Wednesday, 26 August 2020
Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Improving Assistance for Vulnerable and Disadvantaged Families) Bill 2020; Second Reading
It is a pleasure to rise today to speak on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Improving Assistance for Vulnerable and Disadvantaged Families) Bill 2020, which, as we've heard in the debate this morning, is, of course, one of the very important policies that the Morrison coalition government has put together to assist Australians and, particularly, Australian families deal with the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis. The Morrison government is supporting families and the childcare sector through the COVID-19 crisis to ensure that quality early childhood education and care is available to vulnerable and disadvantaged children and families.
Under the childcare relief package, around 99 per cent of childcare providers kept their doors open during the initial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year. It's so important that parents are able to keep working wherever that is possible, and keeping childcare centres open and operating, particularly through the height of nationwide restrictions, is critical in allowing working parents to keep working. Since 13 July, our transition package, including a payment of 25 per cent of a provider's pre-COVID revenue, has supported centres around Australia, and centres in Victoria have benefited from additional support in response to the situation currently playing out there.
This bill that we are debating in the chamber today is an important next step in our support for the childcare sector. It improves access to child care for vulnerable and disadvantaged children and families and cuts red tape for families and childcare providers. We've already heard in the debate today just how regulated the childcare sector is and we as Liberals believe that reducing red tape will allow this sector to operate more effectively and more efficiently, which can only be a good outcome for the people utilising the services these providers give.
The period of time a provider can apply for an additional childcare subsidy determination will be extended from 13 weeks to up to 12 months for children under a long-term child protection order, such as those in foster care. This change recognises the support that vulnerable children need over longer periods. Other amendments will enable providers to apply to backdate a family's ACCS beyond the current limit of 28 days and by up to 13 weeks in exceptional circumstances. Childcare providers will also be able to enrol children who are in foster care under ACCS for an initial period of up to 13 weeks, giving an individual foster family sufficient time to lodge their childcare subsidy claim and have it assessed by Services Australia.
The additional childcare subsidy provides additional childcare fee assistance to an individual or a provider in limited circumstances for children at risk of serious abuse or neglect to ensure these children have access to and continuity of child care. The ACCS is part of the childcare safety net, giving the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children a strong start through access to quality early childhood education and care. ACCS is a top-up payment in addition to the childcare safety net. The Australian government paid almost $50 million in ACCS child wellbeing subsidies to cover childcare costs for more than 21,000 children in the financial year 2018-19.
This bill has been drafted to address feedback from the childcare sector. The Morrison coalition government is a huge supporter of parents and the childcare sector. Our reforms have delivered a 3.2 per cent reduction in out-of-pocket costs to parents since our package was introduced. The new childcare package is providing more access and more financial support for those who need it most. Around one million Australian families who are balancing work and parental responsibilities are benefiting from the package. Seventy-two per cent pay no more than $5 per hour in day care centres. Within that group, 24 per cent paid no more than $2 per hour. The new childcare package represents the most significant reforms to the early education and childcare sector and system in 40 years.
When COVID-19 hit and began to impact heavily on working parents and childcare operators, our relief package kept 99 per cent of childcare centres open, as I alluded to earlier. As we move on into the next phase of reopening our economy, at least in most states outside of Victoria, we're delivering a $708 million transition package. For Melbourne and Victoria there's an additional $33 million in support because of the significant impact of the large-scale outbreak in that state. We know that COVID-19 has significantly impacted on the lives of so many Australians. The Morrison coalition government's assistance programs to help families, workers and businesses represent the largest assistance package ever delivered by an Australian government. On top of all of the funds and effort that have gone into the health response and mental health support for Australians, we're investing over $280 billion to keep Australians in jobs, keep businesses in business, support households and keep investment flowing.
We know how important our JobKeeper scheme has been for Australian businesses and families. In recent months I've been conducting a Tasmania 'back in business' campaign and have been travelling around my state, speaking to as many businesses as I can—particularly small and family business owners. Without a doubt, the most common sentiment I hear from these people is how important JobKeeper has been in getting businesses through the harshest period of restrictions. So many business owners have said that without JobKeeper being available at the time when they had almost no customers coming through their doors, their businesses would have most likely shut and they would have had to lay off staff. Because JobKeeper was available they were able to keep staff on the payroll and keep their businesses operating.
Now that Tasmania has eased many of its internal restrictions there is quite a lot of cautious optimism in the business community that they can turn the corner and begin to get back to normal in the months ahead. And, of course, it's not just JobKeeper but also the $17.6 billion in the government's first economic stimulus package; the $90 billion from the Reserve Bank of Australia and $15 billion from the government to deliver easier access to finance; and $66.1 billion in the second economic support package. That includes providing up to $100,000 to eligible small and medium-size businesses and not-for-profits to help their cash flow so that they can keep operating, pay their rent and electricity and other bills and, most importantly, retain staff. That's another measure which has been incredibly welcomed by businesses around the country. I've certainly received very positive feedback from Tasmanian businesses as they relate to those policies.
For individuals: as well as the guaranteed income through JobKeeper for eligible employees, we've also supported Australians with the coronavirus supplement to JobSeeker of an additional $550 per fortnight and by temporarily relaxing the partner income test to ensure that an eligible person can receive the JobSeeker payment. We've now made two payments of the $750 stimulus payment to social security and veteran income support recipients and eligible concession card holders.
As the Prime Minister has said repeatedly, the approach we've taken as a government to support Australians during the COVID-19 crisis has not been to set and forget but to listen to Australians, to listen to businesses and industries and to listen to expert advice to understand what the next steps on the road to recovery should be. Not a week has gone by since COVID-19 first hit Australia that the government hasn't announced new programs and new measures to help Australians get through this incredibly tough time.
Just today, for example, the government has announced that Tasmanian workers who cannot work due to the need to self-isolate or quarantine and have no sick leave or other entitlements available to them to support themselves through that period are eligible for the pandemic leave disaster payment of $1,500. This comes after an agreement was struck with the Tasmanian government to roll out the scheme in my state which has already been operating successfully in Victoria. To date in Victoria, almost $8.8 million has been paid out for around 6,000 granted claims. This is just another example of how the government is continuing to respond to, and work with, the states to support the needs of Australians.
This fortnight in parliament we are focused on passing legislation like this bill that we are debating here today which enables important assistance programs to be rolled out. Of course we know that, in helping Australians in the here and now, we also have to have an eye to the future. There is no money tree, and what we spend now will have to be paid back at some point in time. That's why it is so important that what we are doing is putting in place the building blocks for economic recovery. That starts with keeping people employed so that they can continue to provide for their families and also help the businesses they work for recover and grow.
Ensuring that working parents have access to child care is an imperative part of that plan. But it's not just about keeping businesses surviving and treading water; we're also acting to create the right business conditions to build the infrastructure to support economic growth. That means in Tasmania, for example, continuing to invest in the rollout of new irrigation schemes which are so important to getting more agricultural production in our state. It means investing in energy infrastructure to capitalise on Tasmania's natural assets and hydro energy capacity. It means investing in skills and training opportunities for the current generations and the generations to come, not only so that they can get a good job but actually to help to drive more investment and business growth locally in our state.
As I said initially, the Morrison government is supporting families in the childcare sector through the COVID-19 crisis to ensure that quality early childhood education and care is available to vulnerable and disadvantaged children and families. That's because we know it's so important that parents of children are able to keep working and keep contributing to their workplaces wherever that is possible, and keeping childcare centres open and operating, particularly through the height of nationwide restrictions like we have seen over the past few months, is absolutely critical.
As I said, this bill is an incredibly important next step in our support for the childcare sector, above and beyond our initial transition package, which included a payment of 25 per cent of a provider's pre-COVID revenue to support centres around Australia and particularly centres in Victoria, which have benefited from this additional support in response to the situation there. This bill improves access to child care for vulnerable and disadvantaged children and families and, as we've heard during debate, cuts red tape for families and childcare providers. It's such an important piece of legislation to support Australian families going through the COVID-19 crisis which will operate in addition to the other support packages that I have highlighted here today, particularly those that have been so well received in my own state of Tasmania, such as the JobKeeper payment, which has ensured that people can stay connected with their places of work. This bill today, as I've said, in keeping childcare centres open, operating and supporting parents to utilise childcare services is an imperative part of that connection as well.
In conclusion, I thank my colleagues. I note that Minister Cash is in the chamber. She is one colleague who has provided fantastic support to small businesses across the country, as has the entire Morrison coalition government team, who are all continuing to work so hard through this pandemic to respond to the needs of Australians. I congratulate the education minister for the work that he has done on this bill that we're debating here today which supports the needs of vulnerable children in our community. I commend the bill to the Senate.