Wednesday, 23 November 2022
Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Cheaper Child Care) Bill 2022; Consideration of Senate Message
That the amendments be agreed to.
Today is a great day for more than a million Australian families. It's a great day for children, it's a great day for their parents, it's a great day for Australian businesses, it's a great day for our economy—it's a great day for our country. This was one of the biggest and most important commitments that we made at the last election to the Australian people, an almost $5 billion investment in our children's future, and it will cut the cost of early education and care for more than one million Australian families. That's real help with the cost of living. For the average Australian family, on a combined income of about $120,000, it will cut the cost of early education and care by about $1,700 a year. That's real help.
But this is also real economic reform, because when you cut the cost of early education and care it makes it easier for parents, in particular for mothers, to return to paid work, to work more days and to work more hours, and that means more skilled workers back in the workforce—according to Treasury, the equivalent of up to 37,000 full-time workers back in the economy. Most importantly of all this helps our children. More time in early education and care makes sure that our children are ready to start school. So this is the trifecta: it's good for our children, it's good for parents and it's good for the economy.
But this legislation is just the start. The next step is the ACCC inquiry into the cost of early education and care. That kicks off in January, and we'll get their interim report in June. Next year we'll also kick off a big and broad review of early education and care. That work will be done by the Productivity Commission, and that's important work. That will help us chart a course for the next wave of reforms, a long-term plan for early childhood education and care. As the Prime Minister said in this debate only a couple of weeks ago:
Just as universal Medicare guarantees every Australian the right to quality and affordable healthcare, just as universal superannuation ensures every Australian can know dignity and security in their retirement, we want universal child care to guarantee every Australian family the support they need and every Australian child the opportunity that they deserve.
I want to thank all of those who have helped us to make this day happen: first, to the Minister for Social Services, who shaped this policy in opposition; to the Minister for Early Childhood Education, Anne Aly, my friend, who helped us to bring this legislation to the parliament; to Senator Anthony Chisolm, the Assistant Minister for Education, who guided this legislation through the Senate; and to the Prime Minister, who has championed this from the very start—thank you. I also want to thank all of my colleagues, who campaigned for this right across the country through the campaign. It's your work and it's your effort that have helped to make this day a reality.
I also want to thank the officials in the Department of Education, who worked tirelessly to prepare this bill, people who've done a hell of a lot of work and often are not recognised: Brenton Philp, Tristan Reed and Michele Arcaro, amongst many others who helped craft this legislation and have it ready for the parliament to consider. And to everybody who works in early education and care—the educators, the staff, the teachers, the administrators—and everybody who has given this legislation their support, thank you. There aren't many jobs in this country that are more important than the work that you do, and we thank you for it.
I also want to thank all members of the crossbench, who have been critical in this debate and have offered their support: the members for Wentworth, Kooyong, Goldstein, Mackellar, Mayo, North Sydney, Warringah and many others. Thank you for your strong words of support for these critical reforms. I also want to thank Senator Pocock, whose work on this issue in the Senate has helped to make this a better bill. I'm glad that, despite two years of relentless opposition, the opposition has decided to finally support this legislation as well.
This is the best kind of economic reform. It's one that benefits two generations at once, that has at its heart a better start in life for our children, that gives parents more choice, that provides more access to early education for the youngest Indigenous Australians, that boosts our economy—all at the same time, all in the same bill. I am proud to see it become law today.
The coalition has not opposed this bill, the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Cheaper Child Care) Bill 2022, from the beginning. There have been two amendments to the bill, and the coalition supports both. However, during the course of the debate, we have raised our strong concerns around access and workforce issues across the early learning sector, and those problems remain in the sector. These amendments do not address either of these pressing issues. However, a review in July 2024, 12 months after the commencement of these changes, will allow the coalition to assess if this bill has in fact delivered the government's promise of cheaper child care.
On election night, I spoke about the great mission of Labor governments to widen further the doors of opportunity for Australians, and that is precisely what this legislation, the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Cheaper Child Care) Bill 2022, is aimed at doing. When I had the great honour of becoming the Leader of the Labor Party, I put this reform at the centre of my first budget reply. At the time, it received vociferous opposition from the then government. They said that it was outrageous to suggest we should remove the cap on the childcare rebate, before they eventually made some small steps towards it themselves. They said that it was irresponsible to support wealthier people to receive more childcare support from the government, and they reversed their usual rhetoric about class envy in the way that they approached our announcement. We did so because, if you look at how we do two tasks at once—address cost-of-living pressures and do it in a way which boosts productivity and which doesn't put pressure on inflation—there is no better reform than the one that will pass the parliament today.
Just six months to the day, yesterday, after we were sworn in, we are passing a centrepiece of what we took to the Australian people in May and what we campaigned for over such a long period of time. Indeed, I well recall members of the media suggesting to me that we were visiting too many early learning centres. 'Why are we back, talking about child care again?' We did talk about it for the entire term, and we'll continue to talk about it as we see these reforms make a difference, because this is about economic reform. It was never about welfare. When any of our children decide to go to the local public school, universality in the public school system, just as in our public health system, doesn't require your credit card. It requires either just your Medicare card or just all children mixing. One of the ways you maintain social support for programs is through the principle of universality. When an issue is not about welfare but is about access and opportunity for all, then I see early learning as being part of that. Why is it that so many parents will say to you that they are better off once their child, little John or little Mary, reaches the age of five? All of a sudden they have better economic circumstances, but it makes no sense whatsoever for that to be the case—and it's not the case in most advanced economies in the OECD if we look at best practice.
The benefit of this reform is that it will boost workforce participation of women. It will add many thousands of full-time equivalents to the workforce at a time when we have skills shortages out there. The second benefit is that it will boost productivity by removing the disincentive for women in particular to work a fourth or a fifth day. It will enable them to enhance the careers that they have going forward. That will lead not just to higher incomes and boosts in productivity for their work.
It will also ensure that their retirement incomes are higher. It will enhance the productivity of businesses, enhance the income of working women and families and make a difference to governments' fiscal circumstances in the future. We know that the greatest rising source of poverty is older women who find themselves by themselves. They have the highest rate of increase in homelessness. We need to address the retirement incomes of women.
So, this is good for the youngest Australians but, in the future, it will be good the oldest Australians as well. That's why it has such strong support from the business community. But it's also good for our young ones. Over 90 per cent of human brain development occurs in the first five years of life—over 90 per cent. If you can give people that good start in life it will, at a time when Australia is falling down on all of the indices of educational attainment, make an incredible difference to them, as well as straight out education in the traditional sense. One of the learning experiences that our youngest Australians get from early learning centres is that they learn to engage. They get that social learning that is so important—how to cooperate, how to share, how to engage with people for the first time. So, giving our kids the best start in life, boosting our economy, boosting productivity, boosting equity is what this legislation is about.
I want to thank and congratulate the ministers for their fine work on this. I also want to thank people out there like the Parenthood and other organisations who have been relentless in their support for this legislation. They've gone out there and said that this is a reform that really matters to them. I also want to thank those educators who've welcomed us into centres in every state and territory of the country I have been in and who work every day, underpaid and undervalued. They do that work because of their commitment and the sense of satisfaction that they get out of it, but they have been universal in their support for this reform.
There's more to do, but this is a great start as a part of what my government has seen as a priority, which is delivering on the commitments that we took to the Australian people and that we received a mandate for. The Australian people voted for change on 21 May, and today they have it, and, as a result, our future youngest Australians will benefit, families will benefit and our economy will benefit as well.
This government went to the election in May with a clear agenda to reduce the cost of living for working families and a clear agenda on gender equality. The Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Cheaper Child Care) Bill 2022, which was passed last night in the Senate, kicks both of those goals and more. Most importantly, though, what this bill does is that it provides access to early childhood education for more children in those very critical early years from zero to five, when the social, cognitive and emotional development of children is really occurring at quite an incredible pace. This morning, the Minister for Education, the member for Canberra, the assistant minister and I were at an early childhood centre in civic. You watch these children, and you know that in those first five years they're learning to walk, they're learning to talk, they're learning to share, they're learning to express their emotions and they're learning to express what it is that they want—an incredible amount of learning in those first five years.
This bill means that, for 1.2 million families across Australia, their children will have better access to quality early childhood education and care. For families earning $80,000 or less, this bill increases the maximum CCS rate to 90 per cent. What that means for the primary caregivers in those families, who are primarily women, is that they can work extra hours if they want to and contribute more to the household income. But, importantly, it also means that they can progress their careers. They don't have to take more time out of their careers. They can progress their careers if they want to, and they can seek further study if they want to or need to.
These are really important reforms for gender equality. Coupled with some of the other bills that we've passed in just our first six months of parliament, I think it's a true demonstration of just how much this government is committed to achieving that goal and that promise that we went to the election with: achieving gender equality for women, allowing more women to do more hours at work and progress their careers or to undertake further study if they so wish, and giving them better economic security later in their lives by making early childhood education more affordable for women, for families and for Australia more generally.
The Prime Minister and the minister have already spoken at length about the benefits of this bill, so I want to use the time I have left just to add my thanks to a number of people who have really contributed to the success of this bill. First and foremost, I want to say a huge thank you to the sector, to the early childhood educators out there, who work so tirelessly. As the Prime Minister said, they are undervalued and underpaid. They work so tirelessly because they believe in what they're doing. They believe in the value of early childhood education. They believe in how good early childhood education can transform lives. I know that it made a huge difference in the lives of my children and I am eternally grateful to the early childhood educators who educated my children so that I could go back to university and lift my family and myself out of poverty.
I want to thank the Minister for Education, my good friend, Jason Clare; the Minister for Social Services, who laid the groundwork for this in opposition; and the Prime Minister for his unwavering support and for his deep, deep belief in the value of universal early childhood education. We know that when we invest in those early years, it means that we spend less money later. We know that; the evidence tells us that.
So, in closing, I congratulate and thank all my colleagues. I visited many early childhood learning centres with colleagues who are here today. It is a good day today. It is a good day for families. It is a good day for women and it is an especially good day for children right across Australia.
Question agreed to.