Senate debates

Tuesday, 10 August 2021


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

6:41 pm

Photo of Jess WalshJess Walsh (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

[by video link] I rise to speak on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Subsidy) Bill 2021. This bill is a half-hearted attempt to fix the growing affordability crisis in early childhood education for Australian families. Affordability of early childhood education is in crisis. It's a crisis ignored by the Morrison government and a crisis which is putting pressure on Australian families. This bill is just fiddling around the edges, and it goes nowhere near the reforms that families need to access the high-quality early learning system that they are absolutely deserve.

Once again this government has offered nothing to support the hardworking and dedicated early childhood educators who are absolutely at the heart of this system. There is nothing for transparency to ensure the additional funding will actually go towards supporting high-quality education programs and nothing to ensure that any additional funding will go to the workforce. There is nothing to protect their hours and their pay, which have been so hard hit during this COVID crisis. This bill is the government's cynical attempt to save face with the women of Australia, and it shows that this government remains woefully out of touch with the experience of working people raising families, out of touch with families who are paying some of the highest fees anywhere in the world, out of touch with the families who are struggling to access the early learning that they need and out of touch with all of those families who are struggling to balance work and family in a system that is overly complicated and, fundamentally, in crisis.

With this bill, the government is saying, 'We will ease some of these costs but only for some families, only for a short time and only if you have more than one child in child care.' Let's imagine a family with two children in an early learning service aged one and four. That family can expect to be paying childcare fees for five years for each child. Only three of those years will be while both children are in care. For those three years, this bill will only reduce the fees for one of the children. This is a pittance. They aren't really serious about addressing this crisis. This is penny pinching. It's something made up on the run to look good for a photo-op in an early learning service, but it doesn't look good when you're doing the family budget.

This government is penny pinching at the expense of the children and families increasingly locked out of the early learning that they need. Now more than ever families need a system that is simple, one that they can rely on. This bill does nothing to provide certainty to thousands of families who are affected by the Morrison lockdowns. Families have been required to pay fees while their children can't attend services—families who are doing the right thing and staying at home to protect the health of the community, families who are scrambling to find the money for fees when they've lost hours, jobs or disaster payments.

Right now, the minister could support these families by giving them one less thing to worry about. He can decide at any time to allow services to waive parent fees and give them the financial break that they need. He can decide to give early learning services the certainty that they need to keep their doors open. He can decide to protect educators' wages and their hours while they continue to work to support children during this pandemic. Instead, every lockdown announcement means families are left wondering what they will have to pay and whether they can afford to pay it. Services are left wondering if enrolments will plummet as a result or if they can in fact remain viable. Educators are left wondering if they will have the hours they need to support their own families. Families in Greater Sydney were forced to wait two weeks into the lockdown before the minister confirmed services would be allowed to waive parent fees. Families in other lockdown states, including my state of Victoria, missed out altogether. This government needs to do its job and give parents, services and educators the certainty that they need.

It is clear in the face of extended lockdowns that the childhood sector cannot afford to sustain parental fee waivers without government support. But, once again, this government are simply not willing to step up and do what is needed. This government are straight out of the 1950s when it comes to this sector. They are yet to realise that almost a million families rely on early education to support them to return to work. They are yet to realise that over 1.3 million children benefit from high-quality early learning. They are yet to realise that this is a sector that employs 200,000 Australians—200,000 educators and teachers. The minister knows what needs to be done, but he is simply not doing it.

If the Prime Minister had done his job and delivered a speedy rollout of the vaccine and a purpose-built quarantine system we wouldn't be in this situation. Instead, parents are forced to continue to find the money to pay fees for early learning that they just can't access and the services who can waive parent fees are left wondering how long they can afford to do so. This government has failed to act yet again, and we have to ask: who is left to bear the brunt of its inaction this time? It is the hardworking and dedicated early childhood educators and teachers. The longer this government fails to act, the more hours and income these educators will lose as their services struggle. But the government, as we know, has shown absolutely no regard for the early childhood educators of Australia. This is the government that made the extraordinary decision to kick this workforce off JobKeeper last year, long before anyone else.

But, every day of this pandemic, educators have continued to work and support children and families in really difficult circumstances. They have turned up each and every day, despite the risk to their personal health, despite increased workload and stress, despite the constant risk that their hours could be cut and despite the fact that social distancing is impossible in an early learning centre. They have turned up because they know that the children and the families of Australia need them.

It is time that the Morrison government recognised that, too. Instead, educators across the country are still faced with loss of hours and loss of income as a result of the government's refusal to act and to properly fund the sector through this crisis. Early educators are already at breaking point, and this pandemic has only further exposed a problem that was already there. Educators are exhausted, undervalued and leaving the sector at record levels. A report released today by the United Workers Union reveals that 37 per cent of early educators are planning to leave the sector. That's around 70,000 educators who will leave, when the sector needs an additional 40,000 educators to meet demand just in the next couple of years.

COVID has been the breaking point for thousands of Australian educators. Educators are leaving. They are saying, 'Enough is enough.' When educators leave, parents and children miss out on accessing the early learning that they need. There is simply no early learning, no critical development in those early years, without dedicated, hardworking, professional early childhood educators. This crisis will only get worse while this government fails to do its job and support families, support services and support our early childhood educators.

Labor's amendment will give families and the early childhood sector the certainty they need by taking the decision out of the minister's hands. Our amendment makes an automatic exemption from charging families gap fees as soon as the state or territory government declares a lockdown. As soon as a lockdown is announced—not two weeks in and not a month in but as soon as it is announced—families and services will know what to expect. They'll have the certainty they need. Families will know that they can keep their children home in the interests of their health and wellbeing. They can do that instead of worrying about fees. It will keep services open for the children and the families who need them, making sure this essential service doesn't just survive the crisis but is there to help power our recovery.

Labor knows the real value of early childhood education. We know that it's an essential service that not only supports working families but is critical to supporting the early development of children. It is an investment in the future prosperity of our nation. We have a vision for an early learning sector that is high quality and simple, that families can rely on and that truly values professional educators at its heart. Our child care for working families plan will see fees reduced for all children and families for longer. No child should miss out on the benefits that quality early childhood education can deliver because of high fees.

Under Labor, that family of two that I mentioned earlier would pay lower fees the whole time their children are accessing early learning, not just for a few years and not just for one child. Labor's plan will increase the base subsidy for all children to 90 per cent for the whole time that they are using the service. Unlike this bill, Labor's plan does not differentiate on the size of a family. It has no age cut-off, and it will apply to all children using outside-of-school-hours care during primary school. As a result, over 86 per cent, 850,000 families, would be better off under Labor's policy.

Labor is also committed to ensuring early educators are not left behind. These are our frontline workers, but they are underpaid and undervalued. We are determined to repay them for their essential work during this crisis. We know their value to families, we know their value to children and we know their value to our society and our community. That's why we're committed to building an early childhood education sector for the future—one that children, families and educators can rely on in a crisis and in recovery.

Early learning is critical to the future success of our children and our economy. This sector deserves a real plan for the future, not half-hearted platitudes like this. This government does not value early learning, and it doesn't value our early educators. It's clear from this half-baked bill, which doesn't address affordability for most families in the long term. It's clear when they kick early educators off JobKeeper. It's clear, when government members say that early learning is 'outsourcing parenting', that the Morrison government is woefully out of touch with how modern families operate today, and this government is woefully selling our children and our economy short.

Unlike this government, Labor knows the life-changing impact of early learning. We know that the first five years are the most crucial time in a child's development. We know that early learning is one of the best investments that we can make for the future. Only Labor has a vision for a world-class early learning sector with educators, respected and valued, at the heart of that system—an early learning sector that every working family can rely on; a sector where every child can access the early learning that they need to grow and to thrive.


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