Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Early Childhood Education and Care Coronavirus Response and Other Measures) Bill 2021

March 18, 2021

I'm happy to speak today on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Early Childhood Education and Care Coronavirus Response and Other Measures) Bill 2021. This bill is really a tidy-up of the legislation rushed through parliament last year, when we were first trying to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic. It's not surprising that there are a few errors. That's what happens when you rush legislation through, but it was appropriate in the circumstances. Obviously we had to do it because we needed to support families. I will return to that in a minute, because the Morrison government didn't quite achieve its objective of supporting families. Nevertheless, it's important that errors which occurred during the rushing through of this legislation are corrected.

The bill before the chamber clarifies and states the circumstances where an emergency or disaster can be declared by the secretary and where business continuity payments can be made. This will provide certainty that the actions taken last year were legal, and it will make business continuity payments an ongoing policy response that is available to the government. It also reduces the red tape burden on services during disaster events by removing the legal requirement to send weekly reports to the department. It will extend the tax return deadlines for the 2018-19 financial year to March this year, to provide a bit more time for people who have not lodged their returns during the pandemic. It removes the two-year cut-off point for people to be able to lodge their tax returns and still be eligible for the child care subsidy. It ensures that emergency disaster events do not count towards the 14-week period of nonattendance, after which a child's enrolment is cancelled. There are a few other minor tweaks in the bill that are necessary as well. Labor will support these changes. We'll do anything, obviously, to help families access services. This bill is necessary to effect those necessary changes, and I will be supporting it, as will my colleagues.

Unfortunately, the bill before the chamber does not correct all of the Morrison government's mistakes when it comes to their support for families during the coronavirus pandemic. What has emerged, which has not been addressed by this bill, is that, during the recent snap COVID lockdowns in Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane, families were instructed to stay home, but childcare centres actually remained open as an essential service for essential workers. Remember, those essential workers could be people that were cleaning, they could be ambulance officers—all sorts of people can be essential workers. What that meant was that families staying at home were still being charged the gap fees by childcare centres, as the centres were legally required to levy the fees. The doors to the centres were open, but the kids couldn't leave their own homes to get through those open doors. The minister has the ability to give centres an exemption from charging gap fees. The minister did provide an exemption during the second Victorian lockdown in 2020 but, strangely, hasn't provided the exemption for the most recent lockdowns in Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane. In my electorate I don't have any families that have so much money that they want to pay for a service that they didn't receive.

The shadow minister has moved an amendment to this bill—a sensible amendment that will take the exemption out of the minister's rules and put it into the act. This would mean an exemption would be triggered as soon as state or territory governments declared a lockdown. Let's hope that doesn't happen again, but I think that will be the new COVID reality that we live in. This sensible proposal put forward by the shadow minister means that families would not be slugged with fees for care that they were not receiving. It is a very sensible amendment and ensures parents are not forced to pay for care that they're not able to receive because the state government has told them to stay home for sensible public health reasons. The government should fix this now. A sensible government would support this amendment, and I should stress that there are no political points to be made in supporting this.

This wasn't the only childcare bungle made by the Morrison government during the pandemic. As I said earlier, families were not supported as they should have been. Many families did like the free childcare announcement. There were lots of press releases and pressers by the Morrison government, but the delivery didn't quite live up to the hype. That happens so often with the Morrison government. Many families were locked out of the free child care, and many services were driven to the brink of collapse. Early learning centres had their funding slashed. Many were forced to cut opening hours, to cut staff. Remember, staff in these centres are not well remunerated at all. There is lots of evidence that they can barely afford to get into the housing market because they're barely above award wages, and they're charged with looking after our most precious commodity, our children. Some centres had to cut places to balance their books, just to keep their heads above some very troubled waters.

Family day care educators are wonderful people. They're the people we trust to care for our children. They were forced to work for half the pay because they couldn't access JobKeeper. This was a disgrace. We know that a quarter of early learning services were losing money every day. The reaction of the Morrison government—remember, the Prime Minister himself designed this system back when he was a minister—true to form, was to blame the providers. They even encouraged families to dob in centres through a phone hotline that was specially set up. They really are 'dobbers united' over there, aren't they? Remember robodebt? We've now seen bosses rorting the JobKeeper thing, but the government don't go and say, 'Dob in a boss, set up a hotline,' no. But they are 'dobbers united' when it comes to normal, everyday Australians.

A government member interjecting

Mr PERRETT: After it all went wrong—sorry, I missed that interjection from the minister at the table.

A government member interjecting

Mr PERRETT: Oh, okay. I'll take that interjection. After it all went wrong and it couldn't be salvaged, the Morrison government's response was to snap back to the old, expensive, Morrison-designed childcare subsidy scheme—the one that he designed when he was the minister. We already have one of the most expensive childcare schemes in the world. What does that mean? On average, child care costs between 30 and 40 per cent of the average household income in Australia, which seems like a lot when you compare it to the OECD, where the average is just 11 per cent. This is because we have a system that has seen children as a burden rather than as something to be invested in. We know that childcare fees are soaring; they've increased 35.9 per cent since 2013. So that's on this government's watch, on the coalition's watch. We know that childcare costs are locking parents out of the workforce. That's bad for families, and it's bad for the economy. Why is it bad for the economy? Because there are simple productivity gains that come from giving women 'a room of their own'—putting women back into the workforce, tapping into the skills and expertise that our schools and TAFEs and universities have created.

We have almost 300,000 Australians not participating in the labour force due to the fact they're caring for children, and many of them—most of them, I would suggest—are women. The number of parents who say they are not working mainly due to the cost of child care has skyrocketed by 23 per cent. We know it's too expensive and we know it needs to be fixed. But the Morrison government, sadly, has no plan to fix it. Maybe if the coalition government listened to women a little bit more they might have a better understanding of how families—

An honourable member interjecting

Mr PERRETT: Maybe if you had 10,000 women out the front of Parliament House you might make the effort to go out and listen to them. Maybe they've got something to say. I don't know.

An honourable member interjecting

Mr PERRETT: Who knows? There certainly seemed to be some pretty passionate people out the front of Parliament House on Monday when I went out there.

So, maybe if they listened to women a bit more they would find out how families are being impacted by child care that is unaffordable. We know that paying for that fourth or fifth day can be a cruel burden on families. Labor has a plan to make child care more affordable for families, so more parents can get back into the workforce. Our cheaper child care for working families plan will scrap the $10,560 childcare subsidy cap, which currently sees women paying to work for the extra day of work. It will lift the maximum subsidy rate to 90 per cent and will increase the childcare subsidy rates and taper them for every family earning less than $530,000.

It's important that the cost of child care goes down, but it is even more important that the cost of child care stays down. Labor will task the ACCC with designing a price regulation mechanism to shed light on costs and fees and drive them down for good. We will also ask the Productivity Commission to conduct a comprehensive review of the sector with the aim of implementing a universal 90 per cent subsidy for all families. That's a good plan. It's a sensible plan. It will reward working families and allow more second-income earners, who are usually women, to work more and contribute to our economic recovery. We have a plan to fix Morrison's broken childcare system. The coalition government is just patching up a broken system. I support this bill and the amendment moved by the shadow minister, the member for Kingston.