House debates

Thursday, 5 August 2021


Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Subsidy) Bill 2021; Consideration in Detail

11:42 am

Photo of Andrew LeighAndrew Leigh (Fenner, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I move together amendments (1) and (2) as circulated in the name of the member for Kingston:

(1) Clause 2, page 2 (at the end of the table), add:

(2) Page 12 (after line 25), at the end of the Bill, add:

Schedule 3 — Exception to duty to enforce payment of hourly session fees because of stay at home directions etc.

A New Tax System (Family Assistance) (Administration) Act 1999

1 After subsection 201B(1)


Exception because of stay at home directions etc.

(1AA) The provider is not required to take reasonable steps in relation to a session of care provided by the service to the child if the child is not able to attend the session of care because of a law of a State or Territory (e.g. a public health direction) that:

(a) is enacted or made in reponse to the coronavirus known as COVID-19; and

(b) restricts the ability of persons to:

(i) leave their homes; or

(ii) travel a certain distance from their homes.

Note: A defendant bears an evidential burden in relation to the matters mentioned in this subsection: see subsection 13.3(3) of the Criminal Code and section 96 of the Regulatory Powers Act.

2 After paragraph 201C(1)(a)


(aa) if the provider is not taking reasonable steps in relation to the session of care because of subsection 201B(1AA)—the provider charged immediately before the coming into force of the relevant restriction mentioned in that subsection; or

3 After paragraph 201C(1A)(a)


(aa) if the provider is not taking reasonable steps in relation to the session of care because of subsection 201B(1AA)—the provider charged immediately before the coming into force of the relevant restriction mentioned in that subsection; or

4 After section 201C(1A)


(1AA) If the approved provider of a child care service is not taking reasonable steps in relation to a session of care provided by the service to a child because of subsection 201B(1AA), the provider must not charge an individual who is eligible for CCS for the session of care an hourly session fee that exceeds the hourly session fee that the provider charged immediately before the coming into force of the relevant restriction mentioned in that subsection.

5 Subsections 201C(2) and (3)

After "(1A)", insert ", (1AA)".

The member for Kingston will lead the debate on these important amendments. However, in moving them, I want to take the opportunity to take Stefano Passeri from Insight Early Learning Throsby for having me to visit last week for Early Learning Matters Week. Early Learning Matters Week is an initiative of Early Childhood Australia and a terrific chance to see the great work being done by early childhood educators across Australia

Photo of Ian GoodenoughIan Goodenough (Moore, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the amendments be disagreed to. I call the honourable member for Kingston.

11:43 am

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

[by video link] Thank you, Deputy Speaker. I am very pleased to speak to these amendments, because these amendments have one purpose—that is, to give families relief from childcare fees during COVID-19 lockdowns, when parents are asked to stay at home and not using child care but legally required to pay the full fees. I note that this is the second time that opposition has tried to move these amendments. It is disappointing to hear that, despite lockdowns across this country today, the government has signalled it will vote against these amendments again.

It is a feature of the current childcare subsidy system that, under normal circumstances, providers are legally required to enforce payment of their hourly session fees. Section 201B of the A New Tax System (Family Assistance) (Administration) Act 1999 states this. In practical terms this means that families are slugged with gap fees during the pandemic lockdown, unless the government grants the centres an exemption. The minister already had the power to grant exemptions for centres from charging gap fees under section 54A of the Child Care Subsidy Minister's Rules 2017. When the government passed the Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus Act 2020, it added a subsection to the family assistance administration act. This subsection created the ability for the minister to grant exemptions from the requirements to charge gap fees in particular events and circumstances. Section 54A of the minister's rules outlines the COVID related circumstances in which the minister is able to waiver the requirements of section 201B. So the government has the power to give families relief from gap fees during lockdown, but the government has chosen to use this selectively, only when it seems to suit it. It chose to use this power during the national lockdown last year and during the second lockdown in Victoria last year, and now finally it has been dragged kicking and screaming to use it in the current Sydney lockdown. Unfortunately, it has not used this power in the more recent lockdowns in Adelaide and Melbourne and isn't using it in the current lockdown in South-East Queensland.

Under the public health lockdowns in these cities, families are urged to stay at home with their children to protect the community, and childcare centres stay open to serve essential workers. But, in the circumstance where the government fails to provide the ability to do a waiver, then those centres are still legally required to charge all families gap fees. Even in Sydney, the Prime Minister waited two weeks before granting families this fee relief. One can only assume the government's hesitancy is because it doesn't want to then assume pressure for actually providing a decent relief package for the early education and care sector as, while it has finally provided the waiver of gap fees in New South Wales, it hasn't implemented a Victorian-style support package for the early learning sector.

The country needs to have certainty. Families need certainty. They need to know that, when stay-at-home orders are issued, they will not be slapped with gap fees, especially at a time when they may have lost their jobs or are doing it tough. So I urge the government today to support our amendment, to give some certainty to the early learning sector, certainty to families in the event that we will continue to see rolling lockdowns, because the government has botched quarantine and the vaccine rollout. I urge the government to provide this certainty and at the same time seriously look at a support package for the early learning sector in New South Wales, one that gives certainty, because this sector is unique: it is keeping its doors open, despite enrolments being down, so that essential workers still get that support. Please, give families this certainty. I plead with the government: give them the relief and make sure it's consistent across the country. I commend `this amendment to the House.

11:48 am

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

We won't be supporting Labor's amendment to the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Subsidy) Bill 2021, which, in effect, brings into primary legislation an automatic system of a applying gap fee waiver where this power currently rests in ministerial rules. I don't deny what the shadow minister is trying to achieve here. The reason why we haven't put this into legislation is that at the moment it can rest with the ministerial ruling, which enables greater flexibility to be applied to take into account the particular circumstances of each lockdown in each jurisdiction. As members would be aware, every lockdown has had its own unique attributes. Sometimes they're for a very small number of days. Sometimes they might start out as a week and go longer. Sometimes childcare services are closed from day one and other times they're not. By enabling this flexibility we can properly adjust our settings to both ensure families are spared their cost and ensure the viability of the sector remains strong. We've got to achieve those two objectives.

In New South Wales, we actually introduced the gap fee waiver at the same time as business support was put in place. When services waive the gap fees, it does start to place financial pressure on businesses and their viability, so we deliberately aligned those two things, and I think that made sense to maintain the viability of those services. I'll just point out briefly to the shadow minister and to the House in general the supports that we do have in place, particularly in New South Wales, which is going through a more extended lockdown period. There are three important features of the support that we are offering—support for the families, support for the businesses and indeed support for the childcare workers.

For the families, we are allowing services to waive the out-of-pocket costs and we've extended the number of days families are allowed to keep children absent before they lose access to the childcare subsidy. That decision was just made recently. For childcare businesses, we have partnered with the New South Wales government to facilitate very quick support through JobSaver to help businesses meet payroll costs if they've experienced a 30 per cent decline in their revenue. As members may know, this provides 40 per cent of those payroll costs, if there's a 30 per cent decline in revenue. Then, for the childcare workers—and this is a critical workforce for Australia, for our economy and for parents, and we thank them very much for the great work that they do—where a worker has had hours reduced, they're eligible to apply for a COVID disaster payment, which is worth up to $750 per week.

As you can see, we've got a three-pronged approach to the support that we're providing to the childcare sector—to the families, to start with; to the businesses, to ensure their viability; and to the workers, to ensure that they are looked after as well and can stay connected to their businesses so that we don't lose those very important workers for this very important industry. That's what we have in place. I appreciate the arguments that the shadow minister articulated, but I think it's important we maintain that flexibility in this particular area, and that's why we won't be supporting the amendments.

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

The question is that the amendments be disagreed to.