Senate debates

Tuesday, 10 August 2021


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

7:04 pm

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

[by video link] I would like to make a contribution to the debate on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Subsidy) Bill 2021. The bill implements the Morrison government's amendments to the childcare subsidy that were announced as part of their budget this year. Their announcement of this policy was, as per usual, full of spin, because their changes not only have been squashed by the data analysis; they don't even come into effect until July next year. That's right: families will have to wait almost 12 months before they see the benefit of the Morrison government's plan. Families are struggling right now to pay rising costs of childcare fees, and this bill will offer them little consolation. They will have to wait too long and it will help out only a small number of people.

The bill also does not address the problem currently facing thousands of families who are currently in lockdown and are having to pay the gap fees. Whilst many families are under stay-at-home orders across the country, childcare centres have remained open as essential services for essential workers. However, families staying at home have still been charged gap fees by the centres, as they are legally required to levy the fees. The minister has the ability to give centres an exemption from charging gap fees and did so for Sydney childcare centres two weeks into their lockdown. However, the government has yet to grant exemptions again for other lockdowns, which have since been endured and are likely to continue because of their failure to administer a timely rollout of vaccinations across the country.

That is why Labor moved a second reading amendment in the other place to take out the exemption to the minister's rule and put it in the act, so there is an automatic exemption from charging gap fees as soon as a lockdown is declared. But like in March, the Morrison government has voted this down again. It is a deliberate decision of this government to slug families with additional fees throughout what is already a very difficult time. While we're having to deal with the completely bungled vaccine rollout and Mr Morrison's refusal to build purpose-built quarantine sites, lockdowns are going to continue. By voting against the amendment, he was clearly telling families that they will have to continue to pay the gap fees for child care they're not receiving.

Parents need a real plan on child care. Not only will it help the pockets of Australians; it will boost participation in our economy. Under the current agenda, the Liberals have a broken system, and fiddling with the childcare subsidy, as this bill does, will not fix the problem. There are two schedules to the bill. The first will remove the annual cap from the family assistance law so that there will no longer be a limit on the amount of childcare subsidy that families over a specified income can receive each year. The second schedule will increase the rate of childcare subsidy by 30 per cent for second and subsequent children aged five and under up until a maximum rate of 95 per cent. However, as soon as the second child is six and starts to go to school, this support will be ripped away, despite the fact that they may be in before- or after-school care. So whether they're in after-school care or before-school care, it is still going to be ripped away from them.

In contrast, Labor's plan for cheaper child care will assist more families and for a longer period of time. Our policy accommodates families of all sizes, does not have age restrictions and applies to all children using outside school hour care during primary school—and, not only that; there is data to back it up. Analysis of the Parliamentary Budget Office's modelling shows that 86 per cent of families are better off under Labor's policy, while a mere eight per cent of families are better off under the Liberal's system. We wouldn't mind if they just took our policy and implemented it, because, after all, we want to ensure that families benefit. There is really no comparison. Our policy works and it will work for a significant number of more Australians.

While we will support the bill, it's important to note the stark contrast to what we would provide. Also, as I said earlier, this bill will be of no support to families who are currently in lockdown or inevitably will be in the coming months as we struggle to contain the delta variant and deal with Mr Morrison's bungled rollout of the vaccine. This has not, however, stopped the Morrison government from praising themselves for providing better assistance to families with three children in child care at once. The bill may do this, but it will only help the 1.8 per cent—less than two per cent—of families who have three children under the age of six. What about the other 98 per cent?

Childcare fees and costs are out of control under the Morrison government and Australian families are paying more out-of-pocket costs for child care than ever before. Since the Liberals were elected in 2013, childcare fees have risen by a whopping 36 per cent. In my home city of Launceston, over the past 12 months local childcare fees have risen by a staggering 4.1 per cent, well above the national average of 2.4 per cent and substantially exceeding inflation. The childcare subsidy is pegged to inflation and means that families in Launceston and throughout Tasmania are paying more out-of-pocket costs for child care. This is all at a time when wages have been stagnant, and who knows what's going to happen in the future? We know that casualisation of our workforce is causing insecurity for people. Clearly, the system is broken and Mr Morrison has failed families.

Data from the Productivity Commission's report on government services, released this year, shows that the high cost of child care is a barrier to parents, particularly women, entering the workforce. It makes no sense for a parent to work if it is only going to just pay for the child care. Parents should be encouraged to work if they want to and they should not be held back by exorbitant childcare fees. Joining the workforce will boost our participation rate and have a positive flow-on effect on the economy.

There was a report by UNICEF, which is additional evidence that the Morrison government is failing Australian families. The report, titled Where do rich countries stand on child care, ranks Australia 37th out of 41 countries based on childcare affordability, access, quality and parental leave. The report also found that Australia is one of only eight countries where child care costs parents a quarter of their income. This adds to the mounting evidence that, under this Morrison Liberal government, Australia is falling behind the rest of the world. We are ranked third-last in the OECD for our vaccination rates, our housing market is the third most unaffordable in the world, we are ranked 87th out of 133 countries globally in terms of economic complexity, and our average internet speeds are embarrassingly ranked at 61st. Mr Morrison may be going hard and strong on the Olympic rhetoric recently, but Australia is running last in the race on too many indicators. Our lives should be improving, but under the Liberals we're falling far behind. This tired Morrison government's lousy childcare policy will fall short of what is needed to deliver genuine assistance to Australian families who are struggling with the obscene childcare fees, and it will fail to bring reform to the system that is so desperately needed.

Our plan for child care will deliver for working families and have a meaningful impact. It will scrap the $10,560 childcare subsidy cap, which often sees women losing money from extra days work. It will lift the maximum childcare subsidy rate to 90 per cent, increase childcare subsidy rates and taper them for every family earning less than $530,000. The plan will bring the cost of child care down for all Australian families and better support parents to work the hours they need and that they want to work. As it stands, the second income earner in the family is usually a woman; they should be rewarded for working more hours and contributing to our economy.

On so many fronts the Morrison government have failed Australian families. They are disappointing Australian families and letting those families down. Their track record is abysmal. Although we will support this bill, because something is better than nothing, it will do nothing to aid Australian families at a time when they need a boost. We are seeing lockdown after lockdown because of this government's failure to protect Australian families throughout this country by rolling out vaccines in a timely manner. They are failing aged-care workers. They're failing early childhood educators. They are failing parents. They're failing people with disabilities. Australian families deserve so much more. Australian parents whose children are in those early learning years depend on the Commonwealth government, their federal government, to deliver child care at an affordable rate to support them to enter the workforce again. I call on the government to improve what they've laid out in this bill and support the families who most need it.


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