Senate debates

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, JobKeeper Payment, Child Care

3:01 pm

Photo of Patrick DodsonPatrick Dodson (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Reconciliation) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of answers given by the Minister for Finance (Senator Cormann) and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Women (Senator Payne) to questions asked by Senators Wong, McAllister and Gallagher.

Thirty years ago, the royal commission that I was part of made 339 recommendations to the parliament. That commission had been set up by the Hawke government. At that time, there were 99 deaths that we were concerned about in this nation to effect a national royal commission. Now we've had over 400 deaths since that royal commission. Thirty years have passed, and we have not addressed the underlying issues that give rise to people being taken into custody and, consequently, dying in custody. So the social factors of health, housing, education and employment and the legal factors surrounding those have not been addressed in a manner to relieve this awful blight on this nation's history.

There's a continuing, systemic pattern here. I appeal to the government and this new-beaut system that the minister is believing is going to find the answers to it—this new Federation Reform Council—to actually look at the systemic approaches that take place. First Nations people are likely to come to the attention of police; we know that. First Nations people who come to the attention of the police are likely to be arrested and charged; we know that. First Nations people who come to the attention of the police will be charged, but they will also be sent to court. When they go to court, what will happen? They'll be sent to jail. This is a pattern and a paradigm. This is systematic, systemic and institutionalised.

If you look at this from a First Nations point of view, this is about the subjugation of the First Nations people. This is not about enlightened policy; this is about subjugating the First Nations people. If you correlate that to the number of people who have been taken away—the 30,000 kids in out-of-home care—and if you come up with things like, 'It's going to take time,' or, 'It's complicated, and it's really difficult,' well, it's not. Address the underlying issues—health, housing, education and employment—and work with First Nations people through the COAG system, or through the new system of the reform council or whatever it is, to actually set some targets around these things, as Senator Wong had asked, such as for lower incarceration rates and for the diminishment of removing kids from their homes and families and being put into custody, which will ultimately lead to the adoption out of these things for kids. I remind the government that the Bringing them home report that had analysed the policies and practices that pertained to those heinous practices bordered on genocide.

So I ask you, sincerely, to make this a top priority. For too long there have been nice words and good intentions, but the lack of action and commitment has not seen a reduction in deaths in custody; it's seen an escalation in the social indicators that diminish First Nations people and diminish us as a nation. It diminishes us as a nation because we are incapable of dealing with it. So I ask the government to sincerely put into practice the best intentions—to put those intentions into commitments and into really working with the First Nations peoples and to getting real agreements with the states. And don't pussyfoot around with the states, saying, 'Oh, it's the states' responsibility.' Well, we know you've been capable of finding ways of dealing with that. Now's the time to stop the rot of First Nations people dying in custody, being over-imprisoned and having their children put into out-of-home care.

3:05 pm

Photo of Zed SeseljaZed Seselja (ACT, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Finance, Charities and Electoral Matters) Share this | | Hansard source

I acknowledge Senator Dodson's contribution on this motion to take note of answers , but I do want to deal with the question that Senator McAllister asked in relation to child care and the changes to child care. I just want to go through what those changes are—the necessity of the changes.

Senator Watt interjecting

And it's great to get contributions from Senator Watt there. He's taken his orders from Albo. He's got the phone call, and he's still not on mute! I'll continue nonetheless.

Senator Watt interjecting

No, you were hilarious, mate; we all had a very good laugh! But let's go to the more serious issue of child care and the Labor Party's claims when it comes to child care. What we were dealing with in the childcare space was a once-in-generations crisis, which we had to deal with in a number of ways. First we had to deal with stopping the spread, and then—simultaneously—we had to deal with the economic fallout, as we saw the necessary and important restrictions that were put in place to stop COVID from running rapidly through our community as we have seen in far too many countries around the world. The emergency measures that we announced for child care were never going to be the new normal. What we've heard from Senator McAllister and others, in their critique, is that they don't want us to go back to our system of childcare support that this government has put in place.

Senator Watt interjecting

Well, I can't even tell what the ridiculous heckling at the back is, from Senator Watt. It is hard to hear myself, but I will persist. When it comes to what we are doing in the childcare space, the argument from the Labor Party—and it was backed up by their Greens partners—is effectively that there is a magic money tree, and once you put in place an emergency measure that emergency measure should be able to last forever. That is effectively the Labor Party's position and the Greens' position on a number of policy areas, including child care.

When it came to child care, we put in place emergency measures that dealt with the fact that there were significantly fewer Australians sending their kids to child care when the COVID-19 restrictions were in place. Subsequent to that we have seen—and this is something that we should celebrate as a nation—the great strides we have made in recent times, together as a nation, in dealing with this crisis. We should celebrate the fact that we have not suffered the kind of negative health impact that so many other countries have. We should celebrate the fact that we are starting to see our economy open up far more quickly than perhaps was anticipated a couple of months ago and that, as a result of that, people are getting on with business and the economy is slowly starting to turn around. We know there is a long way to go, but more and more Australians are going back to work. That is a good thing, and it is something that we in the coalition celebrate.

We don't believe, as the Labor Party and the Greens do, that government should be at the centre of economic life. We believe that government had a critical role—an absolutely critical role—and we believe that we have and are fulfilling, and will continue to fulfil, that role for as long as it's necessary during this time of crisis to support Australians, to support Australian jobs and to support Australian livelihoods.

But what we're on about now is about growing our economy and getting people back into the workforce. The childcare system that we're returning to—the system of support—is one of the most progressive sources of support that you can imagine: to have subsidies of up to 85 per cent for low- and middle-income earners, which taper out as your income goes up. What could be fairer than a system that gives by far, and by a significant length, more support to low- and middle-income earners than what existed under the Labor Party? Under the Labor Party's system, far less support was given to low- and middle-income earners. We are delivering that.

So with the emergency measures that were put in place and what the Labor Party would like to do—and this goes to what they would do if they were to come into government—there would be bigger and bigger government and endless spending. We have engaged in the kind of spending that is needed to support our economy. We'll do it for as long as is necessary, but we should get our economy going again—

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator; your time has expired. Senator Bilyk.

3:11 pm

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

I too rise to take note today of answers given by Senator Payne to questions about early childhood education. We know from the COVID-19 pandemic that it has had a disproportionate impact on women in Australia. So the spin that's being put on over there by Senator Seselja, that we should all be celebrating, I think rings fairly hollow, especially to a lot of women in Australia.

Women are more likely to have caring responsibilities and more likely to be working in insecure jobs. So it's of little surprise to Australians that the government's policy response to this pandemic ignores this impact when of course the ranks of those opposite are dominated by men. It goes a long way to explaining why the gender gap in Australia is so high and why the Morrison government is failing dismally to engage women in the workforce. It explains why women are disproportionately represented amongst those workers the government has left behind through its design of the JobKeeper scheme, such as casuals with less than 12 months service with their current employer.

Research by the advocacy group The Parenthood found that most Australian households currently using child care will have a parent forced to reduce work when full childcare fees return, and that in most of these households that parent will be a woman. The same research found that over 40 per cent of Australian families using child care had at least one parent's income reduced as a result of COVID-19. Senator Seselja did his bit of spin, but what he didn't point out was that the cost of child care in Australia is among the highest in the world. Child care was already difficult enough to afford before COVID-19 hit, but now the families which are struggling financially due to the pandemic are going to struggle even more. The government has done no modelling—no modelling—on the impact on parents of ripping away JobKeeper payment from the early childhood education and care sector. But its own review of the relief package found that ending it three months early could put up to 86 per cent of services at risk of closure—86 per cent of services at risk of closure!

As a former early childhood educator, let me just say that that is abhorrent! That just frightens me, because child care is such an important issue. It's about access and equity. It's about making sure that people who don't have a high income can access child care for the good of their child. It's not just about getting people back to work, to be honest. Yes, that's a large part of it, but children need social interaction with other children, and children from disadvantaged backgrounds must be able to have that access that they so desperately need to help them develop both socially and emotionally, and even physically in a number of cases.

So don't stand there and tell me how good you have been in regard to child care! I worked in that sector for 12 years; I know that sector, and through COVID-19 I've had many, many people from that sector approach me and talk to me about concerns they have regarding JobKeeper and—especially this week—regarding the flip-flop where Mr Morrison, within 48 hours, said that JobKeeper would remain and then said, 'Oh well, except for early childhood educators.' We know what you guys on that side think about early childhood educators; it's in Hansard. Early childhood educators are some of the most dedicated workers in this country, and they take the responsibility of looking after people's most prized possession—their child—very, very seriously.

For this government to actually have a review of the relief package and find that ending it three months early could put up to 86 per cent of services at risk of closure is abhorrent. Many providers are already struggling because the government's free childcare announcement wasn't properly funded, but the snapback is going to make the situation even worse. There'll be a snap alright, let me tell you! It will be the snap of the doors closing on some of these early childhood education providers. While the government hasn't modelled the impact on parents, the modelling that has been done by others paints a very grim picture. As I said, a survey of 1,300 parents conducted by advocacy group The Parenthood found that more than a third will be forced to reduce days or remove their children from care altogether when we snap back to your— (Time expired)

3:16 pm

Photo of Gerard RennickGerard Rennick (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I find it quite odd that Senator Bilyk stood there and said, 'Don't you tell me about child care.' Well, I'm sorry, but I stayed home and raised my children for four years, and that was a conscious choice, because I realise how important it is for children to spend time with their parents when they are young. There is no greater bond—

Opposition Senator:

An opposition senator interjecting

Photo of Gerard RennickGerard Rennick (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What's that, sorry? Take it on notice.

An opposition senator interjecting

What kids?

An opposition senator interjecting

Between the ages of zero and four, absolutely. It's something that—

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! I remind senators in the chamber to direct their comments to the chair and I remind other senators that interjections are disorderly. Please continue, Senator Rennick.

Photo of Gerard RennickGerard Rennick (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes, ideally it would be great if a parent could stay home and raise their children in the early years between zero and three, because, as I said in my maiden speech, there is no greater bond than that of a child and a parent.

An opposition senator interjecting

Well, that's not your call; that is not the call of the senators here in this chamber. That is the choice of the parent. That is not a choice of the government, and that's the difference between the people on this side of the chamber and the people on that side: they want the government to step into the classroom, the family home, the bedroom and tell everyone how to live their personal lives. No. We live in a Western democracy where we respect individual rights and individual freedoms, and we do not want the hand of government reaching in and taking away our children's youth.

What I love about Labor is that they always make out that they care about the children, but this isn't about the children; this is about Labor increasing their union membership. You never hear Labor talk about raising the pension, because they don't want the pension to replace superannuation. That is all about looking after their rivers of gold in the superannuation fund. The only part of the union movement that's actually growing is the childcare industry, and that's why you're pushing it. At the end of the day, if you can keep a child at home and if you can keep a parent at home, you're going to halve the congestion on the roads, you're going to halve the pollution and you're going to increase the quality of life for young children and their parents.

An opposition senator interjecting

That is a choice. What we would like to do is to provide a choice. Dorothy didn't tap her shoes together and say, 'There's no place like child care.' She said, 'There's no place like home.' I guarantee you, when people grow up, they don't pick up the phone and call their childcare guardian from when they were at child care 20 years ago. They talk to mum and dad. This party will always stand up for the rights of the family and will always try and encourage a bond between the child and the parent.

An opposition senator interjecting

Yeah, sure. Great. Because you guys know everything!

Now I just want to address the issue of deaths in custody. Obviously, there has been an increase in the number of Aboriginals incarcerated, so what we need to do there is try and close the gap. It's something that hasn't got a lot of talk, but I think it is worth noting that a report by the Productivity Commission found that state and federal governments spend $33.4 billion on services for Indigenous Australian to help try and close the gap. That works out at $44,000 for every Aboriginal Australian compared to $22,000 for every non-Indigenous Australian. So I do think that there has been a genuine attempt by governments at all levels to try and close the gap.

The other thing I think we need to point out as well is that people often quote the deaths in custody as though they're homicides. It's important to note that deaths in custody doesn't mean to say that they were killed in custody. The biggest cause of deaths in custody was natural causes. The next one after that was suicide. The next one after that was accidental. Then there were six deliberate, unlawful homicides, which is obviously still too many. There were six in prison custody and eight in police custody.

I have a friend who works in a watch house and they have to a check on the prisoners every 15 to 20 minutes, so there is a genuine attempt at looking after the prisoners. I'm not saying it's easy and I'm not saying everyone gets it right all the time. But I really don't think that we should be inflaming this situation by playing needless identity politics, which Senator Wong was doing before. I thought it was quite tawdry and uncalled for— (Time expired)

3:21 pm

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

It certainly does seem that Dorothy has, in fact, tapped her shoes in the Senate today with comments from those on the government benches that would send Australian women right back to the 1950s, where apparently this government believes they belong. This is a government that is no friend of the women of Australia. The government's snapback is apparently starting even earlier than expected and it is a snapback that will hurt the women of Australia.

Only on Friday did the Prime Minister guarantee that workers would be able to count on JobKeeper payments until September. Then three days later, on Monday, he announced that JobKeeper would, in fact, end for 120,000 early childhood educators. The Prime Minister's commitment did not even last the long weekend. And now they've not ruled out making further adjustments to the JobKeeper program. After that backflip on Monday further adjustments could mean anything. It could mean removing more workers from the scheme, because you cannot trust a word that this government says. Are they really on the side of Australian working women? Are they really on the side of the Australian workforce? They've already excluded millions of casuals and temporary migrant workers from JobKeeper. We have Liberal members of parliament calling for an early snapback day after day. Now it's early childhood educators. Who is next? Who is next in the government's sights?

Early childhood educators have absolutely been on the frontlines of this crisis. They are essential workers who have been absolutely critical in allowing other essential workers to stay at work. To reward them by being the first to have support withdrawn is an absolute slap in the face to those women workers of Australia. Ninety-seven per cent of early childhood educators are women and they have done absolutely everything that this government and this country have asked of them over the past few months. They've turned up to work when others have stayed home to stay safe. They've done that with absolutely no ability to practice social distancing when educating—yes, educating—small children. They've been deemed to be essential except in their pay packets where, of course, they remain some of the lowest paid working people in Australia, exactly because of the types of attitudes that we've heard from the government benches today about their incredibly important and essential work.

This is a group of people that has faced huge uncertainty about the future of their jobs and the future of their sector and now they are the first to be booted off the JobKeeper payments by this government, who just said that no-one would be kicked off before September. What a way to thank the early childhood educators of Australia. Now, right when we are in the middle of a crisis, the government is ending free child care as well. Ending both the free early childhood education program and JobKeeper for early childhood educators is going to cause huge problems for so many Australian women and so many families. Returning to unaffordable child care and removing access is going to make the return to work that much more difficult than it has been already for so many working families. At a time when we are in recession, when parents need to be able to return to work and when households are struggling, how will ending the free childcare package help? We know that it won't. Research published this week says that ending the childcare rescue package early is going to force parents in 60 per cent of households to reduce work. And, in the majority of cases, of course, it's going to be women who will have to stop work or cut back on work.

So this government is delivering a triple blow to the women of Australia. First, three days after guaranteeing JobKeeper, the government has ripped it out of the hands of almost 120,000 women educators. At the same time, the government ends free child care at a time of massive hardship and recession when women need to be able to work. This government does not have the backs of Australia's working women.

Question agreed to.