Senate debates

Thursday, 4 August 2022

Governor-General's Speech


1:07 pm

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

On 21 May this year Australians voted for change. They voted for change because they were tired. They were tired of an almost decade-old government that failed to address the major issues our country was facing. They were tired of a Prime Minister who refused to take responsibility, who would respond to questions about his failure to act with, 'That's not my job' or 'I don't hold a hose, mate'. They were tired of the Prime Minister's failures during the COVID pandemic: the failure to roll out vaccinations quickly enough, the failure to secure rapid antigen tests when they were needed and the failure to get stranded Australians home. They were tired of government ministers trying to undermine state and territory border controls by calling on premiers and chief ministers to open up before it was safe to do so. They were shocked that the previous government would join forces with the billionaire mining magnate to challenge state border restrictions in the High Court, support they only withdrew when they realised how unpopular it was.

Australians were tired of the government treating taxpayers' money like it was Liberal Party money. They were tired of the rorts and the government's refusal to establish a national anticorruption commission with real teeth. They were tired of seeing scandal after scandal when it came to issues of transparency and accountability: the sports rorts, the car park rorts, the overpriced land sales and overpriced water buybacks, the forging of documents to make a political point, the million-dollar blind trust used to fund court action against the ABC—and the list just goes on and on. The previous government took corruption and malfeasance to a level not seen since Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

Australians were tired of the government refusing to take real action on climate change and continuing to make excuses for their lack of action. They were tired of seeing their wages stagnate while the cost of everything else was going up, yet the previous government had no plans to do anything about low wage growth or the cost of living. Haven't they changed their tune! Australians were tired of the neglect of older Australians in residential aged care. They were tired of the Prime Minister showing up for photo ops doing inane things, like building a chicken coop, cooking a curry or playing a banjo—not that well, I might add—yet going missing whenever there was a crisis or need for real leadership.

Australians voted for a majority Labor government because we offered them a positive alternative. We offered a vision and a plan for a better future. In my reply to the Governor-General's address, I will outline three areas that are of particular interest to me in which the Albanese Labor government offers a positive alternative to the abysmal record of the previous government. Those areas are early childhood education and care, skills and training, and housing and homelessness.

I turn first to early childhood education and care. I have chosen to focus on this area because of my more than a decade of past experience as an early childhood educator. We know that child care is important for families, because it helps them to juggle their work and family responsibilities. This is particularly important for women, who tend to take on the bulk of caring responsibilities. We know from evidence both in Australia and overseas that subsidised child care helps boost women's participation in the workforce and is an important contributor to closing the gender pay gap. Given the importance of subsidised early childhood education and care, I found it particularly galling to hear this measure described by those on the other side as 'communism', a 'money pit' and 'the hand of government reaching in and taking away our children's youth'.

If that was the attitude of the previous government then it explains a lot about their childcare policies. Out-of-pocket costs for child care went up more than 40 per cent under the previous government. We even had the farcical situation where parents—mostly women—were sometimes only receiving a marginal financial benefit from taking on additional work. In some cases, it was even costing them more than they stood to earn. The policy Labor brought to the last election will make child care cheaper for 96 per cent of Australian families. That's 1.26 million families. It will lift the maximum subsidy to 90 per cent for families with their first child in child care and keep the higher and additional rates for the second and additional children. On top of this, we will get the Productivity Commission to conduct a comprehensive review into the sector, with the aim of implementing a universal 90 per cent subsidy for all families. The ACCC is to design a price-regulation mechanism to drive out-of-pocket costs down for good.

Subsidising early childhood education and care is about a lot more than just driving workforce participation. As a former early childhood educator who understands the industry and the work that the educators do, I know that the benefits flow not just to the parents but also, importantly, to the children. This is why workers in the sector are called educators now instead of carers. Yes, they provide all the important care needs for children such as feeding, changing nappies and wiping runny noses, but educators also provide an age-appropriate program of play based learning aimed at specific learning outcomes. They train for years learning how to plan and implement this learning. They also undertake continuous professional development to maintain their skills and keep up to date with the latest knowledge and research on early childhood learning and development.

This is a highly skilled, professional occupation that provides the foundation skills necessary to set children up for their school education. We know from research that children who engage in early learning get better learning outcomes for life. The early years before the age of five are considered to be a key time for learning development. Early childhood education contributes to so many aspects of learning: motor skills, social and emotional development, language skills and comprehension—and the list goes on. When we on this side of the chamber talk about cheaper child care and when we talked about it in the lead-up to the election, we are not just talking about reducing the cost of living for struggling Australian families. We're not just talking about driving workforce participation, getting more women into work and closing the gender pay gap, as important as they are. We are also talking about improving the learning outcomes of preschool aged children with skills that will potentially set them up for life. As a former educator I know the power of early childhood education because I've seen how it has transformed the lives of the children who were under my care and who I taught.

I mentioned earlier the importance of Australians engaging in the workforce. For them to do that we need to give them the opportunity to get secure, high-paying jobs. The most secure and best-paying jobs are skilled jobs. The COVID pandemic has laid bare the extraordinary depth of the skills crisis Australia is facing. While Australia will always have a need to fill skills gaps with skilled migration, most Australians would agree we should prioritise getting Australians into skilled Australian jobs. Employers are crying out for skilled workers, yet there are still over a million Australians either looking for work or looking for more work.

The previous government didn't just fall asleep at the wheel when it came to tackling the Australian skills crisis; they crashed through the safety barrier and drove the car right over the cliff. Since coming to government those opposite reduced Australia's apprentice and training numbers by 70,000. They cut billions of dollars from TAFE and university, and their decision to abolish industry skills councils meant Australia was flying blind when it came to identifying and filling skills gaps.

In one of my previous jobs I was a training coordinator for the Australian Services Union and I was the Tasmanian branch representative on two industry skills councils, with representatives of employers, employees and relevant unions, training providers and government. These councils all collaborated to try and improve the skills of Tasmanian people. The councils undertook such tasks as skills audits, curriculum development and writing, and advising on the implementation of training policies, as well as overseeing the process for approval of accredited training. This role helped me appreciate the importance of assessing skills needs, predicting future skills needs and working with stakeholders in the process. This capability is vital if you want to know where to invest to develop the skills you need.

If filling skills shortages is like driving a car, investing in training and education is like putting petrol in the car, while having an authority to identify the skills needs is like having a map to navigate. There's no point driving around burning petrol if you don't know where you're going. Sadly, the previous government spent nine years draining the fuel tank, dismantling the engine and throwing the map right out the window. So it's now left to Labor to fix the skills crisis, and we will.

The Albanese government will establish Jobs and Skills Australia as a national partnership to strengthen workforce planning by working together with employers, unions and the training and education sector. We will provide 465,000 fee-free TAFE places for students studying industries with skills shortage, including 45,000 new places. And we will deliver up to 20,000 extra university places over 2022 and 2023 with a particular focus on national priority areas like clean energy, advanced manufacturing, health and education and where there are skills shortages.

But, even when Australians can get a secure, well-paying job, the dream of homeownership is becoming increasingly out of reach—particularly for young Australians. With soaring house prices, people who are renting are facing the double whammy of having to save for a deposit while spending more of their money on rent in a tighter, more competitive rental market. For the first time in Australia's history, median house prices have passed $1 million.

It's very appropriate that my colleague Julie Collins, the member for Franklin—in whose electorate my local office just happens to be based—has been appointed the Minister for Housing and the Minister for Homelessness. Minister Collins's electorate of Franklin covers most of the outer suburbs of Hobart, which now has the distinction of being the least affordable capital city for rental accommodation. We can see the disastrous consequences of this, with over 4,000 Tasmanians on the housing waiting list and the average waiting time being more than a year for priority applicants. Priority applicants have to wait more than a year. This means a lot of pain for people who are couch surfing, sleeping in emergency shelters or living in cars, tents or caravans. I can't begin to imagine how difficult it has been for Tasmania's homeless through the harsh winter we've just had. Only last week Hobart had snow down to 200 metres.

Shelter is a basic human need and, as such, it's a human right, but it's something that previous governments did almost nothing to provide during almost a decade in office. We now have a prime minister who truly understands the importance of social and affordable housing; after all, he grew up in public housing. Not only do we have a prime minister who grew up in public housing; our housing minister also spent the early years of her life in public housing. Building social and affordable housing works, and that's what Labor intends to do to address the housing crisis. That's why we will establish a $10 billion Housing Australia Future Fund, the income from which will fund social and affordable housing in perpetuity. That includes 30,000 social and affordable homes across Australia in the first five years. Of course, providing secure affordable accommodation also means helping more people and their families to realise the great Australian dream of owning their own home. Forty years ago, almost 60 per cent of Australians on low and modest incomes owned their own home; now it's only 28 per cent. Labor's Help to Buy scheme will help 10,000 Australians a year reduce the cost of buying their own home by up to 40 per cent. This will mean a smaller deposit, a smaller mortgage and smaller repayments.

I've outlined our plans in three important areas, but Labor's agenda for the future is so much bigger than that. We've got a lot of challenges to address, including rising inflation, an uncertain global trade and security environment, and a trillion-dollar debt. Many of these challenges are the legacy of the mess left to us through nine years of Liberal-National neglect. Cleaning up that mess is a big job. It will take a lot longer than the two months that we've been in government for, no matter what those on the other side say. You had nine years; we've had two months. But we have one of the most experienced and capable ministries in Australian history, and we also have a wealth of new talent on our backbench.

We were elected on the promise of delivering a better future for all Australians. With hard work and discipline, we're capable of delivering on that promise and we are getting on with the job of doing just that.


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