Wednesday, 26 August 2020
Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Improving Assistance for Vulnerable and Disadvantaged Families) Bill 2020; Second Reading
Labor will be supporting this bill today. The additional childcare subsidy for child wellbeing is a vital program that provides a safe and nurturing learning environment for children in extremely vulnerable situations at home. For most of these children it can be the difference between being able to stay at home or having to go into the child protection system. It's critical that the government treats this program with sensitivity and ensures families and providers are not overly burdened with red tape.
This Liberal-National government introduced a number of new requirements and rules that restricted access to the additional childcare subsidy in July 2018. This government like to bang the drum about cutting red tape. It's one of those media releases they put out on regular rotation, but they go out of their way to increase red tape for vulnerable families and the childcare providers trying to help them. In the first six months of the new system, the number of children receiving the child wellbeing subsidy collapsed by 21 per cent. These numbers have since recovered pre-July 2018 levels but only after a significant effort and resources from providers.
When asked in Senate estimates if the department was concerned about the drop, they admitted that they weren't and also confessed that they weren't even tracking families that had dropped out of the system. During the Senate inquiry into the government's first round of changes to the childcare legislation last September, the stakeholders all expressed strong views that the additional childcare subsidy was not working in the best interests of vulnerable children. The Early Learning and Care Council of Australia, Early Childhood Australia and Goodstart all called on the government to fix the red tape and restrictions on the ACCS.
Labor will support these changes because they fix some of the design flaws in their new system and will help to get vulnerable children the support they need, but the Liberals' childcare system still has many other serious flaws. This is a system which leaves one in four families worse off. It's a design feature where access to early education and care is reduced for 279,000 families. It's a system that only 40 per cent of providers and 41 per cent of families told the independent evaluation reviewers had resulted in positive change, and 83 per cent of parents told the evaluation that the new system had made no impact on their work or study. It's a system that has been forcing childcare providers to act as unpaid debt collectors for the government, because families are struggling to stay on top of the complicated activity and means tests. It's a system that has been riddled with software glitches that have left providers and families in the dark and staff without pay. It sends out blunt letters, telling families they owe the government money without any explanation. So far over 91,000 families, or 16 per cent of all families, audited so far have been hit with a childcare subsidy debt notice, which is more evidence that their new system is too complex and not working for families.
Childcare fees are already out of control in the new system. The CPI figures show childcare costs increased by 1.9 per cent in the December quarter, the fourth successive increase, and have now gone up by 7.2 per cent in the 12-month period. Fees are now 34 per cent up under the Liberal-National government. Families are now paying on average $3,800 a year more for early education and care under this government. The government was very confident that the new system would put downward pressure on fees and they were driving down the cost of child care. The minister was keen to spruik a new website as a game changer and told families to shop around, but less than half of providers are providing accurate fee information to the website. You certainly don't hear the minister making these claims any more. And, like in every other portfolio, the government has no idea and no plan on how to bring fees under control. The Minister for Education claims taxpayer funding of early education and care is communism. The Prime Minister calls the childcare budget a money pit. These are unacceptable comments from an out-of-touch Morrison government.
Labor will support this bill, but we also note our ongoing concerns with the failure of the Morrison government to manage our childcare sector.
I rise to speak on behalf of the Greens on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Improving Assistance for Vulnerable and Disadvantaged Families) Bill 2020. The bill makes changes to additional childcare subsidy (child wellbeing) and to the calculation method used when an individual whose relationship status changes throughout the year meets the childcare subsidy reconciliation conditions. A major intention is to ensure that providers can care for a child at risk of abuse or neglect while a foster family determines its eligibility for the childcare subsidy and, potentially, the additional childcare subsidy. The bill will also allow for the backdating of the additional childcare subsidy (child wellbeing) certificates and determinations for up to 13 weeks, which is up from the current 28 days in certain circumstances. Finally, it will extend the maximum period for an ACCS (child wellbeing) determination period from 13 weeks to up to 12 months for classes of children to be prescribed in the minister's rules.
The Greens support this bill as we support every measure to make subsidised early learning more accessible and more generous for families and children. Sadly, the way early learning in Australia is regulated is enormously complex and families can fall through the cracks of the system. This bill will help to ensure that more families can access subsidised early learning, particularly those where the children may be at particular risk of serious abuse or neglect.
In a second reading speech on this bill way back in February, Minister Tehan said:
Just over 18 months into implementation of the childcare package and it is clear that the government is delivering on its goals to create a more affordable, accessible and flexible childcare system.
They say hindsight is 20/20, but I think, in the intervening six months, we have seen that early childhood education and care is not the affordable, accessible and flexible system that the minister so wishes it to be.
After a brief flirtation with free childcare, most families are now back to paying fees in one of the most expensive childcare sectors in the world during a pandemic which has decimated our economy and jobs. As for accessibility, childcare is still out of reach for plenty of marginalised and disadvantaged families. As for flexibility, COVID-19 almost toppled the whole system. Far from being an agile, resilient and flexible system, it is a house of cards. Obviously the pandemic rattled our whole economy and society, but, unlike other sectors, early childhood education and care almost went under completely in a matter of just weeks.
As many have said, COVID-19 has exposed the cracks in the system which governments have tried to ignore or downplay for far too long. Precarious and insecure work, expensive child care, overstretched aged-care systems and health systems and an unemployment benefit that keeps its recipients below the poverty line are just a few of these structural problems that the government has had to face up to during this seismic change in our economy.
At the moment, across the country, families are struggling with the burden of going back to paying full fees for early learning. Free child care being cut off in July was the first of the big COVID measures to be wound back. Fees are back. We have a bizarre and, frankly, shameful situation now where parents are forced to pay fees, early learning centres can't access the JobKeeper wage subsidy and ECEC workers don't have a wage or income guarantee at all. They were the first workers to lose JobKeeper by decree of this Liberal government. This is unacceptable and clearly unsustainable. We need to chart a new course. We need proper government investment to make early learning well funded, high quality and fee free.
A recent report by the Grattan Institute looked at the value of investing to raise the CCS to make child care cheaper for families and, in particular, looked at the impacts of women's workforce participation. It found that getting rid of expensive fees is good for women, good for children and good for the economy. The reality is that expensive child care has held Australian women back for far too long. Child rearing in Australia is highly gendered, and it's women who lose independence and income when decisions have to be made about who will stay at home.
The government should invest in early learning and make it fee free for all. This will benefit women, this will benefit families and this will benefit the whole community. Early learning and care should be recognised as a critical part of a child's development and funded as such by government. It should be fee free so every family can access it without any barriers. It is an essential service, and it should be universally accessible.
I have enthusiastically welcomed growing calls to make early learning permanently free for Australian families. This is not pie in the sky thinking. Like free higher education, free child care is now in the basket of, 'We had it, and we can have it again.' I urge the government to go back to the drawing board on early learning and invest to make big changes needed and ultimately make this essential service accessible, universal and fee free for all families. Until then, we will continue to tinker around the edges.
As early childhood education consultant Lisa Bryant wrote in The Guardianrecently:
… now would be a really good time for the government to announce that Australia's early education and care system is not fit for purpose, that the funding is still nightmarishly complex and they are going to make a fundamental change to how they are going to fund it.
They need to stop funding parents and start funding services.
This would certainly be a good place to start.
It's my pleasure to rise and speak on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Improving Assistance for Vulnerable and Disadvantaged Families) Bill 2020. I want to start my contribution by noting with some concern the contribution of Senator Faruqi. While Senator Faruqi made a number of statements critical of our government's support for families and for child care, she didn't really reference any facts. We are interested in the facts, and the facts of the matter are that around one million Australian families who are balancing work and parental responsibilities are benefiting from this package. At the moment in this country, Senator Faruqi, 72 per cent of families pay no more than $5 per hour in day care centres. We have monumentally reformed child care in this country, and, of that subset of 72 per cent, Senator Faruqi, 24 per cent pay no more than $2 per hour. We reject the proposition, which the Greens did not speak up about a number of years ago, that families earning $1 million and more were being subsidised on their childcare payments.
Madam Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I believe the senator should be making her comments through you rather than them being directed at any particular senator in the chamber.
Through you, Madam Acting Deputy President, I reiterate my concern about the Greens' position and the distortion of the facts. The fact is that this government is providing record funding for child care—$9.9 billion by 2022-23. Australians listening to that contribution from Senator Faruqi would not actually know that the most disadvantaged families in our country receive a rebate of 85 per cent of their childcare costs.
What our government has done is fundamentally change the way families are supported by directing the greatest amount of support to families who need it the most. We reject the proposition that the same level of subsidy should be provided to families earning very high wages. We don't think that's fair. Why is it that the Greens have not addressed this issue? The fact of the matter is that, when the Greens make a contribution on this issue, they should be candid with the Australian people as to what we are doing.
As part of our reform of child care, we are also proudly preventing $3 billion of taxpayers' money from being claimed as part of the very strong stance that we have taken against fraudulent behaviour. So I am very proud of the way our government is supporting families and of the way our government is supporting the most disadvantaged families, and that is a fact.
Honourable senators interjecting—
It is also regrettable that—
It is also regrettable that Senator Faruqi did not mention that the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Improving Assistance for Vulnerable and Disadvantaged Families) Bill 2020 now before the Senate for debate, in adopting the $700 million transition package, is making all employees of childcare centres who are currently working eligible. She did not address the fact that one-third of childcare workers working in Australian childcare centres are not currently eligible for JobKeeper. We have been criticised for that. But now this issue is being remedied, because we're providing a new wave of support, and this is something that the Greens have suddenly forgotten to mention. The fact of the matter is that casuals who have been working for a childcare centre for less than 12 months, visa holders and other people who are not currently eligible for JobKeeper are eligible for this new transition package. As I said, it is regrettable that that very important point has been conveniently overlooked by the Greens in the contribution that we just heard.
The childcare relief package before the Senate will keep 99 per cent of childcare centres open. We know how difficult this has been; this pandemic has been so traumatic for families, has caused so many issues in our community and has put families under such pressure. For those who run childcare centres, when the numbers dropped away dramatically our government took immediate action to keep those centres open by providing free child care. And we're now working to give childcare centres the support they need and, importantly, childcare workers the support they need. Our $708 million transition package will provide 25 per cent of fee revenue—that's 25 per cent of the existing hourly rate cap, whichever is lower, during the relevant reference fortnight, and the last two payments scheduled for September 2020 will be brought forward. Childcare fees will be capped and services need to guarantee employment levels by maintaining the same average number of employees. Activity tests will be relaxed until 4 October 2020 to assist families whose employment has been impacted by COVID-19—again, a further concession to make sure that we're doing everything we can to support families. That's so families impacted by COVID-19 can receive up to 100 hours of subsidised child care per fortnight during this transition period. There is also a very significant gap-fee waiver when services are forced to close on public health advice as a result of COVID-19. That gap-fee waiver has been extended to 31 December.
It's also important to point out that we know how much pressure many Victorian families are under at the moment, with very extreme stage 4 restrictions applicable in Melbourne. Essential workers are struggling to find the child care that they need and so, as a government, we are providing some $33 million in additional support for Melbourne. Melbourne services will receive a higher transition payment of 30 per cent and may also be eligible for a top-up where the childcare subsidy is received. That of course depends on attendances at the childcare centre. Victorian families will get an extra 30 days of allowable absences, to a total of 72 days. All services which are subject to stage 3 or higher restrictions—and stage 3 is applicable to regional Victoria—can waive gap fees if children are not attending. Absences are claimed, allowing enrolments to be maintained and the childcare subsidy to be paid. Outside school hours care services in Victoria will also receive an additional viability support payment of 15 per cent of their revenue if attendances have fallen by 40 per cent. On average, the government expects that services in Melbourne will receive between 80 and 85 per cent of their pre-COVID revenue.
We understand that childcare centres need incredible support at this time. The relief package with JobKeeper was a temporary measure. It did keep the very large majority of childcare services open but, as I mentioned, with one-third of educators not eligible for JobKeeper, educators and services asked for a more equitable arrangement. That's what they asked for, and that's why the bulk of the childcare industry is supportive of these measures.
The $708 million transition payment, which is 25 per cent of the services revenue on top of the $8.9 billion per year childcare subsidy and the many other top-up payments, is replacing what we had in place before in relation to JobKeeper. The transition package will see services receive the majority of their pre-COVID revenue even while their attendance is low. So the support is very much on par with what they were receiving previously, but, very importantly, one-third of childcare workers who were previously not eligible are now being supported.
A condition of receiving the transition payments—and this is a very important point to make—is that there will be an employment guarantee where the childcare service is required to maintain the same average number of employees. These payments going to childcare centres can't be just pocketed by childcare centres; they must be passed on and there must be that employment guarantee. That will, of course, ensure the viability of childcare centres and also make sure that childcare workers are receiving the support that they need.
I commend this bill to the Senate. This is another example of how our government is working so incredibly hard to support families at this time. We acknowledge that, in every sector of the economy, families, small businesses, sole traders, young people, students—so many Australians—are under pressure. As a member of the Morrison government, I am incredibly proud of the support that we are providing—support that represents in excess of $300 billion in payments. Under JobKeeper, for instance, payments are rolling out for the $100 billion JobKeeper program, the $1,500 per fortnight wage subsidy, which, of course, flows through until September. With JobSeeker, we're paying a supplement at a rate of $550 per fortnight. We recognise the extraordinary impacts this is having on mental health and on social isolation. Many people with spouses and children are getting by, but we also recognise that many Australians are living on their own and they are effectively locked in their houses on their own, and that social isolation can lead to some dramatic consequences. That's why our Mental Health and Wellbeing Pandemic Response Plan includes very substantial investment for mental health.
In my own region that I proudly represent—my Senate office is based in Geelong—there's been a very traumatic number of suicides involving young teenagers. We've made a commitment for a special suicide prevention program of in excess of half a million dollars just to support young people and school students, because we recognise that, when you cut anyone off from their friends and their family, stop them playing sport, stop them connecting, it can have very drastic consequences.
We acknowledge at the moment that stage 4 restrictions are causing a huge impact on the Australian economy—an impact that will cost the Australian economy some $10 billion to $12 billion. I've spoken out about my concerns in relation to the restrictions and how they must be justified and they must only be to the extent required to combat this terrible pandemic. Treasury estimates job losses in Victoria of up to 400,000 as a result of what we are enduring at the moment. So, as a member of the Morrison government, led by our magnificent Prime Minister, who is working night and day to get Australians through this, in conjunction with the leadership team, in conjunction with the national cabinet, I say to all Australians: I am incredibly proud of the way that our government is supporting Australians. The measures that have been set out in this bill are evidence of further support for families.
I want to finish off my contribution by reminding anyone listening or reading this speech in the Hansard that help is available 24/7. The National Coronavirus Helpline is 1800020080. Of course, if you are suffering from mental illness or mental health challenges please don't forget Lifeline and Beyond Blue, or 1800 RESPECT if you have concerns about family violence. Right across this economy we are working incredibly hard, including for families, childcare centres and childcare educators. I commend this bill to the Senate.
I rise today to speak on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Improving Assistance for Vulnerable and Disadvantaged Families) Bill 2020. This bill will amend provisions relating to additional childcare subsidy in the A New Tax System (Family Assistance) (Administration) Act 1999. The bill will strengthen and broaden access to additional childcare subsidy, with the period of time in which a provider can apply for additional childcare subsidy being increased from 13 weeks to 12 months for children under a long-term child protection order, such as those, importantly, who are in foster care. This is a huge increase. It represents a quadrupling of the previous limit. It is a commonsense change recognising the support that vulnerable children need over longer periods of time.
Additional childcare subsidy provides additional childcare fee assistance to an individual or provider, in limited circumstances, for children at risk of serious abuse or neglect, to ensure these children have streamlined access to and continuity of child care. In my first speech I spoke about the importance of improving early childhood education and how in fact it's a critical enabler for children, ensuring that children are able to achieve the best possible life outcomes. We know that a child's brain grows to 90 per cent of its adult size by the time the child is five years of age. It's incredibly important that we give access to as many children as possible, particularly those children who are vulnerable, those who come from vulnerable situations, because we know that investment in those early years yields tremendous results over a long period of time.
I was involved with a program in the south-eastern suburbs of Perth—a childcare facility that is linked to a school, which is quite a unique application of child care. It is a pilot program at Challis primary school called the Challis Primary School Early Childhood Education Centre, and it's amazing. Senator Birmingham visited that school several years ago. It's a wonderful example of how you can provide connections with families in those very early years when they're raising their children, and for many families it's a new experience, particularly if it's a first child. Connecting them with the supports that are necessary to raise a child and give that child the very best possible start at life is really important. I bring this to your attention because it's a model that I think could be further examined, and it is something that this government has looked at.
In the context of this legislation, ensuring that we're providing access to quality childhood education is really important. Childcare services are really important. In this particular program, kids who start school in year 1 in the south-eastern suburbs of Perth, in Challis or in Armadale, now start school at a level that is better than state average. This is a low-socioeconomic-status school and school area, and these kids start school better than the state average when it comes to literacy and numeracy. And their improvement across the year, even in just that first year, is also at a better rate than that of other schools across Western Australia.
It shows you that that interaction and involvement from the very early years, from zero years and right through, are really important to improving the outcomes for vulnerable people. These are kids who need the very best start in life. They're surrounded by circumstances that are trying and troubling, and it is about giving them the very best start at life, as their parents are wanting to. It's amazing to see the transition and the results. That program has now been running for some years. They now have longitudinal data to back up the evidence of the importance of this early investment. That is why this government is absolutely committed to ensuring that this investment is here, so that we are providing children with the very best opportunity.
Under this program childcare providers will be able to enrol children who are in foster care under an additional childcare subsidy for an initial period of 13 weeks, giving an individual foster family sufficient time to lodge their childcare subsidy claim and have it assessed by Services Australia. Existing provisions whereby providers are required to notify Services Australia when a child is no longer considered to be at risk will continue to apply. As Australians return to work, as businesses re-open and as children return to classroom learning, the government will resume the childcare subsidy to support families to access affordable child care.
This bill is yet another example of the strong consultation this government undertakes. We know government is not all-knowing. We consistently seek to improve. We listen to the community and we update our programs as the feedback comes in. This legislation is an update of the legislation, the regulations, based on on-the-ground feedback and, importantly, stakeholder consultation. The aim of this bill is very simple: the Morrison government seeks to support families while maintaining a strong and vibrant childcare sector across the nation.
I recently undertook a road trip, travelling many thousands of kilometres—in fact, 6,000 kilometres—up through the great state of Western Australia. I spent pretty much that whole time in one single electorate, in Durack, which just shows you how big that electorate is. I drove from Perth all the way up through the Mid West and then the Pilbara, and then into the Kimberley. It was a very insightful trip. I spoke to enormous numbers of people—whether they were shires or businesses or community groups; different stakeholders—about the challenges in their area. One of the recurring themes that I heard was that the need for child care was actually an integral part of the rural community, particularly in those towns where there's a heavy reliance on FIFO, a fly-in, fly-out workforce. These towns actually want to build their residential workforce, and they're wanting and needing—and they see the demand for—good-quality child care and ready access to child care so that they can attract more and more people into their town. This is something that we as a government support, because we recognise the importance of that. This flexibility should also be available to vulnerable and disadvantaged Australians, and that's what this bill will achieve. It's going to provide that flexibility.
This amendment is, of course, happening in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. The government's primary aim during this time supports families and business. Child care is integral to achieving both of these outcomes. Under the childcare relief package, around 99 per cent of childcare providers kept their doors open. What a fantastic outcome. When you consider, in particular, the breadth of the shutdowns that occurred in our economy, keeping the doors of childcare providers open not only allowed people to continue working but also provided the ability for those people to attend their workplaces as required, particularly those who were in the healthcare sector.
I spoke to one particular provider in the CBD of Perth. They're the major childcare provider, right next to Royal Perth Hospital. When we were in the depth of the pandemic crisis in Perth—and, thank goodness, we're not through it but things are much better in Perth now, and much better in Western Australia, compared to in March and April—this childcare provider kept running. They kept their doors open, and they ensured that they were providing important and valuable childcare services so that the parents could go to work. These were nurses and doctors, people who were running the hospital, and cleaners. This is right next door to the Royal Perth Hospital. And it was made possible because this government recognised the need. We provided the flexibility for that provider to be able to keep their doors open, even though they were seeing a reduced number of kids come in because the overall demand was a little bit lower than it would normally have been.
Since 13 July, the transition package that was designed and implemented included a payment of 25 per cent of a provider's pre-COVID revenue. This has supported centres across Australia. I'm pleased to inform the Senate that centres in Victoria have received appropriate assistance to the tune of $33 million, recognising the severity of the ongoing situation there. This bill shows clearly that, following the return to the demand-driven childcare subsidy on 13 July 2020, we are committed to improving access to child care for vulnerable and disadvantaged children. This, in turn, provides support for disadvantaged families. There is much red tape in this sector. This bill also seeks to cut this red tape both for families and for providers. Cutting this red tape means that access to child care is going to be easier overall, and cheaper, and more time will be spent on important priorities than on compliance and overcoming access barriers.
So I'm glad that the opposition is supporting this bill. Senator Gallagher expressed earlier her support for cutting red tape in the sector, which is great. Child care is one of the most overregulated sectors of our economy. I hope that Senator Gallagher is equally excited about freeing up other sectors of our economy, but I do digress. It is important, at this time, that the government and opposition work constructively together—as we mostly have, I have to say.
The coalition is committing to providing record funding for child care. We are committed to quality, affordable child care as an important structural feature of our economy. We recognised this when we took steps to protect the sector during the coronavirus pandemic, and we recognise it now, but that does not mean that the coronavirus settings should be made permanent, as some have claimed. Our once-in-a-generation reforms have already delivered a 3.2 per cent decrease in out-of-pocket costs to parents. Further, we have strengthened assistance by preventing $3 billion of taxpayer money being falsely claimed. This fraudulent behaviour weakens the system and hurts all Australians, and preventing it is a priority that we are delivering on.
Our new childcare package represents the most significant reforms to the early education and care system in 40 years. This is incredibly important. This is a priority for government because we recognise the value of quality child care, education and development. We know that it sets children up for life. We know that it enables the economic participation of parents, allowing them to get out there and work. That combination ensures a better future for our children. We know that, when you invest in children, you see a multiplier effect right through their lives. The cost reductions and the reduction in other challenges and social issues that follow, particularly for disadvantaged families, are profound and significant; they're material. It's something that this government remains committed to because we recognise the importance of quality education. And that is why, even through the challenges of this pandemic, we've remained committed to child care. We have provided flexibility to providers to allow them to keep their doors open, even though they may have seen a reduction in the number of children turning up because parents are working from home or for various other reasons. We've continued to keep those doors open because we understand and recognise the importance of early childhood education for children and also for the economic participation of parents. I commend this bill to the Senate.
I rise to speak on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Improving Assistance for Vulnerable and Disadvantaged Families) Bill 2020. This legislation makes further changes to the government's new childcare system to remove design flaws that have placed significant administrative burdens on at-risk families and early learning providers.
The additional childcare subsidy (child wellbeing) is a payment for at-risk and vulnerable families who need support with the cost of child care to support the child's participation in early learning. These children are typically at risk of child protection and child safety issues. Families who receive the ACCS (child wellbeing) payment are exempt from the activities test. Providers receive a subsidy equal to the actual fee charged by the service, up to 120 per cent of the CSS hourly fee cap. Therefore, almost all children receiving the ACCS (child wellbeing) receive free early learning.
Before I speak in greater detail regarding this bill, I want to pay tribute to all our wonderful teachers and teachers' assistants, social workers, speech pathologists, principals and educators across my home state of Tasmania and Australia. COVID-19 presented many challenges within our communities. The significant pressure it placed on our educators and educational institutions should not be underestimated. But in the true spirit of Australian grit, resilience and passion, the education sector rose to the challenge. For weeks, teachers adapted to this situation as learning occurred from home and then via technology for many students. We know that our teachers are the bedrock of our children's future, and they really did rise to the challenge during this crisis. All Tasmanians thank our teachers and all educators.
Now to the substance of this bill. The additional childcare subsidy (child wellbeing) is a vital program that provides a safe and nurturing learning environment for children in extremely vulnerable situations at home. For most of these children, it can be the difference between being able to stay at home or having to go into the child protection system. It is crucial that governments at all levels, especially the federal government, treat this program with the sensitivity it deserves and ensure families and providers are not overly burdened with red tape.
The Liberal government introduced a number of new requirements and rules that restricted access to the additional childcare subsidy in July 2018. This third-term Liberal government likes to bang the drum about cutting red tape. It is one of the media releases they put out on a regular rotation. But they go out of their way to increase red tape for vulnerable families and the childcare providers trying to help them. In the first six months of the new system, the number of children receiving the child wellbeing subsidy collapsed by a massive 21 per cent. These numbers have since recovered to pre-July 2018 levels, but only after significant efforts and use of resources by providers. When asked in the Senate estimates at the beginning of the year if the department was concerned about the drop, they admitted they weren't, and also confessed they weren't even tracking if families had dropped out of the system. This is the kind of government those opposite believe is fit and proper. That isn't good governance by any stretch of the imagination or by any standard.
What are stakeholders' views regarding this? I am sure many people will be asking. The Early Learning and Care Council of Australia, Early Childhood Australia and Goodstart all called on the government to fix the red tape restrictions on the ACCS. What did the government do? Did they listen? Of course not, because the government are arrogant. Their born-to-rule mentality means they simply ignored the views of the sector. They ignored the views of those working in this important sector.
Of course, we on this side of the chamber will support these changes because they do fix some of the design flaws in the new system and will help get vulnerable children the support that they need. However, I emphasise the word 'some'. The government's childcare system still has many other serious flaws. This is a system that leaves one in four families worse off. It's a design feature that access to early education and care has been reduced for 279,000 families. It is a system in relation to which only 40 per cent of providers and 41 per cent of families told independent evaluation reviewers that it had resulted in positive change. Eighty-three per cent of parents told the reviewers that the system had made no impact on their work and study. It's a system that has been forcing childcare providers to act as unpaid debt collectors for the government, because families are struggling to stay on top of the complicated activities and means tests. It is a system that is riddled with software glitches that have left providers and families in the dark and staff without pay. I'm sure many people can recall that the system is known for sending out blunt letters telling families they owe the government money, without any explanation. So far, over 91,000 families, or 16 per cent of all families audited so far, have been hit with a childcare subsidy debt notice, which is more evidence that the new system is too complex and not working for families.
Childcare fees are already out of control in the new system. The latest CPI figures show childcare costs increased by 1.9 per cent in the December quarter—the fourth successive increase—and have gone up by 7.2 per cent in the past 12 months. Before COVID-19, fees were up 34 per cent under the Liberal government. Families were paying, on average, $3,800 a year more for early education and care under this government. The government were very confident that their new system would 'put downward pressure on fees' and that it was 'driving down the cost of child care'. The minister was keen to spruik a new website as the 'game changer' for families and told families to shop around, but fewer than half of providers are providing accurate fee information to the website. You don't hear the minister making these claims anymore. Let's be frank: who knows how the government are going to treat child care once the COVID pandemic passes? I really do hope they don't toss the sector aside and treat it with the disdain it became accustomed to in the past.
Like in every other portfolio, the government have absolutely no idea, no plan, for bringing fees under control. The Minister for Education claims taxpayer funding of early education and care is communal, yet during COVID-19 the government were willing to support free child care for all families. The Prime Minister calls the childcare budget a 'money pit'—his words, not mine, and not the words of anyone on this side of the chamber. We on this side of the chamber are waiting, as are the Australian people, to see how this government treats our childcare system in a post-COVID-19 country. I, like so many other families that are relying on early childhood education and child care, hope that it is treated better, that they have respect for those families, that they respect the sector, that they respect the early educators in this country and that they support these families. As we know, this particular scheme is there for vulnerable children and for their families. This government needs to demonstrate that it has respect, not just words, for the sector, that it is not just trying to spin a story but is actually there to support and encourage the early educators and give the support that the mums and dads and the children in this country so richly deserve.
It is a pleasure to rise today to speak on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Improving Assistance for Vulnerable and Disadvantaged Families) Bill 2020, which, as we've heard in the debate this morning, is, of course, one of the very important policies that the Morrison coalition government has put together to assist Australians and, particularly, Australian families deal with the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis. The Morrison government is supporting families and the childcare sector through the COVID-19 crisis to ensure that quality early childhood education and care is available to vulnerable and disadvantaged children and families.
Under the childcare relief package, around 99 per cent of childcare providers kept their doors open during the initial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year. It's so important that parents are able to keep working wherever that is possible, and keeping childcare centres open and operating, particularly through the height of nationwide restrictions, is critical in allowing working parents to keep working. Since 13 July, our transition package, including a payment of 25 per cent of a provider's pre-COVID revenue, has supported centres around Australia, and centres in Victoria have benefited from additional support in response to the situation currently playing out there.
This bill that we are debating in the chamber today is an important next step in our support for the childcare sector. It improves access to child care for vulnerable and disadvantaged children and families and cuts red tape for families and childcare providers. We've already heard in the debate today just how regulated the childcare sector is and we as Liberals believe that reducing red tape will allow this sector to operate more effectively and more efficiently, which can only be a good outcome for the people utilising the services these providers give.
The period of time a provider can apply for an additional childcare subsidy determination will be extended from 13 weeks to up to 12 months for children under a long-term child protection order, such as those in foster care. This change recognises the support that vulnerable children need over longer periods. Other amendments will enable providers to apply to backdate a family's ACCS beyond the current limit of 28 days and by up to 13 weeks in exceptional circumstances. Childcare providers will also be able to enrol children who are in foster care under ACCS for an initial period of up to 13 weeks, giving an individual foster family sufficient time to lodge their childcare subsidy claim and have it assessed by Services Australia.
The additional childcare subsidy provides additional childcare fee assistance to an individual or a provider in limited circumstances for children at risk of serious abuse or neglect to ensure these children have access to and continuity of child care. The ACCS is part of the childcare safety net, giving the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children a strong start through access to quality early childhood education and care. ACCS is a top-up payment in addition to the childcare safety net. The Australian government paid almost $50 million in ACCS child wellbeing subsidies to cover childcare costs for more than 21,000 children in the financial year 2018-19.
This bill has been drafted to address feedback from the childcare sector. The Morrison coalition government is a huge supporter of parents and the childcare sector. Our reforms have delivered a 3.2 per cent reduction in out-of-pocket costs to parents since our package was introduced. The new childcare package is providing more access and more financial support for those who need it most. Around one million Australian families who are balancing work and parental responsibilities are benefiting from the package. Seventy-two per cent pay no more than $5 per hour in day care centres. Within that group, 24 per cent paid no more than $2 per hour. The new childcare package represents the most significant reforms to the early education and childcare sector and system in 40 years.
When COVID-19 hit and began to impact heavily on working parents and childcare operators, our relief package kept 99 per cent of childcare centres open, as I alluded to earlier. As we move on into the next phase of reopening our economy, at least in most states outside of Victoria, we're delivering a $708 million transition package. For Melbourne and Victoria there's an additional $33 million in support because of the significant impact of the large-scale outbreak in that state. We know that COVID-19 has significantly impacted on the lives of so many Australians. The Morrison coalition government's assistance programs to help families, workers and businesses represent the largest assistance package ever delivered by an Australian government. On top of all of the funds and effort that have gone into the health response and mental health support for Australians, we're investing over $280 billion to keep Australians in jobs, keep businesses in business, support households and keep investment flowing.
We know how important our JobKeeper scheme has been for Australian businesses and families. In recent months I've been conducting a Tasmania 'back in business' campaign and have been travelling around my state, speaking to as many businesses as I can—particularly small and family business owners. Without a doubt, the most common sentiment I hear from these people is how important JobKeeper has been in getting businesses through the harshest period of restrictions. So many business owners have said that without JobKeeper being available at the time when they had almost no customers coming through their doors, their businesses would have most likely shut and they would have had to lay off staff. Because JobKeeper was available they were able to keep staff on the payroll and keep their businesses operating.
Now that Tasmania has eased many of its internal restrictions there is quite a lot of cautious optimism in the business community that they can turn the corner and begin to get back to normal in the months ahead. And, of course, it's not just JobKeeper but also the $17.6 billion in the government's first economic stimulus package; the $90 billion from the Reserve Bank of Australia and $15 billion from the government to deliver easier access to finance; and $66.1 billion in the second economic support package. That includes providing up to $100,000 to eligible small and medium-size businesses and not-for-profits to help their cash flow so that they can keep operating, pay their rent and electricity and other bills and, most importantly, retain staff. That's another measure which has been incredibly welcomed by businesses around the country. I've certainly received very positive feedback from Tasmanian businesses as they relate to those policies.
For individuals: as well as the guaranteed income through JobKeeper for eligible employees, we've also supported Australians with the coronavirus supplement to JobSeeker of an additional $550 per fortnight and by temporarily relaxing the partner income test to ensure that an eligible person can receive the JobSeeker payment. We've now made two payments of the $750 stimulus payment to social security and veteran income support recipients and eligible concession card holders.
As the Prime Minister has said repeatedly, the approach we've taken as a government to support Australians during the COVID-19 crisis has not been to set and forget but to listen to Australians, to listen to businesses and industries and to listen to expert advice to understand what the next steps on the road to recovery should be. Not a week has gone by since COVID-19 first hit Australia that the government hasn't announced new programs and new measures to help Australians get through this incredibly tough time.
Just today, for example, the government has announced that Tasmanian workers who cannot work due to the need to self-isolate or quarantine and have no sick leave or other entitlements available to them to support themselves through that period are eligible for the pandemic leave disaster payment of $1,500. This comes after an agreement was struck with the Tasmanian government to roll out the scheme in my state which has already been operating successfully in Victoria. To date in Victoria, almost $8.8 million has been paid out for around 6,000 granted claims. This is just another example of how the government is continuing to respond to, and work with, the states to support the needs of Australians.
This fortnight in parliament we are focused on passing legislation like this bill that we are debating here today which enables important assistance programs to be rolled out. Of course we know that, in helping Australians in the here and now, we also have to have an eye to the future. There is no money tree, and what we spend now will have to be paid back at some point in time. That's why it is so important that what we are doing is putting in place the building blocks for economic recovery. That starts with keeping people employed so that they can continue to provide for their families and also help the businesses they work for recover and grow.
Ensuring that working parents have access to child care is an imperative part of that plan. But it's not just about keeping businesses surviving and treading water; we're also acting to create the right business conditions to build the infrastructure to support economic growth. That means in Tasmania, for example, continuing to invest in the rollout of new irrigation schemes which are so important to getting more agricultural production in our state. It means investing in energy infrastructure to capitalise on Tasmania's natural assets and hydro energy capacity. It means investing in skills and training opportunities for the current generations and the generations to come, not only so that they can get a good job but actually to help to drive more investment and business growth locally in our state.
As I said initially, the Morrison government is supporting families in the childcare sector through the COVID-19 crisis to ensure that quality early childhood education and care is available to vulnerable and disadvantaged children and families. That's because we know it's so important that parents of children are able to keep working and keep contributing to their workplaces wherever that is possible, and keeping childcare centres open and operating, particularly through the height of nationwide restrictions like we have seen over the past few months, is absolutely critical.
As I said, this bill is an incredibly important next step in our support for the childcare sector, above and beyond our initial transition package, which included a payment of 25 per cent of a provider's pre-COVID revenue to support centres around Australia and particularly centres in Victoria, which have benefited from this additional support in response to the situation there. This bill improves access to child care for vulnerable and disadvantaged children and families and, as we've heard during debate, cuts red tape for families and childcare providers. It's such an important piece of legislation to support Australian families going through the COVID-19 crisis which will operate in addition to the other support packages that I have highlighted here today, particularly those that have been so well received in my own state of Tasmania, such as the JobKeeper payment, which has ensured that people can stay connected with their places of work. This bill today, as I've said, in keeping childcare centres open, operating and supporting parents to utilise childcare services is an imperative part of that connection as well.
In conclusion, I thank my colleagues. I note that Minister Cash is in the chamber. She is one colleague who has provided fantastic support to small businesses across the country, as has the entire Morrison coalition government team, who are all continuing to work so hard through this pandemic to respond to the needs of Australians. I congratulate the education minister for the work that he has done on this bill that we're debating here today which supports the needs of vulnerable children in our community. I commend the bill to the Senate.
I'm disappointed that we were unsuccessful in our motion to pass the question before the chair, because the government seems to have no agenda in this place and because the bill before us fixes a litany of problems that this government caused. I've got no problem with continuing to debate the issue and the problems that it has subjected families to in this nation, but this is simply a manifestation of the fact that the government is determined to keep padding out the parliament's agenda because it doesn't have the capacity yet to move on with its agenda.
For three terms of government, we've been subjected to this government banging on about how it cuts red tape and cares about the Australian people while all the while we've had to watch the dismantling of child care and watch the gambling of our children's future. Here we are again debating needing to fix these problems, and the government seems happy enough to spend lots of time debating this bill and having its face rubbed in the mistakes that it has made in this space because it can't get on with its parliamentary agenda today. It's simply not ready to keep the parliament's business moving.
In June 2018 the government introduced a new childcare system, and it became obvious almost immediately—and Labor knew this was coming, because we saw the design flaws in it—that it would place significant burdens on at-risk families and early-learning providers. The additional childcare subsidy—or ACCS (child wellbeing)—is a payment for at-risk and vulnerable families who need support with the cost of child care. Typically these are children who are at risk in terms of child protection and safety needs.
We know that all children who are on the additional childcare subsidy receive free early learning because of this subsidy. The government wants to keep debating this issue before the chamber today. You're simply here to bang on about your supposedly great childcare system. The very bill before us today highlights the government's deeply flawed agenda. The system was designed to make sure that the help most needed by people was as difficult as possible to get and to be an administrative nightmare for people who already have enough to deal with. These are the core issues being fixed in this legislation today.
In continuing to debate this issue, you seem happy to have your face rubbed in the mistakes you've made. This debate reminds Australians of the massive mistakes that you have made in our childcare system. The changes that you introduced back in 2018 included reducing the initial approval period from 13 weeks to six weeks, approving eligibility certificates for only 13-week periods, and deeming any applications not approved by Centrelink within 28 days to have been refused. How can a system find an application to have been refused because—through no fault of the applicant—a government department doesn't make a decision within 28 days? It is a ridiculous state of affairs. I'm glad you're fixing it. It's years since these issues came to the fore, and I'm sure that your office, along with my office and all Centrelink offices, have dealt with this administrative burden and administrative nightmare on a regular basis in recent times. I understand firsthand the high level of pressure that families have been under since this government came in and began systematically putting pressure on, and defunding, Services Australia. While you defund Services Australia as well as put these administrative burdens on both Centrelink and families, it is little wonder that we end up back in this place needing to fix the crappy problems that you have put into our childcare system.
The fact that it took a pandemic to get more funding for Services Australia says a great deal. It also says a great deal that the government has cut millions of dollars from the department and then, as this bill highlights, set impossibly short processing times for them to approve applications for vital education for vulnerable families. What a short-sighted government! It shows a lack of the human element. It's supposed to be the department of human services, but you think that the system can somehow just keep up with understaffing and short administrative time lines. And where does the burden then fall? It falls on vulnerable families who can't possibly meet the bureaucratic funding expectations of the government. It's supposed to be a system that is there to serve them, but what you've done and what we're fixing today is the callousness and the poor management of this government. We warned the government—and the sector warned the government—that these changes would have a detrimental impact on vulnerable families, and this government chose to ignore it.
There was a 20 per cent collapse in the number of vulnerable children receiving the payment in the first six months of the new system. That is a disgrace. In the context of the aged-care disgrace, we have seen with blinding clarity that this government ignores and denies problems until they become bigger than Ben Hur. After months of submissions to the Senate inquiry highlighting the urgency of fixing the flaws in the policy, after months of the education department and the sector fighting to change the new system, the government finally acted. Finally, the debate on reversing this collapse is before the chamber today. I say: just get on and pass the bill. Get on and pass it.
Thanks to the department of education and the sector creating a working group, the bill before the Senate today does indeed reduce the administrative burden placed on both early learning providers and at-risk families. Providers now have the opportunity to enrol children in child protection under the name of the provider rather than that of the parent or the foster carer for up to 13 weeks while the paperwork is applied for. So I don't see any reason why the government needs to keep debating this issue today. Of course, if you're going to chew up the time then Labor senators are also going to want to point out—and I'm sure Greens senators will too—how ridiculous you are being in just not getting on with the business before the Senate.
These changes seem like an obvious decision to allow breathing space for people who already have enough on their plate. It's taken too long to get the government to the table to fix these issues. It shouldn't have taken months. I call on the government to stop making life harder for those who are already having a difficult time, both parents and children, and who are struggling. And I call on them not just with respect to child care but for all of the major challenges confronting our nation at the moment. Our children should not be constrained from getting an education and getting the care that they need. They should not be constrained from getting that care and support, thanks to the bureaucratic disgrace that this government has subjected those families to and the bureaucratic disgrace that this system was in its original form.
Labor understands that the childcare subsidy for child wellbeing is a very critical program. It provides a safe and nurturing learning environment for children in what can sometimes be extremely vulnerable situations at home, and for many children it's the difference between being able to stay at home with the support of their family who might need the respite to deal with their own issues or health issues. It can mean the difference between being able to stay with their family and going into the child protection system.
The government needs to play an active role in keeping children out of the child protection system and keeping children safe. For too long we've had this confected debate about child protection simply being a state responsibility and not a Commonwealth problem. But, as we see, the funding of our childcare system and access to services through child care play a critical role in keeping children out of child protection. The system must be treated with sensitivity, and we need to ensure that families and providers are not burdened with red tape. The most important people in this debate are those children. So we want the focus to be on them, not on the administrative burden and administrative time lines that this government has previously imposed.
In recent times, during the pandemic, it's been really obvious how important childcare workers are to our economy and what a struggle it is for families not to be able to put their child in child care—and I shouldn't just refer to it as child care because, importantly, it is early learning—which makes balancing life incredibly difficult. Families are now working from home, have their children at home with them, are juggling family conflict and have pressure on their family finances. I understand why children need to be kept out of the childcare system in some circumstances at the moment, but what it highlights to me is how critical early learning services are. For millions of families around Australia, the experience of COVID simply reminded them about how grateful they are to early childhood educators in our nation for the work, support and learning that they provide to our nation's children.
This is despite the fact that childcare workers are among the lowest-paid workers in our nation. They are 96 per cent women and they're paid as little as $22 an hour. When the pandemic hit and the free childcare initiative was brought in due to the importance of child care, again, ironically, free child care meant childcare workers were the ones to suffer and to lose their jobs. The government only subsidised 50 per cent of the cost of child care. This meant that the childcare providers were expected to run the same service plus deal with extra costs, including things like personal protective equipment. During a pandemic, it is patently ridiculous to be expected to be able to run an effective childcare service with, in some instances—as we certainly experienced in, say, the north west of Western Australia—exactly the same levels of demand taking place. In fact, there were childcare centres that simply closed because they could not afford to operate. People who are going to work—people who weren't staying at home because of the pandemic and who were required to go to work—simply couldn't get a place in the childcare system.
So—free child care. Yes, it was great, but only if you could get it and only if you were paid. Again, it highlights that this government creates a bureaucratic nightmare for families and workers in our early learning system day after day, with every move they make. We have seen childcare providers being forced to act as unpaid debt collectors for the government. This has happened because families have been struggling to stay on top of the complicated activity tests and means tests at the moment. So here today— (Time expired)
I thank Senator Pratt for raising the bureaucratic nightmare that we're seeing in my home state of Victoria—a bureaucratic nightmare that those on the other side seem to not only have a blind spot for but have turned a tin ear to as well. I've not heard anyone on that side acknowledge what is happening in Victoria. I find that disgraceful. As of today, 462 Victorians have lost their lives. There are over 3½ thousand active cases. What does that do—
Senator Pratt interjecting—
Really? Let's talk about the disaster that's happening in Victoria, Senator Pratt. There are over 14,000 people who have had coronavirus in Victoria. In stage 4 lockdown, people can't even put their children in child care. Your Labor premier has locked up the state so hard that people can't work. People are being put out of business. People are losing their livelihoods. So when you're saying, 'Let's look after people,' let's get on top of the coronavirus in Victoria. Let's get people out of lockdown. Let's let people get back to their lives, Senator Pratt. Let people get back to their livelihoods. Let's look after their businesses and look after their livelihoods, instead of rabbiting on about this.
I think that is my decision to make, thank you, Senator Smith. I am listening very carefully, and I do acknowledge that Senator Van has not yet addressed the bill, but I expect him to do that fairly soon, otherwise I'll remind him to address the bill in front of us.
I was talking about child care, and those families that can't get their children into child care because of the lockdown and the impacts it's having on Victorian businesses. Labor say lockdown works. We've been in stage 4 for three weeks already, we've been in stage 3 for over six weeks, and there are the hotspot suburbs that have been in lockdown for over 10 weeks. So, if this was going to work, it would be working better. Perhaps we should be concentrating on better testing and better contact tracing, because that's where the Labor premier, Dan Andrews, is failing Victorians.
I now am very pleased to speak on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Improving Assistance for Vulnerable and Disadvantaged Families) Bill 2020. Like all my colleagues on this side of the chamber, I recognise that good early child care provides the foundation for young Australians to grow and to learn and to form the confidence that they need for the future. During this government's time in office, we've invested heavily in making child care more affordable and more accessible for all Australian families. Just in the last financial year alone, we've invested over $8.6 billion into the sector, and you'll be pleased to hear, Madam Acting Deputy President Bilyk, that this will continue to rise. Over the coming years we will see this investment climb to more than $10 billion per year. But this is not just a large investment; this is a large investment that has ensured families right across the country are better off. This investment from the Morrison government has meant more families can now access child care, due to significant reductions in out-of-pocket expenses. A typical family is now better off to the tune of $1,300 per annum per child. In difficult times this is a tangible and welcome benefit to families. But more can always be done.
As I spoke about last night, my home state of Victoria is dealing with a state of disaster. Every day I get calls from distraught business owners, who are mothers and fathers, who are suffering because of lockdowns that have been brought about in Victoria due to the state of disaster because of the disastrous handling of the coronavirus by the Andrews government. With lockdowns, we've seen, comes business shutdown, and with that comes rising unemployment. It is, therefore, vital that we get the policy settings right to assist those who are struggling to keep their businesses afloat and those families who are struggling to make ends meet. The Morrison government's primary aim at the moment is to support families through the COVID-19 crisis. As part of that, we are supporting the childcare sector, ensuring that quality early childcare education and care is available to vulnerable and disadvantaged children and their families.
In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the Morrison government initiated the childcare relief package, which has seen around 99 per cent of childcare providers keep their doors open. I'm sure all in here will agree this is a huge achievement and something this government should be proud of. This relief package not only supported families during the early stages of the pandemic but also supported the work of childcare centre staff, ensuring that they stayed in work. Since 13 July, the childcare transition package has included a payment of 25 per cent of a provider's pre-COVID revenue. This transition package has continued to support childcare centres right across the country. In particular, centres in my home state of Victoria have benefited from additional support to the tune of an extra five per cent, in response to the situation that we are facing. I thank Minister Tehan, Treasurer Frydenberg and Prime Minister Morrison for making these additional supports available. As you can see, Madam Deputy President, the introduction of this bill clearly demonstrates that, with the return of the demand-driven childcare subsidy system in July, the Morrison government is committed to improving access to child care for vulnerable and disadvantaged children and their families.
The Morrison government pride ourselves on our pragmatism. We listen to the experts, and we are willing to address matters following feedback, because that is what good governments do. This bill is no different in that regard. This bill has been drafted specifically to address feedback from the childcare sector. Following the new childcare package implementation that occurred on 2 July 2018, and, more recently, in submissions to the Senate inquiry into the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Building on the Child Care Package) Bill, stakeholders raised areas where improvements could be made to streamline access to additional childcare subsidies. This bill does just that.
The additional childcare subsidy is part of the childcare safety net. It is designed to give the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children in Australia a strong start through access to quality early childcare education and care. The additional childcare subsidy provides additional fee assistance to an individual or, in limited circumstances, to a provider for children at risk of serious abuse or neglect. This subsidy will ensure these children will continue to have access to child care, something that I am sure all senators will agree is a good thing.
This bill also seeks to reduce unnecessary red tape for providers, families and state and territory governments by extending the backdating of additional childcare subsidy certificates and determinations from 28 days to 13 weeks in exceptional circumstances; by extending from 13 weeks to 12 months the period for which additional childcare subsidy determinations can be given for children on a long-term child protection order, including those in foster care; and by clarifying that a provider is eligible for additional childcare subsidy in respect of certain defined classes of children, such as foster children. The additional childcare subsidy is a top-up payment in addition to the usual childcare subsidy. In 2018-19, the Morrison government paid almost $50 million in additional childcare subsidy, which supported 21,500 vulnerable and disadvantaged children and their families to cover childcare costs. All senators, and all Australians, should be proud of the contribution that we are making to the next generation of Australians.
In closing, I'd like to take this opportunity to thank childcare educators, both the owners of childcare centres and their teams—their teachers, nurses, cleaners and admin staff—for the outstanding work they do each and every day. Specifically, I would like to acknowledge the educators in Victoria, who have continued to provide high-quality support to children and families through the COVID-19 crisis. Our communities across the country are stronger for the work that childcare educators do. I know that sometimes they are looking after kids who, sadly, come from very difficult circumstances. Childcare educators are, for many of those kids, the ones they are closest to, the ones who provide the care they need and the ones who provide the few hours a day of normal life that children need to thrive. They are the ones who provide the time when children can really be children and not deal with the issues they face at home on a daily basis.
We've all heard of the 'blind pandemic' that's going on. This blind pandemic is not just family violence; it's suicide and it's depression. These are things people are struggling with every day across Australia but particularly, right now, in my home state of Victoria. We need to lift the lockdowns and get on top of health care in Victoria. Victoria needs to do better when it comes to contact tracing and better when it comes to testing. It needs to do more so that people's lives are returned to them—so that businesses can return to normal, so that employees can go back to work and earn money, so that children can go to school and child care and live normal lives. I call on the Andrews government to do more, to do better. Children in Victoria, the people of Victoria, deserve it. They really deserve it and they deserve it now. We're not seeing numbers come down fast enough. With less than another three weeks to go, it's hard to see how the Andrews government, because of their failures, will have any other choice but to use the one tool that they find available to them: all they have to resort to is locking down Victorians.
So it's time, if we care for our children, to get their lives back to normal, and we can only do this through better processes in contact tracing, in testing and, of course, let's not forget looking after people in hotel quarantine. The failures there are why we're in this position now, make no mistake about that; the failure in contact tracing is the added part to that. We've seen outbreaks in other states but they've managed to contain them. New South Wales provides the gold standard as to how to do contact tracing in a coronavirus pandemic—
Thank you, Madam Deputy President. With all due respect, of course, I think it's impossible for Senator Van to talk about this particular piece of legislation, which is deliberately constructed because of the context of the pandemic that is the coronavirus, and not mention the pandemic and the coronavirus. So I think that Senator Van is in keeping with the expectations of—
Yes. I was certainly not seeking to curtail his time. I'm asking him that in the remaining minutes to please confine his remarks, however broadly he wants, to the bill in front of us, which is the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Improving Assistance for Vulnerable and Disadvantaged Families) Bill 2020. Thank you, Senator Van.
Thank you. I will conclude here by saying that for many children, childcare educators are the best people in their lives. But for them to resume a normal life and to be able to go to child care because their parents are back at work is one of the most important things we can do. I think all senators would agree with that and I call on the senators for Victoria on the other side to join with me in calling on the Victorian government to do more to get people back to work. Thank you.
Today, I'd like to make a contribution with regard to the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Improving Assistance for Vulnerable and Disadvantaged Families) Bill 2020.
Earlier this week we marked the second anniversary of the elevation of Scott Morrison to the leadership of the Liberal Party. Over 12 months ago—
Absolutely, Senator Smith! Congratulations all round on fabulous leadership by our Prime Minister—and of course well supported by the Treasurer, in Josh Frydenberg. Since that time, and since the election just over 12 months ago, Australians have consistently breathed a sigh of relief that it is once again the Morrison government charged with leading us through this pandemic and these unprecedented times. That's why I'm proud that our government has always, and very strongly, supported families and the childcare sector, both before and also during this pandemic—through this COVID crisis.
One of the things that I think we should all be very, very proud of and where we should give the credit where it is due—to the Prime Minister, Mr Frydenberg and the wonderful efforts of the leadership team—is that a staggering 99 per cent of childcare services in Australia have not ceased operation since the pandemic began. Let me just make that point again because I'm not quite sure those opposite fully understand this: 99 per cent of childcare services in Australia have not ceased operation since the pandemic began. This must be unique in so many ways to the childcare sector. Very few industries and organisations haven't been dramatically impacted by COVID. It's the incredible work and leadership by the Morrison government that has ensured that this number of centres have been able to remain viable.
This incredible achievement is so important for a huge number of reasons. It's not just that the service providers, organisations and families, as they are quite often small family businesses, are still operating. It's ensuring that families are able to keep working, that mums and dads can get their children where they need to be in safe childcare centres that they choose whilst they go to work. It's keeping Australia working and getting Australians back to work as we come out of COVID that is going to ensure that our economy can recover. So we need to make sure that not only are the childcare centres still operating but families are able to go to work and our incredibly precious resource that is our children can enjoy uninterrupted learning, consistent care and, most importantly of all, play.
The aim of this bill and the amendments in it is to ensure that care is available to the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children and their families. I can assure you, having spent a number of years living in a town called Moree, which, by any stretch of the imagination, has every sort of socioeconomic group and is certainly very familiar with children who are at risk and very vulnerable, that it was quite often the childcare centres that offered children the opportunity to go somewhere stable every day. It was often in a family day-care setting or in a childcare centre setting where they received the most consistent care in an environment that was secure and safe for them, which was something that was unfortunately not always the case in their own homes. So this is ensuring that children of families that are vulnerable and disadvantaged are still getting opportunities, being exposed to peer play, exposed to early literature and getting to understand from other children and teachers how to participate in a learning environment. It is incredibly important that these families are front and centre of what we do and that we make sure that those families who rely on childcare benefits to keep their children in care are able to access them and able to do so as easily as possible.
As I've mentioned today, under the childcare relief package, around 99 per cent of childcare providers have kept their doors open. I think it's important to note that this financial year we will spend more than $9.4 billion on childcare services support. It's record funding, yet those opposite still can never ever acknowledge that. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if we start hearing about a cut, because I'm not sure their maths ever add up. It is an absolute record volume of spending and funding going into this important and precious resource, and it's needed. These once-in-a-generation reforms have delivered a significant reduction in out-of-pocket costs to parents. Since our package was introduced, more parents have had greater access and greater financial support. It's available to those who need it most.
There are over one million Australians who are balancing work and parenting. In fact, an increasing number of them work in this building and have travelled here to Canberra to work and contribute to our country—parliamentarians.
Exactly as Senator Smith acknowledges, there are plenty of parents who are parliamentarians working from home on Zoom calls but who have children in child care. Their children deserve that consistency of care, as do all children. It is all those one million Australians who are balancing work and parenting who are benefiting from the package.
What I think is incredible to note—and this is when we hear from the other side those decrying the cost of child care and saying that everything should be free; I'm not sure who's ever going to pay for it, but that's not part of their logic—is that around 72 per cent of parents pay no more than $5 per hour in day-care costs. But it's also important to note that 24 per cent pay no more than $2 an hour. The Morrison government has brought these significant reforms to the childcare sector—some the most significant reforms in the past 40 years.
I'd also like to acknowledge the work of the Morrison government in that we have prevented $3 billion of taxpayers' money from being claimed fraudulently. At the forefront of all of these considerations that we must keep in mind is that this is taxpayers' money. These subsidies are taxpayers' money, and we need to make sure that they are being spent wisely and that they are accounted for but also that they are going to those who require them most.
Since 13 July 2020, our transition package, including a payment of 25 per cent of a provider's pre-COVID revenue, has supported centres around Australia. Recently, thanks to Premier Andrews, we saw a mismanagement of quarantine, perhaps, in the state of Victoria—we saw a second wave—meaning that parents are no longer able to go to work as they face another lockdown, and those centres are therefore vacant of children who are locked in their homes. But those centres in Victoria have benefited from additional support in response to this current situation.
The bill clearly shows that, following the return to a demand driven childcare subsidy on 13 July 2020, we are continuing to remain committed to improving access to child care, especially for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. Of course, as Liberals we are committed in every sector—across all industries but especially here—to cutting the red tape for families and childcare providers. By cutting that red tape, the impact for providers and families will ensure that we have improved access to services for vulnerable children—those who require it most.
The additional childcare subsidy is a top-up payment to the childcare subsidy. The Australian government has paid almost $50 million in the additional childcare subsidy (child wellbeing) to cover childcare costs for 21,500 children in the 2018-19 period, but we are still working to support this sector. The good news is that the determination for period of time a provider can apply for additional subsidy rates will be extended from 13 weeks to up to 12 months for children who are under a long-term protection order, such as those in foster care—and I think we can probably all agree that they are some of our most vulnerable and disadvantaged children. This change recognises the support vulnerable children need over longer periods.
Other amendments will enable providers to backdate families' additional childcare subsidy beyond the current limit of 28 days—and up to 13 weeks in exceptional circumstances. Childcare providers will also be able to enrol children who are in foster care under additional childcare subsidy arrangements for an initial period of 13 weeks, giving individual foster families sufficient time to lodge their childcare subsidy claim and to have it assessed by Services Australia. Of course, Services Australia has increased its productivity under the leadership of Minister Stuart Robert, and we look forward to that continuing as he continues to roll out improvements across Services Australia. There are existing provisions where providers are required to notify Services Australia when a child is no longer considered to be at risk. This will continue to apply, ensuring we maintain the targeted approach that we apply to all sorts of payments across our welfare system.
I will talk about a few more technical aspects of this important bill. The bill will amend provisions relating to the additional childcare subsidy as well as the childcare subsidy in the A New Tax System (Family Assistance) Act 1999 and the A New Tax System (Family Assistance) (Administration) Act 1999. The additional childcare subsidy (child wellbeing) provides additional childcare fee assistance to an individual or a provider in limited circumstances—for children that are at risk of serious abuse and neglect.
The bill was drafted after the Morrison government took on feedback from the childcare sector. I think something that cannot be stressed enough are the consultations conducted across the sector to ensure that this bill and its amendments are best suited to those who provide these services and the families that utilise them. Stakeholders have raised areas where improvements can be made, streamlining access to additional childcare services as they relate to child wellbeing. The sector and parents reached out to the Morrison government and we've listened, as we are prone to do.
These amendments are all in the context of the new childcare package implementation that occurred on 2 July 2018 and, more recently, in submissions to the Senate inquiry into the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Building on the Child Care Package) Bill 2019. I'm pleased to address this important bill which provides extra support to our most vulnerable Australian children.
Since the start of the pandemic, we've invested $708 million in a transition package. This is on top of the $8.9 billion per year in childcare subsidy payments. Childcare fees have been capped and providers have been required to guarantee employment levels by maintaining the same average number of staff. We're relaxing the activity test until 4 October 2020 to assist families whose employment has been impacted by COVID-19. Families that have been impacted by the pandemic may receive up to 100 hours of subsidised care per fortnight during the transition period. The Morrison government has committed to waiving the gap for those services forced to close on public health advice as a result of COVID-19 and we've extended the waiver until 31 December.
Now we come back to Victoria, as it experiences this second wave. We need to acknowledge that the Morrison government has provided Victoria with an additional $33 million of support. Melbourne services will receive a higher transition payment of 30 per cent and they may also be eligible for a top-up where childcare subsidies received are low and they have greatly reduced attendances because families are experiencing a prolonged lockdown. Victorian families will get an extra 30 days of allowable absences, bringing their total to 72 days.
Hopefully, the 72 days and Premier Andrews's grab for power for the next 12 months don't come to fruition and things will be allowed to get back to normal—people will be allowed to get back to work as restrictions ease and therefore children will be able to return to child care. Childcare services subject to stage 3 or higher can waive gap fees if children aren't attending and absences are claimed, allowing enrolments to be maintained and the childcare subsidy to be paid. Outside-hours school services in Victoria will receive an additional viability support payment of 15 per cent of their revenue if attendance falls by 40 per cent. On average, the government expects that services in Melbourne will receive between 80 and 85 per cent of their pre-COVID revenue. Whilst I've no doubt we will see this decried from the opposition benches, I am sure there are plenty of travel and hospitality businesses—particularly in the 'Republic of Palaszczuk' and over in the 'Republic of WA', although I don't even think we can call it the 'Republic of WA' anymore when they're putting electronic bracelets on quarantined people—that would love to ensure their revenue remained at 80 to 85 per cent. But, of course, that is not the case.
I would like to congratulate the Morrison government on bringing forward these amendments and ensuring all children have access to child care. (Time expired)
As a former early childhood educator for over a decade, I have extensive experience working in the early childhood education and care system and with the children of vulnerable and disadvantaged families.
The Additional Child Care Subsidy, or ACCS (child wellbeing), is an important program that provides additional support for children who are at risk of abuse or neglect, including children who experience domestic and family violence. The payment can make the difference between children being able to stay at home or going into the child protection system. Because of the unique circumstances of families receiving the ACCS (child wellbeing) payment, they are exempt from the activity test and their providers receive a subsidy equal to the actual fee charged by the service—up to 120 per cent of the childcare subsidy hourly fee cap.
When the new childcare subsidy system started in July 2018, new requirements were imposed on providers and families trying to claim ACCS (child wellbeing). These changes included: reducing the initial approval period from 13 weeks to six weeks; approving eligibility certificates for only 13-week periods; only allowing 28 days of backdating ACCS payments; and deeming that any applications not approved by Centrelink in 28 days be refused.
Labor warned the government that these changes in the early-childhood education sector would have a detrimental impact on families. The government, of course, ignored these warnings, and within six months the number of vulnerable families accessing this payment collapsed by 20 per cent. Ever since these changes were made, the sector has been calling on the Morrison government to fix this red-tape nightmare. Unfortunately, the government spent many months with their heads in the sand over this issue, and as a result it's taken a long time to reverse the decline.
The department of education told Senate estimates that they were not concerned about the drop in the number of families accessing the payment; nor were they tracking whether families had dropped out of the system. I wouldn't be surprised if the decline in accessing the payment, a measure that supports at-risk and vulnerable children, resulted in an increase in demand for other support services. Even more worrying—and this especially concerns me as a long-time campaigner against child abuse and neglect—is the possibility that this resulted in worse outcomes for the children concerned. I'm completely baffled that the government would not be concerned about the decline in the number of families accessing the payment and not monitoring the impact it has on vulnerable and at-risk families, and those children in particular. While the number of children and families accessing the subsidy has reached the level it was at when the childcare changes were made, this was in part thanks to a significant effort and commitment of resources from providers. More needs to be done to reduce this red-tape burden for families.
This bill makes changes in a number of areas that will reduce the administrative burden on providers and at-risk families while providing greater financial security to these families. Providers will be able to enrol children in foster care under the name of the provider rather than that of a parent or foster carer for up to 13 weeks while the parent or foster carer is applying for a Centrelink reference number and childcare subsidy. This will help the transition for children in foster care when they enrol with a provider or move between foster care arrangements. Providers will be able to apply for ACCS to be back paid for up to 13 weeks instead of the previous four weeks. Providers will be able to request ACCS determinations for up to 12 months for children on long-term child protection orders or in foster care, up from the previous 13 weeks. Finally, the calculation method used when family circumstances change during a year for circumstances such as the separation of parents or the death of a parent or parents will be changed to ensure that CCS eligibility more accurately reflects the new circumstances and the CCS payments.
These are positive changes, and Labor will support them. Like my Labor colleagues, I welcome any reduction in the administrative burden on families who are relying on early-childhood education and care. Unfortunately, many of the recent changes made by the government have actually increased the red-tape burden for families accessing child care. And, for a government that likes to trumpet its credentials when it comes to red-tape reduction, its changes to the childcare subsidy are an indelible stain on its record. The new system introduces complicated activities and means tests. It forces childcare providers to act as unpaid debt collectors for the government. It is riddled with software glitches and raises childcare subsidy debts without any explanation.
The government's childcare system is not only complicated and administratively burdensome but, for families and providers, it's also expensive. Australia has some of the highest out-of-pocket childcare expenses in the world, and they have been rising rapidly under this government. Childcare fees have increased by 7.2 per cent in the 12 months to December last year, which adds up to an increase of 34 per cent since the Liberals came to power. This represents an average additional cost of $3,800 per year per family.
While Australia's childcare system already confronts families with some of the highest out-of-pocket expenses in the world, the Morrison government has introduced a system that leaves one in four families worse off. That's 279,000 families for whom access to child care has become a greater strain on the family budget because of the changes made by those opposite. Is it any wonder that those opposite have gone silent on their claims that their new system would put downward pressure on fees and that they were driving down the cost of child care? No. But that is what the government were claiming at the time they introduced their new system: that it would put downward pressure on fees and drive down the cost of child care. Well, you don't hear those claims from them now—because they're not true.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government proudly trumpeted their free childcare policy but failed to adequately fund it in a way that provides enough childcare places to meet demand or that ensures the viability of providers. This has left many families without access to child care, while some providers have had to struggle to stay afloat. Instead of fixing the mess they have made, the government have now broken their promise to continue providing JobKeeper to early childhood educators until September, and 'snapped back' to the old childcare system last month. A survey commissioned by The Front Project before the childcare snapback predicted the disastrous impact that it would have on family budgets during the recession. In responding to the survey, 57 per cent of families said that childcare fees impact their social spending, 55 per cent said that the fees impact their grocery budgets and 35 per cent said the fees impact where they choose to live. Out-of-pocket childcare costs were already having a massive impact on family budgets prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that Australia is in the midst of a recession, this snapback has put further pressure on families that are already struggling through the loss of work and reduction in household incomes.
When I think about Senator Rennick's comments in the chamber earlier this year, I'm hardly surprised that the childcare system under this government is so expensive and so complicated. Should we be surprised if it's the attitude of those opposite that parents should just stay home? According to Senator Rennick, that's the ideal for parents of preschool aged children: not engaging in work, not having their children receiving the developmental benefits of quality early childhood education and not balancing work and family commitments but staying at home with your kids—which is fine if you can afford to do it and choose to do it, and I'll speak more about that a bit later on. But it's of little surprise that Australia's childcare system is expensive and complicated and that subsidised early childhood education is seen as—and I quote Senator Rennick—'the hand of government reaching in and stealing our children's youth'.
I remind those opposite that, as yet, not one of you on that side of the chamber has challenged Senator Rennick's remarks nor sought to disassociate the government from them. Unless you do—and the debate on this bill is a perfect opportunity for you—then you own them. I call on those opposite; in fact, I challenge them, any one of them, to stand up for working parents and stand up for early childhood education and state, loudly and proudly, that Senator Rennick's comments do not reflect the views of the modern Liberal Party. If you fail to do that, this is the message it sends to the community: it tells early childhood educators—of which I was one for over a decade, as I said—that their work is not valued. It tells educators that, instead of playing a valuable role in contributing to the learning and development of children, they're holding them back. It tells working parents that, by participating in the workforce and placing their children in formal care, they are failing their children. The views that Senator Rennick expressed previously in the chamber belong way back in the past, and the failure of those opposite to reject those outdated views is an implicit endorsement of them by the Morrison government.
By contrast, the senators on this side of the chamber all value early childhood education and care. As a former educator myself, I know that it can make an enormous contribution to the physical, social, psychological and emotional development of children. That's not just a view I've formed from personal experience. It's backed up by the studies, both in Australia and overseas. Unlike Senator Rennick, I do not see government subsidised childcare as 'the hand of government reaching in and stealing our children's youth'. What an outrageous slur against early childhood educators. These comments are also a slur against working parents.
When Senator Rennick says that early childhood education is stealing our children's youth—and that's a direct quote—he implies that working parents with preschool-age children are complicit in this alleged theft. But parents should not be made to feel guilty because they choose to use early childhood services or choose to work instead of being stay-at-home parents. Being a stay-at-home parent is a legitimate choice, but it's just as legitimate a choice as pursuing a career. Surely a good parent, should they choose to, can balance their career and family life and still have a strong, productive relationship with their children. Let's not forget that not every parent has a choice. Not every parent can afford to stay home with their children. It's the height of hypocrisy for Senator Rennick to say that his party supports choice but then to delegitimise the choice of parents to work while having their children cared for and educated by trained professionals.
Attitudes such as Senator Rennick's are also a setback in the advancement of women's equality. Affordable quality early childhood education and care are key reasons why so many women in particular have been able to participate in the workforce. We know that women take on a disproportionate share of childminding responsibilities and that support, such as subsidised childcare, is a big driver when it comes to women's workforce participation and equal pay. Why is it that no-one, not one person, on that side will stand up and challenge Senator Rennick's out-of-touch and outdated views? Is it because those on the other side are too spineless to do so, or do you actually agree that Australia should be dragged back into the middle of last century?
I don't hold out much hope that those on the other side will challenge these comments, because their frontbench in the other place have already maligned the public funding of early childhood education and care. The Minister for Education, Mr Tehan, has described it as communism and the Prime Minister has referred to the childcare budget as a money pit. Well, that tells us a lot. Attitudes such as those demonstrate that the government sees early childhood education and care as an unnecessary cost. They do not see it as an investment in the learning and development of children or as a means of supporting parents to participate in the workforce. They do not value the enormous benefits it provides to Australia's economy or to the learning and development of our children.
In conclusion, I would like to take this opportunity to thank all early childhood educators for their work, particularly during the pandemic. It's been a difficult time for all educators as they've faced multiple challenges and changes to childcare policy and they've dealt with rapid fluctuations in attendance. Despite the ongoing uncertainty facing the sector, educators have continued to focus on the development and wellbeing of the children in their care and have continued to deliver high-quality early learning. I know they will continue to do so.
As I said earlier, this bill makes changes which improve assistance for the vulnerable and disadvantaged, and Labor will support it; however, the bill does not go far enough towards fixing the expensive, complicated and burdensome childcare system that this government is so intent on presiding over.
I rise today to speak on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Improving Assistance for Vulnerable and Disadvantaged Families) Bill 2020. The bill has been drafted to address feedback from the childcare sector. It was one of the most common inquiries from stakeholder groups that I received when the raft of COVID-19 assistance packages came out. Stakeholders have raised areas where improvements can be made to streamline access to additional childcare subsidy in the context of the new childcare package implementation that occurred on 2 July 2018 and, more recently, in the submissions to the Senate inquiry into the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Building on the Child Care Package) Bill 2019.
The Morrison-McCormack government's primary aim is to support families and the childcare sector during the COVID-19 crisis to ensure that quality early childhood education and care is available to vulnerable and disadvantaged children and families.
Let me just say that I believe having children is a choice, and a choice that brings with it responsibility—responsibility to be financially, legally and morally responsible for those children. Having children doesn't necessarily benefit society, yet society is increasingly being expected to bear out the responsibility for them. Our Greens friends over there, who keep scaremongering about the climate crisis and screaming for us all to live in mud huts in the dark and cold, neglect to address the single biggest driver of climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, habitat destruction and species extinction in the world, and that is overpopulation. So instead of blaming us for all the evils on the planet and calling for us to live like hairy, tree-climbing primates, perhaps they should turn their attention to what is contributing to our world population at an escalating rate.
Having said that, however, I acknowledge and recognise that families are a vitally important part of the fabric of our society. Particularly in Australia, families are something that we all treasure and value immensely. If parents and families abdicate their responsibilities, our society dictates that the government will step in and make sure that people aren't neglected and disadvantaged. This government takes its responsibilities very seriously and continually excels in looking after Australian families and businesses.
Let me take us back to a decision that seemed like a good one at the time but which has had long-term unintended consequences for the Northern Territory. The payment that came to be known as the baby bonus was introduced by the Howard government in 2004. It was then called the maternity payment and it was a non-means-tested lump sum replacement of the first child tax rebate and the maternity allowance. I love the work of the former PM and his revolutionary government, but this decision was a bad one for the Northern Territory. It immediately came to be seen not as a baby bonus but as a 'buy things and spend it on yourself' bonus by many young girls. Many immediately began having one baby after another just for the $5,000 cash bonus. These babies were frequently handed over to grandparents and other relatives to raise.
Sales of big-screen TVs, PlayStations, mobile phones and, yes, drugs and alcohol boomed. Very little, if any, of this bonus was actually spent on the vulnerable children. These baby bonus babies are now teenagers and have contributed in some cases to a generation of breakers. Towns such as Katherine, Tennant Creek and Alice Springs are suffering from an unprecedented plague of youth crime. Gangs of kids as young as nine are running unchecked through town, day and night, breaking, rock throwing, assaulting people and burning down buildings and public infrastructure.
Our shambolic NT Labor government is standing by haplessly and literally watching the NT crumble and burn. I speak regularly with the Mayor of Tennant Creek, Steve Edgington, and he continually informs me of the spiralling scourge of youth crime in his town. He told me just a few weeks ago that the town's only supermarket was burnt down by a gang of 12- and 13-year-old girls. These are not bad kids; they have just been failed by their parents and the system. Many of them have FASD, little education, and poor or absent parenting, and they don't see anything positive in their futures. It is imperative that we do not repeat this process and in 10 years time end up with a generation of COVID-problem youth.
That is one of the many reasons that this government is listening continually to advice and providing support where it's needed. In this case, this bill has been drafted to address feedback from the childcare sector. Stakeholders have raised areas where improvements can be made to streamline access to additional childcare subsidy in the context of the new childcare package implementation that occurred on 2 July 2018. In the Northern Territory, childcare and early educators rely heavily on workers who are not covered by JobKeeper, such as temporary visa holders and casuals who have not been working for them for 12 months. This is a feature in general of the NT's itinerant workforce. These changes will address that issue and support childcare providers and early childhood educators.
The Australian government paid almost $50 million in additional childcare subsidies to cover childcare costs for 21,500 children in 2018-2019. The bill will cut the red tape that's impacting upon providers, families and governments, improving access to services for vulnerable children. It will do this by extending the backdating of the additional childcare subsidy certificates and determinations from 28 days to up to 13 weeks in exceptional circumstances. This, importantly, helps provide care for children under a long-term protection order, like children in foster care. The bill will also extend from 13 weeks to up to 12 months the period that additional subsidy determination can be given for children on long-term child protection orders, including, again, those in foster care, and it will clarify that a provider is eligible for the additional subsidy in respect of certain defined classes of children. Again, children in foster care would fall under this.
These changes recognise the support that vulnerable children need over longer periods, and I particularly welcome these changes in the Northern Territory where, sadly, our children face significant adversity. A recent Productivity Commission report found that children in the Northern Territory are more likely than Australian children overall to come into contact with the child protection system and face higher rates of socioeconomic disadvantage, depriving them of the best start in life. This isn't new. It is well documented in the Territory that a history of family and domestic violence and lower socioeconomic status are compounded by isolation, particularly in rural and remote communities, and this contributes to a higher risk of a child being vulnerable to neglect and mistreatment. Children in our isolated communities are also less likely to access the care and early education they need, which places them at significant disadvantage alongside children from areas with ample access to care and early education.
In the NT, most childcare centres are small, family run, not-for-profit or solo operator run businesses. They rely heavily on workers not covered by JobKeeper. This is a feature that we are faced with generally in the Northern Territory, and these changes will address that issue. It is important to note that two-thirds of funding for early childhood education in the NT comes from the federal government, and I thank this government for the provision of that funding for NT families and children and small businesses. I applaud our government for this measure to help keep our children safe and ensure they receive the care and early childhood education they desperately need, at the same time providing support to many of our small businesses and solo operators.
Under our COVID-19 childcare relief package, around 99 per cent of childcare providers were able to keep their doors open. The coalition government is providing record levels of funding in child care. We are committed to quality, affordable child care, particularly as we navigate COVID-19. Since 13 July, our transition package, including a payment of 25 per cent of a provider's pre-COVID revenue, has supported centres around Australia, including in the Northern Territory. This bill demonstrates our commitment to improving access to child care for vulnerable and disadvantaged children and families and to cutting red tape for families and childcare providers.
I would also like to mention the outstanding result achieved by the Country Liberal Party in last Saturday's Northern Territory election. Going into the election, the Country Liberal Party held two seats. With one of those members retiring, this was effectively one. Whilst counting is continuing as I speak, the CLP looks to have secured five seats and possibly up to eight. This is not only a magnificent achievement by the CLP; it is a reflection of Labor's disastrous management of a decimated economy and complete loss of control of law and order. It is also confirmation of this federal government's performance generally and with respect to COVID with legislation such as this. This government supports families and supports a strong and vibrant childcare sector.
I rise today to speak on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Improving Assistance for Vulnerable and Disadvantaged Families) Bill 2020, which was introduced into the House of Representatives on 26 February this year. This bill seeks to amend several acts relating to the additional childcare subsidy and the childcare subsidy. As we've heard, it will extend the backdating of additional childcare subsidy certificates and determinations from the current period of 28 days to up to 13 weeks in prescribed exceptional circumstances, and extend the period from 13 weeks to up to 12 months to allow a determination to be made for certain prescribed classes of children, such as children on a long-term child protection order, including those in foster care.
Additionally, the A New Tax System (Family Assistance) (Administration) Act 1999 will be amended to correct minor technical drafting errors to modify the calculation used at childcare subsidy balancing for individuals that change their relationship status through partnering, separating or bereavement during the year. The changes will bring the calculation into line with other government payments. The calculation method proposed in the bill will ensure families' childcare subsidy entitlements are fair, consistent and accurate. It will reflect the family's financial circumstances throughout the year by recognising periods when they were single with their own income or partnered with a combined income, and the actual incomes associated with those periods.
Lastly, the bill makes two minor technical amendments to add clarity. These amendments will provide exceptions where the secretary may vary the approval of a childcare provider to remove the service and will correct the omission of the civil penalty amount in section 204K(5).
This bill has been drafted to address feedback from the childcare sector. Stakeholders have raised areas where improvements can be made to streamline access to additional childcare subsidy in relation to the new childcare package implementation that occurred on 2 July 2018 and, more recently, in submissions to the Senate inquiry into the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Building on the Child Care Package) Bill 2019. Additional childcare subsidy is part of the childcare safety net giving the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children a strong start through access to quality early childhood education and care. Additional childcare subsidy is a top-up payment in additional to childcare subsidy. The Australian government paid almost $50 million in additional childcare subsidies to cover childcare costs for 21,500 children in 2018-19.
This government's primary aim is to support families and the childcare sector during the COVID-19 crisis. We want to ensure quality early childhood education and care is available to vulnerable and disadvantaged children and families. As Australians return to work, businesses reopen and children return to classroom learning, the government resumed the childcare subsidy to support families to continue to access affordable child care.
Under the childcare relief package which was announced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the Minister for Education, Dan Tehan, in early April, around 99 per cent of childcare providers kept their doors open throughout this pandemic. Around one million families received free child care during the coronavirus pandemic under the Australian government's plan to support families and help the early childhood education and care sector. Like for so many of us here in this place, early in the outbreak of COVID-19 childcare concerns of both parents and providers were—