Federal Parliament - Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Improving Assistance for Vulnerable and Disadvantaged Families) Bill 2020

August 24, 2020

Dr ALYI really loved the way that the member for Fenner opened his contribution today with his acknowledgement that one of the most valuable jobs he has is being a father to his boys. I've often spoken in this House about my own experience as a single mother raising two young boys. It seems like it was many years ago, as my eldest son is turning 30 this year—which perhaps shows my age. It does seem like many, many years ago that I, too, relied on Australia's childcare system and on the fabulous and invaluable work of our early childhood educators and childcare givers in supporting parents who go to work—single parents, single mothers in particular—and in raising generations of Australians in their early years. Childcare is not just about wiping bottoms and wiping noses. As the member for Fenner rightly pointed out, it is, in fact, about developing our most precious asset in this country—our children.

This amending legislation makes some really positive and, might I add, long overdue changes to improve access and continuity of care for some of the most vulnerable children—children at risk. It also makes some minor technical amendments. Our shadow minister for childcare put forward a second reading amendment, and I want to draw attention to two aspects of that amendment—firstly, that unaffordable child care will force families, particularly women, to reconsider returning to work and could act as a handbrake on Australia’s economic recovery; and, secondly, that early childhood workers were ripped out of the JobKeeper program three days after the Prime Minister promised there would be no changes until September. While we welcome the positive and long overdue changes to improve access and continuity, this bill does nothing to address the concerns of parents for whom the cost of childcare is prohibitive and it does nothing to improve the value that we should have for our childcare workers and our early childhood educators.

We all know this Prime Minister loves a headline. In the midst of the first wave of this pandemic 'free childcare for all' made a great headline—it was a fantastic headline. In my electorate of Cowan, many people welcomed the relief from having to pay childcare fees, particularly if they were essential workers. The Prime Minister declared then that every person who was going to work was an essential worker and, therefore, every person would receive free child care. What a wonderful utopia it would be if, indeed, Australia had a longstanding commitment to free, or at least affordable, child care. The reality behind that headline was that providers weren't getting paid and that families were locked out of the system. Childcare workers were the first—the first—to have JobKeeper ripped away from them.

Much will be written and spoken about how this pandemic has offered us all an opportunity—an opportunity to reassess our lives, an opportunity to reassess our priorities and an opportunity to think about what's important to us. Often, when we're faced with a crisis, it has that impact on us, doesn't it? It makes us reconsider what we think is important, and, for some of us here, it may also make us reconsider what our future holds for us. I'm sure that's the case for many people around the country. I'd like to see this also provide us, here in this place as leaders, with an opportunity to reassess what we hold important and who we hold important and valuable. What this pandemic has shown us is that our front line has been those essential workers: our retail workers, security guards, cleaners, nurses and doctors—all of those people who we are now relying on to get through this pandemic.

Amongst those workers are childcare workers and early childhood educators. They are our front line in this pandemic. They are essential workers. Unfortunately, to date we have not valued them to the level that they should be valued at. Raising, educating and socialising a child is the most important job in the world. What we do here pales in comparison to that, and I know that many here would agree with me, whether or not they have used the childcare system. Our early educators and childcare workers are poorly valued. They do not receive remuneration that accurately and adequately reflects the important work that they're doing. Like one of the previous contributors to this debate, I too have been a longstanding supporter of the Big Steps campaign, which seeks to have our childcare workers and early childhood educators valued in the way that they should be.

While we may all acknowledge that childcare and early childhood education are really important and that these are really essential workers who've been part of our frontline defence in these times, and while we can take that opportunity to reflect on just how important good health and our children are, we still have one of the most expensive childcare systems in the world. The other day I made a phone call to one of my constituents, Matt, who wanted to speak to me about child care. Matt works, as does his wife. They have one child, Noah, and another one on the way. Matt and his wife and family are doing what many of us who have raised children and utilised the childcare system have done: they have sat down and calculated whether or not it is worth it for his wife to go to work when the cost of child care is so high that the amount of money that she will earn at work barely covers the cost of child care.

We might say, 'Well, if they can afford it, they should pay it,' and all of those things, but there is a broader cost here, a much bigger social cost that is often not counted or recognised when we talk about economic costs. The bigger social cost is that we have women who won't go back to work or can't go back to work because it's not worth their while to go back to work if they have to pay high childcare fees. They have their careers interrupted and then find it more difficult to get back into the workforce. I haven't done the sums, and I don't know if anyone has, about the economic costs of women being out of the workforce for longer because they can't afford the child care or because paying childcare fees is exorbitant and not worth their time, but I'm sure that there is an economic cost here. I'm not interested in the economic cost, but I do want to focus on the social cost and what that means for us as a society in terms of building women's economic freedom, building an equal and just society and the opportunities that we give to our future generations.

In closing, once again, I reiterate that Labor supports this bill—of course we do, because it does make some sensible measures. But we don't support this bill without standing here and drawing attention to the fact that there is more reform that's needed—a lot more reform that's needed. Reform is needed to ensure our childcare workers and early childhood educators are valued in the way that they should be and in a way that we should all now at least be able to recognise at a time when we rely so heavily and so strongly on them, if we haven't recognised it before. Our childcare system does need reform, and it needs much more reform than what is contained in this bill. Reform is needed because our childcare workers are so undervalued that they have been the first to be ripped out of the JobKeeper program. That needs to be rectified. We need to focus on providing affordable child care for families in Australia, particularly for women. If we don't, the social and the economic impacts of that will be felt for many years to come.