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Thursday, 23 March 2017
Page: 2112

Senator HANSON-YOUNG (South Australia) (18:00): I rise tonight to speak on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Jobs for Families Child Care Package) Bill 2016 as put forward by the government. This, of course, is a bill that has been on the table for quite some time. It deals with the issue of overhaul and reform of the current childcare funding system. It is something that has been promised to be dealt with for a number of years now in this place.

Just to be absolutely up-front with everybody here tonight: I do not think there would be many people in this place who would argue that the current funding model for the way our childcare system runs is adequate. We know that it needs to be streamlined and we know that it needs to be fixed substantially. We know that every week, every fortnight and every month, month-in month-out, parents continue to struggle with the rising costs of child care. But we also know that the importance of early childhood education and care in relation to our youngest citizens becomes more and more crucial.

The current situation, where we have two separate funding models—two funding streams—with the child care rebate and the child care benefit has been a confusing and ineffective way of funding child care for some time. We do need to have that fixed and to have it streamlined. The Greens support the principle in this bill that allows for both of those payments to be streamlined into one single payment. We also agree that we need a significant injection into our childcare funding bucket. We know that parents have been crying out for relief and support in funding and paying for childcare fees for an awfully long time.

We also know, of course, that in some places even if people could afford the childcare fees, or find some way of affording the childcare fees, they would struggle even to get their children or child into a childcare centre that is close to them in terms of where they work or where, perhaps they may live. The issue of vacancies and access is another topic—one that is not dealt with through this legislation, but one that I hope we can have another conversation about in the months to come. In some places the waiting lists for getting children into care remain very tight.

In some other places, particularly in rural and regional areas, there just simply is not the child care available on a consistent basis because of the lack of support and funding that make it hard for centres to operate under a viable business model. We need to go some way to dealing with that.

This bill, as outlined by the government and put forward by the minister, is something that has been looked at several times through a number of Senate inquiries, and it has had much community consultation. However, it seems that the feedback that has been given to the government in relation to this bill has fallen upon deaf ears. We know that there are fundamental flaws within this piece of legislation. Yes, an extra $1.6 billion is slated to be injected into child care, but that comes at the cost of funding being halved for access to care for some of the country's most vulnerable children.

It is astounding that we could have a package where more money is being put into the bucket and yet some people—the most vulnerable people, the most vulnerable children in our community—will get less. Why is that? It is because the government is cutting and reducing the base level amount of access. At the moment a family can access 24 hours of care per week for their child. The government wants to slash that to 12 hours. Of course, they also want to put a very low bar there in terms of where the safety net comes in relation to where one or both parents would have to participate in work activity. That bar is set at $65,000, which is not a very high bar for many families.

Maybe your family is one that is struggling to find work because of the high unemployment rate in this country, or your family is one, let's say, where one of the parents works at the Hazelwood power station in rural Victoria—that power station is closing tomorrow. If you are a dad working in that power station and tomorrow you do not have a job, then under this legislation, under this package, your child will have their child care slashed in half because their dad is not working anymore. How is that fair, that we punish the child because a parent is not able to secure work or has lost their job? We know that in these rural and regional areas the unemployment rate is increasingly difficult to manage and it is getting worse and worse every quarter.

Of course, it is not just in rural and regional areas. In my home state of South Australia, in the northern suburbs of Adelaide unemployment is at record highs, and, come October, the Holden plant is going to be shut down. Holden are leaving. They are buggering off back overseas and they are going to leave hundreds of workers without a job. Under this package, the children of those mums and dads who worked at Holden will lose their access to child care. They will not be able to get their 24 hours of care. In fact, they will not even be able to get two days of care. They will be punished if their mum or dad has not been able to find work.

We know that investing in early childhood education and care is one of the most important things that any government can do if it wants growth in productivity, and if it wants to futureproof in relation to educational and health outcomes. Investing in early childhood education and care is the best bang for any government's buck. The World Bank suggests that you get a $17 return for every dollar you spend making sure that a child has access to good early childhood education and care, and we know that means education for children under the age of five. It is absolutely essential for the social, educational and health development of our nation's next generation. So why on earth would the government want to reduce the amount of child care for some of our country's most vulnerable children? It is beyond me.

If this bill, and this package as outlined in the bill, is not fixed, if we do not put in place a proper safety net for families on some of the lowest incomes and for some of the most disadvantaged children in this country, we are going to see tens of thousands of children affected. Tens of thousands of children will suffer because their hours of child care are going to be reduced and their access to safe, essential care and education is going to be reduced. The government's own figures—their own figures—say that over 52,000 families who earn under $65,000 a year will be worse off under this package. We know that families with an income between $65,000 and under $170,000 are going to be worse off; that is another 55,000 families. And we are not sure what this will do to another 25,000 families. They will not be better off. They might not be worse off, but they might be. Tens of thousands of children in this country, about 100,000 altogether, will be worse off, with less access to care, if the government's package goes through as it is.

If you go out to childcare centres and talk to some of the early education teachers, and talk to parents, it is clear that the people working in these centres and the relationship that they have with the children that they care for is so important. It is one of the key reasons why all the evidence points over and over again to the essential nature of allowing children to have consistency in care, so that they are not being pulled in and out of care. We the Australian Greens are extremely worried that, under this bill as outlined by the government, if we cannot fix it, children are going to be negatively impacted upon because they are going to be pulled in and out of care based on whether their parents are working or not. That is just unacceptable.

We also know from talking to carers and educators in some of the country's hardest working childcare centres, in communities where there is high disadvantage and low socioeconomic status, that sometimes the childcare centre that a little girl or boy gets sent to is the only safe place that child has each week. And here we have a bill put forward by the government that is going to reduce that child's ability to access that safe space every week. I would not want to be the minister, standing there tonight and saying that a child who needs that consistent care, love, education and nurturing week in, week out is about to have that cut.

We know that the minister has all this information. The experts have put it to him. We have heard for a number of years now, over and over again, from the childcare sector, from education experts and from parents themselves that, yes, parents want more relief when it comes to paying their childcare fees. But, most importantly, we need to make sure we put the needs of the child at the centre of any reform. I can tell you that the needs of the child are not slashing their ability to access child care each week by half, from two days down to one day.

The Australian Greens will be moving amendments to this piece of legislation tonight, to fix the flaws in this bill. We will move an amendment that increases from 12 to 15 the minimum number of hours available to low-income and vulnerable families. That would allow children to go to a childcare centre for two days a week, giving them that essential learning and nurturing environment, and ensuring that we do not take that away from those children for whom it is their only safe place.

We will also move an amendment to lift the safety-net income threshold to $100,000 because we know that many families struggle to pay for their child care in a household with one income of under $100,000. It is not cheap to put a child into child care when there is only one parent working and perhaps the other parent is in and out of jobs, works casually, works on a seasonal basis or does not have job security—or indeed, like the parents at the Hazelwood power plant or the parents at the Holden plant, is about to lose their job. Why should their children be punished because job security is at an all-time low in this country?

We will move these amendments, and I appeal to all of the members of the crossbench to think very hard about what they are about to do in relation to this piece of legislation. Yes, we all want more money injected into the childcare system, but we do not want the people who suffer the most to be the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children in the country. Those children deserve the ability to get the best out of life, and that means the best opportunity in those early years. Do not condemn a little three-year-old girl from Salisbury, in South Australia, to being behind in her educational development for the rest of her life because the government decides to cut her access to child care. Do not condemn the little boy who lives in regional Victoria to being unable to access the only safe place he has each week, because his family situation at home is deeply dysfunctional. That is not that little boy's fault.

We know that unemployment in this country is getting worse. We know that job security in this country is getting worse, and we know that the pressure that that puts on families is immense. Do not condemn the children from these low-income and disadvantaged families to the dustbin just because they do not fit the profile. They currently access two days of care a week. Why would we rip that away from them? It is one of the only things they have going for them to get them out of that situation and to make sure that, when they get to school, they can read and write, that they do not think that they are behind the rest of the class and that there are people who believe in them. Do not make it harder for childcare and early-education workers in these centres, who would have to look parents in the eyes after these laws pass through and say: 'Sorry, but you just can't bring your child here for another day each week. The government has cut your funding.'

There is consensus across most parties around this chamber that we need to be funding child care more, and I think that is fantastic. There is a consensus that the funding model needs to be streamlined. Tick that—that is great. Let us make it work best. This is an opportunity for this chamber and this parliament to, for the first time in a very long time, get the system right. But condemning the children from the most vulnerable families in the country to less care than kids whose parents are lucky enough to both have a job is only going to continue to widen the gap of disadvantage and inequality.

When we look around at what is going on in Australia and we look at what has happened in the United States and we look at what has happened in many other countries, particularly in the United Kingdom, members of the community are getting sick and tired of the growing gap between the rich and everybody else. Let us try and make sure that we do not condemn these children to being considered less important in our education and care system because their parents cannot both get a job. These children deserve better than that. They deserve a government and they deserve members of parliament who are prepared to have their back, to help them up, to look after them and to protect them, because we know they are coming from families who cannot necessarily do that themselves. I appeal to the crossbenchers tonight: let us put the 15 hours in to protect those children, because the government is not doing it.