Senate debates

Thursday, 9 March 2023


Work and Care Select Committee; Report

3:53 pm

Photo of Wendy AskewWendy Askew (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

I, too, rise to take note of the Select Committee on Work and Care's Final report. Firstly, I would like to thank the work and care committee secretariat, which has worked tirelessly over the past seven months to help the committee examine the impact that combining work and care responsibility has on the wellbeing of workers, carers and those they care for. We looked into the changing nature of work and how this aligned, or didn't, with caring commitments and the support systems and the policies Australia has in place, as well as overseas models.

It has been a pleasure to work together with other members of this committee, particularly our deputy chair, Senator O'Neill, and chair, Senator Barbara Pocock. And I notice committee member Senator White is here as well. It has been a really collegiate team working together across the seven months.

The inquiry received more than 120 submissions from a variety of organisations and individuals. Committee members attended 11 hearings across the country—from Albany in Western Australia to Melbourne in Victoria and many places in between—to ensure that we had as full a picture as possible to assess the impact of concurrent working and caring. We appreciated the honest accounts expressed by witnesses in submissions, and particularly during our hearings. Recommendations outlined in the work and care Final report are aspirational and extensive. And unfortunately, in some cases, they do not take into account the significant implications such measures would have in the areas of education, social services and health, and workplace relations.

The Australian labour market is diverse, which reflects the diversity within our population. We support all forms of work—full time, part time, casual, gig or a mix—because it means Australian jobseekers can find positions, arrangements and levels of work that fit around their needs. However, many recommendations in the report, often reflecting the Labor government's policies, demonise certain forms of work and limit the flexibility many employees seek when working in those industries. Forcing such changes and trying to create a one-size-fits-all approach would be detrimental and have unintended consequences for some employer-employee arrangements. The gig economy sustains thousands of independent contractors who make individual choices about where and when they sell their services. Consider the potential unintended consequences of overregulation of the gig economy on your local plumber, electrician or preferred Uber driver. They could lose their freedom to work for more than one platform at the same time.

The former coalition government introduced the first statutory definition of 'casual employee', which benefited both employees and employers because it gave a clear determination of the nature of the employment arrangement at the outset. We also introduced the right for casual employees to convert to permanent employment after 12 months, should they wish to. Changes within our workplace relations system take time. Productivity, choice and options must all be considered to ensure conditions are improving for Australians, not being made more difficult. Changes to leave entitlements, awards, rights and obligations should follow previous systems of workplace relations reform, which is appropriately done through the Fair Work Commission. For example, when the coalition government introduced paid family and domestic violence leave, the Fair Work Commission deliberated on how this would impact Australian employers and employees.

Coalition committee members don't agree with moves to establish superannuation as a national employment standard. The Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Treasury, Luke Yeaman, confirmed that 80 per cent of the wages growth in the federal budget is consumed by the mandatory superannuation increases, in response to a question by Senator Bragg in the November 2022 budget estimates hearings. We believe the Australian government should be making workplaces more flexible, not less.

Our social security system provides a strong safety net that is available to any Australian for as long as they need it, where they meet eligibility criteria. This system is funded by taxpayers and needs to be managed responsibly—a responsibility that extends to future generations. Coalition committee members continue to support the principle of mutual obligation within our welfare system. These critical requirements ensure jobseekers are actively looking for work and participating in activities that will help them into employment. For example, the highly successful ParentsNext program, which has helped thousands of parents return to the workforce through improving their work readiness, also includes mutual obligation requirements. We believe in a flexible workplace relations system that mutually benefits both employers and employees, and we oppose a move to a one-size-fits-all approach.

Coalition senators also support a strong employment services system, underpinned by the principle of mutual obligation, and will oppose moves to abandon or water down these requirements. The stable workplace relations framework and strong employment services system that were in place during the term of the coalition government were one of the reasons that unemployment was at a 50-year low when the coalition left office in May 2022.

Multiple recommendations within the final report relate to early childhood education and care. While coalition members support recommendations to address childcare deserts, we do not believe the Australian government should be involved in creating the centres themselves. Instead, the government should work with communities to increase access to early childhood education through funding for community groups and councils to establish centres in areas of greatest need. Family is the building block of society, and we want Australian families to continue to have choice and access to quality care that works for them. While we support regular reviews of early childhood education and care systems and the development of a framework for a flexible system, the ACCC Childcare inquiry, the Productivity Commission's Early Childhood Education and Care inquiry and the Australian government's Early Years Strategy inquiry are already looking at this, so recommendations from these inquiries should be considered before any action is taken. Victorian and New South Wales governments have extended the existing Preschool Reform Agreement to three-year-old children through their own budgets. We recommend the Australian government incentivise and support other state and territory governments to roll out programs to extend the current agreements for four-year-old children past 2025.

And mental health support is important for all Australians, particularly for both paid and unpaid carers, as they deal with the pressures of their caring role and the support they provide to those relying on their care. The former coalition government led reform of the mental health system by committing almost $3 billion to our mental health and suicide prevention plan. This plan expanded Australia's headspace network to 164 locations and established a national network of adult Head to Health centres and child mental health hubs to provide free multidisciplinary mental health care. Additionally, the coalition government introduced a telehealth model of care during the COVID-19 pandemic which included mental health care through GPs, psychologists and psychiatrists. Initiatives to establish a dedicated mental health service for healthcare workers, including those in the aged-care sector, and online mental health training for health practitioners and health workers were also introduced. The coalition recommends urgent reinstatement of the full 20 Medicare subsidised mental health sessions to support vulnerable Australians.

In closing, I reiterate that the coalition members of the committee support proven and fiscally sensible measures to support those who combine work and care responsibilities.


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