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Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Jobs for Families Child Care Package) Bill 2016 - Second Reading

I rise to contribute to the debate on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Jobs for Families Child Care Package) Bill 2016, a bill that unfortunately falls very far short of what is needed in relation to addressing serious concerns about child care in our country. Labor has serious concerns indeed about this childcare package. These serious concerns not only have been raised by Labor but have been raised by experts, academics, workers and so many stakeholders that it is not funny. I am sure the minister has had so much correspondence and contact in relation to those in the early childhood sector that he knows very well why his package falls short.

That is why again, unfortunately, like my Labor Senate colleagues, I have to highlight some of the areas where this package falls short. But in doing so I make the invitation open to the government that Labor is still willing and waiting to work with the government to try and make this childcare package what it should be, which is a package that is the best for our young Australian children, who need our protection and our care.

We know that these current changes will halve the access that children from vulnerable and disadvantaged families get from two days to one day. That is a 50 per cent reduction. It will halve the current arrangements that are in place, making it a very flawed package indeed. It will have a devastating effect on the youngest and the most vulnerable Australians. We know very much from all of the research that the early years of a child's life are the most critical. Those years from zero to seven are critical for their educational development, for their intellect and for their wellbeing, and yet this is the very area that this government wishes to halve.

Of course, there is nothing new about the problems in this package that the government brings forward. Firstly, we have had two years or even more of total inaction from this coalition government—two years, of course, that have also let down families and let down the system. But now the government has decided to quickly bring this package forward, and in doing so we have ended up with the same old problems that the government brought forward all of those years earlier.

Labor has been pointing out these flaws for years now, and yet the government does not seem to have listened not only to the opposition but also to its own stakeholders in this field. I understand there have been something like three Senate inquiries into this very issue, and Labor has repeatedly pointed out flaws that need addressing raised by early childhood experts themselves.

One of the areas we are incredibly concerned about, though, is the threats to Indigenous and remote childcare services. The other area, of course, is the unfair activity test. I would like to go to the heart of those two issues particularly, but before I do that I want to highlight the fact that today, Thursday, 23 March, we have here an opportunity to actually get something right, to have an outcome in this Senate that is not for this generation but the next generation, to set them up in life to have the best opportunity that they can get. Halving the access that children from vulnerable and disadvantaged families will have from two days a week to one day is not going to help them. That is not going to help them in 15 years time when they are in a position in life where they are ready to enter the workforce and become young adults. It is these early years that are so crucial. If the government would listen to its own stakeholders, it would know very clearly about that.

Those Senate inquiries themselves reported on the fundamental flaws which were in this bill, seeing those children going backwards in terms of access to critically important early childhood education in this country. I remember when under the Gillard government there was an incredible amount of investment in the early years. It was actually first the Rudd government, in fact, and I was then in the state parliament in Tasmania. I remember being part of that very inaugural moment of early childhood ministers all over the country joining with then Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard for the launch of a new early years strategy. That was an incredible moment because there were state, territory and federal governments all working together, all with the commitment for this next generation, to set them up in life to ensure that they had the best opportunities possible in life, that there was an investment in these early years because so much research and advice was provided to show that, if you can invest in those early years, it will make such a difference to that child's life as they move forward.

Reflecting on that and reflecting on where we find ourselves on this day, I have to say, makes me feel a little bit sad that we are having to defend some of our own legacy and having to fight as well for the government to realise its own flaws and shortcomings when it comes to this bill. At the same time, we are also here to lobby the crossbench, because this is an opportunity for you tonight to listen to some of the outcomes of those Senate inquiries from the experts that provided advice. I wanted to highlight who some of those advocates were that made very clear why this package is flawed and why we need to do something about it: Australian Childcare Alliance, Early Childhood Australia, Early Learning and Care Council of Australia, Family Day Care Australia, Early Learning Association Australia, the Creche & Kindergarten Association, Uniting Church in Australia, Mission Australia, Anglicare Australia, the Benevolent Society, Social Ventures Australia, United Voice, The Parenthood, Affinity Education Group, Goodstart Early Learning, KU Children's Services, Early Childhood Management Services, SDN Children's Services, bestchance Family Child Care—and the list goes on and on.

That is just a small snapshot of some of the stakeholders that I am sure Senator Birmingham is all too familiar with. If he was all too familiar with them, he would know the kind of advice that they have been providing him, as have some of the academics such as the Social Policy Research Centre from the University of New South Wales. I highlight them because I want to talk about the flawed activity test in this particular bill. It is flawed because it is unfair. Professor Deborah Brennan and Dr Elizabeth Adamson provided in their submission to the previous Senate inquiry into this bill that the new, three-tier activity test introduces a level of complexity never seen before in the Australian childcare system. They said that this bill introduces provisions that will increase complexity and reduce accessibility and affordability for some of the most vulnerable children and families.

I am sure Senator Birmingham has read their submission and I am sure he is aware of their input. But for me, reading over their submission, this part was the most compelling:

The activity test … is also out of touch with international best practice, which has seen many countries expand universal provision for preschool aged children.

They have expanded. They have not gone backwards or halved; they have actually expanded because they recognise the importance of investing in the early years. I really wish that Senator Birmingham would see the error in his ways in some of this package, because reading some of this expert advice provided into these three Senate inquiries really made me realise how flawed this package is before us.

Labor stands firmly for improving our Australian childcare system. We have said again and again, so many times, that we are up for the job of sitting down and working with the government to fix some of the flaws in this package. We want to see a package go through the Senate that can offer some of the best assistance, the greatest assistance, to Australian families. We want Australian children to be better supported, not not supported or half supported. Surely Senator Birmingham wants the same thing, and, if he does, why doesn't he work with Labor?

I know that our shadow minister, Kate Ellis, has been so vigilant in explaining and highlighting, time and time again, how willing Labor is to work with the government to fix some of these issues and flaws. I do not understand why the government has ignored that collaborative approach, which I know so many Australians would prefer our parliament to work in. We should not end up having to fight in this place to ensure that we are protecting those families and children, when instead we could have just had a really good package before us in the first place. What Labor wants to see is the childcare sector and the childcare workforce supported by this parliament. But this bill in its current form falls short, and the government knows that it does. All of the advice that has been provided through the submissions and the Senate inquiries and through all its stakeholders, including academics, shows that it does.

We hope that, in the passage of this bill, the amendments that have been put forward, along with some amendments Labor will put forward as well, will be considered. We also hope that through that process the government considers and supports Labor's amendments. But we also hope that the crossbench, particularly Senator Kakoschke-Moore, realises the fact that there is a chance here for the crossbench to help fix this flawed package with Labor. The Xenophon team and other crossbench senators—and I acknowledge that Senator Bernardi is going to make a contribution after me—have an opportunity to join with Labor in helping to fix this package, ensuring we stand up for children. At least in doing so they can support the increase to 15 hours of care as a baseline, to allow the most vulnerable children to get access to two days per week rather than one. Early Childhood Australia have made it very clear and consistently argued that a minimum of 15 hours of early childhood education per week is in the best interests of children. And if that were included we would be more on the right path here—including, of course, the changes to the activity test that I highlighted earlier as well.

I am also very concerned about the effects of this package on Indigenous children. I am really worried about what these changes will mean for Indigenous children, who, in every state and territory, already have lower childhood enrolment rates than average. We already know that they are below the average in that sense. This childcare package ends that current, budget-based funded program that provides direct subsidies to 300 mostly Indigenous services that reach 20,000 children. These are the services that are often in the most remote parts of our country. They are simply not financially viable, without ongoing support from government. The government knows that. It has to be a basic government provision in this package that they need to look at. These are our Indigenous children, who are already below the national average, who are now potentially going to be even worse off if the government does not provide that support for that program.

Deloitte Access Economics has found that the changes to the budget-based funded program that I just mentioned will disadvantage Indigenous children through 54 per cent of families facing an average fee increase of $4.40 per hour. Also, 40 per cent of families will have their access to early education reduced and over two-thirds of Indigenous early childhood education services will have their funding cut. That is absolutely devastating. There is no way that a fair country does something like that. There is no way that Labor, nor the crossbench, should dare support such measures that send our young Indigenous children backwards. How does that fit in with closing the gap? Each year we all make contributions in this place on how far we have moved on closing the gap. It certainly does not help when a minister comes in this place with a child-care package that has that effect on some of our most vulnerable children in this country—our Indigenous children, who, as I said, are already behind in that sense.

Finally, as I made clear, we have really serious concerns—not small concerns but big concerns—with this proposed child-care package. This is the same package they brought forward some two or more years ago. You would think in all of that time with all of those inquiries they would have educated themselves and learnt from the errors of their past package and presented to the parliament today an improved package because listened to the experts in the field and the stakeholders who made it very clear that there are terrible flaws that need to be addressed. Instead, we are back here where we started. It is like a revolving wheel with this government.

The same thing seems to be happening with the racial discrimination changes. In 2014 we were debating the government wanting to change section 18C. Then it was off the table and now it is on the table again. It is the same with this child-care package. It was on the table, then it was off the table and now it is on the table again. It is the same package. I do not understand why this government cannot move forward and have some kind of strategy and understanding of what it is doing. Today is the opportunity. Today this government can learn from all of those in this sector and learn from Labor—and I would really love to say learn from the crossbench coming on board—and support what is right for children and what is right for families.

I do not have young children anymore, but I really relied on child care and family day care when I was a young university student with my first child. I know the importance of child care and I know a lot of people in this place and those who have young children as well know the importance of child care. Wouldn't you want for some of the most vulnerable children in this country the same level of care and the same important level of input in those early years that you want for your own children? If you do, support Labor's amendments and get this package changed.