Family Assistance Legislation Amendment Bill 2020

24 August 2020 - House of Representatives

Mr DICK (Oxley) (12:37): I am pleased to speak on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Improving Assistance for Vulnerable and Disadvantaged Families) Bill 2020. Like many of my colleagues on this side of the House, I take early childhood education very seriously, particularly now, when our nation is dealing with the first recession in 30 years, huge unemployment rises and a dislocation in our economy. More than ever, we need to make sure, when we sit in this place and come to Canberra, that we get the policy settings right so that people who are struggling to get a job, or people who are in the workforce at the moment and are struggling to hold onto their job, have as much support as this nation can give them.

As we've heard, Labor will be supporting this bill, and I also support strongly the second reading amendment moved by the shadow minister, the member for Kingston, which has to do with a whole range of surrounding issues that it is incumbent upon this parliament to listen to, to deal with and, hopefully, to take action on when it comes to early education. We know that child care is increasingly becoming unaffordable under this government. We know that fees have soared in the last year. We know that child care is becoming more and more unaffordable, particularly in regard to women in the workforce and those considering returning to the workforce. It could potentially be a handbrake on Australia's economic recovery.

The final point in today's second reading amendment is to highlight how this government has treated early childhood educators—particularly the disgraceful way that they have been treated, with such little respect, as to JobSeeker and JobKeeper. We all know that the Prime Minister is pretty loose with his words from time to time. We had one promise, and then, three days later, we saw the JobKeeper program announced and educators ripped aside, ripped apart, due to the disrespectful nature of this Prime Minister.

When I spoke about this new system when it was announced in 2018, I pointed out that we were aware, and I warned and the Leader of the Opposition and Labor warned, that the changes would leave one in four families worse off. That's what was projected under the government's changes. Now they're not better but worse off. My electorate and the electorate of the member for Rankin in Queensland have had the worst impacts as a result of these changes. That's in my home state of Queensland. Across Australia, 330,000 families have been worse off and a further 126,000 would be no better off. So we're looking at around half a million families that would be worse off or no better off.

What do we see when we look at this government's approach to early educators and child care? Cuts, cuts, cuts. As the opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, mentioned when we last gathered in this House, roughly 10 weeks ago, we saw the withdrawal of child care. The week before that, it was the $720 million cost of robodebt, which we now know was an illegal scheme imposed on more than 300,000 Australians. The week before that, it was the $60 billion accounting error. We're seeing, time and time again, more and more mistakes.

What we really need, and what we really have needed from the government, is a transition plan, rather than the snapback plan they have delivered for early education in this country. The additional child care subsidy for child wellbeing is a vital program that provides a safe and nurturing learning environment for children in extremely vulnerable situations at home.

I often tune in when the minister is delivering his remarks or in the limited opportunities when they take him out of witness protection and let him speak on early education—that's when he's not trying to dismantle our higher education system—and he bangs on about how they have a so-called plan for the future and a plan to keep everybody safe, a plan to keep the country moving forward. How often have we heard the old saying, 'We're all in this together'? Well, we are—except if you have a disability or are a teacher or an Indigenous Australian, or you're poor, unemployed, an artist, an asylum seeker, young or old, or an early educator. We're all in it together—but apart from those people!

So we know that, even when the government try to spin it that they are doing something in the early education space, the facts speak for themselves. When you look at the record of child care under this government, it's a system that's 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 has left staff without pay—and I will come back to that in a moment. It sends out blunt letters telling families they owe the government money, without any explanation. So far, 91,000 families, or 16 per cent of all families audited, 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.

We know that childcare fees are already out of control in the new system. The latest CPI figures show that childcare costs increased by about 1.9 per cent back in the December quarter—the fourth successive increase—and have now gone up 7.2 per cent in the 12-month period. Let's put it on record: fees under this third-term Morrison government are now 34 per cent higher than when those opposite first came into government.

What does this mean in a practical sense for families living in the south-western suburbs of Brisbane and Ipswich? Families are now paying, on average, $3,800 a year more for early education and care under this government. We were told by the minister and by everyone else in the government that they were very confident the new system would 'put downward pressure on fees' and that they were 'driving down the cost of child care'. If 'downward pressure' on fees means $3,800 a year more for early education and child care, I'd hate to see what driving down the cost of child care would be.

As I mentioned, when the new system started in 2018 the government introduced new requirements on providers and families trying to claim the ACCS. The federal opposition warned that the changes would have a detrimental impact on vulnerable families, which the government ignored and which has now come to pass. We know we've seen a 21 per cent drop in children receiving the subsidy, just in the first six months of the program. What's even more shocking is the fact that 20 per cent of at-risk and vulnerable children are no longer getting the support that they need to remain safe. The government doesn't seem to be concerned about this, but I am. As I said earlier in my remarks today, getting the early education systems in this country right is of direct economic benefit to our nation—looking after the future of this country, looking after the future of early educators.

In my own electorate there are 78 childcare centres, which I'm proud to represent. I haven't been to all of them, but I've been to many of them. I have reached out to them on many occasions about some of these changes and I've had incredible feedback from parents and from the owners of the centres and also from the early educators. As the federal member, I've had numerous childcare facility coordinators reach out to me about their desperation and confusion and the clarification they need regarding the changes. Add in a global pandemic on top of this, and we've seen a huge burden on these businesses. It's created an even larger impact on families. They've had to make a decision between working, sending their young children to childcare centres and protecting the safety of their children during this pandemic.

Just recently, about a week ago, I spoke with Kerrie Wilson from the Aspen Community Early Learning Centre in Inala. I know the minister at the table, Mr Ted O'Brien, is a big fan of the suburb of Inala, like I am. It is a great suburb, and there are terrific learning centres right throughout that suburb. When Kerrie told me what was happening with bookings at that centre, she said they'd lost three families in two days and that, as families are scared of the virus spreading, they were expecting to lose more. Kerrie is a fantastic leader in the Oxley community. I've had the privilege of visiting the Aspen Community Early Learning Centre many times in my previous role, as a Brisbane city councillor, and now, proudly, as the local federal member. I also invited the shadow minister, Amanda Rishworth, to that centre so that she could see what is happening on the ground in a fast-growing community with huge numbers of people from non-English-speaking backgrounds and with complex social issues but with amazing support staff and the amazing leadership provided by Kerrie.

Why is the government choosing to neglect centres like this and make it harder for early educators to do their job? Of course, on top of this we're seeing more and more concerns about parents' financial ability to send their kids to childcare centres—the so-called con of free child care, which was just another marketing slogan—when, as the centres themselves and the parents themselves will tell you, there was no free child care; it didn't exist. It was just media spin putting extra pressure on our centres, putting families in a position where they had to choose whether they were going to go to work or stay at home, putting employers in the position of not knowing whether they'd be able to keep their employees on.

So many families have had their incomes or their hours or their jobs slashed, yet they still want to look for work, build their businesses and try to reinvent what they can do and how they can participate in the economy. To do that, they do need to send their children to early education and care. In addition to that they may want their children to actually get the benefits of early education and care. But what the government has said is that, despite being in the depths of a recession, it's going to rip away that support and make sure that parents are going to be charged some of the highest fees in the word for child care.

I've also been visiting a number of our centres with the help of Act for Kids, and I want to place on record today in the parliament the work that they are doing. I was able to donate hundreds of crayons to childcare centres around the Oxley electorate and the hardest thing that I've heard from a number of centres is: 'We can't afford crayons. We can't afford materials.' I want to place on record my thanks to Act for Kids, because it is the basic resources that some of these centres are now going without.

It's incredibly tough to see the staff who love what they do—and I want to place on record all of my thanks to the amazing early educators, support staff and carers who do such wonderful work every single day, getting up extra early to set up the day ahead. To all the cooks and the cleaners: I've been amazed at how everyone has worked so hard during this pandemic, particularly in the early education space. But it's had a huge toll on their mental wellbeing as well, and I think we need to acknowledge that. I want to say thanks to the United Workers Union for the work that they've done in supporting the workforce. I've been involved with the Big Steps Campaign for many years now about respecting our early educators and paying them what they deserve. We know that, time and time again, when this government comes to the most vulnerable and needy in the community they are irrelevant and invisible.

I know that families are doing it tough. I know that in my own electorate from doing a Zoom meeting with early educators and the shadow minister, who was able to present Labor's strong alternative vision and policies around support, around respect for our early educators but, more importantly, around support for families. I'm going to keep standing in this parliament to make sure that this government listens to what is happening on the ground and that this Prime Minister takes action and delivers support that is needed by the owners of the centres, by the early educators and support staff who proudly work every single day in complex and difficult circumstances and also by the parents. If there was ever a need for this government to show support for parents who are desperately struggling to hold onto their jobs, the need is in the early education sector. I'll continue to speak out and make sure their voices are heard and that this government delivers more for early education in this country.