Thursday, 08 October 2020
Australia is in a recession. Many Australian families are doing it tough and Australian women are also doing it particularly tough. Since March, approximately 200,000 women have lost employment and 110,000 have left the labour force. Thousands of families are in danger of being left behind.
The government can try and stimulate business and consumer demand all it likes, but the economy won’t recover as quickly as it should if people can’t afford to go back to work, and they won’t be able to afford to go back to work because this third-term government has no plan to help them. This government is so out of touch with the needs of Australian families, it’s snapped back to the Prime Minister’s own designed subsidy system in the middle of a recession—his subsidy system that had a 4.6 per cent hike in fees in 2019 when inflation went up by only 1.8 per cent. The out-of-pocket costs soared by 7.2 per cent in a year, in the latest data released. That is money out of the pockets of families doing it tough. This third-term government has now overseen a 34 per cent increase in fees. This evidence shows that family budgets are under serious stress from the costs of child care.
Many in the community thought that the government had had an epiphany when, in April, they announced free childcare for essential workers. Many thought, ‘Finally—a long overdue recognition that the community can’t function without early learning and that early learning and childcare are essential services.’ Unfortunately, this was poorly designed, as with many things with the government, and put an effective cap on the places in the free childcare policy, so many families missed out. For those families that did get a place, it was desperately welcome relief going into a recession.
But the government’s epiphany on the importance of affordable early education and care did not last long. In July we had the snapback—the snapback to the future, to the higher fees system that Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister himself, designed.
Many families are now faced with having to pay higher fees at a time when they desperately want to go back to work. They’re going to have to decide whether it’s worth it. I’ve been contacted by many women and families who are devastated by the Prime Minister’s decision to provide nothing extra in this budget for early learning and care—no reform, no plan, nothing to make child care more affordable. Of course this abandonment of families comes not long after the Prime Minister abandoned educators working in the childcare sector. He threw them off JobKeeper and hid behind an empty employment guarantee, which has meant nothing to educators who got sent home with zero pay. Educators, like families, deserve better from this government.
This week the government announced a record budget deficit and $1 trillion of debt. You would expect with spending like that in a budget that nobody would be left behind. You would think that with spending like that we would see some long-term economic reform from this government. You would expect them to take the opportunity to look at what needs to be done and do the heavy lifting to get our economy back on track. But that is not the reality for this government’s budget.
The budget virtually ignores the impact that COVID has had on women and families. There’s some paltry funding for the Women’s Economic Security Statement, but Scott Cam got more attention from this Prime Minister than women did. There is no plan to deliver a more accessible and affordable early education and care system. There is no plan to remove the financial disincentive for second wage earners to go back to full-time work. There is no plan to help families with the costs of child care. There is no plan to increase women’s workforce participation.
There was a report in The West Australian today. The Prime Minister was pressed on where his plan was, why he didn’t do some reform and why he didn’t do what many economists have been calling for—actually address the issues of child care and women’s workforce participation. His response was weak. He said that he might consider some reform in the future, but there was absolutely no commitment at all. There was an opportunity on Tuesday night for the Prime Minister and the Treasurer to address what families in Australia have been calling out for—that is, support to go back to work and support to ensure that they have more money in their pockets and are able to put food on their table. That is what the Prime Minister and the Treasurer could have done, but they didn’t.
In the article the minister’s office provided a different excuse for not having a plan. They said that first they would have to convince the public of the benefits and then they would have to craft some meaningful reform. What has the education minister been doing? He has had plenty of time in that role to talk about the importance of early education and care. He has had plenty of time to lay the groundwork to get the public to understand what affordable childcare means. Of course, he has had plenty of time to craft some meaningful reform. I’m not entirely sure that that excuse stacks up.
Of course, we know what he has been doing. He has been making university harder for students to go to. He has been picking ideological wars with our universities. He has been making it difficult for people to get apprenticeships in trades. I’ve got some advice for the minister: spend some time developing a plan, spend some time crafting meaningful reform and work harder in talking up the benefits of early education. We do know that that is unlikely to happen. It is unlikely because this is the same minister who said at the last election that extra investment in early education and care was akin to communism. It is no wonder that there hasn’t been any effort put into some meaningful reform and crafting an actual plan. The mums and dads of Australia should not hold their breath when the Prime Minister makes the vague statement, ‘Sure, we’ll look at it,’ because this minister will push back and say it’s just communism.
We know that the Prime Minister has ignored really important facts—the fact that families and women, in particular, do best when they can secure the work they want and work the extra hours and extra days they want. We need a childcare system that is designed to facilitate that. Unfortunately, the childcare system that the Prime Minister himself designed has too many barriers for women to do that. The fact is that the system he designed incentivises women or the second wage earner to work three days a week and no more. They actually lose money, in many cases, if the second income earner works four or five days a week. My question is: was this a deliberate decision in the system that this Prime Minister designed? The Prime Minister does seem blind to the impact that the current system has on women and families, and we saw that in his answer today. We also saw that from the Minister for Education, who could barely speak about families in his answer to questions about those doing it tough and those who have barriers put in place because of the cost of child care.
The Prime Minister is so desperate to be blind to the plight of women that I’m going to explain it in a way that he might understand. When we talk about investment in child care, investment in supporting women’s workforce participation and support for families, it’s not just good for the women and men who can work more. Absolutely, those second income earners can earn more, they can put more money into superannuation and they can actually build a career doing something that they love, but it’s not just about that. Investing in early learning and child care boosts workforce participation, and boosting workforce participation increases economic growth. Don’t believe me. Don’t believe Labor. That is what the experts are all saying. That is what the economists are saying. We can grow our GDP by investing in women’s workforce participation, and the best way to do that is by investing in child care.
How can people who have lost their jobs get back into work and get back into jobs if they can’t get affordable child care? It is time that the Prime Minister and the Minister for Education turned their attention to perhaps designing something that works, spending some time on reform and investing some money. Otherwise, our economy will not recover at the speed it needs to. We want to see that. We want to see people being able to afford to go back into jobs, and I urge the government to— (Time expired)