Parliament – the Government’s failure to properly fund child care

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Free child care for every worker does make a great headline for the Prime Minister, and even more so when he said that all Australians still working were considered essential workers. It is not surprising that families who were watching TV around Australia all assumed, reasonably, from this announcement that they would receive free child care. And of course Labor had been calling for a rescue package, because that’s something that needed to be done. When the COVID crisis hit a lot of services were looking at a difficult future, and something did need to be done to stop them going broke.

Of course Labor welcomed the rescue package that the minister announced. We thought it was a bit of a change of attitude; this was the minister who, at the last election, when Labor announced more support for early learning and care, got on radio and called it ‘communism’—communism to invest in our early educators and communism to invest in our children. That is what this minister said. So I, like many people on this side of the House, was surprised to see the headline about free child care. I thought: ‘Wow! He has had a conversion. He really could come onto our side now and actually join us!’

But the problem with this fancy headline is that the government didn’t fund it and, as a result, has created winners, but a lot of losers. The government did turn off the childcare subsidy scheme, and told services they were now to receive 50 per cent of their revenue. They banned services from receiving any other income from families and they asked services to cobble this together with JobKeeper. They introduced complicated rules around JobKeeper and deliberately excluded many, many workers and services from receiving it—workers who had been on visas, workers in places that had been run by local government and workers in places that had been run by charities. This has been particularly devastating in Victoria and Tasmania, making many unviable.

Then, to fix this problem—because, as the minister said, the government knew there were going to be unintended consequences—the government said they would create an exceptional circumstances fund. The only exceptional thing about this fund is the number of applications being rejected. I am hearing from many services that they wait weeks and weeks for a response, desperately trying to keep their services going—desperately cutting hours, desperately cutting staff—and hoping to hear a positive result about their exceptional circumstances application. But then they finally get the answer, and it’s just no. There’s no explanation and no justification; just no. There is one exception to this: it seems that if a service speaks out to the media about their rejection they do get a call the next day from the department, saying that their application has been reviewed and they now have the funding.

So my office has been flooded with calls and emails from early learning services from around the country who are struggling to keep their doors open after their funding has been slashed. These services are now cutting opening hours, cutting staff or cutting places to try to balance the books. One of the examples we heard today was from First Class Learning Centre in Maroubra. They have had to turn away eight children under Scott Morrison’s so-called free child care because their revenue has been halved, and only five of their eight staff are eligible for JobKeeper.

I’ve also heard from many families who are being denied places, including healthcare workers who have been asked to come back from maternity leave early to help with the crisis—they are needed. Quite frankly, it is pretty concerning when you hear story after story. These parents have been on waiting lists for up to a year. As soon as they find out they’re pregnant they get onto that waiting list and they are actually waiting to come back to work, only to find out a week or two weeks before they’re ready to go back to work that because of the government’s cuts to the funding they’re no longer able to have a place. I’ve heard countless stories where, instead of being able to get child care, parents have had to make the difficult decision to put their children with their grandparents. That’s even though they know and are worried about the risk this will be for the grandparents, who are often a lot older and more vulnerable when it comes to COVID-19. This is the difficult decision they are having to make because this government announced free child care but did not fund it.

Jessica, from Queanbeyan, also hasn’t been able to find a place for her child and so now has to take her son to work with her. How is this so-called free child care helping Jessica? I’ve spoken to family day care educators, who didn’t suffer a large drop in enrolments but who are now expected by the government to work for half the pay because they can’t access JobKeeper. One family day care educator said to me that they’re running at a 70 per cent loss and are still waiting on an exceptional funding circumstances answer four weeks later. It’s no wonder the sector is seriously struggling to deliver the Prime Minister’s free child care commitment when they’re expected to do this with a lot less funding.

The government is spending less on child care than they would have under business as usual. Indeed, in the December 2019 budget update, less than six months ago, the government said it was on track to spend $8.3 billion on the childcare subsidy. That works out to be about $2.1 billion a quarter of funding from the government. So when we hear the government say that they’ve put $1.6 billion worth of funding into a rescue package, that’s actually less than they had budgeted to spend on child care. Please: when this government does their spin about the childcare subsidy we always have to look deeper.

Another example is the Tiny Tots Child Care Centre in Brisbane which was so angry and upset about this that they put up signs saying, ‘ScoMo thinks we’re only worth $5.99 an hour’. They certainly would not agree with the minister’s comments in here that the government is valuing them. They certainly don’t believe what the government say in their empty rhetoric about how early educators have done a great job when, from their perspective, they’re not being paid any more than babysitters. Quite frankly, it’s time the government started looking at this policy seriously.

Of course, the government’s response has been to blame providers. We have seen strongly worded communications to providers, threatening their funding if they don’t provide enough places and hours for the community. They’ve set up a new hotline for informers, for families—’If the centres don’t provide enough child care, then ring up and dob those centres in.’ Right around the country there are families that cannot find child care. I know that members from our side of the parliament are getting inundated by families that cannot find care. When the minister was confronted by these families he said—and this was his solution—’Call my ministerial office.’ I encourage those families to give him a call, because this is a systemic problem right around the country.

We on this side of the House always believe that early learning is one of the best investments a government can make. We’ve always been the party that believes in better quality, better access and better affordability. This will be incredibly important in the future. We are seeing families returning to work—whether that’s from maternity leave or getting a job as we emerge out of this crisis. It would be a tragedy if they could not return to work not because of COVID-19 and the impact it has had on their jobs but because they couldn’t find a childcare place. If the government doesn’t seriously address this and fund free child care properly, we will see this acting as a handbrake on economic recovery.

It is not good enough that the government just sits on its hands and says, ‘We always knew that there would be unintended consequences.’ Well, address these unintended consequences. Help those families who are desperately trying to find a place. Help those centres that are doing their very best under very difficult circumstances to actually get on with the job rather than worrying week to week whether they will be able to make ends meet, whether they will be able to keep their doors open, whether they will have to cut their hours and whether they will have to lay off educators. These are the real decisions that are being made right now in centres and services around this country. They are at breaking point.

I hope the minister does not break his promise. He promised free child care to every working Australian. He promised child care to those disadvantaged children in our community. It is high time that this government delivers on that promise and funds free child care.

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