BILLS;Social Services Legislation Amendment Bill 2017;Second Reading – 22 Mar 2017

We know that this government is utterly incapable of consulting before putting forward legislation, but what a sadly disappointing situation we find ourselves in today, and what an utter, utter farce it is. Labor does not oppose the orderly dispatch of government business, but this government is forcing Labor to debate a bill that we have only had for half an hour or so. I have only had it for half an hour or so. They are so badly disorganised on that side that, you will note, there are no government speakers. They are so disorganised that they do not know what they are doing. They have capitulated. They have done a deal somewhere with the Nick Xenophon Team, which I am very disappointed about, and One Nation, which does not actually surprise me, to debate a bill with half an hour’s notice. We have had this bill for half an hour. It is an utter disgrace. They want us to agree to the bill that they did not even have last night, when they were doing deals on it. I would love to know what the deals are; I am sure eventually we will find out.

What we were supposed to be debating this morning was the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Omnibus Savings and Childcare Reform) Bill. The government has now finally, after being taken kicking and screaming, decided to split that bill. So now we are debating, as I said, an entirely new bill—a bill that has not faced the scrutiny of a Senate committee, that has not had public input and, as I said, that on this side we have only just seen.

We are going to sit till midnight tonight, probably till midnight tomorrow night and probably into Friday because the government have to be taken kicking and screaming when they change their mind on something. When they finally capitulate on something that we have been telling them for months is a bad idea and that we were not going to support, they go off, do their shonky little deals and then come in here and say, ‘Right, this is what we’re debating now.’ But when we want to debate penalty rates they say, ‘Oh, no, can’t debate that.’ That is taken off the agenda.

I am wondering if anyone remembers that when the government first got elected they made a couple of promises, and those promises were no cuts to health and no cuts to education. But now they are cutting assistance to families in a secret way, as I said. They have done their secret little deals that we do not even know about. Australia has record low wages and penalty rates are being cut, as are payments that low-income families rely on to fund childcare packages, all making life more difficult for many Australians. I have to ask again: what is the deal that is being done with One Nation and the Nick Xenophon Team. I cannot believe that One Nation do not care that a third of families will be worse off.

The government wants us, as I said, to immediately debate these cuts. I have been here for a number of years. This is my ninth year, and I know that the process of the Senate can be difficult to follow for everyday Australians. But I want to make it very clear to everybody listening out there that today we are expected to debate and to vote on legislation before the Labor Party have been given a chance to look at it properly. These are changes that can hurt families and pensioners. Without the ability of this chamber to properly review and stop these changes, that damage can be very, very bad. It is not a fair go. In fact, I would go so far as to call it an act of political bastardry.

One Nation say they are a party of the fair go. Well, they are not. They are puppets to this government, and any pensioner, single parent or low-income family thinking of voting for One Nation or the Liberal Party needs to take a really hard look at the cuts the government wants, and they need to say, ‘No, One Nation and the Nick Xenophon Team are not acting in the interests of my family.

I have had some disappointments in this place. I have had legislation go through that I have not agreed with. But I have never been so disgusted as I feel today. I am at the stage where I think, ‘What else will the government do?’ We know they have made lots and lots of bad decisions, and they have to be taken kicking and screaming every time because ‘sorry’ is obviously not a word in their vocabulary. They cannot admit to mistakes, but they will do shonky side deals to cover up the errors of their ways. Well, I will say this: the Labor party will not ever support changes that hurt families. We will not hurt pensioners, and we will not hurt the most vulnerable in our community.

I do not know where this saying originates, as it has been variously attributed to many historical figures including Albert Einstein, Mark Twain and Benjamin Franklin: ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and over again and expecting a different result.’ Well, guess what happens: with this government, that is what happens. I think this government is a little bit insane, because time and time again they attack the living standards of struggling Australian families and expect that the public, and the Labor Party, will fall in behind them. Have they not learnt anything from the backlash to their 2013 and 2014 budgets? Have they forgotten the massive public outcry that made Mr Abbott so unpopular? Are their memories so short?

I know that in question time Senator Brandis has a very short memory. He often has not heard of something, remembered something or read something, but the whole of the government’s side cannot all have such short memories. Rather than learning from their past mistakes and dropping their attacks on vulnerable Australians, Mr Turnbull and his Liberal Party have had the gall to ramp up their attacks. They tried to introduce, into this place, a bill which was unprecedented in its savagery, a bill which was an all-out assault on families, new mothers, pensioners, students and young job seekers. I think the Australian public would be very sensible to carefully watch the cruel cuts that the government keeps trying to implement and to stand up against them, like they did to the cuts in the previous budget. I call upon the Australian people to stand up against One Nation and Nick Xenophon and say, ‘You betrayed us. You claim to care for the battler, but you are just as cruel and as unfair as the Liberals.’

It is absolutely shameful that the government would link these cruel and savage cuts to investments in an area such as child care. In the previous bill that is what it was doing. Just to be very clear to everyone: childcare funding issues were related to the whole of the bill. For years this government has failed to deliver any child care relief. I should know about child care. I worked as an early childhood educator for 12 years before I came to this place, so I know a little bit about child care.

Since the package’s original announcement in 2015, the government has said they would not pass their childcare package unless cuts to family payments were first passed by the parliament. Since 2015, they have been saying that, and we have opposed the linking of childcare reform to cuts to families ever since it was first announced. It is unfair, it is unjust and it is simply a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul—but making sure that Peter has no support whatsoever.

Between the original bill—the Omnibus Savings and Child Care Reform Bill, which we were supposed to have been debating until an hour or two ago—and this bill there are definite links. With that bill that we were due to debate, the government was holding not just families to ransom to pay for child care but also pensioners, young Australians and new mothers. The bill would have ripped $5.6 billion from the household budgets of low-income Australians. The bill would have taken more than $3.30 a week from pensioners, families, new mums and young Australians for every $1 in proposed childcare assistance. I am not sure whether those on the other side are unknowing or unfeeling. I am often conflicted about this, about whether this government does not know what impact their changes will have on the least well off in our community or whether they simply do not care. We will stand up for low-income and middle income Australians, as we have done since this government began its attack on them in its cruel budget of 2014.

To add insult to injury, in the original bill the government admitted that its family payment cuts would leave 1.5 million Australian families worse off. Families that were going to lose their family tax benefit part A supplements would be $200 worse off per child, and families receiving family tax benefit part B would lose $350 each year. What those on the other side do not understand is that these cuts add up for families who are struggling to make ends meet.

I mentioned the previous linking of the childcare reforms in the package. Having worked, as I said, for 12 years in that industry, I am amazed that this government would even consider linking a childcare package to reform, in that sense. As everybody knows, child care is one of the most important issues that the government needs to deal with. We have all heard the old saying ‘give me a child until they are five’—some people say give me a child until they are seven—’and I will show you the adult.’ That is where the importance of child care comes in. To cut the hours in which children are able to access child care is completely self-defeating. I do not get why the government would want to do that. Child care and access to child care are so important that it should have been its own bill all on its own.

I am not saying that there are not things that need changing in the childcare sector; I think there are things that need changing. If they want to reform the childcare sector, I would like to see childcare workers get paid more, for starters. I would like to see childcare workers being acknowledged for the hard work that they do. I would like people in this chamber to stop making comments about childcare workers just wiping noses and stopping fights, as has been said. Surely, to any parent their child is their most important and most valuable asset. Their child is the most important thing to any parent. Surely, in that case, all parents would want the best for their child. But this government looks at things like cutting access to child care and halving the amount of hours for which some children can access child care. It just makes me shake my head.

This government would rather take money from the pockets of pensioners, jobseekers, people with disability, new mothers and families than make multimillionaires pay their fair share of tax. We have all seen how happy they are to give big business a $50 billion tax cut. It is the one thing that they will not renege on; it is the one thing they will not go backwards on. I am sure they will try to do a deal with people on it. I just say, ‘Why?’ Why would the government even think that when you have people in need and when you have people struggling? It is atrocious, and Labor will not stand by and let this happen. We will continue to fight any of these cuts.

We will oppose the areas of the original bill. The cuts were cruel. It is pretty shameless the way the government have come in here today with only an hour or so for us to have a look at the bill. In fact, I did not even get an hour to look at the bill before standing here today. They do deals with the One Nation team and the Nick Xenophon Team. We do not know what those deals are yet. I am sure eventually we will find out and eventually it will all come to the fore and you will all be able to see what you have been sold out for.

As I said, we support reform of the childcare industry in some areas—we certainly support additional investment in child care—but we do not support it being held to ransom. This government is more committed to cuts that will hurt pensioners, families, new mums and young Australians, than they are to delivering on their promise of increased childcare assistance. A wide range of organisations have called on the government to drop the cuts to family tax benefits, but the government simply has not listened. Despite hearing warnings about the serious flaws in the childcare changes for years, they have done nothing to fix them. An analysis by the ANU shows that these childcare changes, the ones in the original bill, will leave one in three families worse off: 330,000 families would have been worse off and 126,000 would be no better off. That is almost half of all families—555,000 families—that will be worse off or no better off. Over 71,000 families with an income below $65,000 will be worse off. The harsh activity test will leave children in 150,000 families worse off. I have not had a chance to look at the new separated childcare bill so I will be reading that with avid interest, but if it is anything like what was in the omnibus bill, I will be very disappointed.

The government wants to cut access to early education in half for many vulnerable and disadvantaged children and wants to, effectively, cut access for families earning less than $65,000 from two days a week to one day. Cutting access to early childhood education will only exacerbate problems. Early childhood education needs to be recognised for its powerful ability to solve social problems and to address disadvantage in the long term. I just do not think this government gets that. I think they see the big end of town and think: ‘Let’s not touch them. They’re our friends. We need to look after them.’ And they see children, people on pensions, unemployed people and new mums as targets. And they do not mind targeting them, let me tell you.

One of the things I am worried about too is the impact that the government’s changes will have on Indigenous children. In every state and territory Indigenous children already have lower early childhood education enrolment rates than average. These services are often small and in remote locations and they will not be financially viable without ongoing support. Deloitte Access Economics have found that changes to the budget-based funded program will disadvantage Indigenous children. Fifty-four per cent of families will face an average fee increase of $4.40 an hour, 40 per cent of families will have their access to early childhood education reduced, and over two-thirds of Indigenous early childhood education services will have their funding cut. Do you know what that means? That means that the potential of those children to make a smooth transition to school will be diminished. That is what that means. And that will compound the likelihood of intergenerational disempowerment and unemployment. They will not be that interested in school. They will not have had the start that other kids can get. It is well known that, if you put money into those very early years, where children can enjoy the environment and learn through play, they are more likely to enjoy school. I just do not understand why this government wants to make it harder for them.

We will have children falling behind before they have even started school and they will be at greater risk. What else did they have in the omnibus bill? I am going to run out of time to tell you all the things that I thought were bad in the omnibus bill. (Time expired)