House debates

Thursday, 5 August 2021


Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Subsidy) Bill 2021; Second Reading

10:30 am

Photo of Anne AlyAnne Aly (Cowan, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It seems like only a minute ago I was up on my feet! I understand that I am towards the end of a long list of speakers on this bill, the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Subsidy) Bill 2021, so I will keep my comments brief and I will try not to repeat any of the points made by the litany of previous speakers that we have had.

I want to start my contribution to this debate by reminding those here in the chamber today about the attitudes of some members on the government side towards child care and some of the comments government members have made about child care; in particular, the comment about child care being the outsourcing of parenting. I acknowledge that that certainly isn't a sentiment that is carried broadly among those opposite, particularly the women; however, it does speak to the attitudes carried by at least some of those in government.

That comment that child care is outsourcing parenting reminded me of my first husband, who called me on the phone one day and demanded that I come home because he was done with babysitting the children. I had to leave work early to go home because he was done with babysitting the children. It is no surprise that I am disinclined to have complete trust that the government will take meaningful action on child care when those kinds of attitudes are expressed by members of that government, even if they are in the minority, and this bill actually proves that.

We have a broken system in Australia. Our childcare system is broken—so broken that UNICEF ranks Australia 37 out of 41 countries, based on an assessment of childcare policies, affordability of childcare access and quality of child care. According to UNICEF, Australia is one of only eight countries where child care consumes at least a quarter of the average wage. A quarter of your average wage is a big chunk when you think about how much is also consumed by mortgage or rent and how much is consumed by fixed costs like utilities, gas and electricity. A quarter of your average income spent on child care is actually quite a frightening statistic. Under this government, childcare costs are higher than they've ever been, higher than they were before this government came in eight years ago. Costs soared 2.2 per cent in the past quarter—that's three times the CPI—and 3.7 per cent over the past year, and 23 per cent of parents say that they are not working mainly due to the cost of child care.

That's just a very brief snapshot of the state of our child care. I know speakers before me have given further detail on just how grim that picture is and just how badly our childcare system is performing, not just in comparison to the rest of the world but within our own standards domestically—on domestic measures as well as comparative international measures. Moving to this bill and whether or not it goes any way to repairing some of those great deficiencies that are currently present in our system, I have to say that it does go some way, but overall, my assessment of this bill is that it is a ham-fisted and mealy-mouthed response by this government to an issue that needs much, much more reform, and the bill needs to go further. This really is no surprise. Every question time, as those watching would know, the government likes to ask what are called 'dorothy dixers', questions that give ministers an opportunity to wax lyrical and pat themselves on the back and say, 'Good boy, Angus'. But what's very interesting is that, as part of those questions they're asked about alternative approaches, they've never asked about alternative approaches to child care, because, if they did, they would be forced to talk about Labor's alternative approach to child care, which really does outshine this bill that this government has put before us for consideration.

Schedule 1 of the bill removes the annual cap from family assistance law, removing the limit on the childcare subsidy that families can receive, and this is a good policy. It is Labor's policy. It was a policy that Labor had before this bill was introduced to the parliament by this government. It is a good policy. In that, we can agree that this will go some way to reforming child care in Australia. But, really, when we go to schedule 2, that's where the difference is. Because in schedule 2 of this bill the rate of childcare subsidy—I will call it 'subsidy' in this speech—increases by 30 points for second and subsequent children under the age of six, up to a maximum of 95 per cent. All of these figures are very confusing! But, effectively, what that means is that families will only receive the higher rate of the subsidy for subsequent children as long as there's an older child and that older child remains under the age of six and has attended a session of child care in 14 consecutive weeks. In other words, once the oldest child turns six, the rate of subsidy decreases. There it is. There's the fine print. There's the caveat emptor. There is the bit that differentiates this government's approach to child care from our approach to child care.

In contrast, Labor's policy does not differentiate based on family size. It has no age cut-off, and it applies to all children outside school-hour care and during primary school. Analysis shows that 86 per cent of families will be better off under Labor's policy—that's 86 per cent of families better off under Labor policy. Six per cent will be the same, whether it's the current policy that the LNP Morrison government is bringing forth today or whether it's the proposed Labor policy. Eight per cent—just eight per cent—will be better off under the Morrison government's system. Compare the pair, as they say. The Morrison government policy that we have here before us, this bill, provides only a small amount of relief for a small minority of families for a short amount of time—until the oldest child turns six. The vast majority get nothing: zero, zilch, no subsidy, no relief, not a single thing. What kind of bill is this to repair child care when we've seen all of those statistics, when we have all of that information about just how bad our system is?

How is it that those on the other side can stand up and defend a policy that will only benefit a few and will contribute nothing substantial to addressing the abysmal state of our childcare system?

In a country where people from all corners of the globe come to provide better opportunities for themselves and better opportunities for their children, how can the Minister for Women speak about women's economic empowerment, as she did yesterday in question time, while defending a policy that actively discourages women's economic participation? In 2018, KPMG developed the workforce disincentive rate as a measure of the economic deterrence facing women wanting to return to work after having children. A 100 per cent disincentive rate basically means that a family is no better off with the mother working more hours, and over 100 means the family is, of course, worse off financially when the mother goes to work for more hours. That rate is calculated, and it takes into account increased income tax, loss of family payments and loss of childcare subsidies that often occur when women go back to work.

The KPMG study found workforce disincentive rates of between 75 and 120 per cent are common for mothers seeking to increase their work beyond three days. It was professional university educated women who were most affected by this. The impact is profound not just on the economy and the productivity gains to be had from increasing women's workforce participation but on women's career progression. Women make up 37 per cent of all full-time employees and 68 per cent of all part-time employees. They have traditionally borne the cost of child care not just financially but in their careers. This is not just about gender equality, because men are parents too, even those men who do believe that looking after your own children is babysitting. Fixing our broken childcare system doesn't just benefit women, even though that's what I've chosen to focus on in part of my contribution today. It benefits families. Most importantly, though, it benefits children.

It benefits the children of those families, because we know that those early years are critical to development. There's enough research out there, there's enough analysis out there, there's enough information out there to tell us all that what we have before us in this bill just doesn't go far enough. The implications of not substantively addressing the glaring issues with our childcare system go to child development, go to women's economic security and safety, go to social and individual community wellbeing as well as our productivity. So, while Labor is supporting this bill, we have put forward some amendments and we will continue to say: for those parents, for those families for whom child care is taking up one-quarter of their household income, there is a clear choice at the next election, a clear choice between a policy brought to you by the Morrison government that will only have a positive benefit for a small number of families for a short amount of time and a policy brought to you by the Labor Party that benefits the vast majority of families for a longer period of time and actually goes some way to fixing our childcare system.

10:44 am

Photo of Pat ConroyPat Conroy (Shortland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for International Development and the Pacific) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm pleased to make a contribution to the debate on this bill, the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Subsidy) Bill 2021, and the related amendment, and to highlight the vastly different approaches of Labor and the coalition to child care and early education. This should really be a bipartisan issue. All of us agree on the fundamental and important role of child care for all our children's growth and development, and for boosting economic productivity and participation. But the approaches of the coalition and Labor could not be more different, and I think they reflect an underlying philosophical difference in our two party rooms. You just have to look at the debate about this bill within the coalition party room to understand that there are dinosaurs in the coalition party room who still see early childhood education as a replacement for parenting. It is not a replacement for parenting. It is an essential measure. It is about early childhood education for our kids and it's about raising labour force productivity and participation in our workforce.

People concerned about the cost of child care should be asking themselves two questions. Firstly, is my family better off now than we were when the coalition was elected? Secondly, which party would provide more support for my family after the next election? The truth is that there can only be one answer to that second question, and that's the Labor Party. When I meet with constituents, one of the main issues that is raised with me by people from all walks of life is the exorbitant cost of child care. Childcare costs and fees are totally out of control. This is a problem created by the Liberals and one for which they have no solution.

I want to draw to the attention of the House some startling figures. Since 2013 when the coalition was elected, childcare fees have skyrocketed by 36 per cent. There is no way of getting away from this. The coalition has been in power for eight years, and on their watch cost-of-living pressures have risen dramatically, impacting young families right across Shortland, from Buff Point to Caves Beach to Cardiff and Charlestown and everywhere in between. The Prime Minister likes to pretend that his election to the Liberal leadership marks year zero and that he is not responsible for the five years of the coalition government before this. Well, he has been a senior cabinet minister since 2013 and, in fact, he was the minister responsible for early childhood education for many of the years when we saw fees skyrocketing.

Another significant factor for families to consider is that, under the Liberals' plan, the cost of child care will continue to rise. The Commonwealth Department of Education, Skills and Employment forecasts that childcare fees will increase by over four per cent every year for the next four years. This increase vastly outstrips inflation, which the childcare subsidy is pegged to. Families need to know that, under the Liberals, out-of-pocket expenses will be higher in the years to come. The economic result of the Liberals' chronic childcare increase is staggering. Data from the Productivity Commission—that well-known leftie institution—shows that 300,000 Australians are not in the labour force because of their caring responsibilities, an increase of nearly six per cent, and the number of parents saying they are not working because of the costs of child care has risen by 23 per cent, a massive increase. Australia is being held back economically by this government through their poor excuse of a childcare policy. It does not make economic sense to have policy settings in place which prevent people contributing to economic activity and opportunity. The government are stifling the potential and promise of Australia with their flawed approach to child care.

I now come back to the second question that I want my constituents to ask themselves: which party will provide more support for child care and for my family after the next election? The independent Parliamentary Budget Office has shown that 86 per cent of families will be better off under Labor's policy and six per cent will receive the same benefit. That means that one million families will be better off with child care under an Albanese Labor government—four times as many families as under the Liberals' plan. The simple message I want my constituents to know is that Labor's plan is superior to the Liberals' plan, and families will be economically better off. Put simply, Labor will provide more support for families. That is what governments should do: support people and families to have the opportunity to work, to grow within themselves, to contribute to society and to grow the economy.

Childcare policy should deliver good results for families and good results for the economy and the nation as a whole. Labor's plan is not only good for families; our policy will see a boost to GDP three times as large as under the Liberals' policy. In the truly turbulent times we are living in, we need all hands on deck and as many people as possible working to secure our economic recovery. Labor's plan will ensure that there are more workers, particularly women, working, earning and contributing to Australia's economy. That's why sound childcare policy is so important.

Having discussed both approaches to childcare policy, I also want my constituents to consider how Australia compares with other developed, wealthy countries. The statistics, again, are damning of this tired and out-of-touch coalition government. UNICEF has recently released a report entitled Where do rich countries stand on childcare? It ranks countries on childcare policies based on affordability, access, quality and parental leave. Australians will be shocked to learn that we rank 37th out of 41 countries. For example, Mexico, Romania and Hungary all rank above Australia. We see ourselves as an advanced, prosperous and modern country, and yet we are totally failing in this fundamentally important social and economic policy. In terms of cost, UNICEF found that we are one of only eight countries where child care consumes at least a quarter of the average wage. This is a real cost-of-living issue, where families are better off if a parent doesn't work. This should not be the case, and Labor's plan will ensure that families are better off.

This bill is being debated in the context of a parliament that's much reduced because of COVID restrictions and in a period where 11 million Australians are in lockdown, including 30,000 of my constituents on the northern Central Coast. Those families that this bill goes to are being affected by that lockdown every single day. That situation has been made much worse overnight, with the information that there have been some cases at Lake Munmorah Public School in my electorate and across the border at Morisset High School. In fact, there's an exposure site at the other end of Lake Macquarie, at Target in Glendale, and, very worryingly, significant COVID fragments were found in three local sewage treatment works. This affects the families that this bill goes to; this affects their quality of life; this affects their ability to get on and earn a living; this affects their health most fundamentally. That is why I am so, so angry with the state and federal Liberal governments because of what they have done around the vaccine rollout. The failure of this government to ensure there are adequate supplies of the vaccine has left this nation exposed. It has left the electorate of Shortland exposed.

Adding to that is the insane and offensive policy decision from the New South Wales Liberal government to withdraw vaccines from my electorate of Shortland and the broader Central Coast, Lake Macquarie and Hunter area to go to Sydney on the premise of vaccinating HSC students, even though the Liberal government have made it very clear they don't have a plan. In fact, they've delayed this plan, but they're still withdrawing the vaccines right now. They're cancelling first doses, particularly for people in priority categories 1a and 1b, who this federal government committed to being vaccinated by Easter at the latest. This is offensive. It's insane. And it's insane because this decision was made even when there were active COVID cases in the northern Central Coast, in my electorate, in communities that were using the Belmont vaccination hub as their primary vaccination source. For the state government to withdraw those vaccines is abhorrent. And for the Prime Minister yesterday to throw the New South Wales Premier under the bus on that decision, while maintaining that they're still providing Pfizer doses to my electorate, was wrong. It was wrong and it was mendacious. I did a vaccine eligibility check yesterday afternoon for my electorate to see whether I could get a Pfizer dose in the seat of Shortland, and not a single GP in the seat of Shortland had an available Pfizer dose at all—not a single one. The Prime Minister was completely mendacious yesterday in question time when he claimed that the Pfizer doses were still getting to my electorate.

In summary, the state Liberal government has withdrawn much-needed Pfizer doses from their vaccine hub at Belmont, and the federal government is failing to get Pfizer doses to my GPs in Shortland. That's affecting families who are the subject of this bill right now. That's why I'm angry about what is going on here. This government is hurting families in my electorate, families that they profess to be supporting through this childcare subsidy bill right now. This demonstrates the hypocrisy of the Morrison Liberal government. They attack families through an inadequate childcare subsidy policy; they attack families through botching the vaccine rollout; they attack families through the failure of the national quarantine system; they attack families by claiming that they're maintaining adequate Pfizer supplies to the seat of Shortland, when in fact you cannot get a Pfizer appointment at a single Shortland doctor's surgery right now. They are attacking families left, right and centre.

We saw another announcement by the Prime Minister this morning that somehow they've found doses somewhere, out of thin air, that they are going to be providing to the Hunter and Lake Macquarie on the northern Central Coast. Well, I'll believe it when I see it, because every single commitment this government has made and every single target this government has claimed around the vaccine rollout they have missed by a country mile, hurting families that are the subject of this bill. As I said, 30,000 people in the seat of Shortland are already under a lockdown, and I think there's a decent chance that by the end of today the New South Wales government will be announcing a lockdown for the other 120,000 residents of Shortland.

That will affect families that are the subject of this childcare subsidy bill, and I am filled with righteous fury about that, because this likely would have been entirely avoidable if this government had done its job around the vaccine rollout, if this government had instituted a national quarantine system and if the New South Wales premier had instituted a proper lockdown of the eastern suburbs rather than a Claytons lockdown, clearly afraid to hurt her own constituents, her own backers of the Liberal Party in the wealthy eastern suburbs. And what happens? Working families and pensioners in Western Sydney and on the Central Coast are hurt because of the Liberals' two-tier strategy: that they will look after their own but will hurt families in electorates like mine.

That's the context of the debate around this bill. That's the context for this discussion about how we support early childhood education. I've ranged far and wide because this bill should be seen amongst broader support for families and the fact that families in my electorate either have had to pull their kids out of early childhood education because they were subject to the lockdown, because they were on the Central Coast, or will soon probably have to pull their kids out of early childhood education in the Lake Macquarie LGA.

I just think that this government is at sea, and it's the families of Australia that are suffering because of the government's incompetence and arrogance, and the attitude of a Prime Minister who is not fit for the job. I say that with a heavy heart, because at times of national crisis Australians' inclination is to support their leaders, to support the national cabinet, but this Prime Minister and this government are clearly not up to it. They are failing the Australian people, and they should go.

10:58 am

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

[by video link] This is the first time that I'm participating in virtual parliament, from my electorate office here in Bendigo, and it's also the first time that I'm speaking post returning from maternity leave. My little one, Charlie, is almost four months old. So, this bill is quite dear to my heart, as well as to many in my electorate and to many of my colleagues who are participating remotely. COVID has changed how we do things, and I do want to thank the parliament and our presiding officers for making virtual parliament a possibility, because for many of us the ability to be away from our families for five weeks and then the two weeks quarantine is a challenge. Just as all workplaces around Australia are adapting, it's great that our parliament is as well.

This morning I dropped my daughter Daisy off at child care and spoke to the educators about how her morning was. It's the usual thing that families now do when doing their childcare drop-off, 'Have they had breakfast, did they sleep well last night?' That's so the educators and teachers are best placed to know how your little one is going to go today. It's the modern way that families work. Mum, dad or the guardian does the childcare drop-off and then heads into work. Whether our children be in child care at Parliament House or in the electorate, it's what a lot of us are now doing in the modern world.

What disappoints me the most about the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Subsidy) Bill 2021 before us is that it actually doesn't go far enough to support the sector. It actually doesn't go far enough to support families navigating not only a changed world because of COVID but the working world of today for working families. It does help families who might have two children in care and it does help families in relation to the cap, but it's not enough to really help the sector navigate COVID and beyond COVID. It's also coming too late. This bill is not being implemented instantly in the new financial year, or even from 1 January. It's not until after the next election, and who knows when that will be? Only the Prime Minister knows that. These reforms are needed now.

Firstly, I want to touch base on the impact that COVID is having on the sector and how the government hasn't done enough to support the sector to get through. I really feel for the sector in New South Wales—for the educators and teachers in New South Wales, and the families. We went through this last year in Victoria and the federal government just messed it up—it made an absolute mess of the sector. As a result, a lot of our casual educators in Victoria—people working casually—have not come back. They've found other work and dropped out of the sector, or they've dropped out of work altogether. That's putting pressure on the sector going forward: will they have the staff required?

The other challenge that we've had in Victoria too is that this government kicked early childhood educators off JobKeeper first. That had a huge impact on the sector. In the end we got there, and in the end our centres are doing quite well now. But every time there's a policy scramble, and chopping and changing, because the government haven't got it right it puts the sector on edge, it puts providers at risk and it has educators and teachers questioning if this is where they can work. They too have bills to pay. That's why the government needs to do better.

An example from last year of how the sector is in crisis and how the measures that the government have put forward aren't going to solve the long-term challenges that we have is Lauren, who is a nurse in my electorate. She had two children in early childhood education. It's a pandemic; we want our nurses to be working if they're able to. She said to me that because of the cost of child care she didn't want to take up that fourth or fifth day of work because it meant that she would have been paying to go to work. The way in which this system is structured currently penalises her for wanting to work extra shifts. The cost barrier becomes the absurd situation where she is actually paying to go to work. That's an economic disincentive for her family and it also has an impact on our health sector: we have nurses choosing not to return to work full-time in the middle of a pandemic because of the way in which the sector is structured.

We've had other examples: a couple—a midwife and a builder—with children in child care for two days a week. If the government were to adopt the Labor reforms that have been put forward and are suggested in our amendments, that couple would save about $2,630 a week. So it wouldn't cost them to go into child care, they would actually save money. That's another example of why these amendments being put forward by Labor—the Labor proposal—would help people in my electorate. A local pharmacist and a teacher with one child in child care for two days a week would save about $2,000 as well. It means that there is that real option of being able to return to work full time if they choose to do so. Here's another example. A police officer and nurse whose son is in child care three days a week would save about $3,300, and they can then look at the real option of picking up those extra shifts. These are three examples of health workers in our electorate whose partners are pharmacists, teachers, builders and police officers. These are people we want and who are critical to our postpandemic recovery, yet the barrier for them returning to participate in our workforce full time or even picking up some extra hours is the fact that we don't have a universal child care system. The reforms that the government has put forward aren't enough to ensure that people will take up the extra hours if they choose to do so.

Under this government, childcare fees in the Bendigo electorate have increased by 34 per cent. That's not just a statistic; that's an impact on household budgets. That's when we see families dropping out of early childhood education altogether or pulling back their hours. That places pressure on the family unit, but it also places unfair pressure on the children. We've created a system in Australia where child care is not universal, so that young people—our littlest people—can't get access to early childhood education because of what their parents earn or because of the career that their parents may have. We're not talking about millionaires. We're talking about teachers and nurses. We're talking about builders and police officers. Right now in Victoria, because of the health crisis and because of the rolling lockdowns and restrictions we've had for the past year and a half or two years as this has rolled out, we have a generation of what we've called 'COVID babies' or 'COVID toddlers'. The only way that they can get access to genuinely engaging with their peers, week to week for an extended period of time, has been organised early childhood education. With restrictions comes the cancellation of playgroups or the cancellation or pausing of any organised activity like Tumble Tots or mothers groups. They're happening via Zoom, and it is good for mum or dad to participate that way, but the little ones aren't getting together peer to peer.

Victoria is an example of how critical the early years are. We already knew that the science is in, but, for the government, here is another example. We have a generation of little people who will have gone a year or two years, in some cases, without having that consistent activity week to week, catching up with peers. Whether it be swimming lessons or a playgroup, those activities have not occurred regularly. In not even a generation's time, these children will start to go into kindergarten and into school and be having to do early skills development around sharing, being conscious of others, language development, working with others—the informal skills that they get by being around children their own age. There's going to have to be a catch-up period, but it's not even on this government's radar. All we've got before us in this bill is a little bit of relief for families.

All we've got in this bill is, again, the government still in an old mind-set that access to early childhood education is all about women's workforce participation. It is not. We need to move beyond the idea that this is just about women's workforce participation. Yes, it will help, but we need to move ourselves into a place where early childhood education is about education. It's about education and care. That's where we need to start getting towards a model which is universal, and that's where Labor's model is going. It's about reducing the costs for the vast majority of Australian families. It's about removing those tough conversations: 'Will I go to work three days a week or four days a week? If I go four days a week, it's going to cost us to have our children in early childhood education.' We know the benefits are there. We're seeing the benefits roll out in a different way in Victoria, as I've demonstrated. This is an opportunity for the government to actually move us into a space where we're saying we really believe that early childhood education should be universal, rather than just tinker and make some minor adjustments. It's about stopping the out-of-control fee increases.

I do have to say that the providers are trying to do their best. The cost of early childhood education is expensive. But they don't have a partner—a genuine partner—in the federal government helping to meet the costs. At the same time, our educators are on minimum wages. These are teachers and educators—people who have skills, who have diplomas, who have certificates, who do a remarkable job and yet are not being paid for the value of their work. And I'm not just saying this because I'm a mum with two children under two, saying, 'I don't know how educators can manage three.' That's the ratio for this age group: one to three. All of us who have been parents know what it's like, and all of us who aren't parents can appreciate the importance of what our educators do. But, if we truly want to value the work that our educators do, then we need to increase funding to the sector and to look at wages. Yes, we need to look at fees, and, yes, we need to look at the subsidy. The government have started to do that work, but they need to pick up Labor's plan too, about pushing this off to the Productivity Commission, or at some way to link wages into the sector.

Why is it that we can get it right when it comes to primary school funding and when it comes to independent school funding, and not get it right for the early years? It's long overdue for us to be looking at how we value early childhood education, as well as the people who are teaching and caring for our children in those early years. Every Victorian family, every family in Australia, who's going through this pandemic and who has children in early childhood education understands and appreciates and thanks the educators for what they're doing. The previous speaker, the member for Shortland, highlighted a really challenging time for his electorate and for New South Wales. I really hope the government listens and learns from Victoria and that they get on board and fix the challenges that are happening. It's long overdue that we have a sector that is focused on the educators and universal childhood education.

I strongly encourage the government to take on board and support the amendments Labor is putting forward, particularly in relation to fees. The sector in New South Wales could be on the brink of collapse if they don't act quickly. If people start to withdraw their children, if people can't afford to pay fees because they've been stood down, and if centres can't pay a predominantly full-time, permanently engaged workforce and a part-time workforce, then the sector is in trouble. Don't repeat the mistakes of Victoria. Fix this now. I strongly urge the government to support the amendments that Labor is putting forward. We want our little people to have the best start, we want our educators to be paid properly, and we want families to have real options when it comes to accessing early years education. It shouldn't be about penalising doctors and nurses and pharmacists. It shouldn't be about penalising people who are doing their job. Their little people should have access to quality years.

11:13 am

Photo of Josh BurnsJosh Burns (Macnamara, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] I'm pleased to join this debate on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Subsidy) Bill. I'm always pleased to follow the member for Bendigo, who made an outstanding contribution and really highlighted some of the important issues in our sector and, as always, has advocated for working people and working families. I want to take this opportunity to wish her and all of her family congratulations, and I look forward to seeing her and the whole crew up in Canberra soon.

This is a really difficult day. We have just got news that New South Wales has had probably their hardest day in the pandemic. We have cases around South-East Queensland. And Victoria is dealing with a major outbreak. Despite all of this, our childcare workers and our early educators have been a constant source of reliability and reliance for Australian working families.

Our early educators have done an amazing job of keeping our early education centres ticking along throughout this pandemic. My family is no exception. We have a beautiful baby daughter, and she has been going to pre-kinder and hasn't missed a beat. She's growing and learning and playing and doing all of that, even as I speak right now. I want to thank all of her educators, all of her early childcare workers, but also all of the workers around the country who have really turned up each and every day. They are absolutely on the front line, and they pour their hearts and souls into looking after our little people. They do it with expertise, they do it with skill, and they do it with energy and effort, and we really appreciate it. I want to start this contribution by saying thank you to our early educators for everything you have done, for everything you'll continue to do and for the work that you do not get paid enough for. Your work is valued and important, and we need to support you in that quest.

The Labor Party has a really simple approach when it comes to early education and child care. We do not see access to child care and early education as a welfare measure. We see it as an economic one. We see it as an economic imperative for this country to make sure that families, especially working women, are able to get back to the workplace if they choose to and access affordable child care or early education services. It's not about supporting families and welfare and all of the things that the government likes to label Labor's policy on; it's about making sure that families are able to get back into the workforce. We know that child care has become extremely unaffordable under this government. The cost of child care, including in my own electorate of Macnamara, has become unaffordable for too many families. It has become a barrier for families, especially women, returning to the workplace, especially on days four and five.

Affordable, good local early education and child care is crucial. It's not just crucial for families; it's crucial for our economy. It's crucial for careers. It's crucial for women to be able to get back into the workforce and return to making money and receiving superannuation. This doesn't even go into all of the benefits for the child and the development of young people and young Australians. Of course, that is central to our philosophy. Of course, that is central to the way in which Labor sees it. We value the social interaction, the learning, the play and the activity that comes with our outstanding early education centres. On top of that, the big struggles for families at the moment are around affordability and access to early education and childcare services, and we need it to improve. That's why Labor, like so many times throughout our time in opposition, has come up with constructive suggestions to help Australian families. It wasn't about politics; it was about constructive suggestions.

We released our alternative childcare plan as part of the budget-in-reply a couple of years ago. If an idea comes from Labor, this government has to fight it. There is no grace; there is no humility; there' s no attempt at trying to find good outcomes for the Australian people. Everything that Labor suggests, this government tries to shut down, and our childcare policy is no different. We put forward a plan to help Australian families afford more child care. What did we see? We saw the then minister for child care, Minister Tehan, come out and criticise it, label it, and use his big platform in the media to criticise Labor. He wasn't willing to work constructively and admit that there's a problem in that Australian families can't afford the increasing cost of child care and early education, that maybe the Labor Party is right and is connected to the needs of working families, that maybe, in the interests of the Australian people and Australian working families, instead of just criticising the Labor Party, we should work together and listen to good ideas. But, of course, that is beneath this government, and that is beneath the ability of the Prime Minister.

We're seeing exactly the same thing happening with this vaccine rollout. The Labor Party has put forward a really constructive suggestion. We want to see Australians get vaccinated, plain and simple.

We want to see more and more people protected from this awful virus. We have 260-odd cases today in New South Wales. Five people have lost their lives. We want to see an incentive for people to get vaccinated. That's why we put forward the idea of $300 for people to get vaccinated. Just like the childcare policy, the Prime Minister is incapable of showing any grace, any humility or any willingness to work together in the interests of the Australian people. It's all about politics with this bloke. It's always about fighting elections and not about doing what's in the interests of the Australian people. The Prime Minister could have had a little bit of humility and just said, 'Look, we'll consider it. We'll consider Labor's good-faith policy proposal. We understand that there's a massive need. This is a difficult thing. We're all in this together.' Imagine if we had a leader that was actually capable of sounding like a leader? Instead we have a Prime Minister who is constantly looking for fights with the Labor Party. That's all this is. It's all he ever wants to do. Whether it's child care or our incentive ideas for the vaccine rollout, this government is not interested in working collaboratively, this government is not interested in leadership, and this government is not interested in doing what's right for working Australian families. All it is interested in doing is punching on with the Labor Party. That's it, and it's pretty sad because the people who lose out are working families across the country and the people who miss out are Australians who we need to get vaccinated in order to get through this awful pandemic.

The Labor Party obviously isn't going to stand in the way of this bill, but, like so many things, our proposal would leave families better off. Our proposal would leave around 86 per cent of families better off. Almost a million families would be better off under the Labor Party's policy to make sure that child care is more affordable. It's hardly surprising to see that the government is angry with the Labor Party putting child care on the agenda when you see some of the comments made by government members in their own party room around child care. We see reports in the media about how government members say that child care is outsourcing parenting. That's how the dinosaurs in charge of this government see child care and early education in this country. It's hardly surprising, because it's not just in the party room. Senator Rennick—the gift that keeps on giving for the federal coalition party room—invoked Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz and insisted that the best place for children is at home, not child care. What? What planet are these people living on? What planet are these dinosaurs living on where they cannot see the value of early education, the value of play, the value of learning, and the value of our early educators who turn up to work each and every day to help develop and grow our young Australians to become everything that they can be? We know that essential learning happens in those formative years. We know that it is so important for young Australians to have access to social situations, to reading and to playing. For Senator Rennick and his colleagues to say that child care is outsourcing parenting or that a child's place is at home and not in child care just reinforces the values of the federal Liberal Party and the values of the Morrison government. They want to take Australia back to the 1950s. They are doing it in terms of climate change—they are not accepting the science on that—and their values of the family structure are really clear and apparent when it comes to their comments on child care. The Labor Party is in a completely other world to the federal government. We do not see this outdated way of thinking as being in any way appropriate. We have faith in and we back our early educators. We thank them for turning up during this pandemic each and every day to help our youngest Australians learn, grow and develop.

I also want to take this opportunity to thank all of the local early educators and all of the workers and staff in the electorate of Macnamara. We have some outstanding local childcare and early education facilities. Many of them are community run or council run facilities, and many of them are run by local families who give up their time to help volunteer on the board. They are outstanding organisations, and we really are so grateful for all of the effort they put in to help our youngest Australians grow and develop.

Unlike the dinosaurs in the coalition party room, we support our early educators and we want to see our childcare and early education system be one that's more affordable. We want to see Australian families able to access good education and early education. We want to make sure that our families are not put off by the rising costs of child care under this government—that child care isn't a barrier to getting back into the workplace but rather an essential part of the Australian economy, enabling Australian women to get back into the workforce and, most importantly, enabling our youngest Australians to learn, grow and develop.

I just want to point out and pay thanks to the member for Kingston, who, throughout her entire time as the shadow minister, has led and pushed for greater support for the workers, our amazing early educators, and more resources for our littlest Australians, while also making sure that the Labor Party is putting forward constructive ideas and constructive policies that will help get Australian women and Australian working families back into the workforce with access to quality education at affordable prices. I want to acknowledge her contribution.

Finally, I would say we support quality education and early education; we support our educators, and we sincerely thank them for all of their work during these difficult days of the pandemic and for all of the time that they've put into our youngest Australians. We say thank you very, very much.

11:26 am

Photo of Alan TudgeAlan Tudge (Aston, Liberal Party, Minister for Education and Youth) Share this | | Hansard source

In rising to sum up the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Subsidy) Bill 2021, I firstly thank all the members who have contributed in the discussion on this particular bill. I particularly thank the opposition for not opposing this bill, so that it can go to the Senate, get through the Senate, hopefully, and then be implemented, because this bill will make a very significant difference to the lives of 250,000 families.

What the bill does, as members know, is provide an additional childcare subsidy for the second and subsequent children that a family has in child care. Why are we doing that? Because we know that, despite the fact that the childcare system is geared towards supporting families with all their children, when you have two, three or more children in child care at any one time those bills really start to add up. Additionally, it can be an impediment, particularly to women, going back into the workforce or working more days of the week as they might want to do. Hence, this bill provides additional funding in a very targeted way to address that particular problem.

As I said, 250,000 families will be beneficiaries of this bill. The average family that uses the childcare system, who is on a median income of $110,000 and has a couple of kids doing four days a week, will be $95 per week better off as a result of it. This is good for the cost of living and it's also good for the economy, because it means that people are likely to be back into the workforce. That, of course, boosts the overall economy and wealth of this nation. So it has those dual purposes there, and I thank all the members for their contributions to this bill.

Of course, it works off the architecture which our childcare system already has in place, and that is a system whereby the greatest subsidies are provided to those of the least means and the lowest subsidies are provided to those of the most means, exiting at $350,000 per annum. That is, if you're a family and you're earning more than $350,000 you don't get any subsidy at all, because our view is that those families are able to afford the child care for themselves. I will point out that, as a result of this bill, this government's total contribution to the childcare system will now be $11 billion per annum, which is about double what it was when we came to office. So it has been important for us to support the childcare system, to support the families that need it and to support the economy in doing so.

The main critique from the opposition that I want to address in this summing-up speech—and I was listening to the contribution from the member for Macnamara—is effectively that we didn't adopt Labor's policy. The reason that we didn't adopt Labor's policy on child care is that it is fundamentally very different to what we are proposing here. Whereas our proposal is to provide the most support to those families of the least means, tapering off to no support when you are earning above $350,000, the Labor Party policy is to provide the most support to those who are on very high incomes. I just find that astounding coming from the modern-day Labor Party. For example, under the Labor policy, a family on $400,000 with two children in full-time care would effectively be getting $1,000 per week from the workers of Australia to pay for that wealthy family's child care—$1,000 per week from the taxpayer to pay for a family's child care when that family is earning $400,000 or $500,000 per annum.

No wonder the Labor Party are in all sorts of turmoil about what they stand for these days, when the most amount of money that they are going to put into the system will go to the very wealthiest people in our society. The cost to the taxpayer of this policy? It would be $20 billion. That would be the cost to the taxpayer. So, under Labor's policy, $20 billion would be paid for by all of those working families in the Hunter and out in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Queensland to pay $1,000 per week for the child care of those families earning $400,000, $500,000 or $600,000 per annum.

That is what the Labor Party's policy is, and that is the reason that this government isn't supporting the Labor Party policy. It is very clear. Our measures are targeted and fair and they support those families who use the childcare system who need the support the most. But our measures are also fair for the over 50 per cent of the families who don't use the childcare system at all. So it is a modest additional outlay on top of what our expenditure is already in the childcare system.

I commend this bill to the House. I again thank everybody for their contribution to this bill. I note there will be some amendments that the Labor Party will be moving which we won't be supporting, but I do thank them for agreeing to not oppose this bill in this House, so that 250,000 families across Australia can be better off.

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

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Fenner has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The immediate question is that the amendment be disagreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.