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Speech: Childcare

Speeches in Parliament
Mehreen Faruqi 11 Jun 2020

I can honestly say that I would not have been able to complete my masters and PhD, nor embark on a career in engineering or academia, and then eventually state and federal politics, without access to affordable child care. When I migrated to Australia from Pakistan in 1992 and commenced my studies at the University of New South Wales, I pretty quickly realised that the available child care in my area was just unaffordable. It was too expensive. And that's how I got involved in a campaign to establish affordable student-centred child care at the university. We won that campaign, and that was really the only way I was able to complete my studies.

I have the utmost respect for those who educated and cared for my two children when I was working and studying. I will be eternally grateful to them. So it felt really personal when the University of New South Wales announced recently that it would shut down and privatise child care on campus. This is devastating as it is indicative of our society's broader undervaluing of child care.

Those centres—three of which my children attended at one time or another—were a lifeline to me. I had no family in Australia when I migrated here, and that meant that there were no real options for me if I wanted to work or study. It breaks my heart that very soon they may not be providing the same education and care for little ones and women like me will have very few choices left to them.

COVID-19 has exposed the existing inequalities in our society, including the gendered nature of these inequalities. There is no denying the fact that this pandemic is, and will continue to be, a gendered crisis. Women have been on the front line of this crisis as nurses and others in the healthcare system, as teachers, as childcare workers and as early childhood educators. All of these women are in areas with a predominantly feminised workforce.

More women than men have lost jobs and hours of work. Women are still doing much more of the family care work, which has skyrocketed during the pandemic—especially if you've been juggling children at home and working from home as well. Lockup and isolation at home have placed women at even more of a risk of domestic violence. So there is no doubt that the compounded impacts will be felt much more by women who already generally earn less, have less savings, have less superannuation and hold insecure casual jobs.

When rebuilding and recovering, women and women's organisations must be front and centre of decision-making, and we must make sure that, within this group of women, those who are even further marginalised—including Indigenous women, migrant women, women of colour, women with disability and transwomen—have an equal voice so their specific needs are addressed. We have an opportunity to rebuild after the pandemic to create a more equal and just society. A shake-up of how child care works has to be central to this.

This is the first time the government have grudgingly recognised that child care is an essential service. But they have decided to snap back from it in the middle of July, forcing millions who have lost work in the meantime to pay fees and make some really hard choices. While Labor's motion rightly points out that going back to a complex and expensive childcare subsidy system will lead to it becoming unaffordable for families, particularly women, it fails to acknowledge what we really need to do: to make free child care permanent. Thousands of Australian families have benefited enormously from fee-free access since the beginning of April. The minister should make free child care permanent.

The pandemic has opened up a conversation about the long-term viability of our existing approach to child care. This is an opportunity that is too good to let slip away. The reality is that the old system, which we may soon return to, was a broken, underfunded one, with some of the highest fees in the world. There is a compelling case for free and universally available early childhood education and care. 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.

In our patriarchal society, our entire economy relies on the unpaid and underpaid work of women in caring roles and the skilled, difficult work done at childcare centres and in early learning and education. It's just an extension of the work that women do. Investing to make child care free and well funded and supporting carers and educators are essential to dismantling these retrograde ideas. Rather than doing that, the government is going to end JobKeeper for early childhood educators and the care sector before all other workers in Australia. How unfair and how insulting.

We women have known that child care is an essential service, but now this view must stick. The gaps that have emerged in our childcare system should, of course, be fixed as we move to make child care free and universally available. In the long term, I know that, to achieve this, our work is cut out for us. We must work together to lock in the right to free and universal child care for all, with higher wages and better conditions for workers to reflect the value of their enormous contribution to our community and our society.

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