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Thursday, 23 March 2017
Page: 2022

Senator GALLAGHER (Australian Capital TerritoryManager of Opposition Business in the Senate) (12:53): I rise to speak on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Jobs for Families Child Care Package) Bill 2016. I would like to begin by saying that Labor supports more investment in child care and we have long been calling for that. But Labor does not support the government's cruel and crafty way of making important and necessary investments in child care on the one hand whilst cutting family payments on the other hand. That is why this bill was so unpopular with the Australian community. Whilst Australians understand and support the need for and value of more investment in child care, they will not support that when it comes at the cost of making life harder for families with the passage of the other related but separate bill late last night. That is unfair and it is bad legislation.

Labor is pleased that the government finally saw sense and bowed to overwhelming community pressure to split the bill so that we can deal with these important childcare measures on their own. For years, the government has been warned about the serious problems with their childcare changes but, in typical style, this government has arrogantly ignored stakeholders and stubbornly refused to fix the monumental flaws. Analysis by ANU reveals that these childcare changes will leave one in three families worse off. A total of 330,000 Australian families will be worse off and 126,000 families will be no better off. That means almost half of all families—555,000 families—will be either worse off or no better off.

Of particular concern is that more than 71,000 families on incomes of less than $65,000 will be worse off. The harsh activity test will leave children in 150,000 families across the country worse off. For those vulnerable families on incomes less than $65,000 access to early education could effectively be cut in half from two days a week to one. We are talking about the most vulnerable and most disadvantaged children in our community—the very children who most need access to early education to help equip them with social, emotional and cognitive skills to prepare them for preschool and school. Cutting access to early childhood education for these families will only make problems worse. All children should receive quality early childhood education which should be recognised and used for its powerful ability to address social problems and to address disadvantage in the longer term.

Labor is particularly concerned about the effect of these changes on Indigenous children who already have low early education enrolment rates than the average. The Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care has warned:

These changes will diminish our kids' potential to make a smooth transition to school, compounding the likelihood of intergenerational disempowerment and unemployment. Children will fall behind before they have even started school and suffer greater risks of removal into out-of-home care.

The government's package will scrap the Budget Based Funded Program that provide subsidies to services. The government has been unable to explain how pushing 300 Indigenous and mobile providers into mainstream funding arrangements will work. The government has also been unable to guarantee that these services will not be forced to close. The uncertainty is impacting on these services and these families now. Budget Based Funded Program services provide early education to about 20,000 children who are, yet again, amongst the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our community. It beggars belief why the government would take the axe to programs that provide such benefits to children who desperately need guidance, support and education.

The government has also taken the decision to introduce a new complicated activity test which would remove the current entitlement of all children to receive two days of early education. This would see about 150,000 families worse off. As I mentioned earlier, the new test effectively slashes this subsidised access in half for families and it removes eligibility completely for some children in families with non-working parents. Families earning over $65,000 that do not meet the activity test will not be eligible for any subsidised care at all. The most common characterisation of families in this situation would be two-parent families where one parent—usually Mum—stays home. Currently, these families have access to at least 24 hours of subsidised care a week, with the hourly rate adjusted down as the family income rises. What these harsh changes mean is that, if a child's parents work casually or part time, which is increasingly the norm, their likelihood of accessing stable, subsidised early education is seriously compromised. The Social Policy Research Centre at the University of New South Wales has said, 'the new, three-tiered activity test introduces a level of complexity never seen before in the Australian childcare system.' They note, 'the Bill introduces provisions that will increase the complexity and reduce accessibility and affordability for some of the most vulnerable children and families.'

There should not be any need to make a case for the importance of investing in early childhood education, but sadly, with this government, there is a need. Labour will continue to make the case over and over again for early childhood education, as we have seen so capably delivered by the advocacy and representations made by the shadow minister for early education, the Hon. Kate Ellis, from the other place. We know what a strong advocate she is for ensuring that families and children, particularly those from low-income households and those who suffer from disadvantage, get access to high quality child care close to where they live to provide them with the best start in life. This is a core Labor value. How do we support those families? We know the evidence is so clear that children who get access to high quality early education, professional attention of the early childhood educators in a childcare setting, are much more likely to make the transition to formal preschool and school more easily and have better outcomes in the long run, not just through school but also in later life. That is how essential it is that we get the policy settings for child care right. We know that those policy settings outlined in this bill have some major deficiencies that will prohibit Labor supporting this bill, unless those issues are addressed.

I would say, again, that this legislation goes to the chaos and dysfunction of this government that we have seen on display this week in the shambolic way that they deal with their legislation program. We have bills coming in here introduced the moment before I stand on my feet to speak, through a motion supported by the crossbench, enabled by the Nick Xenophon Team, One Nation and Senator Hinch—all voting to ram through legislation without proper process. Whilst the government and the crossbench might be having all these negotiations and are able to elicit information about what potential amendments might look like and how they might impact on families, the Senate as a whole is being denied that. It is a major problem that I would urge crossbenchers to think about, particularly those who have stood in this place and argued for transparency, proper scrutiny and proper process. We have seen this week at every step and on every major piece of legislation that matters to the government that the crossbench have enabled due process and the proper role of the Senate to be absolutely abused.

Regardless of whether there have been previous inquiries and analysis, on the legislation that has been tabled in this place on the social security amendments, the minister introducing it in this place did not even know what was in it when he was asked, let alone anybody else knowing what was in it. We have the same problem here with the childcare bill. Even though those changes have been contained in other bills, we are unaware of the government's position on some of those fundamental issues around the activity test, support for the Indigenous mobile services and also the budget-based funded program. How is the government going to deal with that? That is critical to the support that Labor can provide.

We want to see improvements for child care. We get that people are finding it hard to make ends meet with childcare costs growing rapidly. We get that rising inequality is putting real pressure on those families that need access to high quality child care the most. We understand all that, but we need some assurance from the government that they are going to fix the major problems with the legislation that has been introduced into this place this morning. Again, we say that the process around this has been absolutely shambolic, to say the least. One of the most fundamental tests for any government is its ability to handle its legislation program in a way that is coherent and allows the normal and proper processes of the parliament to execute its responsibilities. And I am afraid to say that this week we have not seen any of it, and it looks like next week may be going down the same path, with deals around ramming through legislation around section 18C. That is a real disappointment.

Through the Hon. Kate Ellis, Labor has been arguing for improvements to early education from this government for the last three years, and it is one of the achievements of the government that they have managed to do nothing for all that time. They make promises and constantly talk about pressures but actually deliver nothing. Labor on the other hand have been out consulting with the sector, ensuring that we are able to understand what the needs of families are, where the pressure points are and, as always, standing up in support of those families who we know would be benefit the most from access to early childhood education.

This legislation is important because it goes to those issues around access to child care. I know from my own experience here in the ACT just how much of a transformative experience it can be for some families to have access to child care, particularly subsidised access or, where they cannot afford it, secure places in both long day care and occasional care settings. As I outlined prior, there are some issues that we see around the activity test. We have been very clear on that. I think the Hon. Kate Ellis has written to the minister in the last couple of days outlining Labor's position in relation to the bill and the concerns that we have. I am unware that the minister has responded to that letter at this point in time, which, again, goes to the completely inadequate arrangements in place to deal with this legislation in such a hurried way. To have a motion pass this chamber that supports dealing with these bills earlier this week, without the legislation even being made available, is setting a new low for this chamber, I think, and one that we cannot allow. I would again urge the crossbench not to consider each one of these deals in isolation but to consider the bigger picture, the role that the Senate was established to play and the role we are being asked to play now. Instead of being the house of review, the check on executive power—with significant powers to inquire into legislation, call for documents, understand the issues and question public servants with responsibility for designing these laws—all of that, seemingly, for the next two weeks does not matter, because we can just pass a motion on a Wednesday morning and have all the legislation the government wants dealt with, because we have a compliant, enabling crossbench that either wants this legislation to go away or does not want to have to do the work that is required to understand all of the issues and how they interrelate to everything else. For example, how does this relate to the changes that passed the Senate last night? We will have no opportunity to discuss that.

We are certainly hearing rumours that deals have been done yet again. I am sure at some point in this debate today we will find out who has done what deals. I doubt we will get to understand what the pay-off for those deals has been, but I would certainly encourage the government to come clean on what those deals are so that we can have an informed debate during the committee stage and have the opportunity to examine whatever deals have been done. But Labor remains concerned about those fundamental aspects of the bill, and we will not be in a position to support this bill, despite our desire to address the problems in child care and to see improvements, particularly for low- and middle-income earners, in how child care fits in and enables them to live their lives, and despite our driving the agenda on improvements in child care and child care reform through the work that the Hon. Kate Ellis has been leading for the government. We have issues around the activity test and the fact that we absolutely want to make sure that children have access to hours of care and that that is spread over two days, not over one. We think that fundamentally that is a problem that needs to be addressed through this legislation. We cannot deny those children the care that they need simply because the government have not understood the full implications of the changes they have made. We will have to examine that more closely throughout the course of this debate this afternoon.

This is a very unsatisfactory process. Our shadow minister has not had the courtesy of the minister replying. The minister has not engaged with the opposition, despite attempts to engage and to understand what the government's thinking is. Despite our objections to the way that this is being pushed through, we have sought that engagement, and the government seemingly, because they have been doing their deals with everybody else, have not had the courtesy to address the concerns that Labor has raised. We will continue to raise them, and we will wait and see what the arrangements have been with others.

We hope that others, in signing up to whatever deal they have, have not sold out children, particularly those from the most vulnerable backgrounds, who need this Senate to stand up for them and make sure that we are putting in place a framework that will provide them with the best access to child care and therefore the best start to their lives. We hope that has not been sold down the river just as 1.5 million families were yesterday because the crossbench got into some cosy arrangement with the government to sweep that through in one day of sitting without the proper scrutiny. I hope this childcare bill does not follow the same path because the interests of the crossbench are treated as greater than those of the community as a whole. That is who we will stand up for: we will stand up for the families of young children who need the Senate and the parliament to stand up and make sure that whatever arrangements, changes or reforms get through are in the long-term best interests of those families, their kids and the kids that come after them, but also the sector so that they are able to manage these changes and to deliver the high-quality care that so many families rely on.

We are not convinced that that is going to be the case today. We remain to be convinced. We know the sector has concerns. We know the sector is hearing rumours about what arrangements the government has made with the crossbench. Again I would just reaffirm how completely disrespectful that is to the childcare sector who deliver the care. They are also sitting around listening to rumours about what arrangements have been stitched up, seemingly in the dark of night, to get these changes through. It is not adequate. We should not be pushing this through, and the government should be engaging with everyone in the Senate in the interests of children in this country.