Families Child Care Package Bill 2016

I rise to speak on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Jobs for Families Child Care Package) Bill 2016. Before the 2013 election, the Liberals promised more affordable and accessible child care, but this government has been an absolute failure.

From day dot, when it comes to dealing with child care, we have been left wanting. They have wasted the last two years arguing that there could not be any change to child care unless it was linked to the cruel omnibus cuts.

While we are pleased that child care has been separated from the omnibus bill, Labor still has serious concerns about the proposed childcare package. These are not new concerns. We have been pointing these out over a number of years. We are concerned about the unfair activity test and threats to Indigenous and remote childcare services.

We have said we will support the government's proposed changes if they fix their package, but, unfortunately, they have brought it before the Senate today and it is still not fixed. It is time for the government to listen to the experts, fix their package and stop playing political games. I know firsthand of the success of programs for access to child care for people living in regional Tasmania.

I want to remind people what happened on Mother's Day in 2015 when the government referred to new mothers as 'rorters' and 'double-dippers'. They did this name calling at the same time as they said it would be better to focus on child care. That was back in 2015 and what has happened? Here we are, two years later in 2017, and they still have done absolutely nothing to support families struggling with the cost of child care.

Mr Turnbull's government has been completely ridiculous when it comes to child care in Australia, playing games and wheeling and dealing about what they think is right for children and families. Yes, they did come to their senses and dropped the link between child care and the omnibus bill, but only because of another grubby 11th hour deal with One Nation and the Xenophon party to take money off Australian families.

Thanks to this dirty deal, the government has rolled over and stopped insisting that the only way we can pay for childcare changes is by cutting family payments. But, as I said, we still have serious concerns about the proposed childcare package, which the government has dug up from the last Abbot government's budget. This package is fundamentally flawed and is entirely inadequate to deal with the challenges that the Australian childcare system faces. It has one purpose: to take away money from those who can least afford it. It attacks low-income families, single parents, Indigenous families and our most important people, our kids, the young people of this country.

Labor have written to the minister to outline the flaws that need to be fixed so that we can support the legislation. We have shown good faith and have offered to work with the government to secure a better deal for families who use child care. But, unfortunately, this has fallen on deaf ears time and time again.

But we are not the only ones who have repeatedly pointed out the flaws in this package. There have been three Senate inquiries and they heard evidence from early childhood experts and the sector. Despite being warned about the serious flaws in their childcare changes for years, the government have done nothing to fix them and here we are today with a flawed piece of legislation.

 

The government's childcare policy remains unchanged and they are trying to force it through the Senate, which is yet again a sign of a very dysfunctional government, who are desperate to try and get something through this chamber before they bring down their budget. They are prepared to use our kids' future.

We will not support a package which will see some of the most disadvantaged children go backwards in life, because they have not had access to early childhood education. And we will not support a package that limits opportunity for any child. There are some measures which we would support. We would support simplifying the system. We would support measures to try and limit the inflationary nature of childcare fees. We would support ways of offering better assistance to children with disabilities. But, as it stands, the government has not been able to explain how this bill will do any of these things.

Only a few short days ago, the Prime Minister was out on the airwaves supporting a pay cut for thousands of low-paid workers, and now the government are going after funding for early childhood education. This is how out of touch and arrogant this government is. At a time of such uncertainty and inequality, the government should not be exacerbating these social problems. An analysis by the ANU shows these childcare changes will leave one in three families worse off, 330,000 families will be worse off and 126,000 will be no better off.

There are two fundamental points that Labor would not support in this bill. Firstly, the government must ensure that vulnerable and disadvantaged children are guaranteed access to at least two days of early education each week. At the moment in Australia, every child has access to two days of subsidised early childhood education. The introduction of the new, complicated activity test in this bill would remove this current entitlement. This means that children from very disadvantaged families or unsafe homes will only have access to a safe and secure environment and quality early childhood education one day per week, a child in a family earning less than $65,000 will have their subsidised access halved, and a child with a parent who stays at home in a family earning over $65,000 will be pushed out of the system altogether. This bill will deny access to early childhood education for children from dysfunctional families or disadvantaged backgrounds.

Childhood education is one of the most effective ways of breaking the cycle of disadvantage. This demonstrates again how out of touch this government is and how. The importance of early childhood education cannot be stressed enough. Ninety per cent of a child's brain development occurs in the first five years of their life. It has been proven that children who attend quality education go on to do better in school, in employment and generally in life.

 Locking children out of the benefits of early education is not only unfair; it shows a lack of understanding about the enormous economic and social benefits from having children access quality early education. Access to early education, unfortunately, is not a value that this Liberal government shares with us.

The government will argue that this is about workforce participation and the decisions parents make. But not one of the three ministers who have had responsibility for developing this policy has been able to successfully explain how their proposed changes will increase workforce participation. The minister went on in Senate question time this afternoon about how their package would make child care more accessible. But, in reality, the government's child care changes create an unfair catch 22 - parents will not be able to work because they cannot get child care, but they are unable to get child care because they do not have work.

There is a very long list of experts, including care providers, early childhood experts, academics, Australian charities and parents, who have been absolutely unanimous in their opposition to the proposed activity test. There is absolutely nothing innovative or agile about this agenda—just cuts to programs designed for people who need them the most. The minister must for once put his money where his mouth is and amend this bill to allow its flaws to be fixed. Then we can support it. Then we will support it.

 

The harsh activity test is not the only flaw in this bill. Labor is also concerned about the future funding of Australia's Indigenous Budget Based Funded services and mobile services. I spoke earlier about those and about the benefits from the mobile services in my home state of Tasmania. As part of this package, the government is proposing to end and cut back the funding for both of these services. The BBFs are services which were set up decades ago in communities where children would not have had access to child care unless the government stepped in and funded them directly. Some of these services are quite advanced and some operate out of tin sheds, but they provide a safe place for children where they have access to healthy food and early childhood education.

As part of this proposal the government has said, 'Let's cut the funding for these services and transition them into the mainstream and deal with the consequences later.' But we know that this is just not going to work. You cannot put your head in the sand and say, 'This is all too hard.' The BBFs and mobile services cannot be funded in the same way that early childhood centres are funded. That is the reality, and any government worth its salt would know that, when it comes to providing health services or aged care into remote and regional areas and to our Indigenous brothers and sisters, there are real challenges, and those challenges are already there as far as education is concerned, so there is no reason why it would be any different for early childhood education. The rationale for setting up these services was to help families and children who live in places where the mainstream system simply will not work, where the market was not viable and where parents just were not able to pay fees. These changes are not viable, and these services will close down as a result. But as usual the government insists on turning a blind eye. But I say that is not good enough..

There are just weeks and weeks of debate in this place about a range of issues, but there is nothing more important than the future of our children. We talk in this place, and people get up and beat their chests about wanting to be the government that is going to close the gap for our Indigenous brothers, and what do they do in this very piece of legislation? They are enshrining the fact that there is still going to be this gap. It really is shameless. Access to quality early childhood education is one of the most important investments that we can make to close the gap. The most important investment any government can make is in our children, because they are our future. The Secretariat of National and Islander Child Care has warned:

These changes will diminish our kids' potential to make a smooth transition to school … Children will fall behind before they have even started school …

I plead with the government: do not turn your back on these services. I plead with the crossbench: do not let the government turn their back on these important services. Do not allow them to turn their back on those families from very disadvantaged backgrounds and dysfunctional families, on our Indigenous brothers and sisters and on those people who live in regional areas. Do not allow the government to turn their back on them.

There are things in this bill that we said we could support. One of the areas that very few people have made a contribution on is in relation to the early childhood educators themselves. We do not do enough to support them. They are highly professional, highly skilled people. I speak from experience, because our youngest daughter was an early childhood educator before she became a mother and chose to stay at home to raise her children. The reality is that we know the demand that is placed on those early childhood educators every single day that they have our children in their care. We know that they have been fighting for recognition. We know that they have been fighting to ensure that they get remunerated to the extent that they should be, with the respect that goes with that. We know that earlier this month they walked out of their childcare centres, not because they wanted to but because they need to have a voice. They need to be heard. They need the government to listen to them.

And what do the government do when they have the opportunity to show some respect and give some support back to these early childhood educators? They want to turn their back on them. They want to turn their back on the families. It is becoming almost routine for the government that, whatever legislation they bring into this place, they attack the most vulnerable and they attack families.

They talk about being a family government, wanting to ensure that people have equal opportunities and jobs. But the reality is that they have failed on that. They have failed on the account of giving the support to these very families that I have just been speaking about. They are turning their back on giving them the same opportunities as those people living in urban cities. They are turning their back on those who live in regional and remote areas. They are turning their back on families who need support from the government. They have turned their back on the lowest paid workers in our community. They are putting under threat other people's penalty rates in other sectors.

We know that, in the early childhood education area and child care in general, it is hard to attract and keep good staff because they do not get remunerated to the level that they should. We know that they have been fighting for a stronger voice, and I think that they have achieved respect from the community. They are not seen as 'just babysitters', as they have been referred to by others on the other side of this place. With all of these cuts that the government continues to make, it is those who need their support the most that they are turning their back on.

I say and Labor say to the crossbench: look at our amendments. Join with us to ensure that the government can no longer attack another group in our community—some of the most vulnerable young kids who need this support. They need this opportunity to have the doors open to be properly prepared to go on to primary education. Do not allow the government to do this. We owe it to the Australian kids. I owe it to the kids of the families in my state of Tasmania—and Senator Bilyk is here. Senator Dastyari is here supporting New South Wales.

We have to be serious about this. There are other ways of meeting budget demands. Using young people and the most vulnerable families in our community has to stop. It has to stop. I am sure you will hear from Senator Bilyk in her contribution. She worked in this sector. I have a daughter who worked in it. I used both home day care and centres when my children were growing up. I know the value of it. I also know that it is not just the education of learning their ABC and learning to read and write; it is about learning to socialise. It is about building the self-esteem and the confidence of these children.

That is why we were elected in this place: to make tough decisions. We owe it to these children to ensure that they get the opportunities that we have all had. Some of us have not had the same opportunities as each other, but what we have been able to do is make our way in life to end up here. I want to ensure that the crossbench think about these things. I know they are all—or at least most of them are—good people. I want them to put the kids of our country and their families first and to think about these early childhood educators when they come to vote for amendments and the passage of this bill