Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Subsidy) Bill 2021

House of Representatives
Wednesday 4 August 2021

I rise to speak on this important piece of legislation, the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Subsidy) Bill, which we're told was one of the critical reasons that parliament had to sit this week, yet I note on the speaker's list tonight—this is such an important piece of policy for the LNP and the Prime Minister that only four speakers have bothered to rise to their feet about this. I'm really not surprised considering the appalling record that this government has, and previously coalition governments have, when it comes to delivering quality and affordable child care. In fact, when the parliament last sat, on 22 June, when this piece of legislation actually went to the joint party room, it was opposed, as media reports have said, by the sensitive New Age guys inside the LNP: well-known Senator Rennick; Mr Christensen, member for Dawson; of course Senator Canavan; and Terry Young, the member for Longman. I note that in the media reports there was a colleague inside the LNP who actually stood up in their party room and said that child care was 'outsourcing parenting'. It's archaic but not surprising.

It's bad enough that those 1950s or 60s views are still permeating in society, but we're seeing them inside the party of government in this country. I'm delighted, after reading media reports, that there were at least some strong advocates for child care inside the LNP, and my friend and colleague Senator Hollie Hughes, who I don't always agree with, is reported as getting up in the party room and saying, 'Thank you, boys, for telling us how to best raise our children!' When you get such division inside the government party room about the future of child care, is it little wonder the people of Australia, the working men and women—and let's face it: one of the great outcomes out of the pandemic was shining a light on some of the unsung heroes in our society, which have to be early childhood educators, the people who didn't have a choice about whether they went to work or not at the height of the pandemic and, dare I say, don't have a choice now in my home town of Brisbane, which is currently under the most severe lockdowns that Queensland has seen.

We're seeing ongoing tragic lockdowns in New South Wales. We saw Victoria come out of lockdown, and South Australia has come out of lockdown. What we saw during the pandemic with the so-called free child care, which wasn't free at all but just another marketing spin by the Prime Minister, was those frontline workers, those heroes and angels of our childcare centres and early learning centres, being forced and deciding for themselves to front up, to do their job to protect the vulnerable children while their parents fought the pandemic.

I was hopeful that, with this legislation coming forward, we would see stronger measures to recognise and reward what parents of Australia have had to go through. But I think it's quite clear that the measures in this bill were designed with one thing in mind: an announcement. It's a package designed to look and sound good in front of a camera.

I want to go through the details of the legislation tonight. In my opinion, on behalf of the families that I've been consulting and some of the early educators that I've spoken to about this legislation, it's clear that this bill does not provide anywhere near enough of the relief that struggling families need and indeed are demanding. We are in support of the two key measures in the bill: removing the annual childcare subsidy cap and increasing the rate for families with multiple children under six years of age. They are positive steps, and we're not going to stand in the way of them. However, the bill does not go nearly far enough to address the evident failures in the government's childcare system.

Analysis of the government's childcare policy in comparison to the positive agenda and policies that the federal opposition have put forward shows that we have a plan to provide more support to more families for longer. There are around 860,000 families that would be better off under a future Labor government and a Labor childcare policy than under what is being offered by the government. Under our childcare plan, 86 per cent of all families in the system with children under six will be financially better off. In fact, under the government's policy, every single family with one child aged under five in child care and with a family income below $530,000 will receive absolutely no improvement in their childcare subsidy rate. They will, however, see an improvement under a future Labor government. Those opposite can spin this—and I did hear some spinning today from the member for Curtin, the member for Higgins and the member for Mallee, who were trying to defend this as good policy—but we know that when it comes to delivering child care it is the Australian Labor Party that is better at supporting families with two children, particularly low- and middle-income families.

I want to talk about some of the numbers which are an important part of this. The facts are, analysis has shown that most families with a combined income between approximately $70,000 and $175,000 will be better off under a future Labor government. Any extra support that a family receives under this government is due to be ripped away the moment their eldest child goes to school. This would not happen under Labor. Our policy supports every child for the entirety of their time in the childcare system.

I really do wish more members of the government would actually engage with this. If this is such an important policy, a signature policy for the Prime Minister and the government, I'm not sure why members aren't jumping to their feet wanting to defend the policy. I want to say it very clearly: Labor is better at backing working families, backing women and delivering policy that will actually make a difference in the lives of working Australians. The government's childcare policy delivers a fraction of what Australian working families need. It's a policy that is designed for political spin and political spin alone.

In contrast, Labor's plan addresses the real cost-of-living pressures that Australian families are facing. Just about every day I speak to local residents and families who are struggling to make ends meet. For many of them, going to work is just not worth it when the cost of child care is so high. You only need to visit a shopping centre, do a street-corner meeting or pick up the phone and talk to a local family—people will tell you the same thing: 'It is not worth working, because we just work to pay the childcare bills.' We in the chamber have all heard that. We've all lived that. We've all heard that time and time again. I don't understand why, during a pandemic and, hopefully, coming out of a pandemic, we're not seeing a greater investment in child care.

Australian families are paying more out of pocket for child care than ever before. Right now in Australia, under the Morrison government, you're paying more for childcare costs than you have ever done. The cost of child care is now higher than it was under the previous childcare system. It is the highest that it has ever been. If this is not true, if this is wrong, I'm happy for all those bureaucrats sitting in the alcove out there, scrawling away on their laptops, to give the minister at the table advice and information, and I will gladly yield my time to hear about those facts.

The fact is that, under the Morrison government, child care is becoming more and more unaffordable and is costing the most it has ever cost in this country. Costs have risen by 2.2 per cent in the last quarter alone, an increase that is more than three times CPI. In the past 12 months alone, childcare costs have soared by 3.7 per cent. These amounts of money might not be a lot for members of the government. I understand that. Many of them don't live in the real world. They don't engage with their constituents and they don't listen to families talking about the struggles that they're going through. But I know from the communities that I represent that childcare fees are out of control in this country. They have soared more than 36 per cent since the election of the Liberal government in 2013. Let's put that in context. They have increased by 36 per cent since the 2013, 2016 and 2019 elections. Our childcare system is fundamentally broken. Not only is this having a real human impact upon the families I represent; it's also economically damaging. I'm really proud of our plan, which will leave one million families better off than they are now. That's four times as many as the government is promising. This increased support will result in a boost to our nation's GDP that is three times as large as what is predicted under the government's plan.

Those opposite have put their spin machine into desperate overdrive, trying to convince the Australian public of something that simply isn't true. They're trying to convince Australian families who are struggling under the cost of living that keeps going up that they will be better off under this weak, watered down plan. The analysis completely busts the spin and affirms our position as the true champion of working families. When the Prime Minister stood up in one of his rare beloved press conferences, he dubbed his failed system as 'a once-in-a-generation reform' promising that it would make childcare more affordable. This proved to be, at best, a severe misjudgement, and, at worst, it was a complete mistruth. Parents don't need spin. This is where the government came a cropper: they announced it at an empty childcare centre on a Sunday. They had to get the keys, unlock the doors. I mean, hello? If you're announcing a childcare policy, wouldn't you think you'd want parents there or early educators to say, 'This is a good plan'? No. Der—they announced a policy in the dark at a childcare centre that wasn't even open. It kind of says it all, doesn't it? Enough of the spin from this government. Parents need real policy. Aussie parents need a real plan to tackle skyrocketing out-of-pocket childcare costs. The Liberal's broken system that they are stubbornly clinging to is just not going to cut it.

This year the Productivity Commission released a report on government services. This report showed that childcare costs are locking Australians out of the workforce. Almost 300,000 Australians are not in the labour force due to caring for children, and a number of parents are saying they are not working primarily because the cost of child care has increased by 23 per cent. What a damning figure. The cost of child care is stopping Australians from entering the workforce.

The dinosaurs on the other side, in their party rooms—geniuses like Senator Rennick, the member for Dawson and Senator Canavan, the usual suspects—somehow think it is not appropriate that parenting is outsourced. No brave soul is getting up to suggest that. Well, Senator Holly Hughes slapped them down when she went into the party room. I don't know who else got up on their feet and actually said they were wrong. I haven't heard anyone else condemn it. I tell you what: that would not be accepted in the modern Australian workplace, and it shouldn't be accepted in our nation's parliament.

In contrast, Labor has a plan to bring down the cost of child care and keep it down. A future Albanese Labor government will introduce the cheaper childcare for working families plan, which will scrap the $10,560 childcare subsidy cap; lift the maximum childcare subsidy rate to 90 per cent; and increase the childcare subsidy rates, tapering them for every family earning less than $530,000. Under our plan the ACCC will design a price regulation mechanism which will ensure that costs and fees are brought down for good. The Productivity Commission will also conduct a comprehensive review of the sector, with the aim of implementing a universal 90 per cent subsidy for Aussie families. This is a plan designed to reward working families for their contribution to our nation's economy and workforce, not punish them for taking on extra work. This is the kind of policy thinking that we need to drive our nation's economic recovery post the pandemic. The current system is not good enough. The current system is not working.

Australia overall ranks 37th out of 41 countries. Australians are not used to being at the back of the pack, such as when it comes to vaccines, where we're losing the vaccine Olympics. We're not even close to the stadium when it comes to rolling out the vaccines. This is not who we are. We know that the system is broken, and Labor and Anthony Albanese will fix it. I'm so pleased that this is a front-and-centre policy that we will campaign on every single day until the election. Our shadow childcare spokesperson, the member for Kingston, has been listening to parents. She has heard and has read the room. She has sat down with the peak bodies, she has listened to what the Australian community want, and so has our Labor leader, Anthony Albanese—people in touch with the workforce, people in touch with the modern Australia, people who will include these workers in our decision-making—to make sure that we reward effort and make sure that families are supported when they need it most.