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Speech: Child Care Subsidy Bill 2021

Speeches in Parliament
Mehreen Faruqi 10 Aug 2021

Senator FARUQI: I speak to the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Subsidy) Bill 2021. The bill removes the annual cap on childcare subsidy, CCS, payments to families and increases the maximum rate of the childcare subsidy for second and subsequent children where a family has more than one child under six years of age. These are the two measures that were announced in the 2021-22 budget. The measures, once implemented, will clearly provide some amount of relief to some families from the expensive and burdensome cost of early learning and care, and for that reason the Greens will support the bill. Any funding boost for early learning is welcome, but let's be real: the proposed bill will not fix the fundamental problems with the current system of early childhood education and care, which is underfunded, with some of the highest fees in the world. The most sensible and equitable move would be to make child care universal and free. Expensive early learning has held women, children and families back for far too long. The benefits of free early learning and care for families and the whole community are beyond doubt.

While I'm talking about children, their education and their future, I can't not talk about the very dark cloud hanging over their lives—the cloud of the climate crisis. The IPCC report that came out yesterday was devastating. Science and scientists are telling us that, even under the most ambitious emissions reduction scenarios, the world is now likely to heat to 1.5 degrees or more above pre-industrial levels by 2040. The other big tragedy is that the Liberals have tied our country to the least ambitious targets, while they spruik coal and gas, and the Labor Party—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Askew): Senator Stoker, on a point of order?

Senator Stoker: The point of order is relevance. This is a bill about child care. I'd ask, Madam Acting Deputy President, that you rule that we should return to the question.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: I remind the senator that she should remain relevant to the topic, and I ask her to continue.

Senator FARUQI: This is a bill, Madam Acting Deputy President, about our children's future and their education, and this government is burning the future of these children we are talking about today: children in Australia and across the world who are hurting and who will be hurt and harmed even more if action on climate isn't taken. But rather than safeguard and protect our children's future we have a federal environment minister arguing and appealing against a landmark court ruling and saying that she does not have a duty of care to protect Australian children.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Stoker, on a point of order?

Senator Stoker: The point of order is on relevance, and I respectfully suggest that your prior ruling wasn't observed at all.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Waters, on the point of order?

Senator Waters: We have a second reading amendment which Senator Faruqi will soon foreshadow that she is speaking to. I note the tradition that second reading contributions are generally fairly broad-ranging, and I am in entire agreement with Senator Faruqi that, for a bill that addresses the future of children, it is entirely appropriate to be also speaking about the climate crisis.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Faruqi, I will ask you to continue on that basis, understanding that there is a likely second reading amendment.

Senator FARUQI: Thank you, Madam Acting Deputy President. There is a second reading amendment which I foreshadow. Here we are talking about children, their education and their future. There is a definite need to talk about their future under the devastation and destruction which will happen if we don't take immediate and urgent action on climate change. And kudos to the children who took the matter of the Australian government's responsibility towards them to the court. It is a pretty shameful abrogation of responsibility towards our children and the next generation by this government and the environment minister, who are appealing against that landmark court ruling—that the minister doesn't have a duty of care to protect Australian children from the climate harm caused by the potential expansion of a coalmine. It does cause harm to children and the next generation. The government, if they don't act on the climate crisis, are nothing but climate criminals and environmental vandals. My colleague Senator Waters will be moving a second reading amendment to highlight the impacts of the climate crisis on children and their future. It should be our top priority to do something about it. This bill just tinkers around the edges. It is way past the time of tinkering around the edges and procrastinating on real and lasting change.

The government loves to talk up its incremental minor changes to the childcare subsidy as a huge win for families, but, on the face of it, that is not the case. Many families with a single child in care will not receive any benefit whatsoever. Even this bill before us today is flawed by design. The government was rightly criticised in May, when the package was announced, for its measures not coming into effect until July 2022. That's 14 whole months between the announcement by the education minister and actual fee relief in family's pockets. We will have had a federal election by the time these measures come into effect. The minister may not even be the minister by the time this is all implemented, and I hope that he isn't. Come next election, I hope that the people of this country would have kicked out the Morrison government and the Greens would be in shared power so we can push for creating a fairer and more equal society. But there are a few months to go before this can become a reality. Women, children and families can get some relief from extra payments right now. From the providers that I have spoken to, there seems to be no good reason why the start date could not be brought forward. The government has pointed to the complexity of changing IT systems. I'm sorry, but, in the age of COVID-19 when we've seen how systems can be redesigned and payments can be reprioritised seemingly overnight when deemed urgent enough, that doesn't cut it at all.

In any case, I note the education minister, in his second reading speech, said:

It is anticipated we will be able commence implementation by July 2022. Should it be possible to bring the commencement of the measure forward, we will do this so that families can benefit sooner. That is why the bill makes it possible for earlier implementation, with the date to be set by proclamation.

Clearly, the minister is feeling the heat. I will be moving an amendment at the committee stage that will bring the date forward to 1 July 2021 so families can realise the benefit of the package now. I ask senators to support this amendment because it provides certainty and doesn't leave it just up to the minister and their whim to decide what the date will be and when it can be.

More generally, we need to think in much bigger and more ambitious ways about the future of our early learning and care system. The dire state of affairs for early learning and care in this country requires nothing less of us. This is the first time during the health crisis that the government has grudgingly recognised that child care is an essential service, and thousands of families have benefited from that. The pandemic has opened up a conversation about the long-term viability of our existing approach to child care. This is an opportunity too good to let slip away.

There is a compelling case for free and universally available early childhood education and care, and it would have enormous social and economic benefits for our community. Too often women have to give up work and career opportunities because child care is too expensive or just not available. Children get the enormous benefit of early education when it is accessible for all. Removing all barriers to access not only creates equity but also has a huge pay-off for the whole society. So let's stop entrenching gender inequality. Let's stop deepening intergenerational inequality. Let's make corporations pay their fair share. Let's tax the billionaires into oblivion. Let's not hand back public money to the wealthiest in society, and let's use some of these funds to invest in making child care universal and free.

We should also be expanding publicly provided services to families so families aren't reliant on for-profit centres—because education is not a business. It's time early childhood education was funded and provided as the essential service that it is. We should also be ensuring fair and decent pay for early childhood educators. Early childhood educators should receive professional pay, reflecting the skill and responsibility of the work they do every single day.

On that point, I want to make a special mention of early childhood educators following the release of a report from Big Steps and the United Workers Union this morning. This was a survey of more than 3,800 educators. It found that the sector is at breaking point, with high turnover, low pay and no plan from the federal government to fix it. The report makes for very alarming reading. It tells a story of government neglect, an undervalued workforce, privatisation and an essential service delivered on the back of burnt-out staff. Just a few statistics from this report illustrates this dire situation. Thirty-seven per cent of educators said that they do not intend to stay in the sector long term and, of this group, 74 per cent intend to leave within the next three years. Over 60 per cent of educators said that they have often come to work or stayed at work sick due to staff shortages. Seventy per cent of educators surveyed said that they always or often worry about their financial situation.

It is a national shame that early educators are taken for granted in this country. Staff are leaving in droves and, frankly, the sector is in crisis. We should not be in a situation of chronic understaffing and high turnover. The government needs to completely rethink its approach to early learning and care, and that means strong and sustained investment to make early childhood education free once more and a workforce that deals directly with issues of low pay and understaffing. I have a second reading amendment that calls for the Senate to reaffirm that child care should be free and universal for all children and that workers and educators in the sector deserve higher wages and better conditions to reflect the immense value of their massive contribution.

I also want to indicate that the Greens will be supporting Labor's second reading amendment, while acknowledging that it does not really go as far as to address the issues facing the childcare system. While this bill allows the minister to bring forward the commencement of the changes, it doesn't make sure that it actually does happen. That's why I will be moving an amendment to bring the date forward. Ultimately, while this bill does provide some relief for some families, and the Greens support that, it's still a tiny step forward in a long journey that we have to embark upon to ensure that our early learning system is equitable, universal, appropriate and there and available for all families.


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