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Wednesday, 13 May 2020
Page: 3328


Mr LAMING (Bowman) (15:40): Fix it? They already are. We just heard the Minister for Education point out that there's a four-week review. Remember that, in early education and care, this was a unique piece of crisis policy worldwide that kept 98 per cent of education open right across this great country. There are 13,000 childcare centres out there, many of which would probably have been imperilled had there not been this quick intervention. Obviously it's a complicated system in Australia given that so much of the provision of childcare services is in the private sector. It's quite easy when the government owns every sector, isn't it? But Australia and its unique quality of high-standard early education—uniquely, in the OECD, open to people of all socioeconomic backgrounds—had a unique challenge. The overwhelming majority of early education providers are private businesses that make private, mercantile decisions on something as important as early learning. But they do it so very well. It's a very complicated sector. Centres are run by church groups and state governments. Some have state governments as landlords. There's great variation. So, when you come up with a crisis response which is effectively switching off that very, very complicated system, coming up with something that could actually meet the needs of all those different kinds of centres was incredibly challenging. That's why we've got a responsive policy situation and a four-week review in front of the minister and the department right now to find solutions.

But what was often understated—and I know this from personal experience of speaking with centres that wrote to parents and pointed it out—was that, while JobKeeper played a significant supplementational role with nearly $1 billion going into the sector, a lot of that money went into the pockets of staff. Many of those staff were only doing small shifts per fortnight. Many of them were just permanent part-time workers who actually did better with JobKeeper. So those funds, self-evidently, didn't go to running the centres themselves. That is the heart of the concern from many centres who said that 'taking 50 per cent of the hourly cap or the fee total, whichever is the lesser' has left them technically in a position of lower liquidity to run the centre. And, although it was very rarely discussed—and I can see the opposition raising their eyebrows as I point it out—that's exactly why there is a special circumstances supplementary fund. It was created explicitly for that reason.

We know that up to $10,000 is available to potentially nearly 3,000 centres that find themselves in a situation where they aren't financially in the same position as they were before the crisis. There are plenty of businesses out there that are not in the same position as they were before the crisis. Let's just start with that antecedent point. Secondly, that fund is there for that purpose. It's responsive. It's fast. It's an easy process to go through, unless you're a Labor MP. It's fairly self-evident that the special circumstances are absolutely there in smaller communities in particular and for those in the centre of cities where their rent payments are higher. And, of course, that's ready and able to solve those uncertainties until, of course, a four-week review occurs. It's easy to chortle when you're in the opposition. For many of these small businesses who never see a Labor MP it's fantastic to have some interest from the other side of the chamber in something other than signing up their damn staff to be union members. You're finally taking an interest in the quality side—

Opposition members interjecting

Mr LAMING: I accept that the shadow minister has vetted a few, but I tell that you're flat out getting a Labor MP to show up to a childcare centre for the damn Christmas party. For goodness sake, show up. Put some books under your wing and show up to an early education centre and talk not just to those you're trying to sign up to the unions but to those who run the business. There are many centres and they range from mom-and-pop enterprises through to Goodstart Early Learning. There are very different circumstances. But those special circumstances supplementary funds are there to give a tailored response to centres that need it. And do you know what? Even after that, there will be this four-week review and the findings from it. So let's be honest: it's not blemish free. Let's be honest: it's not an unchallenging environment. But let's be frank: this is a government that acted early and in fact swiftly and decisively on COVID in a way that many other governments refused to do. I was in the UK in early March as they sat there, anchovy-like, in their House of Commons in the middle of a COVID catastrophe; whereas this government had already acted—acted for early learning and care; acted for the economy; and acted for employees who just wanted to keep a connection to their workplace. And I tell you what, when we pull all of those interventions together, this will be a nation very proud of what this government has achieved in the COVID crisis.