Federal Parliament - Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Subsidy) Bill 2021

05 August 2021

Dr ALYIt seems like only a minute ago I was up on my feet! I understand that I am towards the end of a long list of speakers on this bill, the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Subsidy) Bill 2021, so I will keep my comments brief and I will try not to repeat any of the points made by the litany of previous speakers that we have had.

I want to start my contribution to this debate by reminding those here in the chamber today about the attitudes of some members on the government side towards child care and some of the comments government members have made about child care; in particular, the comment about child care being the outsourcing of parenting. I acknowledge that that certainly isn't a sentiment that is carried broadly among those opposite, particularly the women; however, it does speak to the attitudes carried by at least some of those in government.

That comment that child care is outsourcing parenting reminded me of my first husband, who called me on the phone one day and demanded that I come home because he was done with babysitting the children. I had to leave work early to go home because he was done with babysitting the children. It is no surprise that I am disinclined to have complete trust that the government will take meaningful action on child care when those kinds of attitudes are expressed by members of that government, even if they are in the minority, and this bill actually proves that.

We have a broken system in Australia. Our childcare system is broken—so broken that UNICEF ranks Australia 37 out of 41 countries, based on an assessment of childcare policies, affordability of childcare access and quality of child care. According to UNICEF, Australia is one of only eight countries where child care consumes at least a quarter of the average wage. A quarter of your average wage is a big chunk when you think about how much is also consumed by mortgage or rent and how much is consumed by fixed costs like utilities, gas and electricity. A quarter of your average income spent on child care is actually quite a frightening statistic. Under this government, childcare costs are higher than they've ever been, higher than they were before this government came in eight years ago. Costs soared 2.2 per cent in the past quarter—that's three times the CPI—and 3.7 per cent over the past year, and 23 per cent of parents say that they are not working mainly due to the cost of child care.

That's just a very brief snapshot of the state of our child care. I know speakers before me have given further detail on just how grim that picture is and just how badly our childcare system is performing, not just in comparison to the rest of the world but within our own standards domestically—on domestic measures as well as comparative international measures. Moving to this bill and whether or not it goes any way to repairing some of those great deficiencies that are currently present in our system, I have to say that it does go some way, but overall, my assessment of this bill is that it is a ham-fisted and mealy-mouthed response by this government to an issue that needs much, much more reform, and the bill needs to go further. This really is no surprise. Every question time, as those watching would know, the government likes to ask what are called 'dorothy dixers', questions that give ministers an opportunity to wax lyrical and pat themselves on the back and say, 'Good boy, Angus'. But what's very interesting is that, as part of those questions they're asked about alternative approaches, they've never asked about alternative approaches to child care, because, if they did, they would be forced to talk about Labor's alternative approach to child care, which really does outshine this bill that this government has put before us for consideration.

Schedule 1 of the bill removes the annual cap from family assistance law, removing the limit on the childcare subsidy that families can receive, and this is a good policy. It is Labor's policy. It was a policy that Labor had before this bill was introduced to the parliament by this government. It is a good policy. In that, we can agree that this will go some way to reforming child care in Australia. But, really, when we go to schedule 2, that's where the difference is. Because in schedule 2 of this bill the rate of childcare subsidy—I will call it 'subsidy' in this speech—increases by 30 points for second and subsequent children under the age of six, up to a maximum of 95 per cent. All of these figures are very confusing! But, effectively, what that means is that families will only receive the higher rate of the subsidy for subsequent children as long as there's an older child and that older child remains under the age of six and has attended a session of child care in 14 consecutive weeks. In other words, once the oldest child turns six, the rate of subsidy decreases. There it is. There's the fine print. There's the caveat emptor. There is the bit that differentiates this government's approach to child care from our approach to child care.

In contrast, Labor's policy does not differentiate based on family size. It has no age cut-off, and it applies to all children outside school-hour care and during primary school. Analysis shows that 86 per cent of families will be better off under Labor's policy—that's 86 per cent of families better off under Labor policy. Six per cent will be the same, whether it's the current policy that the LNP Morrison government is bringing forth today or whether it's the proposed Labor policy. Eight per cent—just eight per cent—will be better off under the Morrison government's system. Compare the pair, as they say. The Morrison government policy that we have here before us, this bill, provides only a small amount of relief for a small minority of families for a short amount of time—until the oldest child turns six. The vast majority get nothing: zero, zilch, no subsidy, no relief, not a single thing. What kind of bill is this to repair child care when we've seen all of those statistics, when we have all of that information about just how bad our system is?

How is it that those on the other side can stand up and defend a policy that will only benefit a few and will contribute nothing substantial to addressing the abysmal state of our childcare system?

In a country where people from all corners of the globe come to provide better opportunities for themselves and better opportunities for their children, how can the Minister for Women speak about women's economic empowerment, as she did yesterday in question time, while defending a policy that actively discourages women's economic participation? In 2018, KPMG developed the workforce disincentive rate as a measure of the economic deterrence facing women wanting to return to work after having children. A 100 per cent disincentive rate basically means that a family is no better off with the mother working more hours, and over 100 means the family is, of course, worse off financially when the mother goes to work for more hours. That rate is calculated, and it takes into account increased income tax, loss of family payments and loss of childcare subsidies that often occur when women go back to work.

The KPMG study found workforce disincentive rates of between 75 and 120 per cent are common for mothers seeking to increase their work beyond three days. It was professional university educated women who were most affected by this. The impact is profound not just on the economy and the productivity gains to be had from increasing women's workforce participation but on women's career progression. Women make up 37 per cent of all full-time employees and 68 per cent of all part-time employees. They have traditionally borne the cost of child care not just financially but in their careers. This is not just about gender equality, because men are parents too, even those men who do believe that looking after your own children is babysitting. Fixing our broken childcare system doesn't just benefit women, even though that's what I've chosen to focus on in part of my contribution today. It benefits families. Most importantly, though, it benefits children.

It benefits the children of those families, because we know that those early years are critical to development. There's enough research out there, there's enough analysis out there, there's enough information out there to tell us all that what we have before us in this bill just doesn't go far enough. The implications of not substantively addressing the glaring issues with our childcare system go to child development, go to women's economic security and safety, go to social and individual community wellbeing as well as our productivity. So, while Labor is supporting this bill, we have put forward some amendments and we will continue to say: for those parents, for those families for whom child care is taking up one-quarter of their household income, there is a clear choice at the next election, a clear choice between a policy brought to you by the Morrison government that will only have a positive benefit for a small number of families for a short amount of time and a policy brought to you by the Labor Party that benefits the vast majority of families for a longer period of time and actually goes some way to fixing our childcare system.