BILLS - Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Improving Assistance for Vulnerable and Disadvantaged Families) Bill 2020 - Second Reading

By Matt Keogh MP

24 August 2020

Watch Matt's speech here

Young families have been hit exceptionally hard by the COVID-19 pandemic in a double-fisted blow. First, young people—specifically women—were the first to lose their jobs en masse in the pandemic. Second, childcare fees were reintroduced and JobKeeper payments for childcare staff slashed well before this pandemic has come anywhere near an end.

But I am very happy to stand here today to speak on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Improving Assistance for Vulnerable and Disadvantaged Families) Bill 2020, which seeks to support our most vulnerable children and their families and provide some stability in their lives. It wasn't long ago that we were here in this place debating the first round of touch-ups that the government needed to make to their new childcare subsidy system. We in Labor were pleased to support those changes late last year. They were sensible and overdue fixes to some of the most obvious flaws in the government's childcare subsidy system. They were changes which Labor, families and the early learning sector had been calling for for more than a year. I'm pleased to be back here again to help the government to fix some more flaws in their system, and I'm pleased that we are able to be here in this place to debate this bill.

The additional childcare subsidy for child wellbeing is a vital program that seeks to provide 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 and having to go into the child protection system.

In Perth's south-eastern suburbs, which I represent, there are around 570 kids in care, and the WA Department of Communities' Child Protection and Family Support service engage up with 50 new families a month. Further to this, about one in seven families with children up to the age of five are in the lowest income bracket. If we do nothing, 55 per cent of these children won't be given assistance to move out of poverty as they come into adulthood. It is vital that legislation like that which is before us today be enacted and that the children in my community get the support that they need to rely on.

It's critical that the government treat this program with sensitivity and ensure families and providers are not overly burdened with red tape. When this government introduced a number of new requirements and rules that restricted access to the additional childcare subsidy in July 2019, as a father of a two-year-old at the time I had to deal with mountains of online paperwork in applying for the subsidy scheme, which I had to work through, of course, with my wife. Now, between my wife and me, we hold five degrees, including two law degrees, and we experienced great confusion and difficulty working our way through a mind-boggling rigmarole of calculations, data input and information that had to be provided to access this system. The system is clearly broken. If we had trouble with it, how on earth are the majority of Australians going to be able to grapple with this system that the government has created, especially those families and others who are trying to support children most in need in our communities? So I have a great deal of sympathy for the difficulties that all Australians have had in engaging with this system.

This third-term government likes to bang the drum about cutting red tape, but we know that in fact it's more interested in getting a headline than in helping people. They go out of their way to increase red tape for vulnerable families and the childcare providers that are trying to help them. 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 effort and resources from the providers. To help vulnerable children get the support that they need, it is vital that we fix some of these design flaws in this system that was created by this government. Doing so has been a far, far too long time coming.

But the Liberal childcare system still has many other serious flaws. This is a system that leaves one in four families worse off. It's apparently a design feature that access to early education and child care is reduced for some 279,000 Australian families. It is a system about which only 40 per cent of the providers and only 41 per cent of the families using it told the independent evaluation reviewers that it had resulted in positive change. Eighty-three per cent of parents told the evaluation that the new system had had no impact on their work or study. It's a system that has been forcing childcare providers to act as unpaid debt collectors for the government, because families are struggling to stay on top of complicated activity and means tests.

Childcare fees are already out of control under this new system. The latest data shows that fees in Perth's south-eastern suburbs, including the areas that I represent, have increased by almost six per cent over the 12 months to December 2019, which is well above the 4.6 per cent that we saw nationally, let alone the rate of CPI increase in Western Australia, which was only 1.8 per cent for the same period. More tellingly, to pay for this six per cent increase in fees, wages to December 2019 in Western Australia only increased by 2.2 per cent. These are the high fees that the Morrison government have chosen to lump onto local families—and, again, by snapping back their old childcare system with no extra support to bring down these out-of-pocket costs.

The data shows that, before the pandemic, out-of-pocket childcare costs were taking a huge chunk out of household budgets. Now, in the middle of a recession, when families are struggling to get by, these fees mean access to these services continues to be out of reach for many who need them. Families who have taken a pay cut over the last few months can be forced to give up child care and early childhood education altogether. Childcare centres are forced to turn parents away. If families are forced to withdraw their children from early learning, it is the worst-case scenario for everyone. Parents then have to turn down work, children miss out on early education opportunities, and providers suffer from a drop in demand, which of course changes their viability as a business as well. Families are now paying, on average, $3,800 a year more for early education and child care under this government.

The government were very confident that their new system would 'put downward pressure' on fees and that they were driving down the cost of child care, but any evidence of this remains to be seen. In fact, it is quite the opposite. The government's bungling of childcare subsidies has meant that centres that were going to close due to the COVID pandemic have now had to increase their fees. This isn't the fault of the early learning and childcare centres; it is due to the unwillingness of the government to help struggling families and the centres that are trying to support them. Early learning providers and childcare centres have been done over by this government. The hoops that they had to jump through to gain government support through this COVID pandemic have been extreme, and they were the first to have the rug pulled out from under them by having JobKeeper for them completely cut, early, before anybody else.

I was inundated with cries for help from childcare providers during the height of the pandemic in Western Australia, with many centres telling me of a decline in attendance, the insufficiency of the government subsidies and their apprehension about what the end of those supports would mean for the centres and their families. This government has absolutely no idea. It has no plan for how to bring these fees under control. The Morrison government must ensure that early education is affordable, that it's accessible, that it remains high quality and that it supports our families in our communities, especially our most vulnerable families, who are relying on this care and assistance.

Can you imagine being the operator of a childcare service, an early education service, in our country this year? You're already under the pressure of having to increase fees, which is putting the pressure onto families. We then encounter a pandemic, which sees children withdrawn from child care as their parents become unemployed, as they suffer the health problems and lockdowns. Then the government turns around and says, 'We'll provide you support,' and designs that support in such a way that, for many childcare centres, they face even greater pressure and difficulty. And then, just when you think there is a glimmer of hope, it puts further pressure on families by putting those fees back onto families and removing JobKeeper from childcare support services at the very same time. This government can't have it both ways. It needs to actually support our childcare services, it needs to support early education, it needs to support families that need to rely on it and, critically, it needs to support the most at-risk children in our society by making sure that this system works properly.