Thursday, 18 March 2021
Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Early Childhood Education and Care Coronavirus Response and Other Measures) Bill 2021; Second Reading
I'm happy to speak today on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Early Childhood Education and Care Coronavirus Response and Other Measures) Bill 2021. This bill is really a tidy-up of the legislation rushed through parliament last year, when we were first trying to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic. It's not surprising that there are a few errors. That's what happens when you rush legislation through, but it was appropriate in the circumstances. Obviously we had to do it because we needed to support families. I will return to that in a minute, because the Morrison government didn't quite achieve its objective of supporting families. Nevertheless, it's important that errors which occurred during the rushing through of this legislation are corrected.
The bill before the chamber clarifies and states the circumstances where an emergency or disaster can be declared by the secretary and where business continuity payments can be made. This will provide certainty that the actions taken last year were legal, and it will make business continuity payments an ongoing policy response that is available to the government. It also reduces the red tape burden on services during disaster events by removing the legal requirement to send weekly reports to the department. It will extend the tax return deadlines for the 2018-19 financial year to March this year, to provide a bit more time for people who have not lodged their returns during the pandemic. It removes the two-year cut-off point for people to be able to lodge their tax returns and still be eligible for the child care subsidy. It ensures that emergency disaster events do not count towards the 14-week period of nonattendance, after which a child's enrolment is cancelled. There are a few other minor tweaks in the bill that are necessary as well. Labor will support these changes. We'll do anything, obviously, to help families access services. This bill is necessary to effect those necessary changes, and I will be supporting it, as will my colleagues.
Unfortunately, the bill before the chamber does not correct all of the Morrison government's mistakes when it comes to their support for families during the coronavirus pandemic. What has emerged, which has not been addressed by this bill, is that, during the recent snap COVID lockdowns in Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane, families were instructed to stay home, but childcare centres actually remained open as an essential service for essential workers. Remember, those essential workers could be people that were cleaning, they could be ambulance officers—all sorts of people can be essential workers. What that meant was that families staying at home were still being charged the gap fees by childcare centres, as the centres were legally required to levy the fees. The doors to the centres were open, but the kids couldn't leave their own homes to get through those open doors. The minister has the ability to give centres an exemption from charging gap fees. The minister did provide an exemption during the second Victorian lockdown in 2020 but, strangely, hasn't provided the exemption for the most recent lockdowns in Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane. In my electorate I don't have any families that have so much money that they want to pay for a service that they didn't receive.
The shadow minister has moved an amendment to this bill—a sensible amendment that will take the exemption out of the minister's rules and put it into the act. This would mean an exemption would be triggered as soon as state or territory governments declared a lockdown. Let's hope that doesn't happen again, but I think that will be the new COVID reality that we live in. This sensible proposal put forward by the shadow minister means that families would not be slugged with fees for care that they were not receiving. It is a very sensible amendment and ensures parents are not forced to pay for care that they're not able to receive because the state government has told them to stay home for sensible public health reasons. The government should fix this now. A sensible government would support this amendment, and I should stress that there are no political points to be made in supporting this.
This wasn't the only childcare bungle made by the Morrison government during the pandemic. As I said earlier, families were not supported as they should have been. Many families did like the free childcare announcement. There were lots of press releases and pressers by the Morrison government, but the delivery didn't quite live up to the hype. That happens so often with the Morrison government. Many families were locked out of the free child care, and many services were driven to the brink of collapse. Early learning centres had their funding slashed. Many were forced to cut opening hours, to cut staff. Remember, staff in these centres are not well remunerated at all. There is lots of evidence that they can barely afford to get into the housing market because they're barely above award wages, and they're charged with looking after our most precious commodity, our children. Some centres had to cut places to balance their books, just to keep their heads above some very troubled waters.
Family day care educators are wonderful people. They're the people we trust to care for our children. They were forced to work for half the pay because they couldn't access JobKeeper. This was a disgrace. We know that a quarter of early learning services were losing money every day. The reaction of the Morrison government—remember, the Prime Minister himself designed this system back when he was a minister—true to form, was to blame the providers. They even encouraged families to dob in centres through a phone hotline that was specially set up. They really are 'dobbers united' over there, aren't they? Remember robodebt? We've now seen bosses rorting the JobKeeper thing, but the government don't go and say, 'Dob in a boss, set up a hotline,' no. But they are 'dobbers united' when it comes to normal, everyday Australians.
A government member interjecting—
After it all went wrong—sorry, I missed that interjection from the minister at the table.
A government member interjecting—
Oh, okay. I'll take that interjection. After it all went wrong and it couldn't be salvaged, the Morrison government's response was to snap back to the old, expensive, Morrison-designed childcare subsidy scheme—the one that he designed when he was the minister. We already have one of the most expensive childcare schemes in the world. What does that mean? On average, child care costs between 30 and 40 per cent of the average household income in Australia, which seems like a lot when you compare it to the OECD, where the average is just 11 per cent. This is because we have a system that has seen children as a burden rather than as something to be invested in. We know that childcare fees are soaring; they've increased 35.9 per cent since 2013. So that's on this government's watch, on the coalition's watch. We know that childcare costs are locking parents out of the workforce. That's bad for families, and it's bad for the economy. Why is it bad for the economy? Because there are simple productivity gains that come from giving women 'a room of their own'—putting women back into the workforce, tapping into the skills and expertise that our schools and TAFEs and universities have created.
We have almost 300,000 Australians not participating in the labour force due to the fact they're caring for children, and many of them—most of them, I would suggest—are women. The number of parents who say they are not working mainly due to the cost of child care has skyrocketed by 23 per cent. We know it's too expensive and we know it needs to be fixed. But the Morrison government, sadly, has no plan to fix it. Maybe if the coalition government listened to women a little bit more they might have a better understanding of how families—
An honourable member interjecting—
Maybe if you had 10,000 women out the front of Parliament House you might make the effort to go out and listen to them. Maybe they've got something to say. I don't know.
An honourable member interjecting—
Who knows? There certainly seemed to be some pretty passionate people out the front of Parliament House on Monday when I went out there.
So, maybe if they listened to women a bit more they would find out how families are being impacted by child care that is unaffordable. We know that paying for that fourth or fifth day can be a cruel burden on families. Labor has a plan to make child care more affordable for families, so more parents can get back into the workforce. Our cheaper child care for working families plan will scrap the $10,560 childcare subsidy cap, which currently sees women paying to work for the extra day of work. It will lift the maximum subsidy rate to 90 per cent and will increase the childcare subsidy rates and taper them for every family earning less than $530,000.
It's important that the cost of child care goes down, but it is even more important that the cost of child care stays down. Labor will task the ACCC with designing a price regulation mechanism to shed light on costs and fees and drive them down for good. We will also ask the Productivity Commission to conduct a comprehensive review of the sector with the aim of implementing a universal 90 per cent subsidy for all families. That's a good plan. It's a sensible plan. It will reward working families and allow more second-income earners, who are usually women, to work more and contribute to our economic recovery. We have a plan to fix Morrison's broken childcare system. The coalition government is just patching up a broken system. I support this bill and the amendment moved by the shadow minister, the member for Kingston.
It's serendipitous that my first speech on a piece of legislation—on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Early Childhood Education and Care Coronavirus Response and Other Measures) Bill 2021—after coming back from the birth of my twins is about childhood education. Their diaries are full at the moment; otherwise, I could've had you maybe feed them a bottle from the chair, like they did in New Zealand!
Like with so many Northside families, access to a supportive care system comprising family, friends, early educators, colleagues—and a boss who loves babies!—has allowed me to come to work today. Child care is essential family infrastructure, and it is essential family infrastructure that I, like so many parents across the Northside, could not manage without.
I would like to start by thanking our early educators for their heroic work throughout the pandemic. It really was brave of them to go to work every day, particularly with the kinds of conditions that this federal government currently allows them to continue to work under. While many workers had to stay home during the COVID lockdown, our early educators continued to go to work every day, on the front line, putting their own health at risk, so that other essential workers could get to work. Unfortunately, our childcare workers and early educators were not always treated like the essential workers that they are by this government. But, rest assured, on this side of the House, you are our champions.
Labor will always support early educators. We welcome the changes which reduce red tape on services and families, and we will support this bill. It's nice to be able to debate this bill on child care at all, after the education minister introduced new childcare rules last year without allowing debate to happen. This bill retrospectively clarifies and states the circumstances where the secretary can declare emergency and disaster events and make business continuity payments, thereby providing a bit of legal certainty to actions taken last year and retaining the BCP as an ongoing policy response available to government. It removes the legal requirements for services to send weekly session reports to the department during emergency or disaster events, reducing the red tape burden on the services during these events. It extends the tax return deadlines for 2018-19 to 31 March 2021, to provide more time for people who have not lodged their returns due to the pandemic; removes the two-year cut-off point for people to lodge their tax returns and be eligible for the childcare subsidy; and ensures that emergency or disaster events do not count towards the 14-week period of nonattendance, after which a child's enrolment is cancelled. There are a few other minor tidy-ups, which have no adverse impact on families, so we support them.
However, this bill isn't perfect, and it should be amended to work as efficiently as possible for educators, for service providers and for families. Labor's technical amendment to take the exemption out of the minister's rules and put it back into the act would trigger an exemption from fees as soon as the state government declares one, and it is an amendment that would do just that: make things more efficient. Whilst families have been instructed to stay at home during lockdowns, childcare centres have remained open as an essential service for essential workers. However, families staying at home have still been charged gap fees by centres as they are legally required to levy those fees. The minister has the ability to give centres an exemption from charging gap fees and did so during the second Victorian lockdown of 2021. However, the government has deliberately chosen not to grant exemptions for the most recent lockdowns in Perth, in Adelaide, in Melbourne and in my home town of Brisbane. It is ridiculous that the Morrison government would expect families to continue to pay gap fees during crucial lockdowns, and it is a real shame that this government isn't willing to work in a collaborative and bipartisan manner and accept Labor's proposed amendments to help early educators, service providers and families.
It isn't surprising that we are here today fixing drafting errors and ambiguities in the COVID response legislation passed last year. The Morrison government bungled early education and care throughout the entirety of the pandemic, and it was the parents, children, educators and providers who paid the price every step of the way.
First, their free childcare policy, like most announcements from this Prime Minister, was not quite what it seemed, and it left many providers struggling to stay afloat and families without access to care. I hosted a Zoom roundtable with early educators from my electorate of Lilley with our shadow minister for early education, the member for Kingston, and the early educators were exasperated—that's probably putting it politely. They were struggling to keep their doors open after their funding had been slashed. They had to cut their opening hours, they had to cut staff, they had to cut staff hours and they had to cut places, to try and balance their books. Family day care educators were excluded from JobKeeper entirely, leaving them to do the same job for half the pay. Families were being denied places, and that included healthcare workers at The Prince Charles Hospital, which was one of the foremost places for dealing with COVID on the northside.
Then the government ripped JobKeeper away from early educators altogether—first off the boat—creating further pain for the sectors and for the families that they look after. This decision tells you everything that you need to know about how this government values work. The male-dominated construction sector received targeted taxpayer stimulus. The childcare sector, which is 97 per cent female, was the first to have its funding ripped away. This sent a very clear message to early childhood educators: you are not essential. What a slap in the face to them after everything they have done.
To replace JobKeeper, we then had the exceptional circumstances fund, which was exceptionally good at refusing to approve funding applications. Only 39 per cent of those applications were approved. The government boasted that 98 per cent of early learning services stayed open during the crisis, but that doesn't really show the whole picture. The government's own limited survey found that a quarter of services were not financially viable and they were losing money every day. And when you think it couldn't get worse, the Morrison government resorted to their natural position, which is to blame everybody else but themselves. This time it was the providers' fault. This government sent strongly worded communications to providers threatening their funding if they didn't have enough places and enough hours, knowing full well services are not funded to do so. Shockingly, they set up a hotline and encouraged families to dob in early education providers. This is truly disgraceful. I don't know why this government is so gung-ho on dobbing, but it isn't Australian.
A government member interjecting—
I'll take the interjection. If that was the case, why don't we set up a dobbing hotline for employers doing the wrong thing, or for the billions of dollars that have been paid out via JobKeeper in dividends and in executive bonuses? Where is the dobbing hotline for that? I'll leave it with you.
The Prime Minister should come to the chamber now and apologise to our early educators for how they have been treated over this past year. Maybe send him a text. Government data and anecdotal evidence I've collected from northside families prove that our early education system is broken. It is vital, but it is broken. It was revealed last year by the department of education that 25 per cent of families were still waiting for their reconciliation of the 2018-2019 childcare subsidy. This means that the government has withheld money from some families for over a year, including during an economic recession. It's not a standard that they would accept in reverse and not a standard that they have ever accepted in reverse. In the same period, the government collected $130 million in childcare debts from families, despite ongoing concerns about the accuracy of their debt collection system. The hypocrisy is staggering but, at the same time, unsurprising. The government are gung-ho when they are accusing families of owing them money, but they are more than happy to move at an absolute snail's pace to hand money back where it is rightfully owed and needs to be returned to Australian families.
Childcare fees are skyrocketing, and the federal government's support is failing to keep up. In the last 12 months, childcare fees have increased by 9.6 per cent in Nundah, 5.8 per cent in Chermside, 8.8 per cent in Everton Park and 6.2 per cent in Sandgate. Parents will soon be no better off under this government's once-in-a-generation set of reforms than they were under the previous scheme, which ended in July 2018. Childcare fees have soared by 35.9 per cent since this mob came to power in 2013. Documents from the Morrison government's own education department predict that childcare fees are going to rise by 4.1 per cent every year for the next four years, substantially outstripping inflation, which the childcare subsidy is pegged to.
These fees are hurting families and locking parents, particularly women, out of the workforce. Data from the Productivity Commission has shown that almost 300,000 Australians are not in the labour force due to caring for children. The proportion of parents who say that they are not working due mainly to the cost of child care has skyrocketed to 23 per cent. According to ABS data, access to affordable child care is the main reason women can't increase their participation in the labour force.
The Morrison government need to stop burying their heads in the sand and acknowledge that their system is broken—a system that was authored by the now Prime Minister back when he was Treasurer. There are a number of valid, progressive early education policy reforms that we should be legislating right now to fix these issues. We could be scrapping the $10,560 childcare subsidy cap, which often sees women actually losing money from an extra day's work. We should be increasing the childcare subsidy rate, and we should be lifting the maximum rate. But, instead of debating these measures that would actively improve the lives of Australian families, we in this chamber are constantly correcting the stuff-ups of the Morrison government.
Labor is on the side of families. We always have been, and we always will be. We know what access to affordable child care means for our families. We know that affordable child care doesn't just benefit families; it provides amazing bang for the buck as economic investment. A review by PwC into the value of early childhood education and care in Australia found that, for every dollar we invest in child care, the country gets $2 back through increased productivity and workforce participation. That's amazing bang for the buck.
While female workforce participation rates in Australia have been steady rising over the past four decades, they remain low for women with young children. I recognise that, in many cases, this is a matter of personal preference—more power to you. But I have also spoken to countless women who would like to work extra hours but are deterred from doing so by the high cost of child care and the little or no extra take-home pay they receive from those extra hours, after losing income support payments and paying personal income tax. Last year, I spoke with Chloe, a single mum in Chermside. When I asked her how the rising cost of child care was impacting her life, she told me that she had been forced to turned down increased work in the past because the income she would receive from that extra work would have been outweighed by the cost of putting her son into day care for the extra days. She said he was relieved that he would be going to school soon.
For working parents like Chloe, Federal Labor has a plan to make sure that early education is affordable, accessible and high quality for every child. A federal Labor government will introduce the working family childcare boost to cut childcare fees and put more money into the pockets of working families straight away. Childcare fees in Australia are some of the highest in the world. Under this plan, Labor will scrap the $10,560 childcare subsidy cap, which often sees women losing money from an extra day's work; we will lift the maximum childcare subsidy rate to 90 per cent; and we will increase childcare subsidy rates and taper them for every family earning less than $530,000. This reform would help 97 per cent of Australian families in the system. It would save somewhere between $600 and $2,900 a year for families. No family would be worse off. It is an excellent system, and it is a credit to the member for Kingston for coming up with it.
Importantly, we will task the ACCC with designing a price regulation mechanism to shed light on costs and fees and drive them down for good—work that the now Prime Minister, then Treasurer, should have done years ago.
Our plan for cheaper child care will reward working families and allow more second-income earners, who are usually women, to work more and contribute to our economic recovery as a nation. We will keep working to fix Australia's broken childcare system, which currently locks out more than 10,000 families because they just cannot afford it. We will keep working and we will keep fighting because we know that affordable early childhood education and care is not just vital infrastructure for parents and children but vital infrastructure for Australia's economic recovery. Australians needs an early education and care system that ensures early learning is affordable and accessible for families. It needs to keep educators in jobs and protect the viability of providers.
I will continue fighting for northside families every day to make sure that quality of life improves for all, regardless of their income. With three children under five, we have three in child care this year, so we pay three sets of childcare fees every week, and I truly understand what that cost looks like on the family budget. I also understand what the difference would be if we could raise the rate and the cap so that people could access more work because they had access to more affordable child care.
In my remaining time, I would like to give a shout-out to the educators who look after my young family, who go above and beyond helping me to manage all of this, this great privilege that it is to be the member for Lilley, whilst parenting very, very little children. They help me juggle. They meet me at the car park to bring in two capsules at a time. The logistics involved in having twins is very tricky—a shout-out to the multiple-birth parents out there. Next week is Multiple Birth Awareness Week and I'll have more to say about life as a multiple-birth parent then. But I could not do this without my early educators. I won't name the centre, but they know who they are. From giving me an extra block of chocolate when they know that I've had a bad day, because they're watching my social media, through to getting saturated by the rain helping me carry two capsules and a four-year-old out to the car—I couldn't do it without you. I thank you so much for everything that you do. I'm so disappointed that this government doesn't provide you with the working conditions that you deserve, and I will continue to fight for you every day that I have the privilege of being in this place.
One of the issues that concern me the most as a member of parliament is the cost of child care. In outer suburban electorates like McEwen, we have plenty of new families and young parents who already face tough times with high expenses on rent, electricity, mortgages and food. As a parliament we need to ensure that we are doing all we can not to increase the burden on young families, and that starts with child care. The median childcare costs for Victorian families rose to $546 per week last year at an accredited centre, the highest of all Australian states and second only to the ACT. That, I guess, fits with a federal government that has a strong record of putting Victorians last. Overall, the median cost of child care soared to $523 a week in 2020, a 5.6 per cent increase on the 2019 figures. But we have a government that has no plan to deal with this. Research shows that fee increases for child care will outstrip CPI for years to come, and that means too many expenses for local families.
There are countless people in my electorate who get in contact with me every day to say they can barely afford to make ends meet. I remember a story from a woman in Mernda who works full-time and has a three-year-old daughter and an 11-month-old daughter in child care five days a week. She is paying $700 in out-of-pocket expenses, $1,400 a fortnight—or, as she puts it, the same amount as her mortgage. She said, 'It's a broken system. We expect families to work, to try and set up their future, yet we don't offer them enough to support them properly.' I'm sure that this constituent from Mernda was relieved when she heard the disingenuous Prime Minister proclaim that, during the pandemic, there would be free child care for everyone with a job. We all remember those words at a press conference—a photo op. But, like most announcements from this Prime Minister, it was all conference and no follow-up; all pictures and no substance.
The most outstanding feature of the government's free childcare system was the number of people who actually got locked out of free child care. We have heard constantly from early learning services around the country who struggled to keep their doors open after their funding had been slashed. Services had to cut opening hours, they had to cut staff and they had to cut places to balance their books. But they didn't actually suffer a drop in enrolments; it was just that the government expected childcare educators to work for half the pay because they could not access JobKeeper.
Some of the most important people in our communities are our early childhood educators. The first people the government threw on the scrap heap during the COVID pandemic were our early childhood educators. They were happy to look after blokes like Gerry Harvey, but, for people earning low wages and working in hard conditions, minding the kids for our police, emergency service operators, nurses and shop workers, the government decided, 'No, no, you're on your own.' They were having a go, but this government left them. It just dropped them. It scrapped them. It didn't care about them. It's pretty clear that this government considers some Australians far more essential than others. The government doesn't value early childhood educators. Ensuring childhood educators are properly remunerated is an essential part of what government should be doing.
We're seeking to add technical amendments to this legislation to simplify it and to correct the mistakes made during the drafting process by a government that seems to damage everything that it touches. During the lockdowns, families have been told to stay at home, and childcare centres have remained open as an essential service for essential workers. But families staying at home were still being charged gap fees by childcare centres, as they are legally required to levy them. The minister has the ability to give centres an exemption from charging a gap fee, which the minister was forced to do during the second lockdown in Victoria in 2020. But the government has not granted exemptions from gap fees for the most recent lockdowns in Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane and Melbourne. Unbelievably, stakeholders have advised us that the minister gave a commitment to grant exemptions for these lockdowns but this was overruled by the Prime Minister's office. Think about that in the context of what we've been over in the last couple of weeks. The Prime Minister's office have been out there and were very clear to knock off support for early childhood educators. We would ask the Prime Minister when he knew about it, but, as we know, the Prime Minister and his office don't seem to talk on matters that are important.
An opposition member interjecting—
That's a good interjection: 'You could probably ask Gaetjens.' But I think we already know the answer. It's a bit like the press conference yesterday, where the Prime Minister's answers were released 36 minutes before the actual questions were asked. That's the kind of deceit we have with this government and this Prime Minister. So I wonder: is this something else that the Prime Minister will claim he knows nothing about?
To be clear, these levies are slugging families with fees for care they are no longer receiving. That's why Labor is proposing an amendment to take the exemption out of the minister's hands and put it into the act. The government have shown quite clearly that their ministers can't be trusted to act quickly and appropriately on this issue. The result of this amendment would be that an exemption from fees would be triggered as soon as the state or territory government declared a lockdown, without having to rely on the Prime Minister's office. That is good comfort for all Australian families—to know that they can keep the Prime Minister out and actually get benefits that help them.
Another key feature of the government's exceptional circumstances fund, which they set up to cover the one-third of early educators not covered by JobKeeper, was that it consistently refused to approve funding applications. The latest data from the department shows that only 39 per cent of applicants got approval. The government stands there and falsely claims that 98 per cent of early childhood learning centres stayed open during the COVID crisis, but only 39 per cent of people were given access to support. As with everything this government does, the spin covers up the dark truth. Does the government know how many of those 98 per cent of services suffered a financial loss? According to their own analysis, 25 per cent of services suffered a massive financial loss. They were losing money every day that they were operating to support the children of essential workers who were out during the pandemic. The government might call that a win, but I certainly wouldn't, and I know early education services in my electorate don't consider that a win. I certainly know that my constituent in Mernda would not consider it a win. When asked about this, the government blamed the providers and threatened them with a new hotline where parents could dob in early learning providers who allegedly weren't providing enough places or hours. Just think about this. You've got early childhood educators struggling during the middle of a pandemic and the government's first response is: 'Let's set up a hotline to dob them.'
That's one thing that's consistent with this government—blame the victims. That is the one thing that those opposite have been very consistent in doing. They won't set up a hotline to dob in people who are stealing wages from workers, underpaying workers or putting workers at risk. They will always blame the victim, not the perpetrator. This is the kind of small-minded, cruel politics that this Prime Minister excels at—punish the people and small businesses who are struggling; yank up the ladder instead of extending a hand in support. I remember when the Prime Minister stood up 2½ years ago and announced that the coalition's childcare policy was a once-in-a-generation reform. Well, let's hope so, because it fails children, it fails families and it fails our early childhood educators. For my constituent in Mernda, it means her fees will increase from $700 to $930 a week under this government. How does a family struggling to make ends meet afford this? Can the government stand up and say how its childcare policy has been good for parents?
The truth is that the coalition's childcare scheme has been a complete fizzer and the benefit from the childcare subsidy has been almost completely eroded. On average, parents will soon be no better off under the Prime Minister's once-in-a-generation reforms than they were under the previous scheme, in 2018. Parents are getting locked out of affordable child care, just like they've been locked out of affordable housing and just like students have been locked out of affordable university and TAFE. Can you see the theme? It's quite clear. If parents are locked out of affordable child care, that will negatively impact on our economic recovery from COVID-19. The Prime Minister and Minister Tudge need to stop burying their heads in the sand and acknowledge that this system is broken. It's not working for the early childhood education centres. It's not working for preschools in my electorate. It's not working for the vast majority of parents, usually women, who have to stay at home and care for children because they can't afford child care. This government has shown time and time again that it views issues faced by women as a second-order concern. The time has come for that to end. The government should support Labor's reasoned amendment to this bill.
Ultimately, only a Labor government will introduce cheaper child care for working families, scrapping the $10,560 childcare subsidy cap, which sees women losing money when they perform an extra day's work; lifting the maximum childcare subsidy to 90 per cent; and increasing childcare subsidy rates and tapering them for families earning less than $53,000. Labor's plan for cheaper child care will reward working families and allow second-income earners to work more and contribute to our economic recovery. Australian families know that only an Albanese Labor government will be on their side. Labor will fix the coalition's broken childcare system.
I rise to speak on this legislation, the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Early Childhood Education and Care Coronavirus and Other Measures) Bill 2021, on behalf of all the men and women in Dunkley who want to be able to progress their careers and also have a family. I rise to speak on this legislation on behalf of all of the men and women—predominantly women—who work in child care and early education and want to be able to pursue a career which sets up our children to have the best future possible.
Before I turn to this legislation and to those people, I want to put on the record how proud it makes me to have colleagues and friends in this place who are walking the talk. In this term of parliament alone—remembering that we aren't even two years in—the members for Lilley, Canberra, Jagajaga, Bendigo and Kingston have all had babies and have all come back to work, both in their electorates and in this parliament, in order to stand up for their constituents and for people across the country. We're very much looking forward to the return of Senator Marielle Smith and the member for Bendigo, who will be coming back soon. Senator Smith has had her baby, and the member for Bendigo may well be giving birth as I speak.
We all know that you don't have to have children in order to understand deeply how important it is to make sure that we have a childcare and early education system that sets up children for the future and that allows men and women, who are still predominantly the caregivers, to get back to work and have a career. You don't have to have children to understand that, to fight for it or to be passionate about it, but it doesn't hurt to have in the ranks of a party of government people who are living that experience. I want to put on the Hansard record that I am assisted every day by my friends and colleagues—the women who have given birth and who, even though they are often so exhausted they have to use toothpicks to prop their eyes open, are fighting to make sure that life is just a bit easier for other women and families.
The Morrison government likes to talk about jobs—jobs, jobs, jobs. Very rarely, if ever, do we hear them talk about jobs in the early education and childcare sector. Very rarely, if ever, do we hear them talking about an industry which is predominantly staffed by women and which is chronically underpaid. We hear them talking about the industry when they think that they can fool parents across the country into thinking that they have the answer to escalating childcare fees. We heard them talk about the early education and childcare industry last year when the first workers to have JobKeeper ripped away from them were early education and childcare workers. But, when it comes to talking about the pay and conditions of the workers, there was a resounding silence—a little bit like the Prime Minister's silence in response to the march of thousands and thousands and thousands of women on Monday. So, like my colleagues on this side of the chamber, I want to take this opportunity to thank every single early educator and childcare worker in my electorate who goes to work every day to care for and educate other people's children and does so for chronic underpay because it is a feminised industry. And I want to promise you that the fight is not over to make sure that you are valued both economically and in the way you deserve with the praise you should get from a government that hears you and sees you.
Sometimes it feels like the reason the Morrison government doesn't implement really great, progressive policies is that Labor advocates for them, or sometimes the reason the Morrison government doesn't accept that the problems exist is that we're the ones pointing them out. So, in this speech, I want to rely, firstly, on the Productivity Commission, which is an institution that the Morrison government and conservative governments often like to turn to for advice. In this case, though, they seem to turn to it for advice when it says what they want to hear but not otherwise, because we know that in 2019 the Productivity Commission put out a report on government services that showed that childcare costs are locking Australian parents out of the workforce. We know that the data reveals that almost 300,000 Australians are not in the labour force due to caring for children. This is an increase of 5.9 per cent. That really matters. Jobs, as we all know, are not just about earning money. Earning money is really important, particularly for a lot of low-income families where the second earner is locked out of the workforce because they can't pay childcare costs, but work is not just about money. Work is about dignity. It's often about worth. It's often about feeling like you're contributing to your community, to your country, to the world around you as well as to your family. When people are locked out of the workforce because they also want to have a family, that's just not right. It's fundamentally wrong. That's why it needs to be fixed.
The number of parents saying they're not working mainly due to the cost of child care has skyrocketed by 23 per cent. Australian parents are really struggling to work the hours that they want to work. It's not financially healthy, it's not healthy for people's mental health, it's often not healthy for people's physical health, and it needs to be changed. That's why Labor has a policy to make child care affordable for Australians. When the median cost of child care soared by 5.6 per cent in a year, from 2019 to 2020, to almost $523 a week, we know we have a problem in terms of fairness and equity and access. Now, $523 a week might not seem very much to a lot of people in this chamber, on the other side, or to the people out there who have been lucky enough to have had opportunities in life to obtain a high-paying job, but I can tell you that, for people in my electorate, $523 a week is a lot of money. It's a lot of money. The Morrison government itself predicts that childcare fees will well outstrip CPI for years to come, so action needs to be taken and it needs to be taken now.
I mentioned Labor's plan for child care. It is a well-crafted and well-thought-out plan. We'll scrap the $10,560 childcare subsidy cap because that's what often sees women losing money by doing an extra day's work. We will lift the maximum childcare subsidy rate to 90 per cent. We will increase childcare subsidy rates and taper them for every family earning less than $530,000. Importantly, we would task the ACCC to design a price regulation mechanism to shed a light on costs and fees and drive them down for good. An Albanese federal Labor government would listen to the recommendations of the ACCC, unlike what this Morrison government is doing with the Productivity Commission review and other reviews. For example, the review of sex discrimination in the workplace that was carried out by the Human Rights Commissioner was left sitting on the desk for a year. The government didn't do anything about it until they were at the centre of a national maelstrom about sexual harassment in the workplace. That's just one example.
Like many of my colleagues on this side of the chamber, last year, during the pandemic, I received call after call and email after email from families and childcare providers who were beside themselves about how they were going to be able to go to work if they couldn't pay the childcare fees or if their childcare centre couldn't stay open, and from workers and providers who couldn't understand why it was their industry that was being picked on by the Morrison government when stripping away JobKeeper. They told me in a Zoom meeting that I held in August of last year that even before the pandemic there were issues in the sector, like the affordability of fees and the low pay for educators, which I've spoken about. But the pandemic and the economic recession that came with it have made addressing problems with access to child care and insecure employment across the industry even more important.
One of the questions I was asked in the forum—which the state member for Carrum, Sonya Kilkenny, also attended because she is so hardworking and so caring about women and children and their future—was a question from Kylie, which was, 'How can we get our government to respect our industry?' You know you're in trouble as a government when working people ask, 'How can we get the government to respect our industry?' The first answer, and the most obvious answer, is: at the next election, replace the current Morrison government with an Albanese Labor government which has a genuine plan for childcare fees and childcare workers. That's what we need to do.
As I go around my electorate, as I've had the privilege to do since the restrictions were lifted—I visit Lang Park Early Learning Centre and Kindergarten; the Lyrebird Community Centre occasional care program; Frankston House Sanctuary of Early Learning, which is soon to open another centre in Seaford; and, most recently, Peninsula Grammar's three- and four-year-old kindergarten—I will continue to bring two messages. One is that everyone who works in early childhood education and care deserves to be treated better by their federal government; and the second is: 'I hear you, parents. You need to be able to afford child care so that you can get back to work, further your career and look after your families, and I'll be continuing to fight for you at every opportunity I get.'
I rise to speak on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Early Childhood Education and Care Coronavirus Response and Other Measures) Bill 2021 because it enables me to speak on an issue that is critically important not only to families in my electorate, for men and women and their children, but for the economic response that's required and for economic support for families right across the country. I'll be brief in my remarks today, because I'm aware of other speakers—including the crossbench—who want to contribute on this legislation, and I think it is important for all voices to be heard. In my brief remarks, I'll pick up a couple of points that other speakers have touched on.
Child care was essential during the pandemic, and no one doubted that—except for the government, who barred a third of childcare businesses from accessing JobKeeper. These essential workers were expected to go to work and risk their health so that healthcare workers could go and save lives. They were expected to do all of this for half the pay. It's clear that the government considered some essential workers to be less important than others, and we know that, disproportionately, those were women.
It's not as though everything was fine for childcare businesses before the COVID pandemic. Back in 2019 I spoke to locals who sent their children to an early learning centre in the suburb of Bellbird Park, and they said that workers were sounding the alarm back then and early educators were already raising their voices about what was happening in the sector. Businesses were struggling to pay their workers, and women, in particular, were living pay cheque to pay cheque. Whilst the government might boast that 98 per cent of childcare services stayed open during COVID-19, it won't admit the fact that a quarter of these services were losing money every day they stayed open, because they understood that they had a job to do and a service to provide.
The Prime Minister, on the other hand, just knew how to make an impressive announcement, but he pulled it off at the expense of businesses who struggled to deliver this promise with a lot less funding. Then this government had the nerve to blame the providers, threatening their funding if they didn't provide enough places and hours, even though it knew it was financially unviable. So it set up a hotline and encouraged families to dob in early learning providers. This is not how you look after essential workers.
I want to touch briefly on childcare fees. This is a critical issue that the Labor Party, under the leadership of Anthony Albanese and our shadow minister Amanda Rishworth, have been championing. I'm so proud to be part of a party that has outstanding leadership and is putting forward bold initiatives to change the conversation about child care, to change the conversation about how we look at it as an economic and productivity issue—about how we can see more people in the workplace and, quite rightly, see more women being productive in the economy and adding their skill sets and abilities to our society.
I support the move to exempt childcare services from collecting the childcare gap fees from families during COVID-imposed lockdowns. If families choose to stay home and keep their children out of childcare during snap lockdowns, centres shouldn't be legally obligated to charge them gap fees. When Brisbane went into lockdown in January, a number of families came to me about this, saying that they felt that it was unfair and that they were being ripped off. The same thing happened after lockdowns in Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne. When we raised these concerns, the minister gave a commitment to granting exemptions. The Prime Minister's office said: 'No, we don't care. If you're not paying for services you are not receiving, we're not on your side.'
We know that childcare is becoming increasingly unaffordable in this country, we know that we have some of the most expensive fees in our region, and this is having a direct impact on household budgets. In the Oxley electorate, where the average income is a little over $1,700 a week, the average price of five days of child care is $523 a week. Around 15,000 children are currently in child care. If that goes up four per cent next year, families will be paying $543.92. Twenty dollars a week might not seem like much to those families but, when you calculate it, they'll end up losing just over $1,000 a year. For many of them, this will be enough to see one parent drop back to part-time work because they can't afford to have their child in care five days a week. They won't do this because they want to; they'll do it because the government is forcing them. We've all met with parents and we've all me with individuals who say, 'I'd like to do more but there's no point doing it because all I'm doing is paying the childcare fees.' We want to change that. We know, without a doubt, that for the majority of families, the person who will be forced out of full-time work will be the mother. Typically, women are the second income earners.
The Prime Minister's supposed once-in-a-generation reform to make child care more affordable has failed. It's failed to support early learning centres, it's failed to support families—particularly female second income earners, discouraging them from working more than three days a week. On one hand, the government says it's all for a stronger economic recovery, yet it's crafting childcare policy that makes it harder for 50 per cent of the workforce to work full-time and contribute more to our economy. We know Labor's plan will scrap the $10,560 childcare subsidy to stop women from losing money if they choose to work that extra day of work. It'll lift the maximum childcare subsidy to 90 per cent and increase childcare subsidy rates and taper them for every family earning less than $530,000. Fixing the Morrison government's broken childcare system will put us on the right path to build a stronger economy and to have stronger and happier families. I'll continue to champion this on behalf of families in my electorate and I know every single member on this side of the chamber will continue to do so.
The Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Early Childhood Education and Care Coronavirus Response and Other Measures) Bill 2021 is a good bill. I'll support it. Honourable members have spoken at some length about the merits of the bill. I'm going to take this opportunity to have a different response to the bill. It's good as far as it goes, but it's just another example of how, in this country, we're always fiddling around the edges. A bit of a change to early childhood education policy here, a bit of a change to early childhood education funding over there. We are just fiddling, when what we actually need to do is take a step back, look at the big picture and be prepared for bold reform, really bold reform, just like there was last year with the need to effectively make early childhood education funding free during a period during the pandemic. That's what we need to do.
We need to take a big step back and we need to say, 'Let's really do early childhood education effectively by making it universally available and free for any member of the community that needs it.' I'll say that again: let's have free universal early childhood education in this country. Big and bold, a bit more like what happens in the Nordic countries and other countries. At the moment, it's hard to get, it's expensive and it's targeted for certain sectors of the community. No, let's have free and universal early childhood education. Let's make it free and readily available for people who are not in the workforce, for people on low incomes, for people on high incomes, because, let's face it, every sector of the community—this is about community, not economy—has needs that need to be met. For example, someone who's not in the workforce might need respite. They might need time without the kids so they can look for work. They might need time without the kids so they can be trained and educated to join the workforce. They might need time out of the workforce with their kids because their children have special needs, or just because they love their children and they want to have some extra time beyond what might be provided through the very short maternity leave provisions in this country.
At the other end of the spectrum, successful people should also have a right to access child care. How else are we going to have equal representation of women at the top levels of the corporate sector? How else are we going to have an equal representation of women on boards of the big corporations? How else are we going to get equal representation of women in this place? How else are we going to let them all achieve their potential? Unless all women, from the most disadvantaged through to the non-working right through to the most successful women, have free, universal child care in this country.
That will of course require a big expansion of the early childhood education sector, and it will cost big bucks. The question is though: can we afford it as a country? The answer is: of course we can. In a normal financial year—not a pandemic year—the federal government spends about half a trillion dollars. That is just a remarkable amount of money. It's such a large amount of money as to be almost incomprehensible. Where it goes is all about priorities for a government. I would have said having universal, free early childhood education in this country should be a top priority because it's good for parents, it's especially good for mums, and it's very good for the children. All the evidence shows that being in early childhood education is very beneficial for children—not all children, and there are a lot of good reasons why some parents would not want their children to go into early childhood education, but it's beneficial for a lot of children. It's certainly my experience with my own daughters. I really saw them bloom in the early childhood environment. So, yes, we can afford it. And it will give everyone the opportunity to work and, in particular, for more women to join the workforce, which is what many of them want to do.
The Productivity Commission estimates that there's something like 165,000 parents in Australia who want to work but are not able to work because they can't afford early childhood education or they can't access early childhood education. That's 165,000 people we could have in the workforce growing our economy, growing our community and making our country better in certain ways. No wonder The Australia Institute estimates that with free child care our economy would be $140 billion bigger. In other words, it's not going to cost the federal government money; it's going to make the federal government money. So, even if the federal government is not really interested in giving access to free universal early childhood education to all the parents in the country, surely it should be worrying about the budget bottom line—a $140 billion bigger economy if we had free universal childhood education. Frankly, I think that's a slam dunk.
Let's make a quantum leap with early childhood education. When we often refer to it as a way of achieving equality in this country for women, again, we're fiddling around the edges a bit here, because we tend to have those stovepipes. We talk about sexual assault—good heavens, haven't we spoken about that a lot lately?—and the sexual misconduct of men and the need for men to improve their behaviour, and we talk about early childhood education and we talk about gender ratios in the parliament and we talk about wage disparity, but we're talking about all these bits and pieces. Again, why don't we take a quantum step and say, 'We as a community, we as a parliament and you as a government need to have a holistic response to gender inequality, and we need to fix it as a country.' It's not going to be fixed by ticking all these boxes like better child care and committees in the parliament investigating allegations. What we need to do is have equality in our DNA and not to be a box in a department or a minister's office to tick when they're looking at a policy initiative. It needs to be in our DNA. Everything we say and do, every policy we formulate and every bill we pass in this place has to be aimed at the goal of genuine equality in this country, not some tokenism like having a Minister for Women. What has that achieved? I think that's tokenism, and it's even more obviously tokenism when the Minister for Women wouldn't go out and front that rally on Monday. What an opportunity for the minister to put her heart where her mouth is and to go out and to speak to the crowd! Yes, it would have been difficult. Yes, it would have been confronting. Yes, there would have been risks. But wouldn't that have been a strong demonstration! If it were in our DNA, the Prime Minister would have gone out there. Yes, there would have been embarrassing photos in the paper the next day. It would have been very awkward. But what a strong act of leadership it would have been! What a strong signal it would have given: 'Yes, we as a government, as a parliament and as a community are going to address the issue of the inequality in this country in the myriad of ways it occurs.'
I won't keep the House too much longer. I just want to make this point really clearly: let's stop fiddling around the edges when it comes to early childhood education. Let's seriously have a discussion about the merits of universal free child care in this country and how it would unleash $140 billion of economic activity; how it would put 165,000 people, mostly women, into the workforce if that's what they want to do; how it would improve our community and our society through the fact that parents, if they wanted to, could have their children in early childhood education while they have some respite, which is very important, particularly if they're dealing with mental illness; how it would allow parents to spend time with their kids and develop their relationships; how it would allow parents to spend time with their children with special needs; how it would allow parents to go out and look for a job or be trained or educated for a job; and how, at the other end of the spectrum, we would find that, if everyone had access to the workforce on an equal footing and were able to stay at work for the full day and have a full career, we would have 50 per cent of senior management roles in our corporations being filled by women and we would have women in 50 per cent of seats in here, on both sides of the chamber. Oh, heavens! There is so much that could be achieved if we had that sort of vision, and it would not cost the government money, because the economy would grow so sharply and so strongly. The economy would be better off, and I reckon the budget would be better off.
The other point that I made is that we need to think boldly not only about early childhood education but about achieving equality in this country. Yes, free universal early childhood education would be a building block of achieving equality in this country, but, again, it's just a building block when what's actually needed is for us as a community, and us in here in the parliament, and you over there in the government, not to think that ticking boxes and having tokenism such as a minister will solve the problem but to think about equality being in our DNA. Everything we say, every idea we get, every policy we formulate and every law we pass should all be with a mind to achieving equality in this country in all the countless ways it can be achieved.
I rise to sum up and to thank those speakers who have made a contribution on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Early Childhood Education and Care Coronavirus Response and Other Measures) Bill 2021. I acknowledge the children now leaving the gallery, because it's very appropriate and comforting to see kids returning to the chamber. God knows why they'd be leaving such a stimulating debate!
In summing up, I'd like to take the opportunity to remind those opposite of some facts relating to the early childhood care space. Under our charter, women's workplace participation reached an all-time high pre COVID of 61.5 per cent in January 2020, up from 58.7 per cent when Labor left office. More than 280,000 more children are included in child care since we came to office. We're investing in record childcare funding to the tune of $10.3 billion this year alone. What a colossal amount of money, including, and notwithstanding, the $9 billion to subsidise the fees set by the services. That is 77 per cent higher than Labor's contribution when they were last in office. We know that what matters most to parents is their out-of-pocket costs. As members opposite know, our targeted investment means that child care is far more affordable now for low- and middle-income earners. Labor's childcare policy would spend $20 billion over the forward estimates, benefiting higher-income earners the most. A family earning $500,000 would receive a kick-along of in the order of $50,000 with two children if they were in child care—and with no active test. Parents would not even need to be working. Let's not forget that, the last time Labor were in office, fees went up by 53 per cent.
The bill we're debating is about the support that we delivered to families at the height of the COVID pandemic. The key measures contained in this bill will benefit families and childcare providers by giving the government flexibility in how to respond to future large-scale disasters and emergencies, by providing a means to make payment to childcare providers during emergencies such as the pandemic. In terms of our changes to the childcare subsidy balancing requirements, the bill will also allow for better management of childcare subsidy debts that can arise when individuals are unable to meet their tax return lodgement requirements on time, and it will assist families who have been unable to meet those requirements due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The amendments in this bill also maintain appropriate safeguards to support the delivery of early childhood education and care relief packages, which operated from 6 April to 12 July 2020, ensuring that over 99 per cent of childcare services keep their doors open and provide free childcare services for children of essential workers, vulnerable children and others.
I commend the bill to the House.
The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Rishworth has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The immediate question before the chair is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.
Question agreed to.
Original question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.
Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.