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Thursday, 23 March 2017
Page: 2033

Senator McALLISTER (New South WalesDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (13:45): Here we are for the second day running, debating legislation where it seems that the government is in fact proposing something different to the conversation that is being had in the chamber. As we heard from Senator Kakoschke-Moore, she is anticipating a change in the government position on a number of key issues, but no-one in this chamber has been informed about what is actually going on. What piece of legislation is it that we will be asked to vote upon later today? I think it is absolutely appalling that, where all of the evidence says that we need action on child care, action to support women's participation in the workforce and action to support the development of children, our most important asset, it has taken three years for a package to be brought into this chamber, and we do not even know what it is. We have not heard from the minister about what his intentions are. We know nothing except from the little crumbs let loose earlier in her remarks by Senator Kakoschke-Moore.

What we do know of course is that the premise for this entire package is that, if you want any changes at all to the childcare arrangements, you are going to have to pay for it by cuts to families. So the whole structure of the package that is being put before the Senate, the legislation that was considered last night in combination with the legislation today, is that you rob Peter to pay Paul; you take money away from families with one hand, and perhaps you give it back to those same families, or perhaps you give it to different families, with the other. There is no consideration of how we might appropriately fund families and particularly women, who bear the bulk of the burden in relation to child care in this country. There is no consideration of ways to do that except by means that hurt working-class and middle-class families. It is a hallmark of this government's approach to policymaking and the budget that it has chosen to link these two bills together.

I want to say, though, that we seek to be a constructive player in this process. We have made clear the changes that we think are necessary to bring this part of this package up to a level that is acceptable. I am going to say that we do not think it is good—there is so much that we need to do in relation to early childhood in this country—but there are some threshold issues in the package that the Senate is required to consider today. The first of those is that we seek changes to the activity test. As you have heard from our earlier speakers, we are deeply concerned that in the arrangements presented in the legislation as it stands at the moment—the information that we have about it—the changes to the activity test will halve access to early childhood education for disadvantaged children. We are similarly concerned that the lack of funding guarantees for Indigenous and mobile budget based funded services means that those services are in jeopardy, and the families who rely on them will also have their access to early childhood services reduced.

I want to talk a little bit about what the stakeholders had to say in this process. These questions have been considered for some time, and it has taken a very long time for the government to bring a package into the chamber. What did the stakeholders say? They were particularly concerned about the linking of cuts to family payments with these changes to child care. Investment in early education should not be held hostage to family tax benefit cuts, and yet that is exactly what we have seen in this chamber.

The Australian Childcare Alliance recommended that the implementation of this support not be delayed by any other legislation. The Early Learning and Care Council of Australia recommended that we:

Decouple funding for the Jobs for Families Package from cuts to Family Tax Benefit payments.

That was when we were considering another version of the legislation. They said that child care was an initiative that should stand on its own merits. The Parenthood said:

The link to Family Tax Benefits looks more like a political link rather than a budgetary one.

It is a political strategy which will adversely impact the same families the government argues its new childcare reforms will especially benefit.

Goodstart Early Learning also made a submission, and they said:

As families are struggling with cost of living pressures across the board, we strongly urge the Government and the Parliament to proceed—

around reform of childcare—

… without any further cuts to family payments.

That is not what happened last night. Last night, certain parties sitting on the crossbench fell over themselves to rush over to the government's side and vote for a series of cuts to family payments that will impact greatly on families. These are not wealthy families. These are families for whom family tax benefit makes a great deal of difference. It makes a difference in their ability to pay for school excursions. It makes a difference in just going down and getting those school shoes at the beginning of the school term. In some instances, it makes a difference in whether or not they are putting groceries in the cupboard.

There are many ways that we can go about budget repair, and no-one in this chamber says that this ought not to be a priority for government or for the parliament. But the priority ought to be proceeding with budget repair that is fair, not budget repair that targets—as it so often does with this government—the poorest people, working families and people who struggle to make ends meet from week to week. Unfortunately, the entire structure of this package is predicated on exactly this approach.

In relation to the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Jobs for Families Child Care Package) Bill 2016, which is before us now, we have called for changes to the activity test. Under the new activity test, families will receive 36 hours per fortnight when both parents undertake activities for eight to 16 hours per fortnight, 72 hours per fortnight when both parents undertake activities for 16 to 48 hours per fortnight and 100 hours per fortnight when both parents undertake activities for 48 hours-plus per fortnight. It is pretty complicated.

I think most people understand that contemporary workplaces are not quite as orderly as they might once have been. Many Australians, particularly Australian women, work in workplaces where their hours are highly variable, but that is not how child care works. Childcare businesses require you to take a place and pay for it every week whether you need it or not, so there is a mismatch between the kinds of activities that the parents in need of child care might be undertaking and the kinds of services that are conventionally provided by long day care. Many of the submitters to the various Senate inquiries into this matter have called upon the government to consider a more flexible arrangement, in terms of the activity test, that responds to the realities of work for Australians and, in particular, work for Australian women.

Of course, the other component of this is that the practical effect of the changes to the activity test is to halve access for disadvantaged children. That is completely unacceptable, and we stand alongside those stakeholders—those practitioners, those childcare providers—who have pointed out to the government that this is completely unacceptable.

It is no exaggeration to say that access to early childhood education delivers a benefit for the whole society. This is not, as some people would have you believe, a benefit to middle-class families. I heard Senator Hinch's remarks before. This is an investment in the productivity of Australian workplaces, the productivity of Australian women and the education of Australian children. These are benefits that flow right across the society, and the productivity commission, when it looked at this question, was able to conclude that investments of these kinds yield enormous benefits to the Australian economy.

I want to talk in particular about what one important stakeholder has said today about this particular question of availability. Early Childhood Australia issued a media statement today begging the crossbench to stand firm on the childcare bill amendments to make sure that the bill that is passed in this chamber is in the best interests of children. In particular they said, 'We are calling on the Xenophon team and other crossbench senators to at least support an increase to 15 hours of care as a baseline to allow the most vulnerable children consistent access to two days of care a week.'

Unfortunately, that is not the advice that Senator Kakoschke-Moore has just provided to this chamber. Senator Kakoschke-Moore has indicated that they are happy to settle at 12 hours. They think it is too expensive and too difficult to pursue the baseline test that has been set by all of the stakeholders—all of those who actually work with children. As negotiators, it is pretty poor, because these guys have settled for something which is completely inadequate and which the sector is saying should not proceed. The sector and Early Childhood Australia calls on the Senate to block the bill today unless there is an amendment to increase the base entitlement to 15 hours a week. It could not be clearer. The early childhood educators have got a very clear message for senators here today. Unfortunately, we have already heard from Senator Kakoschke-Moore that they are not interested in pursuing that.

I say to the Nick Xenophon Team—to Senator Xenophon, to Senator Kakoschke-Moore, to Senator Griff—that they need to reconsider this, that it is not good enough to go to an election as they did, promising to do all the right things on child care, promising that they will represent the people of South Australia, promising that they will represent their interests in this parliament and then to come into this chamber and say: 'Oh, we thought it was all too hard. The government told us they couldn't do it, and so we decided not to press for it in our negotiations. We've settled for something completely inadequate, something that the sector says they don't want. We settled anyway.'

The sector has also indicated that they need to make the income threshold for the base level of care increase and they want changes to the activity test to make it more flexible for families who are in casual or unpredictable work situations.

I think it is time for government senators—for the minister or the minister representing the minister—to come in here and tell us what is proposed. We hear rumours that an agreement has been reached, that something different is going to be presented to this chamber, but of course we have no detail. Opposition senators find themselves presenting their thoughts about the bill and about the future of early childhood education without the benefit of any understanding whatsoever about the secret deal that has been agreed between the Nick Xenophon Team, as alluded to very directly by Senator Kakoschke-Moore, and the government. But I can say this: if it is, as Senator Kakoschke-Moore indicated, failing to deliver on the 15 hours which the industry has indicated is the benchmark for support for this bill then the Senate ought not pass the legislation. This is a problem, and Early Childhood Australia has put a very clear marker in the ground for all crossbench senators to consider. It is extraordinary that the Nick Xenophon Team has come in here today and explained that they do not intend to heed that advice.

Of course, the other area where Labor seeks action is around Indigenous children's services. Thus far—and who knows if something is about to change—the government has not guaranteed ongoing direct subsidies to around 300 Indigenous and mobile services that are accessed by 20,000 children mostly in rural and remote communities. I would be interested in understanding what the National Party think about this, because we hear a lot from the National Party about their role in supporting rural and remote communities but do not hear very much from them at times like this. We hear almost nothing. We hear a lot about their support for Indigenous Australians, but we hear nothing from the National Party about the shortcomings in this bill. Deloitte found that these changes will seriously disadvantage Indigenous children. They found that 40 per cent of families—

Debate interrupted.

The PRESIDENT: It being 2 pm, we move to questions without notice.