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Monday, 25 November 2019
Page: 5537

Ms THWAITES (Jagajaga) (12:35): I am pleased to join my colleague the member for Kingston in rising to speak on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Building on the Child Care Package) Bill 2019 because access to affordable and quality child care is something Australian families rightly expect. As we know, this government introduced its new childcare system in July 2018 and since then we have heard stories from families and childcare providers about systemic design flaws and the administrative burdens the new system has imposed on them. So it is pleasing the government is finally addressing some of these concerns.

As the member for Kingston said, we don't often get the opportunity to talk about early childhood education in this House but we do know how important it is. It leads to improved developmental outcomes for children and it has positive effects on wellbeing, learning and development. The brain sensitivity of highly important developmental areas such as social skills, language and numeracy peaks in our first three years of life. Across the OECD, data shows us that 22 per cent of students who had attended early education for less than a year performed below the baseline level of proficiency in science yet only 10 per cent of students who attended more than two years of preschool were below the baseline. This means students are twice as likely to underperform in science if they attend less than one year of preschool, which is very important if we think about the skills our children are going to need for the future.

Access to quality, affordable child care is not just important for children; it's essential for families who are juggling the responsibilities of working, studying, being active members of their community and raising their children. I know parents in my electorate feel this juggle keenly. In many cases, arrangements about who does pick up, who does the drop off and which day the grandparents are required are so finely tuned that the slightest pressure means the whole arrangement breaks. We know, from this government's own evaluation of its childcare system, that 63 per cent of parents reported they did not understand at all or have much understanding of the new payment system. In fact, one parent reported that they needed to call Centrelink more than 20 times—and anyone who has had to call Centrelink knows it can be a trying experience. I have to admit that, in my own household, I looked at the complicated assessment and application process that the government was expecting for the childcare payment and I promptly handed that administrative burden straight over to my partner. He has handled that admirably, but not everyone is that lucky and it should not be that difficult. The last thing parents need is a system that makes it more administratively difficult for them, that adds extra to the already considerable mental load and stress of parenting. It is good that this bill addresses some of the issues that have proved to be a block faced by families accessing child care.

However, there is one element of the bill that is concerning, as the member for Kingston has outlined: the changes to the process for registering for the CSS, which remove the 28-day period in which applicants may provide their tax file number and/or bank account details. We know the child care sector is extremely concerned about this change and its potential impact on families in difficult circumstances who do not have immediate access to their personal documents. This may include families fleeing family violence or those displaced by natural disasters. These families may, in effect, be locked out of the system at a time when they need it most, and I urge the government to reconsider this change.

There are also a number of issues that this bill does not address. I'm particularly concerned that the government hasn't taken the opportunity to address the activity test and the minimum number of hours under the childcare safety net or considered the disproportionate effect this has on families from disadvantaged backgrounds. The first five years of a child's life are crucial. In these early years, 80 per cent of their brain develops. These years set up a child for life and they're vital in ensuring they start school with the communication skills, general knowledge, social language, cognitive skills and emotional maturity that will help them succeed. Research tells us that if students start school from behind, they are often left behind throughout their schooling. Research also shows us that children from low-income families are twice as likely to start school developmentally behind their peers from high-income families but that access to early education can reduce that risk significantly.

This makes it particularly important that our childcare system is most accessible to those children who benefit from it most—those who need the full value of educators who can help them hit their developmental milestones—and yet the requirements of the activity test lock out families where parents or carers are less likely to be able to engage in work or volunteering activities. So we have an unacceptable gap between advantaged and disadvantaged families when it comes to accessing child care. OECD figures show that Australia ranks below the average in providing access for disadvantaged families; we lag behind New Zealand, Singapore, Japan and Switzerland. The children most likely to benefit from early childhood education, those from disadvantaged backgrounds, are least likely to participate.

Of course, one of the obvious barriers to child care is the cost. Under this government, the cost of child care continues to go up and up. Quarterly data released in March this year confirmed what we already know: childcare fees are on the rise at an alarming rate. Since the election of this government childcare fees are up 30 per cent. The yearly cost of long day care, the type that most of us are using, has increased on average by more than $3,000 to more than $14,00 per year, an increase of more than 30 per cent. While the cost of living increases and wages stagnate, families are being placed under the immense stress of ever-increasing childcare fees. I've had these conversations in the playground, the ones where families wonder whether they can make their childcare bill; the ones where women—and it's nearly always the women—decide that they won't go back to work because the cost of child care is higher than their wage. And we've seen the reports about the very difficult circumstances that women then find themselves in later in life: lower wages throughout their careers mean less super and an uncertain future in retirement. This new childcare system is just not putting the downward pressure on fees that the education minister promised it would.

While the education minister did say in July last year that teething issues are inevitable, and I don't disagree—all new systems require a period of adjustment—in this case it goes beyond teething issues. Sufficient support for transition just has not been given by this government. Its own data shows that fewer than half of providers feel that the government provided enough support for the transition, and that only 40 per cent of services and 41 per cent of families feel the changes were positive. What an indictment!

I spoke earlier about the administrative burden the childcare system places on families and on centres. Now, the fear for those families is that they will be caught up in this government's version of the heartless and cruel robodebt system. We have heard that the government is planning some changes to that system, but it's unclear what it's looking at in terms of child care and recovery of childcare debts. So families are still facing the possibility that a miscalculation or an unexpected change in their working hours may result in them having a debt they certainly didn't expect and can't afford. We know that there is case after case of people being put under immense strain from receiving these unexpected debt notices, and so this government must take immediate action to ensure that families accessing child care do not face this additional stress.

The other area the government must address is secure, long-term funding for the childcare sector. In 2017, state and territory governments commissioned an independent review into early childhood interventions to consider the most effective ways to achieve educational excellence in schools. Seventeen recommendations were made out of this review, including that universal access to early education and care programs be extended to all three-year-olds, with access prioritised for children from disadvantaged families and communities. This would not only benefit children in their development but it would also benefit our productivity and health as a society, and even have the potential to reduce crime as people get the education they need.

During the 2019 election campaign I was proud that Labor proposed an expansion of access for three-year-olds, with a new national preschool and kindy program. It was a program that would have guaranteed access to two years of early education and care programs for children for 15 hours per week. Labor also committed to guarantee current arrangements for four-year-olds over the longer term, something the Morrison campaign, and now the government, made no commitment to doing. The investment in ongoing funding that provides certainty to the early education and childcare sector is something that is much-needed, and it would be warmly welcomed by all, and yet the government continues to be silent on calls to secure this much-needed ongoing funding.

I was pleased this morning to be at the launch of the State of early learning in Australia 2019 report. In fact, that report shows us that Australia's investment in early learning is below the OECD average and that we're ranked 11th out of 21 OECD nations. Our investment in early learning per child declined between 2016 and 2019. What an indictment. This government must do better.

The final point where the government needs to do more is support for childcare workers. For those who have worked with or know or entrust your children to an early childhood education worker, you know those are people of high standard who are professional and deeply caring above and beyond their job descriptions. I want to, in a slightly self-indulgent way, take this opportunity to acknowledge and thank the entire team at Heidelberg Goodstart, who are ensuring that my daughter is cared for and supported in her development every day she is there. More than that, she has a lot of fun, and I particularly want to thank Asi and Simran for this because my daughter's face lights up every day when I tell her that's who she's going to see.

Quality education and care requires a skilled workforce. We know that salary is a barrier to attracting quality people and it's a barrier to retaining them. The report launched this morning found that the sector is struggling to retain the people it needs. Again, this is something that Labor has looked at, and at the last election we proposed to address it. Early education and care work does not get the recognition it deserves across our community. It's undervalued and, unfortunately, undervalued often means underfunded. We know the benefits are well worth the investment in the early education sector. The ripple effects of children receiving one and, in the better case, two years of education and care before full-time school are well established, particularly for disadvantaged children. There is still a lot of work to do before we see a system that delivers for Australian children and families. I urge the government to do more to realise this.