24 August 2020


I would like to acknowledge that I am standing on the land of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nations, and I pay my respects to elders, past, present and emerging. I would like to thank especially the Speaker, all the technicians and everybody who has worked hard to make it possible for me and others to have a video presence in this 46th Parliament at this time.


I'd also like to acknowledge the shadow minister, the member for Kingston, who I would like to thank for her amazing passion and the hard work she puts into everybody in the sector—the providers, the families, the workers. It's untiring. It's infectious and it's really worthwhile, so thank you. I'd also say that it's very pleasing to follow the member for Lalor, herself an educator who understands only too well how important education is for our kids and for the future of this country.


Today I rise to speak on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Improving Assistance for Vulnerable and Disadvantaged Families) Bill 2020. Labor is pleased to support this bill. It seeks to make a number of changes to the administration of the additional childcare subsidy or the child wellbeing payment. The additional childcare subsidy payment is a vital program that provides a safe and nurturing learning environment for children in extremely vulnerable situations at home. For most of these children it can be the difference between being able to stay at home or having to go into the child protection system. It is critical that the government treat this program with sensitivity and ensures families and providers are not overly burdened with unnecessary paperwork or administrative processes.


This Liberal-National government introduced a number of new requirements and rules that restricted access to the additional childcare subsidy in July 2018. As a third-term government, they like to bang the drum about cutting red tape. They do this constantly for their mates in big business, or for those wanting to get around environment laws or for bosses, but they go out of their way to increase red tape for vulnerable families and the childcare providers trying to help them. For that matter, they do it for workers, for anyone needing to rely on a social safety net. In the first six months of the new system, the number of children receiving the child wellbeing subsidy collapsed by 21 per cent. These numbers have since recovered to pre-July 2018 levels but only after significant efforts and resources from providers. When asked in Senate estimates if the department was concerned about the drop, they admitted they weren't and also confessed that they weren't even tracking if families had actually dropped out of the system.


During the Senate inquiry into the government's first round of changes to the childcare legislation last September, the stakeholders all expressed strong views that the additional childcare subsidy was not working in the best interests of vulnerable children. The Early Learning and Care Council of Australia, Early Childhood Australia and Goodstart all called on the government to fix the restrictions on the additional childcare subsidy. Labor will support these changes, because they do fix some of the design flaws in their new system and they will help to get vulnerable children the support they need.


It's clear to me that early childhood education, including child care, is the kind of sector that simply does not get enough attention in this place. It directly affects the lives of families every day. Educators are entrusted with our youngest and most precious kids and become part of the family. The cost of early education is a battle for nearly everyone I know. They sit at the kitchen table, deliberating over the bills, working out whether it's worth it. For so many families the cost of child care is the same amount that one of the working parents is earning. Often, it's the mum who decides that it will be cheaper to keep the kids at home and not return to work. My own daughter has two children and she and her husband work full time. We and the family and a lot of her friends all juggle one day of care a week for her, just so it's worth her time to go to work.


These things were true before the pandemic. But over the past few months the early education sector has been through absolute hell in my seat of Cooper. Right at the start of the pandemic, the childcare sector was one of the last things on the Morrison government's list of things to sort. It resulted in mass confusion, centres not knowing whether to open or close, parents not knowing whether to send their kids or not. It was utter chaos. I spent hours speaking to centres and to families trying to get them answers. Then we had, as usual, from the Prime Minister, a big announcement: free child care—no worries, everything will be fine. The free childcare policy did help families through a tough time but, crucially, the main feature of the Prime Minister's free childcare system was that providers weren't adequately paid for the cost of caring for children in their centres. This meant that a number of children and families were locked out of free child care and many services were driven to the brink of collapse. My office was flooded with calls and emails from early education centres that were struggling to keep their doors open after their funding was slashed. Centres were relying on JobKeeper payments to keep them afloat. I spoke to many family day care educators who didn't suffer a drop in enrolments but, under the Prime Minister's plan, were now expected to work for half their pay because they couldn't access JobKeeper, because the payment went to their service and had to be distributed to so many.


I also heard from many families who were being denied places, including healthcare workers who were asked to come back from maternity leave early to help with the crisis and who simply missed out. They couldn't come back because they didn't have child care. What a debacle. So much for us all being in it together. And then—bam!—we snapped back to the old system. Just as Victoria went back into our second lockdown and the country officially went into recession, the Prime Minister used the childcare sector as the test case for removing JobKeeper and returning families to high out-of-pocket costs for child care.


My community is doing it tough. Many have lost their jobs or had their hours cut as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown. Mortgages and rent payments have been deferred, and families are barely scraping by. Nobody can pretend that things are back to normal. So now we have the worst possible outcomes for early childhood education: no JobKeeper to pay staff wages, fees too high for struggling parents to afford, falling enrolments and centres closing.


My inbox has been flooded with emails from workers—mainly women, I might add, because most early educators are women—who have lost hours, been stood down or know that pretty soon they won't have a job. They want to know: why them? Why can't they access JobKeeper? Why are they the only sector having their access to JobKeeper stripped from them early? Why isn't the work they do valued by Scott Morrison and his government? They are workers who have continued to work, to look after children, so that our health workers, our emergency service workers and our essential workers can also continue to go to work. They've been on the front line. They've been looking after our children when many of them have been quite frightened about the spread of COVID. I don't have answers for them. I tell them that they are heroes, some of the hardest workers I know and some of the cleverest, and that they deserve JobKeeper and they deserve job certainty. But that's not good enough. So I ask those who sit opposite: why are you preventing workers in a female dominated sector from accessing JobKeeper; and, crucially, why do you deny their ongoing requests for policies which would fix the early education sector?


We need to make sure that our early educators and childcare workers are paid in a way that reflects the value that they provide to the community. We know that those early years of learning are fundamentally important for all children for their chance of success and further education levels later in life, and we know that those early years are even more important for children who are vulnerable or who are enduring disadvantage. And yet the sector receives pretty much peanuts from this government. The rates of pay for early childhood workers are amongst the lowest in our economy.


This is a gendered issue. Ninety-six per cent of early educators are women, and, historically, their work has been undervalued and underpaid. As my good friend Emma Dawson from Per Capita points out:

"Care is women's work, and women's work for millennia was done at home, unpaid and uncomplainingly.

…   …   …

The market that relies on the unpaid labour of women at home is completely unwilling to recognise the value of women's work, and so care work by women in the paid labour force is massively underpaid."


Coronavirus has absolutely rammed this point home. We've heard so much about shovel-ready projects to get the economy going and nothing about the benefits of early education. It is infuriating. Investing in education and child care is in fact one of the most important economic strategies for ensuring prosperity in future years. It ticks the boxes. It's an investment which is an economic stimulus because it increases jobs, and it increases jobs predominantly for women; it increases productivity; it helps women stay in the workforce; it's good for their families; and it's good for the economy.


Along with the requests for help from early educators, I've had so many emails from families, mainly from mothers, who can no longer afford the high cost of child care and, subsequently, are removing their kids from it. It's not surprising that many mothers conclude that working an extra day for no or virtually no take-home pay makes no sense. And, for families that have lost jobs or hours because of the pandemic, Australia's high out-of-pocket childcare costs are even harder to pay now.


A few weeks ago, I received an email from a woman in my electorate. She's a single mother of a four-year-old son, who lives with a disability. This mum scrapes by with freelance work, but it's precarious and it's difficult. In those few months when child care was freely accessible, it suddenly all felt manageable. She developed her business to a level that meant she could actually get a decent income. Free child care to her was a lifeline. It allowed her some respite that she desperately needed and gave her son the opportunity to socialise and get the education that child care offers. My request to this government is: fix early education, give the Victorian workers access to JobKeeper now and do something about the exorbitant cost that is preventing women going back to work.