Parliament – Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Improving Assistance for Vulnerable and Disadvantaged Families) Bill 2020

Friday, 12 June 2020

I rise to speak on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Improving Assistance for Vulnerable and Disadvantaged Families) Bill 2020. I will also move an amendment that has been circulated in my name, particularly drawing attention to some of the concerns that have been happening in recent days within the early education and care sector, but I will get back to that shortly. I move:

That all words after ‘That’ be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

‘whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House notes that:

(1) the Government will snap back to the complex and expensive child care subsidy system on 13 July and end its poorly targeted and unfunded ‘free child care’ response;

(2) families will start paying child care fees again, even after the Treasurer admitted Australia was in a recession, and fees soared by 7.2 per cent in the last year;

(3) unaffordable child care will now force families, particularly women, to reconsider returning to work and could act as a handbrake on Australia’s economic recovery; and

(4) early childhood workers have been ripped out of the JobKeeper program, three days after the Prime Minister promised there would be no changes until September’.

I am pleased to be speaking on this bill. It wasn’t long ago that we were in this place debating the first round of touch-ups that the government needed to make on their childcare system. Labor was pleased to support those changes late last year, with one exception. They were sensible and overdue fixes to some of the most obvious flaws in the government’s childcare subsidy system. They were changes which Labor, families and the early learning and care sector had been calling for for over a year. I’m pleased to be back again to help fix some of the government’s flaws in the system and I’m pleased that we are actually here debating this bill.

This bill does seek to make a number of changes to the administration of the additional child care subsidy (child wellbeing) payment. The additional child care subsidy (child wellbeing) payment is a vital program that provides a safe and nurturing learning environment for children in extremely vulnerable situations at home. For most of these children, it can be the difference between being able to stay at home and having to go into the child protection system.

It is critical the government treat this program with sensitivity and ensure families and providers are not overly burdened with red tape. The government has done exactly this when they introduced a number of new requirements and rules to the access of the additional childcare subsidy in July 2018. This government likes to often bang the drum about cutting red tape—and it’s one of the media releases in regular rotation—but unfortunately this did not extend to cutting red tape for vulnerable children and families. So there is the question: why did they go out of their way to increase red tape for vulnerable families and the childcare providers trying to help them? It does say something about their values and how they view these members of our community.

The numbers prove that the government’s new rule had a serious impact on vulnerable children and families trying to access early learning. In the first six months of this new system, the number of children receiving the ACCS (child wellbeing) payment collapsed by 21 per cent. In the December 2018 quarter, the number of children receiving the payment was 13,130 compared to 16,680 12 months earlier. That is more than 3,500 at-risk and vulnerable children who just dropped out of the system. No more vital early learning and care for them. Those children didn’t stop needing care overnight, but, because the government imposed new rules and paperwork on these children, they fell through the cracks. When asked in Senate estimates if the department was concerned about the drop, they admitted they weren’t and also confessed they weren’t even tracking if families had dropped out of the system. It was shocking and quite concerning to hear this, because this program is about preventing children going into the child protection system; it’s about early prevention. So it was very disappointing.

When the Senate held an inquiry into the government’s first round of legislative changes last September, stakeholders were almost unanimous in raising their ongoing, serious concerns about the administration of the additional childcare subsidy for child wellbeing. To the minister’s credit, he has finally listened to these concerns. While this government often ignores evidence and dismisses stakeholders that it doesn’t agree with, the minister, on this occasion, hasn’t. I would like to thank him for listening and acting.

Schedule 1 of the bill makes a series of changes that will improve the ability of early learning providers to access the child wellbeing subsidy payment. Providers will be able to enrol children under the provider, rather than a parent or foster carer, for up to 13 weeks while the parent or foster carer is applying for a CRN and the childcare subsidy through Centrelink. This is a critical change as it helps providers get these vulnerable children straight into care when they enrol at a service or when they move between foster care arrangements. We don’t want to see these children missing out on a single day of early learning or care. Providers will also be able to apply for the ACCS to be back paid for up to 13 weeks instead of the current 28 days. It was heroic in the extreme for the government to think that Centrelink would process any paperwork in less than 28 days, so this is a very sensible change which means providers are not being left out of pocket for Centrelink delays.

Other changes to the ACCS will allow for providers to request ACCS determinations for up to 12 months for children on long-term child protection orders and in foster care. This amendment will improve the continuity of care for children at risk of abuse or neglect and reduce red tape for providers and child protection agencies. These are sensible and overdue changes which will improve the access for vulnerable children, and of course Labor will support them. Other provisions in the bill are minor and technical amendments, which Labor will also support. But it’s important to note that none of these changes do anything to expand the eligibility for early learning or increase funding to the early learning sector.

It’s fair to say that the last couple of months have been pretty significant for the early learning sector. As we all know, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the childcare subsidy system was put into hibernation and replaced with the Prime Minister’s so-called free child care for essential workers. Labor had called for a rescue package because something needed to be done to stop a whole lot of services from going broke as the country shut down in April. Free child care for every worker did make a good headline for the Prime Minister, and he was very much front and centre of that good news. When he said that all Australians still working were considered essential workers, families from around Australia all reasonably assumed that they would get free child care as a result and, I think, centres and service reasonably thought that they would get paid for providing that child care. But the main feature of the Prime Minister’s free childcare system was that providers weren’t adequately paid for the children in their care. This meant that a number of families and children were locked out of free child care and many services were driven to the brink of collapse.

My office was flooded with calls and emails from early learning services from around the country who were struggling to keep their doors open after their funding had been slashed. These services were cutting hours, cutting staff or cutting places to try and balance their books. I spoke to many family daycare educators who didn’t suffer a drop in enrolments but were now expected, under the Prime Minister’s plan, to work for half their pay because they couldn’t access JobKeeper or because the payment went to their service and had to be distributed to many. I also heard from many families who were being denied places, including healthcare workers who were asked to come back from maternity leave early to help with the crisis and just missed out. They couldn’t come back because they didn’t have care. It seems that there were some Australians who were considered more essential than others. But the Prime Minister didn’t outline that. He put the burden on service providers to try and work it out.

Another key feature of the government’s rescue package was the exceptional circumstances fund, which was set up to cover one-third of early-learning educators not covered by JobKeeper—or so we were told. The latest data from the department shows that only 39 per cent of applications were approved.

The government boasts that 98 per cent of early-learning services were still open during the COVID crisis, but this is a very superficial KPI. Does the government know how many of this 98 per cent of services were suffering from massive financial losses? The government’s own limited survey found that a quarter of services were not financially viable and were losing money every day under the government’s rescue package. Does the government know how many services during this time had to cut opening hours and educators? Does the government know how many of these services had to turn away essential workers?

There is no doubt the Prime Minister’s so-called free-child-care-for-some-Australians system had more holes in it than Swiss cheese. It is no wonder that the sector was seriously struggling to deliver the Prime Minister’s ‘free child care’ commitment when it was expected to do it for less funding. Naturally the government’s response was to blame the providers. It was sending strongly-worded communications to providers, threatening their funding. It has been revealed that, as part of the government’s new dob-in-a-service hotline, where it encourages families to dob in their early-learning providers, there are now investigations into some of these services. What a debacle! So much for all being in it together.

The government’s underfunded policy was a mess. But now this week we’ve had snapback—snapback to an old, confusing, expensive system just days after the Treasurer confirmed that Australia was in recession for the first time in 29 years. This is not the time to be foisting high, out-of-pocket costs for child care onto families. Australians are doing it tough. Millions have lost their jobs or had their hours cut as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown. Mortgages and rent payments have been deferred and people are surviving on JobKeeper and jobseeker.

The day after the announcement, the government announced it was allowing businesses to defer their pay-as-you-go payments because so many were struggling. Whole segments of the economy are still shut down, so nobody can pretend that things are getting back to normal. Not one economist out there is saying that in a month’s time, when the old childcare subsidy system gets put back in place—which was designed in a time of high employment—things will be back to normal; no-one is suggesting that, except, it seems, the government.

We have an expensive system in the world, because the government has designed it to be so. The government has not increased the childcare subsidy at pace with increasing costs; costs in childcare fees grew by seven per cent last year. So we have a government that only increases the benchmark price by CPI, meaning that every quarter parents fall further and further behind and get greater and greater out-of-pocket costs. This has been very difficult for families when there hasn’t been an economic crisis, but now, during this economic crisis, it is a problem. Of course, there is the complex and confusing activity and income test. While the government has announced, in slightly unclear terms, that the activity test is now paused for those who have reduced hours or income, the activity test is still there in some form or another and it is confusing and complex. Many families will still be wondering what their reporting obligations are, whether or not they get a break from the activity test. I’ve heard from many families that they want to go back to work, they want to get a job, they want to get their small business going again. But in this climate, where large parts of the economy are shut down, they’re just not able to do it. They’re just not able to do it or they’re certainly not able to get income from it. My concern is that many, many families are not ready to go back to the high, expensive fees that they were experiencing before this pandemic.

My office has been contacted by many families, in particular women, who are pretty devastated about this announcement. They certainly felt that they would get more care and compassion from this government. In fact, the government’s snapping back to their old child care system at the bottom of a recession does say something about their values and priorities. We’ve had the government decision that 120,000 early-childhood educators will be coming off JobKeeper, despite the Prime Minister making a big promise that he would not rip JobKeeper off them, leaving them facing months of uncertainty.

I hear the government talk about doing things better. Well, why have a one-size-fits-all approach? Can the government guarantee that, with their better way, they will not have one educator lose their job up until September? Will every single educator be guaranteed a job? They can’t give that guarantee. So, now there is uncertainty for early educators, there’s uncertainty if demand drops for services and there is a lot of uncertainty for families who are sitting around the kitchen table now, trying to work out whether it’s even worth going back to work and whether or not they should drop a day or say no to extra shifts, because they just can’t afford it.

This is very worrying and very concerning. Educators and families deserve better. I put to the government: why is it that when you have a diverse sector, like the early education and care sector, you had to just rip JobKeeper off everyone? Why not try to nuance your approach for services that didn’t have JobKeeper, that couldn’t access the complex exceptional circumstances payment when they were promised they could access it? If they were able to demonstrate that they could have more educators on than otherwise, why couldn’t they still offer those early educators JobKeeper and perhaps take a different approach to those that needed an alternative? Instead, this government has not taken a nuanced path. In fact, they have taken a path that could well be a handbrake on the economy.

Going back to the minister’s old child care system at the depths of an economic crisis, I ask the minister what modelling he has done on the impact the snapback will have on enrolment and attendance? Which children are now going to miss out as a result of this decision by the government? Ultimately, that’s what we want to make sure our early education and care system is designed for—for children. So, I plead with the government to please start looking at this seriously, because if we don’t get this right I know now that children will be pulled out of early education and will miss out on it and, potentially, women will struggle going back to work. On that note, while we support this bill we certainly hope the government looks at child care very seriously.

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