Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Jobs for Families Child Care Package) Bill 2016

23 March 2017

As Senator Gallagher outlined to the chamber, Labor has significant concerns about the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Jobs for Families Child Care Package) Bill 2016, the legislation that is before us today. In insisting that the only way to pay for childcare changes was through cutting family payments, the government has agreed to remove the changes from the omnibus cuts, and here we are today. I think that, while this might be a step forward, there are significant problems with the package that is before us. It is interesting to hear Senator Kakoschke-Moore's remarks about some of the compromises they may have made.

I have serious concerns about the package, and I am particularly worried about its impact on vulnerable children. We have not had the opportunity to see what deals the crossbench has done purportedly to fix this problem. There are serious flaws in the government's proposed changes to child care. We have made it clear that we will support the government's proposed changes if it fixes its package. So far it has refused to do so. It clearly has some negotiation going on, but not with us.

We have a very clear benchmark for what we would consider, to make sure that this package does not take services away from the most vulnerable in our community. The government has not addressed workforce participation concerns for parents to bring greater confidence and certainty to our sector, nor has it addressed the high-churn, low-pay conditions for many early educators. They are a professional work force and they deserve professional pay for the education and care they provide to our children—indeed, to my own son. The government has not addressed waiting lists. Parents are still waiting for too long for child care, which means children are being denied access to crucial early childhood education. We need to consider capping fees that providers can charge parents. That is not the same as capping the assistance that is available to parents. Labor has been working on and pointing out these problems for a long time; they are not new. We would have expected more from the government in bringing forward this package. Most fundamentally, we should not have to accept and will not accept child care changes that will disadvantage those who are already disadvantaged. The changes that are in the legislation before us do just that.

The bill cuts in half access to early childhood education for many vulnerable and disadvantaged children. What we have in this bill effectively cuts access from two days a week to just one day for families earning less than $65,000 per year. The ANU, in research, has shown that these changes will leave one in three families worse off. It has shown that 330,000 families will be worse off and 126,000 will be no better off—that is, almost half of all families, half a million families, will be worse off or no better off. Most importantly, low-income families with earned income of less than $65,000—there are 71,000 of those families—will be worse off. What is attached to these changes is a harsh activity test that will leave children in 150,000 families worse off. We are talking about access to just two days care and the need to maintain that. This is a change which particularly impacts the most vulnerable children in our community. We have been working with many stakeholder organisations to identify these problems for more than 18 months.

It is clear that the government has shifted around the edges of admitting that there is a significant problem at the heart of these changes, but it has papered over them. Perhaps it has been dragged kicking and screaming by the crossbench to do something about it, but we need to make sure that whatever is on the table fundamentally does not disadvantage these children. It seems as if Malcolm Turnbull does not care about the families that need this benefit the most, those with our most vulnerable children, because they are not adequately included in the package that is before us. Indeed, the government sought to make savings at their expense.

Community groups, service providers and advocates for vulnerable children have all come out against changes, to make sure that vulnerable and disadvantaged children continue to have access to at least two days of early education a week. They include organisations like Australian Childcare Alliance, Early Childhood Australia, Family Day Care Australia, UnitingCare, Anglicare, the Brotherhood of St Laurence, United Voice and more. These are organisations that understand what children, particularly vulnerable children, need in order to grow up safe and happy. At times, while a family may be suffering some complexities or dysfunction, access to those two days of care a week is what might enable a mother to go to drug and alcohol rehabilitation counselling, to go and sort out other issues in life, so we should not be depriving children for whom sometimes that time a child care is the most stable and nurturing time in their week.

So it is of significant concern to me that what the government proposed was to reduce their access from two days of care a week to one day. That is not meaningful when you are trying to create a nurturing, stable environment, particularly one where carers—early childhood educators—within a childcare centre are able to form a relationship with a child and monitor their learning and development. You cannot do that in one day a week, and you certainly cannot do that for the most vulnerable children, who may have more complex needs.

Quality early childhood education is really important for all families. We cannot underestimate how important are those early years, from zero to three, when a child's brain develops and their wiring is laid down. It is particularly why I am very grateful for the quality early childhood education that my son has received. He has been accessing child care since he was seven months old, and he is now 2½. Evidence tells us that a person's life successes, health and emotional wellbeing have their roots in early childhood. We know that if we get it right in those early years we can expect children to thrive and to succeed throughout school and their adult lives.

On that note, I really want to express my own personal gratitude to the early childhood educators at my son's childcare centre at Marjorie Mann Lawley in Mount Lawley in Western Australia. I can see the importance of his carers having had time to attach to him. I cannot help but think of what a dreadful situation it is to have children who need that attachment and time with their early childhood educators but who are not able to get that successfully. They are not able to get anything meaningful out of their early childhood education because they are there for just one day a week. Essentially, it becomes a babysitting service for that day, because you cannot do the things you need to do with that child in monitoring their wellbeing over time, as early childhood educators are well positioned to do.

We need caring and supportive environments that promote optimal early childhood development and which increase a child's chances of successful transition to school. We know that this promotes children's chances of achieving better learning outcomes while at school, and better education, employment and health after they leave school. This starts in those very early years.

We know that seriously negative experiences, such as neglect and abuse, on the other hand, affect brain development in significant ways and contribute to emotional and behavioural problems later in life. Indeed, I have been discussing these issues as part of Mental Health Week with people who are here with the Mental Health Advocacy Service today. It is really about how we do need to support infants and young children in their attachment to family, because that is where episodes of anxiety and depression can in fact come from later in life. These experiences that a child has in its early years can support learning and positive development, or badly interfere with it.

As the Shadow Minister for Families and Communities, I know that the government's proposed childcare changes will impact most on the most vulnerable children and the most disadvantaged people in our society. They impact negatively on Indigenous children, children who already have lower early education enrolment rates than the average child in every single state and territory across the country. I have spoken to stakeholders and providers, who have been alarmed and who have expressed their serious concerns. They have pleaded directly to me about the uncertainty for their services that this package has caused. In fact we need to be doing more, not less, for these services.

So we have seen a package that would scrap the Budget Based Funded Program that provides subsidies to services. We are yet to have the explanation about how pushing 300 Indigenous and mobile providers into so-called 'mainstream' funding arrangements will work. We are seeking a guarantee that those services will not be affected and will not close. These services impact on and provide services to about 20,000 children. These are children who need more from the government, not less.

Deloitte Access Economics has found that the changes to the Budget Based Funded Program will disadvantage Indigenous children, and that 54 per cent of families will face an average fee increase of $4.40 an hour. Forty per cent of families will have their access to early education reduced and over two-thirds of Indigenous early childhood education services will have their funding cut. I cannot begin to speak of a $4.40 an hour cut: when you are already on a low income that is simply not sustainable for households.

On placing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander services in competition for funding with mainstream providers under the Community Child Care Fund: in doing so, the Commonwealth is generating a system that has the potential to marginalise small-scale community organisations and to support larger established organisations to secure more funding, actually eroding the local community cultural leadership in service delivery. That is what is working in these communities; they have to have childcare services and early education and care services that are connected to communities. Otherwise, families will not come near them—they do not trust them. I have confidence in my son's childcare centre because I feel culturally connected to it at a community level. I cannot imagine what it would be like to send your child into one of these services if it is a cultural unknown to you.

While alternative funding arrangements have been proposed for these services, we do not have firm guarantees. As it stands they may cease to exist, leading to an increased service gap for vulnerable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. I am particularly concerned about children in remote areas.

The current government has made a commitment to increase places for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children by 5,000 over the first three years of the package, to redress the current 15,000-place early learning gap. I note that when he was minister, Scott Morrison stated in relation to the package:

The Government is committed to Indigenous children having the same opportunities as other children to access child care and early learning.

But again, the bill before us is contrary to this statement. Independent analysis of the changes by the ANU shows that vulnerable and disadvantaged children will have their access cut in half, and that many others will be pushed out of the system altogether. Indigenous and country services will also face closure.

We know that SNAICC, the Secretariat of National and Islander Child Care has been working hard to get these issues brought to the government's attention. Indeed, it has taken the government a long time to listen. This is unacceptable, and we on this side of the chamber will not allow that to happen.

Instead of having this bill as a driver for the positive change that ATSI children need, we need a government that is prepared to commit to addressing the 15,000-place gap in early learning. We need more places and more access. Malcolm Turnbull and the government have glossed over the effect that these 'reforms' will have on vulnerable children.

We will always stand up and fight for our most vulnerable children, including fighting for access for our Indigenous children. We will stand up and say we cannot support a package which would see more money going to middle-class families and less money going to the most disadvantaged and vulnerable children in Australia. It is, in my view and in Labor's view, immoral to turn our focus away from the children who most need our care and protection and who most need us to stand up and fight for them.

In that sense it is extraordinary that, after all this, it is rumoured that the Turnbull government has set aside $16 million to run an advertising campaign to promote this revised package. If that is the case, I am appalled.

I want to make some brief remarks about the activity test, because I do believe that there are great flaws in the activity test that has been put forward. The 12-hour safety net for single-income families is not equal to two days care, as the minister has claimed. Labor and stakeholders across the sector are calling for an increase in the available hours so that children can continue to access at least two days care. As I highlighted before, we are talking about Indigenous children and other vulnerable children. This is a fundamental test. Your access to care for those two days should not depend at all on your workforce activity.

This is another example of a government that, sadly, has all of its priorities wrong. As we have said time and time again, you are focused completely on giving more to those in our society who already have the most and taking from those who already have the least.

Removing access to child care increases the chances of our most vulnerable children falling through the cracks. We know it is a sad reality that child care provides some children with the safest environment they are ever in. Child care can play a really important role in the early detection of an abusive or neglectful family environment, and a child's time at child care may be the only time they escape such an environment. Child care plays a very important role in assisting and supporting all families that access it—in particular, disadvantaged families—and in protecting vulnerable children.

I worry that the changes in this bill will bring disadvantaged families to breaking point and will cause lifelong harm to vulnerable children. I urge the government to fix the flaws in this bill. We cannot and should not punish the most disadvantaged in our society, especially not our children. I really want to thank all those that are involved in the early childhood education and care sector for the love, care and development they provide to our children.