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Question Time: Childcare

Mehreen Faruqi 10 Jun 2020

Senator FARUQI (New South Wales) (14:22): My question is for the Minister representing the Minister for Education in the Senate. Minister, free child care has hugely benefited thousands of Australian families. While the package rolled out certainly had its faults and needed to be fixed, it was a signal that the government might start to recognise child care as an essential service which should be free and available to all and not just for those who can afford it. Returning to the old fee based system will put enormous financial stress on families and limit real choices for primary carers, who are overwhelmingly women. Why is the government plunging families into paying expensive childcare fees again when, just like public primary schooling, child care should be free and universal?

Senator BIRMINGHAM (South Australia—Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment and Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:20): I thank Senator Faruqi for her question. The government absolutely accepts that child care is important, and under the childcare reforms that our government instigated we saw, for example, workforce participation among Australian women reach record levels. We saw childcare fees become more affordable as a result of a significant increase in investment that we put in place into the childcare system.

Under our childcare subsidy—that we are supporting the system to move back towards—the greatest level of financial support for childcare fees goes to Australian families who are working the longest hours but earning the least amount of money. That is the way that our government believes government spending should most appropriately be targeted—to give the greatest assistance to those Australian families who are struggling to go to work and struggling to pay their bills, to make sure that they get the maximum assistance. In some cases, all of their childcare fees are paid once the additional childcare supplements are taken into account. For many, at least 85 per cent of their childcare fees are paid.

But for those families earning very high incomes, we believe it's not unreasonable that they pay some of those childcare costs. That is about how you make sure you run an economy where you can keep taxes as low as possible, create as many jobs as possible for people to be able to access and target the revenue that you spend from those taxes to those who need it most.

I know that the Australian Greens seem to think that there's a money tree, and that you can take all the money and make everything that you want to for free, and then you can ban other things and it has no consequence to jobs in the Australian economy. But that's not the way the real world works. Higher spending necessitates higher taxes, which means a weaker economy and fewer jobs. That's not what we want; we want to make sure that spending is targeted to those who need it most so that we can support as many jobs as possible.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Faruqi, a supplementary question?

Senator FARUQI (New South Wales) (14:22): Minister, a survey conducted by childcare advocacy group The Parenthood found that when childcare fees are reintroduced more than half of the households using child care will have a parent forced to reduce work, and that in more than two-thirds of those households the parent who will stop or reduce work will be a woman. How does the government justify this anti-women policy?

Senator BIRMINGHAM (South Australia—Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment and Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:22): I'm yet to see a piece of credible work come from The Parenthood organisation, I've got to say. The Parenthood, whose previous executive director I note was a Labor Party candidate at the last election, is largely funded by the trade union movement, so I have to say that their survey methodology is not one that I'm likely to take terribly seriously.

The point that I would make is precisely the one that I made before: we overhauled the childcare system to provide additional investment and to better target it, to make sure that we supported families and enabled people to have the choice to go back to work if they wanted. And our reforms have worked. Our reforms ensured that as we went into the COVID-19 pandemic we had female workforce participation at record levels in Australia—that we had driven up the number of Australian women working to record levels. Our determination is to use those same types of policy settings to get people back to work—not to be reckless in spending but to be targeted to those who need it.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Faruqi, a final supplementary question?

Senator FARUQI (New South Wales) (14:23): Early childhood educators and care workers have been fighting for better wages and conditions, but the government has announced that it will scrap JobKeeper for the sector workers earlier than any other workers. This is an insult to their hard and vital work. Can the government guarantee that no childcare worker will be paid less under the transition package compared to what they are currently earning?

Senator BIRMINGHAM (South Australia—Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment and Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:24): I can guarantee that the transition package is a very generous proposition for the early childhood education and childcare sector, providing some $708 million in support for transition away from the emergency measures that were put in place. They were put in place at a time where we saw childcare enrolments plummeting, and therefore the viability of childcare services to stay open and offer care to parents under threat.

We now see childcare enrolments back up above the 70 per cent mark. We're seeing families come back into the system. I think it's perfectly reasonable that those high-income families who can afford to contribute to the childcare fees ought do, so we get back to assistance being targeted where it's necessary. But we also recognise that to transition from those emergency measures back to normality extra support is required. That's why that $708 million calculated at 25 per cent of fee revenue will be provided to enable childcare services to do so successfully.


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