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Thursday, 5 December 2019
Page: 5235

Senator PRATT (Western Australia) (11:35): I welcome the opportunity today to have a discussion about child care. This bill and this debate are long overdue. The bill is officially named the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Building on the Child Care Package) Bill 2019, but it should in Labor's view really be named the 'Fixing the government's childcare stuff-ups bill'. Does the bill really build on the package when all it's doing is fix some of the design faults of the new system? The bill is a shopping list of some of the biggest blunders in the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government's new childcare system, which was introduced in July last year. Let's look at some of these blunders in turn.

The bill extends the time frame for enrolments ceasing due to nonattendance from eight to 14 weeks. Labor supports this change as it fixes one of the most ridiculous design faults within the government's system. Only a comically incompetent government would design a scheme that kicks families out of the system after eight weeks, when the school term goes for 12 weeks. Thousands of families using vacation care access the system only every 12 weeks. Labor told the government at the introduction of this legislation a year and a half ago that this would be a big stuff-up, and indeed it was. Now families using vacation care every school holidays won't have to register for the system with Centrelink every term. Anything that reduces the amount of time families have to spend on hold with Centrelink is a change that Labor will support.

The bill improves the treatment of third-party payments in calculating the childcare subsidy, and this is indeed welcomed. State and territory governments and the sector have been lobbying the government since July 2018 to make this change, so it's definitely a case of better late than never when it comes to this government.

We're pleased that the government has also seen sense in including in the bill a provision to remove the 50 per cent limit on the number of children that a provider can self-certify for the additional childcare subsidy for child wellbeing. This is particularly important, noting that some childcare providers have larger cohorts of vulnerable children. There should not be a limit in this regard. It's a mystery why the government decided to introduce this rule in the new system, because it ignored the reality of disadvantage in some communities in Australia. We support this change.

Most of the other provisions of the bill are minor and technical amendments which we support, but there's one provision which Labor will not support. The current system has a 28-day grace period in which families registering for the subsidy can provide their bank account and tax file number. Families are able to claim the subsidy and have 28 days to get those details into Centrelink. This is a reasonable and rational policy. It recognises that people don't always have their personal details handy when they interact with government. Items 35 to 38, 41, 42, 50 and 51 in schedule 1 of the bill remove the current 28-day grace period so that families will not be approved for the subsidy unless they have their personal details immediately to hand. In Orwellian style, the government is trying to claim that this change will reduce complexity in the system. It will make it easier for Centrelink—that's certainly true—but it does not make it easier for families, particularly families in stress who may be fleeing domestic violence or a natural disaster, or for people who didn't have time to grab the paperwork as they ran out the door. Families in stress still need their child to enjoy the benefits of early learning and care, perhaps even more so. They want to try and maintain some kind of routine and normality for the children, but if they don't have that piece of paper apparently this government doesn't care. Almost every single submission to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee's review of this bill made that point and was critical of this change. Childcare providers and their peak bodies are clear that this is a regressive change that will impact on those families that are least able to cope. This provision is not acceptable and we will be moving an amendment to remove it from the bill. We note that the government has moved amendments in the other place to allow families in crisis to apply for exemptions from this new policy. We don't oppose this change, but it sounds like it is increasing the complexity of the system for families and providers. We believe our amendment is a better solution.

Overall, this bill represents modest improvements to a deeply flawed childcare system, a system that leaves one in four families worse off. It's a design feature that access to early education and care is reduced for 279,000 families—it is built into the system. It is a system that only 40 per cent of providers and only 41 per cent of families told the independent evaluation reviewers had resulted in a positive change. Eighty-three per cent of parents told the evaluation that the new system had made no impact on their work or study. It's a system that has been forcing childcare providers to act as unpaid debt collectors for the government, because families are struggling to stay on top of the complicated activity and means test. It's a system that has been riddled with software glitches that have left providers and families in the dark without pay. So to claim that this bill before the Senate builds on the current system is stretching credibility indeed.

It is Labor's view that only ironing some of the kinks in the system is what this bill is doing and it doesn't really even touch the edges. A bill that truly built on the childcare package would include provisions that abolished the regressive activity test. A bill that built on the childcare system would restore the guaranteed two days a week of child care for all children that were within the childcare safety net under the old system. A bill that built on the current system would call off the government's Centrelink thugs, who have sent out blunt letters telling families they owe the government money, without any explanation. So far, 91,000 families, or 16 per cent of all families audited so far, have been hit with a childcare subsidy debt notice. This is more evidence the new system is too complex and not working for Australian families. It would do something to bring childcare fees, which have shot up 30 per cent under this government, under control. The latest CPI figures show childcare fees have gone up by seven per cent since last September and wages have not. Under this government, families, on average, are now paying $3,000 a year more for early education and care.

None of this is a surprise. After all, this is a government that has members who believe that early education is not the best way to invest in our future. The Minister for Education claims that taxpayer funding of early education and care is communism. The Prime Minister calls the childcare budget a money pit. Given that the government has for so long stuck its head in the sand and denied there were any problems with their new system, Labor is pleased that most of this bill makes some progress towards making it work better for providers and families.