. Last week, she said it is very clear that, if we are serious about changing the circumstances for women and men and allow them to return to the office, we must look at the issue of child care.

In the true fashion of this government, on 8 October The West Australia reported that the Prime Minister—or someone in his office or a spokesperson—said that the system needed reform, but they believed there should be a six-month marketing campaign first. Of course, this Prime Minister would put marketing before reform. I'd love to know if the minister can confirm if the government's $15 million so-called 'our comeback' marketing campaign will include the Prime Minister's desire to have a bit of spin when it comes to child care.

We've also heard many members of the government out in the media floating long discredited ideas about how to improve the system. In particular, they are now suggesting that tax deductibility should be available for services outside the subsidy system. Essentially, what they are saying is, 'It's time for tax deductibility for nannies.' They floated this idea despite the Productivity Commission having already looked at tax deductibility and dismissing it.

This government also does not have a great track record when it comes to nannies. Their last brainwave in this space was the Prime Minister's own nanny pilot, which was a dismal failure. There is no better example—well, there are many examples, but I would say there is no better one—of how this Prime Minister's announcements do not match delivery than the nanny program. In 2015, the then social services minister—now the Prime Minister—announced a $246 million nanny pilot program with great fanfare and promised that 10,000 families would benefit from it. As usual with this Prime Minister, the delivery of the program was a disaster. Indeed, rather than 10,000 families, only 215 families benefitted from it. That is a success rate of 2.15 per cent! We have a very low bar in terms of success sometimes in this place, but 2.15 per cent is just a debacle. So this leftover idea shouldn't be heated.

Of course, many government backbenchers refer to the importance of increasing workforce participation and removing workforce disincentive rates. Even backbenchers on the government side admit it's a problem. Tax deductibility for nannies is a stinker, but this Prime Minister is so stubborn and arrogant that he just cannot bring himself to endorse Labor's plan. Why else would he keep dismissing it time and time again? I'm sure that the government in this debate will point out that families on high incomes will benefit from Labor's plan. The truth is that 97 per cent of families will benefit from Labor's plan. We have a plan that will help families with the cost of living. And while this government continues to see it as some sort of privilege that women can return to the workforce, we on this side of the House see it as a right—a right to have some independence in their economic future, a right to engage and have a choice when it comes to going back to work and being able to have child care. That gets to the heart of this problem, that women and men both are unable to access affordable child care in this country.

So, Labor has a plan whereby we will remove the cap and make the tapering rate fairer. We're going to get the ACCC to look at price regulation, to shine a light on costs and fees, and we're going to put the Productivity Commission to work on a comprehensive review of how we implement a universal 90 per cent subsidy system. We will fix Scott Morrison's busted childcare system for good and ensure that families in this country get a decent go. That's one thing families can rely on: on our side of politics, we will help them. We won't play class warfare as this government does when it comes to child care. We won't pit one family against another. The message from Labor is clear: we want to ensure that families can get back to work in this pandemic. We want to see a system that helps grow our economy and benefits everyone. We don't see this as a welfare measure; we see this as a productivity measure.

3:31 pm

Photo of Sussan LeySussan Ley (Farrer, Liberal Party, Minister for the Environment) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm very pleased to speak in today's MPI debate on child care. It took the member for Kingston until about 90 per cent of the way through her speech to actually mention Labor's plan and to hint at where, unfortunately, it takes people who have every right to access the early learning and care system today. As someone who's been a childcare minister I can pitch this two ways. Would you prefer to help people on the highest incomes at the expense of those on single incomes who absolutely need to have early learning education and care for their children—

Opposition Members:

Opposition members interjecting

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

Members on my left!

Photo of Sussan LeySussan Ley (Farrer, Liberal Party, Minister for the Environment) Share this | | Hansard source

who are some of the most vulnerable children in the country—

Ms Rishworth interjecting

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

The member for Kingston!

Photo of Sussan LeySussan Ley (Farrer, Liberal Party, Minister for the Environment) Share this | | Hansard source

The member for Kingston should listen, or leave the chamber if she doesn't want to. But this is a really important, critical point, because something has happened to the modern Labor Party when it comes to their modern childcare policy, and I shake my head every time I have to read it. In his budget reply speech, the Leader of the Opposition said:

So our long term goal, and the mission we will set for the Productivity Commission, which will be asked to report in the first term of a Labor government, is to investigate moving to a 90 per cent subsidy for child care for every Australian family.

A 90 per cent subsidy for every Australian family—that means very large payments for families who are on very large incomes. And if you bake an additional $6 billion into your budget—or your shadow budget—for an increase of $6 billion over four years, you can probably try to make this magic pudding go everywhere, but at its heart is that complete inequity. I don't know what's happened to the modern Labor Party—the Labor Party of the tree in Barcaldine and the shearing sheds of western Queensland, a party that actually recognised that the most vulnerable children in society deserve the biggest hand up, and our early education and childcare sector is a way to do that.

Under Labor's policy, a family that earns a million dollars and has two children in centre based day care for 30 hours a week currently receives nothing in childcare subsidy. I think that's fair, for a family that earns a million dollars. But under Labor's universal 90 per cent childcare subsidy they will receive a taxpayer subsidy of $561 a week. That's over $28,000 a year. How does that work for this modern Labor Party? I don't know.

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

It's aspirational.

Photo of Sussan LeySussan Ley (Farrer, Liberal Party, Minister for the Environment) Share this | | Hansard source

The member for Kingston is saying it's aspirational. We love aspiration, but we don't necessarily think that the costs of people who have those incomes—

Ms Rishworth interjecting

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

The member for Kingston will cease interjecting.

Photo of Sussan LeySussan Ley (Farrer, Liberal Party, Minister for the Environment) Share this | | Hansard source

You can't trust Labor when it comes to child care. That is really the very strong message for the House. The member for Kingston talks about mythical families. Well, this may not be a mythical family, but let's take a family that is earning more than $243,250—say, any member of the opposition—with two children in child care five days a week for 40 weeks of the year, paying the maximum daily fee. They will benefit six times more than a single parent—say, a cleaner earning $56,000 a year—who has the same childcare arrangements. It is absolutely crazy.

I don't know why child care has come up, but it may have something to do with the childcare calculator. Labor launched its childcare calculator website this week. I'm quoting from Alice Workman, who has the column 'The Strewth' in The Australian. She starts with:

Well this is awkward! Labor launched its Childcare Calculator website this week, which allows Quiet Australians to estimate how much extra cash they'd get under an Albanese government. The data collected by the ALP

for their childcare calculator—

includes names, email addresses, annual family income (before tax), postcode, number of children and daily childcare fees (before subsidy). And which company are they entrusting to store this private information? Amazon Web Services, owned by the world's richest man …

I'm still quoting from 'The Strewth'. I want to acknowledge Alice Workman's good work here. She says:

There are a lot of Australians who do take their privacy seriously. They should not have parliamentarians look down their noses at them about their desire to have their data protected …

Who said that? The member for Chifley. What have we got? We've got a childcare calculator that collects your personal information and gives it to Amazon Web Services. I don't know that that is really a policy that the Labor Party wants to employ.

I spent a lot of time talking about the Labor—

Ms Rishworth interjecting

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

The member for Kingston is warned.

Photo of Sussan LeySussan Ley (Farrer, Liberal Party, Minister for the Environment) Share this | | Hansard source

I don't know why I have to shout. Really! I've listened carefully to everything the member for Kingston has said. I actually quite like the member for Kingston—she and I have been in this place awhile—so none of this is personal, but I still don't like having to shout. I want to give people who may be listening to the broadcast a sense of the contrast between Labor's policy and ours.

I want to talk about ours now. One of the reasons our childcare system is working well is that our once-in-a generation set of reforms—we introduced them in 2018—saw out-of-pocket costs for parents fall. Even two years later, thanks to our reforms, out-of-pocket costs for families remain 3.2 per cent lower than under the previous childcare package, as reported by the ABS. The critical thing about any childcare system is that it has to be targeted. It has to have at its core the principle that those who earn the least receive the highest level of subsidy—in our case, 85 per cent. I come back to those childcare centres that provide early education and care for some of the most vulnerable children, many for whom home is not a safe place to be. Family units are dysfunctional. There is no blame apportioned to this; there's just a recognition that those little children need to be in a safe, secure, supported environment. If it means that people whose annual income is $1 million have to perhaps not get the same level of subsidy in order that we support those vulnerable families, then I think that makes a lot of sense. And that's what I mean when I say our system is targeted.

In our system, over 70 per cent of families have out-of-pocket costs of less than $5 an hour. Nearly a quarter are paying less than $2 an hour for centre based child care, because we don't want to turn those families away. We want them to know that these opportunities are there for them. Demand for child care is now higher than pre COVID, and that's a good sign for the economy recovering, which the member for Kingston is keen to see, as are we. Nationally, attendance levels at day care centres were 112 per cent of pre COVID levels by early November, and women's workforce participation has also increased under our package. These are all good indicators that the package is pitched right for the economy. It has the flexibility in it to move. Remember, under Labor, fees increased by 53 per cent and sharp practices were rife. Since coming to government, we've actually saved $3.2 billion by addressing non-compliant behaviour. You've got to be tough to do that, but we did it. It was behaviour that Labor did nothing about.

Our childcare package has always supported families who need extra support, and I am focusing on these families because they are some of the most important families in this debate. As a family's income decreases, the amount the government provides increases. That means we support those who need it most. Even more support is available for those who need it. So 95 per cent subsidies are already available for families who are transitioning to work—that's a very challenging time of life—and, effectively, free child care, up to 120 per cent subsidy, is already available for families experiencing financial hardship.

There is no magic pudding where a policy can be all things to all people, and it is quite appropriate that families earning $1 million do not have a level of subsidy that is six times, for example, that of a single parent on $50,000 a year. It is completely—

Ms Rishworth interjecting

And that's the problem, Member for Kingston. It's the same. It needs to be flexible and recognise and provide more support to those on lower incomes. On budget night I was expecting from the Leader of the Opposition something a little bit more than another investigation by the Productivity Commission. But an investigation that looks at a 90 per cent subsidy rate? I don't know how members of the Labor Party who heard this in policy development let that through. Families who have experienced a decrease in hours due to COVID—and I want to recognise them in this debate—can still access the maximum hours of subsidy because the activity test has been relaxed. Our budget focus is on jobs. It's on getting people into work and it's on training, and those are the flow-on benefits that we'll see in the sector. Parents and carers are taking up work and training opportunities—that's a good thing. Demand for care will increase and the system will recognise that. Our childcare system is working very well indeed, and it's supporting families with what families are able to access. And remember that the economy, more broadly, is supported by the measures that we introduced in the last budget.

This MPI is on child care. I think it's an opportunity for members of the Labor Party to disavow that policy. It was probably a bit unwise to say on budget night that they were going to investigate moving to a 90-per-cent subsidy for child care for every Australian family. They should just remember that there would be very large payments for families on very large incomes. Families earning a million dollars with two children in centre based care currently receive nothing under our government's policy, and I'm proud to say that. But I really question the thinking of the Labor Party. What has happened to the modern Labor Party that they have produced something so strange, so unwieldy and so unfair?

3:41 pm

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

I might just ask the member why the minister cut the subsidy for vulnerable children from 24-hours to 12 hours? Truly, a government that cares!

I once had the opportunity to interview the great Barry Jones. Apart from being a quiz champion, he's renowned for being one of Australia's great thinkers. I asked Barry what the meaning of life was. His response has stayed with me. He said, 'Well, apart from reproduction for the continuation of the species,' something that Barry would say, 'the other meaningful thing that you can do is to contribute.' He then reflected that, never having had children himself, and therefore not fulfilling what he considered to be an important aspect of humanity, he felt beholden to fulfil the latter part, and that was to contribute.

It occurs to me that this extraordinary insight has perfect application in Labor's childcare policy. Not only does it support the continuation of our species through the encouragement of reproduction and the subsequent care and education of said offspring but it fulfils the second principle of the meaning of life, and that is to make a contribution. This policy allows parents to work in our society and contribute to the economic wellbeing of our country and, importantly, of their family. My office has been contacted numerous times by parents who are struggling with the pandemic and the pressures of finding affordable child care. Women have been most impacted in the Hunter. The highest percentage of people found to be unemployed in the last six months have been women. Also, women can't get back to work.

Take Kristie, for example, a typical mum in my electorate, who contacted me in October about the increase in fees for 2021. Kristie wants to be able to contribute, both as a mother and as a provider. She should be able to work and improve her own family's situation without being penalised. Or take Charlene, Kerryn or Chiara, who have all contacted me about the impact of childcare costs. Kerryn has spoken with my office on multiple occasions during the height of the pandemic about the positive impacts that free child care were having on her family. Why wouldn't this government want to sustain these benefits? It should never have taken a pandemic and industry pressure for this government to front up and help these families.

This is a really simple equation: when you invest in early education you see the rewards for a lifetime. Why wouldn't this government want to invest in the future of our children? We know childcare is a growing industry a with fantastic workforce. Why wouldn't this government want to invest in these jobs and the workforce of this vital industry?

Recently, I had the great pleasure of taking the leader of the Labor Party, Anthony Albanese, to Kurri Kurri preschool, my preschool that I started at in 1974. The staff at Kurri Kurri & District Preschool Kindergarten do an amazing job with the growing minds of my community.

Photo of Graham PerrettGraham Perrett (Moreton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Education and Training) Share this | | Hansard source

Have they got a shrine for you?

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

No, member for Moreton, they don't have a shrine for me, but perhaps that's an idea! The childcare workers are enthusiastic, bright and passionate individuals who have a genuine care and passion for mentoring and educating our children. Again, I ask, 'Why wouldn't the government want to support this workforce?' We know childcare workers and early educators—because that's what they are—are significantly underpaid, and it seems that only Labor wants to truly recognise them for the value that they bring societally and economically.

Australian families want to work more so that they can provide for their children, pay their mortgages and just create more opportunities. We always want something better for what's coming into the future. Australian families want to be able to afford the extras in life. They want to be able to take their kids away for a holiday, maybe pay for them to do a sport or, in many instances, sadly, just keep a roof over their heads. Raising kids, as anyone who's had them will tell you, is an expensive thing to do but it's equally fulfilling. Every parent knows the cost and every family welcomes support and investment in our childcare system. This government's continued failures aren't going unnoticed by the families of Australia.

3:46 pm

Photo of Andrew LamingAndrew Laming (Bowman, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

We have an early education system that is the envy of the world and it's good we can debate, towards the end of a calendar year, this very important sector and the huge investments that have been made by both sides of politics over the last two decades.

There's more positive news about Australian school outcomes, suggesting that the improvements, many of which were made by previous administrations, in the Early Years Learning Framework are starting to make a difference right across the country. But before we start on child care, the situation in inner-city areas should be pointed out. Obviously, real estate prices are higher and, potentially, out-of-pocket costs are too. Areas where incomes are also higher can be very different to the outer-metropolitan scenario, where we have low occupancy rates. Then we move into regional and remote areas where, in some cases, there's no childcare services at all. They're very, very heterogeneous situations and it's difficult to make generalisations about the entire country. Were we to do that, we'd turn to the ABS, and they would make it very clear that out of pockets are down, around three per cent lower than before our childcare reforms in 2018 were introduced.

A little bit of context for those of you who weren't around during the previous Labor administration: in opposition we brooked 58 per cent increases in childcare fees under this Labor government. Not for a moment should we ever think that the warriors for affordable childcare sit on the other side of the chamber. It's not the case at all. We fully understood the importance of quality early education and we knew that out of pockets went up, and in that delicate kabuki between out of pockets, quality care and wages for staff, it's actually been the coalition that's landed it every time. It doesn't mean there aren't difficult anecdotes brought here by the other side, but I can certainly speak on behalf of the 55 early-year providers in my electorate that are strong, thriving and recovering from COVID. Attendance nationwide is now around 112 per cent on pre-COVID levels. So if you're going to a better-overall test on child care and early education, it'll land on this side of the chamber. If you're going to look at the out of pockets and affordability for parents, fundamentally the explosion in costs came from that side, and parents know deep down and within their hearts that the better-overall tests for parents is from this side of the chamber and the coalition.

When it comes to quality care and the evidence for it, we've supported all of those elements. But let's be honest: the coalition has probably had the dial a little more focused on emphasising the importance of working parents having support in early education, and some of the anecdotes before about reduced hours were about an incentive not only to work but also to volunteer. These options are put to working parents, or parents we hope will work more hours, as an incentive: the more you work, the more you seek out and the more you volunteer then the more hours you get. I think that's utterly and intrinsically fair, and incredibly well understood.

The other test of course is typologies of parental income. What we know is that it has been the coalition driving the second income earner back into work, having the flexibility to raise household income. If you travel around the OECD, the big metric we work on is raising overall household income. It's gone from 59 per cent when we arrived in government in 2013 up to 61.5 per cent. In participation in the workforce for women, it's again the better off overall test for working women and it falls on the side of the coalition. Don't just believe me; believe the ABS.

Let's look at the lower income families—those who are earning below the immediate household income for $90,000. For them the average hourly cost of child care sits at around $1.50 up to $2.96 for a high-income earner. Then we had the brainwave: why don't we, as a Labor Party, start collecting parental data and set up an Amazon survey and hand all of the data to the very same company you're campaigning against on the other side of the street? What came of that was we saw that, whether you're earning $72,000 a year or you're earning over $300,000 a year, basically it determines how much money the Labor Party hands you. It's hard to justify. It's hard to brook, providing a family on $350,000 ten times more subsidy than the family on under $70,000. Clearly they're a party that doesn't think through its policies. Clearly they're a party that hasn't prepared its policies for the Australian people. Finally, when you apply the better off overall test for parents, the better off overall test for children and the better off overall test for workers in the early education sector, they know that the Labor Party is basically sniffing around for union membership, with very little care in the early learning centre beyond that. If you could remove your focus on signing up people and turning low-income workers into very-low-income workers by taking their income and feeding the union movement, you'd perhaps have a slightly more acute focus on the needs of young children.

3:51 pm

Photo of Graham PerrettGraham Perrett (Moreton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Education and Training) Share this | | Hansard source

It's great to have the member for Bowman campaign against the stage 3 tax cuts. It's very brave of him in the Liberal Party. I thank the member for Kingston for her MPI:

The government's childcare system failing to support Australian families to work the hours they want and need.

I've been in parliament for a long time with the member for Kingston and the member for Grey, but the member for Kingston seems to have taken, over that time, her investment in children very personally. I know that she has put a lot into this policy. It's great, because the member for Kingston understands the great productivity gains that come—the low hanging fruit in the Australian economy—that will flow by the Liberal government implementing Labor Party policy.

I know what those opposite think of child care. We know that childcare fees have increased by 36 per cent on their watch. We know that Australian families are paying, on average, almost $4,000 a year for child care. Let's look at how we compare to other countries. If we look at the OECD countries, the average contribution there is about 18 per cent, and you can almost double that in Australia to 37 per cent. We know that we are paying too much. We know that there are institutional hurdles stopping people with parental responsibilities, primarily women, but males as well, from getting into the workplace. We know that fees are predicted to go up next year. At Senate estimates we heard the department predict a 5.3 per cent hike next year, outstripping CPI.

We know child care is expensive. My children are beyond child care now, but I remember the costs well. In my household, obviously, we could afford it, but we still felt what it was like. Having both parents in the workforce is good for the economy, but all those skills are wasted on the Thursday and Friday—those two days of the week where the person would be effectively be working for free. We know the current arrangements lock many people out of the workforce, particularly women. And we know, statistically, women have done it tough during the pandemic. Women who are overwhelmingly employed as permanent, part-time or casuals employees, particularly in the accommodation and hospitality sectors, were the ones first hit when the pandemic swept across Australia. Women were the ones that hit the unemployment queues first. We know 320,000 women stopped working or were no longer looking for work in the first part of this year. Some have gone back to work—I do acknowledge that—but 92,000 women have exited the labour force since March and not gone back. It's either too hard or they've given up. We have a female unemployment rate of seven per cent, and, if they're seeking full-time work, it's eight per cent. The female underemployment rate is 12 per cent. We know there is a problem. If there were more women sitting around the cabinet table, Prime Minister Morrison would understand that as well. He would hear from those who've had a lived experience.

Ms Price interjecting

I take that interjection from the minister at the table. We've certainly had more female prime ministers than the Liberal Party and we've certainly had more female deputies than the Liberal Party, so we understand what the lived experience is.

We listen to the experts. We know the economists are saying there is low-hanging fruit there and, by implementing this policy, we will actually benefit the Australian economy. Don't listen to me. I'm going to tell you about a particular left-leaning group called the International Monetary Fund. It's not exactly the 'Toorak Tree-Hugging Club'. The International Monetary Fund recommended that investing in childcare measures should be a priority measure for Australia. We know that there'll be economic benefits, and we know that there'll be social benefits. We know that, under Labor, 97 per cent of families who use child care will be better off.

We know that the Prime Minister—who, when he was Minister Morrison, invented this current Liberal Party policy—won't back away. He's such a proud and arrogant person that he won't take advice. He won't listen to the Productivity Commission. Instead, Labor has a policy which will benefit most Australians and which will increase the childcare subsidy rates and taper them for every family earning less than $530,000. That is a wonderful policy.

3:56 pm

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

Our childcare system has been working well for over a million families, and we have supported and kept the whole industry afloat and still standing after the COVID crisis. In fact, we put in an extra $900 million of special COVID related support to get it through the crisis. It's an interesting fact that demand for child care has gone up during COVID from pre-COVID levels. Attendance levels were up to 112 per cent of pre-COVID levels by November, and that includes Victoria. I can tell you why: it's because people are working from home. It's hard to be working in your home workplace when you're looking after children. I suspect that that's why it has gone up. We have kept the system afloat. It could have crumbled because everyone would have lost income, but we supported them and they got their due entitlements. The other side is making out that they're the only ones that have insight into child care. What a load of hogwash! They talk as though members on this side haven't had children at child care. Just about every member of the coalition has had children through the childcare system—even me and you, Deputy Speaker Llew O'Brien, and all the members here. For goodness sake! They get a bit sanctimonious sometimes, I think.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and workforce participation by women has gone up with this plan. It is up to 61½ per cent from 58 per cent. They talk about sending the plan off to the Productivity Commission. The current system was the result of a 16-month Productivity Commission analysis of the system, and that's why it is working. It was well considered and well executed. There are out-of-pocket costs, but the people who get the most assistance are those who need the most assistance. People who work more get more assistance. There is a tapered rate, but it's well over $200,000. Looking at some of the figures, it's really quite a fair system. If you're earning $30,000, you get an 85 per cent subsidy; if you're working and your income is $60,000, the subsidy goes to 78 per cent; if you're earning a combined income of $110,000, it goes to 71 per cent. But there are special situations. People coming out of unemployment get more, and people in social situations that are less than optimal can get a subsidy greater than 100 per cent. People like grandparents who are caring for children can get assistance through this system. It is a fair and reasonable system.

Now, the other side is talking about a 90 per cent subsidy. Looking at some of those figures, their own childcare calculator shows that a family on $356,000 with a child in child care five days a week would benefit 10 times more than the policy would give to a family with the same childcare arrangements earning $72,000. How fair is that? Doesn't that go against every principle of the Labor Party? Child care, early learning and nurturing children are really important issues. We support it. The whole nation supports it. But those opposite have just got a blank cheque and people with too high an income—people think what we've instituted is a reasonable means-testing process.

We need to be prudent in where we give our support. Those that need the most support and those that are working the most get the most subsidies. That is entirely reasonable, and it is sustainable. Parents still have to have some responsibility for their children, but we know that some parents don't have that capability. We're not all equal, but I cannot accept the proviso that people earning up to half a million dollars are going to get this huge subsidy. For goodness sake! We have just spent billions and billions of dollars supporting the Australian economy through COVID. We're trying to get things going, and they want to subsidise people who earn half a million dollars! That is unreasonable. You have to do a taper. You have to take some responsibility for your own children when you have the benefit of that high an income.

4:01 pm

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm very pleased to rise and make a contribution to this matter of public importance today, and there's no matter of public policy that is more important than delivering affordable, accessible, quality child care and early education for all children in Australia. I thank the member for Kingston for bringing forward this MPI today.

The government's childcare system is failing to support Australian families to work the hours that they want and need. And that's what this policy that Labor's proposing seeks to address. It enables increased flexibility for women to be able to make the choices that suit their lives, because, if given the choice of listening to the debate from government members today or listening to the families in my community, I know which group I'm backing in terms of the lived experience in accessing child care and early education in this country. Just like the constituents of every other representative in this House, the working families in Newcastle are telling me that child care is way too expensive and it is a difficult system to navigate. These are the two most common things that young mums in particular will come to talk to me about. In many ways, COVID-19, like so many parts of our economy, really amplified the problems that were already there.

This government ran the cruellest hoax of all, telling people they had a free childcare system operating for a period of time, exactly at a time when so many women were unable to access any child care whatsoever. I had frontline health workers coming to me throughout that period saying: 'Sharon, I've taken parental leave. My little one's three months old. I've got the call to go back to work. They need frontline workers back at the hospital. I'd love to go back, but I can't get any child care. I cannot get in.' And then, when they did get a foot in the door, after many, many tries, it was, 'You can only have one day, maybe two days.' That was it. So you ring your workplace back and say: 'Look, I am a trained health professional. I would love to be doing my bit to assist during the global pandemic, but you know what? I've only got child care for two days, so that's it.' So those workplaces, if they were doing the right thing, snapped up those women—women of great skills and talent—but the women were not given the choice to return to work full time. There was no choice on the table for them at that point.

We know that women have borne the brunt of COVID-19, yet we had a budget brought down in this House that effectively chose to ignore 51 per cent of the population. When those women dared to articulate a critique of this budget, they were told, 'There are no credible women in this country that don't like this budget.' You can imagine how outraged they felt about that. But when this government refuses to accept that there is a problem on the table it says to women in my electorate like Alana Robertson, who wanted to go back to hairdressing after the birth of her child, that she should be happy to just take home $100 a week out of her pay packet after paying out for child care and she should be happy to work five days a week and take home $100. I don't think she needs to be happy about that. I don't think any woman would be happy about that. It's like she is working solely to pay the childcare centre.

We know a lot of women are going back to work not for the money. Indeed, other constituents of mine, occupational therapists, wanted to return to full-time work. They wanted to get back into the workforce and enjoy the social contact. But, again, there was no choice for full-time child care for them and no choice for affordable child care. Many families depend on both parents to earn an income and it really is time that this government faced up to the fact the childcare system is broken and it works against Australian women and families. (Time expired)

4:06 pm

Photo of Tony PasinTony Pasin (Barker, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

First I'll go through the facts and then we'll have a bit of fun. Our government is investing a record amount in child care—$9.2 billion. That figure is rising to $10.7 billion—fact! We're supporting a million families—fact! We supported child care through the COVID pandemic to the tune of $900 million—fact! The childcare package established in 2018 was a once-in-a-generation set of reforms that saw out-of-pocket expenses fall—fact! Even two years later, with all the inflationary pressures, out-of-pocket costs for families remain 3.2 per cent lower than under the previous childcare package—fact! Our childcare system is targeted—fact! Those who earn the least have the highest level of subsidy at 85 per cent—fact! Seventy per cent of families pay out-of-pocket costs of less than $5 an hour—fact! Twenty-five per cent are paying less than $2 an hour.

Ms Rishworth interjecting

Despite the member for Kingston's consternation, participation pre-COVID for women in the workforce was up. Do you know what? Nationally, attendance levels at day care centres were up as well. These are the facts.

I turn to Labor's history on this. Fees went up 53 per cent—fact! Sharp practices were rife—fact! That is their legacy. During question time I thought to myself, what is Labor's policy about? Who are they looking to support? I have to tell you, they are not supporting low- or middle-income earners. The once proud Labor Party that championed the cause of the workers now come in here and advocate for billionaires. That's what they are here for, ladies and gentlemen.

I'm pleased the member for McEwen is here, because I need a comparator. He's a backbencher. Under Labor's unfair policy, a family earning $243,250—let's say, a member of the opposition backbench with two children in child care five days a week for 40 weeks of the year; I don't know if he has children but let's assume he has—paying the maximum daily fees so those childcare workers can get paid well will benefit six times more compared to a single parent, who might have the job of cleaning the member for McEwen's suite, earning $56,000 a year and with the same childcare arrangements. For anyone listening out there, if it's the same city, the same childcare centre, the same costs and the same number of children then, under Labor, the family earning more, which gets five times the salary, gets six times the benefit.

That's why they're in here. They're in here to look after the elites—the political elites and the business elites. I think this is outrageous! They're not here to look after low-income workers and they wonder why they have won a majority in this place only once in 27 years! I'd start listening to the member for Hunter. He's got it; he understands it. I tell you, one election in 27 years.

An opposition member interjecting

I said a majority in this place. The next bit is courtesy of Alice Workman at the Oz, ladies and gentlemen, a woman whose radar for hypocrisy is as sharp as anything you'll find. She pointed out yesterday that Australian Labor Party politicians came together—that in itself is a miracle, because they're so divided they make the coalition under Malcolm Turnbull look like a united force—for the hashtag #makeamazonpay campaign. They want to make sure that Amazon pays its taxes and pays for its impact on the environment. But guess who is hosting the member for Kingston's calculator? Amazon! Hypocrisy! That's awkward. That's so awkward!

So they came together, which in itself is a miracle—the Prime Minister has said, 'I believe in miracles and the Labor Party coming together is a miracle.' The member for Kingston: hypocrisy, writ large.

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

Well, I certainly had no problem hearing that contribution. I call the member for McEwen.

4:12 pm

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

First of all, I'd like to raise a point of order and ask that the member withdraw that remark that he made against the member for Kingston.

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

In the context of the debate I'm going to allow it—

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


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

I've heard it on both sides.

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

I guess that 'empty vessels make the most noise' is what we've just heard. But let's talk about the member for Barker as he scurries out. I'll just remind him that he sits there and refers me but he seems to forget that I was elected as the Second Deputy Speaker of this parliament and, despite the claims that he made publicly that he was going to be a minister in his first or second term, he's still sitting on the last row because no-one wants to sit near him. I'll also remind him that if he talks about fairness and equality then he should ask why he deserves a $15,000 tax cut when someone earning $46,000 is going to get $400. That's the true Liberal Party.

But let's talk about child care, because child care is so important. It's so important that the first people that this bunch of Tories over there cut off the JobKeeper were childcare workers. In fact, they refused to support day care workers. We had police officers in our area who couldn't do extra shifts during the pandemic because they couldn't get access to child care. Why? Because there were no jobs. Why? Because the workers were put off and the day cares were closed, because this government, the Tories over there, decided that people who worked on the front line didn't deserve support for child care. That's what we've seen right across here. Fees have increased by 36 per cent since this lot over there were elected for their three terms.

We had the minister at the table in her faux support for vulnerable kids. She just happened to forget that she and her government cut the safety net for vulnerable kids. Then the member for Bowman came in here and said, 'Well, actually, they don't deserve child care; it should only be for working families.' We have to sit here and say, 'This is a government that is all at sea when it comes to child care.' That's because they don't believe in it and they don't support it. Families are paying an extra $4,000 a year for child care. The OECD has noted that Australian families contribute 37 per cent of early education and care costs compared to an OECD average of 18 per cent. This is the real truth of what's going on behind here. All the bluff and bluster from the member for Barker—he's a wit, you've got to admit; he's halfway there but he's getting there, so let's just keep encouraging him.

Child care has been an abject failure because of this government, and it has meant that families have not been able to reach their full potential. Underemployment for women is at 10 per cent—more than one woman in 10 is unemployed because of this government specifically. I want to talk about one of my local constituents, who went back to work eight weeks after having twins in 2012 because she wanted to provide for her family. She wanted to be part of the workforce, contribute to society and give her kids the best start. She worked part-time at McDonald's, on night shift, so she could mind her kids during the day—because she could not afford the day care. She was not able to put her kids to bed, because she was out earning a living at night. And then she had to give notice and accept a new job that is five days a week. What this means is that she now needs to use childcare services three days a week for three children. So she went to Centrelink to use their rate calculator and she worked out that, with her new salary, it was going to cost her $305 for three days of child care. She went through the bureaucracy of Centrelink on the phone for four hours, at which point they told her she was only entitled to 50 per cent of the total fee refund and they were only going to pay 35 per cent just in case she underestimated her income—and they won't pay the other 15 per cent until the end of the financial year. What does that mean? It means she has to find an extra $50 to $60 per week out of her pocket while raising three kids and trying to pay the bills.

The childcare system badly needs a government that is out there to help honest, hardworking parents and not rip money out of subsidies and not fail childcare workers. The way to do that is to elect an Albanese Labor government. People out in voter land can go to the website. We heard those opposite saying, 'You're using Amazon. How bad's that!' Let's remind them. Amazon are the ones looking after the COVID app. We know that that app is Greg Hunt's specialty. The Minister for Health told us how great the COVID app was going to be. In fact, the COVID app found 17 cases. How good's that! That was the number of votes he received when he ran for election as deputy leader!

At the end of the day, Australian families need help and support and they can't get it through this government. All this government does is penalise women—through the budget and through their childcare packages. We need an Albanese Labor government to address this now.

4:17 pm

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

Australia's economic recovery from COVID depends on working families being able to return to the workforce. Our government is committed to increasing workforce participation, particularly among women. In order to do that, we need a strong and resilient economy that works for families. That is why the Morrison government is committed to affordable and accessible child care before, during and after the COVID pandemic. The Morrison government system of childcare funding is targeted and means-tested. This is designed to help those who need it the most. Many Australian families can work the hours they want and need.

In 2018 the government introduced a suite of reforms to the childcare sector that have slashed out-of-pocket expenses. That's what the taxpayer needs and wants. This was one of the most significant reforms to the early education and care system in 40 years, and I'm proud to be a part of a government that actually delivers on this important sector. ABS CPI data shows that the cost to families remains 3.2 per cent lower than under the previous childcare package. I'm proud that, under this government's childcare measures, female workforce participation has increased from 58.7 per cent in September 2013 to 61.5 per cent in January 2020—before COVID hit. This was critical for families and, in particular, for female economic empowerment.

The government supports a targeted approach to child care. This means those families who earn the least receive the highest level of subsidy. On top of this, we provide additional support for those who are doing it particularly tough. A subsidy of 95 per cent is available for families who are transitioning to work. A subsidy of 120 per cent is already available for families who are experiencing financial hardship. In most cases, this means free child care.

In the 2020-21 budget, the government will pay a record $9.2 billion in childcare subsidy payments—a record amount of funding to an incredibly important sector. This will grow to $10.7 billion in coming years. Around one million Australian families who are balancing work and parental responsibilities are benefiting from this package. This is a government that cares. This was on the back of a $1.9 billion Early Childhood Education and Care Relief Package to support the viability of the sector during the COVID pandemic. This was so important to a million Australian families who received fee-free child care, and it meant that the sector could keep open, with 99 per cent of current services staying open during a period when families wanted confidence. They wanted confidence that they'd have the same carers they'd had, throughout the pandemic. I know, as a mother, that it's so important for your child to have certainty and continuity of childcare workers. So it was a great outcome that was delivered by the Morrison government.

Labor's assertions this afternoon have been misleading. We can't trust Labor to tell the truth on fees, and therefore we can't trust Labor on childcare and early childhood policy. It's high time that we had a look at the facts. Let's take the example of a single parent who wants to work more hours. Say they work part time and earn $30,000 a year. They would receive a subsidy, under our plan, of 85 per cent of the cost of child care. With average fees for centre based day care at $10.40 an hour, that single parent would pay just $1.56 per hour for care. The taxpayer would pay the rest. If they wanted to take on more shifts and double their income to $60,000 per year, they would still pay $1.56 per hour, and the taxpayer would still pay the rest. When my children were small, there wasn't this opportunity for women who were trying to enter the workforce. I think there are many women who are grateful for that support.

Let's take another example, of a family earning a combined income of $110,000 a year. They would receive a 71.5 per cent subsidy to the cost of care. With average fees, again, of around $10.40 an hour, that family would pay $2.96 per hour for care, and the taxpayer would pay the rest. A family with a combined income of $110,000, where one parent works full time and the other works three days a week, with two children in child care for those three days, would receive $27,000 in childcare subsidies over 12 months. This is a significant amount of subsidy to help women get back into the workforce. If the second parent took on a fifth day of work, to earn another $10,000 a year, they would receive $41,000. (Time expired)

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

Order! The discussion has concluded.