BILLS;Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Jobs for Families Child Care Package) Bill 2016;Second Reading – 23 Mar 2017

I rise to speak on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Jobs for Families Child Care Package) Bill 2016. We all know that prior to the 2013 election the Liberals promised more affordable and accessible child care, but what has happened? They went the whole last term of parliament without doing anything at all about childcare costs for ordinary Australian families. A child born when the Liberals first promised more affordable child care will be in school by the time the government deliver. Early education and care are an investment in our future. The government need to listen to the experts, fix their package and just stop playing silly political games.

Labor still has some quite serious concerns about the childcare package. It is interesting that after two years the government are insisting that the only way we can pay for childcare changes is by cutting family payments. They will argue that they are freezing the family tax benefit. But, if freezing that is not cutting it, I am not quite sure what is, because, unfortunately, the cost of living will still keep going up every year, and the family tax benefit will not. It was quite encouraging yesterday to see them finally cave in after I do not know how long—months and months—and remove the link to the omnibus cuts. I still have not worked out what deal was done—I am sure eventually we will find out—but they at least separated them.

There is nothing new about the problems with this bill. We have been pointing out the flaws to the government for years. As Senator Polley said, there have been no fewer than three Senate inquiries where concerns have been raised. Concerns have been repeatedly pointed out by us, over many months and years, and they have been raised frequently by early childhood experts and the sector. So it is not just Labor that has these concerns. Today I read a media statement by Early Childhood Australia. I will read it into Hansard, because I think it is a very sensible media release. It is headed ‘Crossbench must stand firm on childcare bill amendments in best interest of children,’ and reads:

Early Childhood Australia calls on the cross bench to stand firm in negations with the Government around the child care package or block the bill in the Senate if key amendments are not made.

“We are calling on the Xenophon team and other Crossbench Senators to at least support an increase to 15 hours of care as a baseline to allow the most vulnerable children consistent access to 2 days of care a week,” CEO Sam Page said.

“Early Childhood Australia has consistently argued that a minimum of 15 hours early childhood education per week is in the best interests of children and that we only supported the Bill if this was included.

“We call on the Senate to block the Bill today, unless there is an amendment to increase the base entitlement to 15 hours a week.

“We also need the income threshold for a base level of care increase to $100,000 and make changes to the activity test to make it more flexible for families who are in casual or unpredictable work situations.

“Without these amendments families with only one partner working and earning more than $65,000 per year would receive ZERO child care subsidies and face the full cost of child care fees. They are unlikely to be able to afford this on such a low wage and their children risk missing out on the benefits of quality early learning.

“The Bill also needs to lift the support to Indigenous children who are twice as like to enter school developmentally vulnerable, and who need guaranteed support to at least 3 days of care under the new package. Then we may actually start to see the gap actually closing on early learning indicators.

“We are concerned at reports that the Government has stepped away from their commitment to increase the hours for the most vulnerable children in the community,” …

That was put out by Early Childhood Australia, which is the peak advocacy body for children under eight and their families and early childhood professionals.

It is not only Early Childhood Australia and the Labor Party that have concerns. Twenty-one experts and early childhood stakeholders signed a letter saying they did not support the changes in their current form and that they wanted to see an increase in the proposed level of base entitlement for subsidised care to a minimum of two days, not the twelve hours proposed in this bill. These stakeholders and organisations are Australian Childcare Alliance, Early Childhood Australia, Early Learning and Care Council of Australia, Family Day Care Australia, Goodstart Early Learning, Early Learning Association Australia, Early Childhood Management Services, KU Children’s Services, The Creche and Kindergarten Association, UnitingCare Australia, Mission Australia, Anglicare Australia, SDN Children’s Services, Gowrie Australia, Bestchance Child Family Care, The Benevolent Society, Social Ventures Australia, Brotherhood of St Laurence, United Voice, The Parenthood and Affinity Education Group. These are the people who work in the childcare industry. They do not sit behind a desk all day, every day. They understand the industry. They know what they are talking about. They know what is required for the children of Australia. It is high time that the government started to listen to people. We know it does not in other areas and has had to do numerous backflips in a range of portfolio areas, but this sector is the future of Australia.

We have said we would support the government’s proposed changes if it fixed its package. Unfortunately, it has brought it into the Senate today, and it is still not fixed. Analysis by the ANU shows that these childcare changes will leave 330,000, or one in three, families worse off and 126,000 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.

Experts and people in the industry have been calling on the government—it seems like forever—to drop its cynical political link between family tax benefit cuts and childcare changes; fix its harsh activity test, which will hurt vulnerable children; and better protect Indigenous children and services, but the government has not been listening. Many of these organisations have called on the government, as I said, to make sure vulnerable and disadvantaged children continue to have access to at least two days early education a week. The international best practice benchmark is 15 hours. But the bill before the Senate will cut in half access to early education for many vulnerable and disadvantaged children. As someone who worked in the childcare industry as an early childhood educator for nearly 12 years, can I say that cutting access to early education will only exacerbate the problems of these children.

Early education should be recognised for its powerful ability to solve social problems and to address disadvantage in the long term. I have heard things about this in this chamber before. I doubt that anyone else in this chamber has worked in this industry but me; I am pretty sure that none of the men on the other side have worked in the childcare industry. In fact, I am pretty sure that none of the men on this side have either! But let me just say that when I hear a senator come into this place—this happened a few weeks ago—and talk about early childhood educators, that all they do is wipe snotty noses and stop fighting between the kids, I am gobsmacked. Am I allowed to say ‘gobsmacked’, Mr Acting Deputy President?

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Sterle ): You certainly are, Senator Bilyk.

 Senator BILYK: I am gobsmacked! To me, that shows the absolute ignorance of that senator, that he knows nothing about the childcare industry and yet he deigns to get up and make those ridiculously stupid comments.

Just to get back on track a bit: as I said, we are worried about the impact that the government’s changes will have on Indigenous children, who in every state and territory already have lower early childhood enrolment rates than average. The childcare package will end the current Budget Based Funded Program that provides direct subsidies to 300 mostly Indigenous services that reach 20,000 children. These services are often small and in remote locations, and a lot of them are not financially viable without ongoing support. A lot of them need that ongoing support. They will probably never be able to be financially viable without ongoing support, but that does not mean they are not important. Trust me, they are very important.

Deloitte Access Economics has found that the changes to the Budget Based Funded Program will disadvantage Indigenous children and that 54 per cent of families will face an average fee increase of $4.40 an hour. Forty 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. The government must ensure that children can access two days of care, not just 12 hours.

I am concerned. I think that the introduction of the new complicated test would remove the current entitlement of all children to have that two days of early education. And of course if a child’s parents work casually or part-time we have more concerns. Their likelihood of being able to access stable, subsidised early education is seriously compromised under the changes. We know, as Senator Polley mentioned, that 90 per cent of a child’s brain development occurs in the first five years of life. I am glad that people are actually taking in some of the things that I have been saying for the nine years I have been in this place. Children who attend quality early education go on to do better in school, better in employment and better in life. Early education has to be recognised, as I said, for its ability to assist in solving social problems and in addressing disadvantage.

When I was an early childhood educator, the Tasmanian state government actually allocated me a special licence. I worked predominantly with children from disadvantaged backgrounds. I had care of children who had been treated so appallingly that people would cry if they saw it. I worked with these children for five days a week to try to improve the outcomes of their future lives. I think this is important, and I do not want to misquote Senator Bernardi, but what I think Senator Bernardi said, as I understand it, when he was talking about children at risk of abuse and neglect, was that they should not be given priority of care for two days and then be returned to their families. I am sorry, Senator Bernardi, they should. They should be given priority. They need every bit of help they can get from those fantastic early childhood educators.

Most of them, in fact, probably do not go back to their families. If it has been proven that they have actually suffered from child abuse or neglect—if there have been charges and things—then they will have been removed from their parents or whoever did the abuse. They may well be with other family members. They may be living with grandparents. I have had situations like that. I worked with two young brothers, one just over three years old and the other just under 12 months old. These children had been removed from their mother and were living with their father and his mother, who was 64 years old, in Hobart. Of course, this was back in the eighties, so listeners would have to take this in that context.

She had very severe health issues, but she had taken them in. The only work the dad could get was on the west coast of Tasmania, so rather than go on unemployment, or family support or whatever was around in those days he would go to work, when he could get work, on the west coast of Tasmania and these children would be left with a very loving, but not necessarily very capable, grandmother. She was not capable of chasing around after these two children so they came to early childhood education. They came into care. In those days they had access to four days a week, I think it was, of care. With the childcare workers putting in all that special effort and special programs, and with the childcare workers being professionals and knowing what these children needed, we did turn those two little boys’ lives around.

I will never forget the day I resigned and left childcare work. This specific dad was standing there with a little posy of flowers he had picked from his mother’s garden, embarrassed and apologising to me because that was all he could afford, because he would have liked to have given me the biggest bouquet of flowers he could find in the whole of Hobart because my colleagues and I had managed to get his three-year-old to talk, to finally have some language skills, and we had managed to toilet-train his three-year-old. For those of you who have never toilet-trained a child, let me tell you it is not particularly easy, especially when they have a whole lot of other problems. And in the next year or so his child would be able, with the extra-special care he was still going to receive, to be enrolled in a normal school, with normal kids, with the neighbours who lived around his mother’s. This father was just so grateful.

People know I have a bit of a bad memory—I have had brain tumours, so people work with me on that—but I think I will remember till the day I die that father’s sadness at me leaving, which was quite complimentary, and also his gratitude that someone had been able to help his child. I think every child in a situation like that deserves to be helped. I think it is our job as legislators to make sure that no child gets left at a stage where they cannot reach the best that they can be. But, if we leave it to this government, that is not going to happen. That is not going to happen.

There is clear and longstanding research to show that vulnerable and disadvantaged children have the most to gain from early education. As I said, I do not want to see any child not reach its full potential, and I know that my colleagues on this side certainly do not want that. Yet we have independent research by the ANU that shows that the government’s proposed changes will leave over 71,000 families with an income below $65,000 worse off. Do you know what that says to me? That says to me: ‘If you are maybe not as well off as other people, then bugger off; you do not deserve anything extra-special. You could all pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get on with it.’ Well, that is not how it works. If you lock a child out of the benefits of early childhood education and care—the education component, the socialisation, the learning to get on with people, the ability to develop their minds—then not only is it unfair but it shows a complete lack of understanding of the absolutely enormous economic and social benefits of those children having access to quality early education.

In the few seconds I have left to speak, I note that none of the three ministers who at various times have had responsibility for developing this policy has ever been able to successfully explain how these proposed changes will increase workforce participation. I would love another 20 minutes—but it is not going to happen, is it! (Time expired)