Speech: Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Improving Assistance For Vulnerable And Disadvantaged Families) Bill 2020

Speech: Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Improving Assistance For Vulnerable And Disadvantaged Families) Bill 2020 Main Image

Mrs PHILLIPS (Gilmore) (13:20): I'm pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Improving Assistance for Vulnerable and Disadvantaged Families) Bill 2020 and to talk about the need to streamline the childcare system. The changes in this bill are important for making sure vulnerable families can get the support they need when they need it. It also aims to reduce the administrative burden on childcare providers, working to help and support children and families.

Our early learning educators are vital in our community. They help to nurture our children by teaching them and caring for them. They also support parents returning to work, and this makes them critical to our overall economy. This legislation will help to fix some of the system flaws that came into place under the government's new system in 2018. At the time, Labor and the industry warned that this would have a negative impact on vulnerable families and providers. Nonetheless, the government pushed it through. As often seems to be the case with this government, it has resisted our calls to make these amendments ever since.

The additional childcare subsidy for child wellbeing 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 staying at home and having to go into the child protection system. It is critical that the government treats this program with sensitivity and ensures that families and providers are not overly burdened with red tape. But the changes the government introduced in 2018 meant there were new rules and requirements which restricted access.

In the first six months of the new system, there was a 21 per cent collapse in the number of children receiving the child wellbeing subsidy. That is a significant number of vulnerable children that were no longer receiving support. Since then, the numbers have recovered to pre-July 2018 levels, but only after significant efforts and resources from providers. The government has treated families, providers and children reliant on this system with absolute contempt. The new system leaves one in four families worse off than before. It forces overworked and underpaid early childhood educators to become debt collectors for the government because families can't stay on top of the paperwork. The bungled implementation of this system is just one example of the government's mishandling of the childcare and early learning system.

When the government announced during COVID that it was making child care free for everyone, it sure sounded like a great headline. The Prime Minister loves doing that—flashy announcements for ill-considered policy ideas. We have seen plenty of that with the drought and the bushfires. We know where that leads us: to phantom funds. Local families, in the immediate aftermath, were thrilled that they would receive this much-needed help, particularly our essential workers. But, as is too often the case with those opposite, they didn't fund it properly. It didn't take long for local families and educators to work out the program was riddled with problems.

I was inundated with concerns from local family daycare operators and parents of children that attend family day care. The initiative to provide free child care effectively halved operators' income, making it impossible to survive. These aren't just words. These aren't just platitudes. These are real people who have felt the very real impacts of these changes, and I rise today to tell their stories.

We know that children of essential workers, and vulnerable children, utilise family day care. It is a popular and common form of care. But family day care suffered a huge blow when the government decided to make child care free. I wanted to share the stories of some of the local people who contacted me about this. Lee said, 'My daughter runs a family daycare business from her home. This announcement takes away her income and effectively closes her down for the duration. The family day care people, mostly small operators, often caring for and educating children of essential workers, are effectively shut out of this arrangement.' Lee wasn't alone. Erin, a mum, said, 'We need our day care but now it faces closing as it is not viable financially for her to keep her doors open.' She went on to say that, to be honest, she probably wouldn't close, because that is just the type of amazing person she is. She said, 'We would have liked to have been able to opt out of free child care.' She said, 'As much as free child care would be great, and very helpful in these times, not when it is at the expense of our beautiful family daycare educator.' In the days following the announcement I have had so many people with the same story to tell. Parents and educators alike felt that the government's announcement only punished them.

These changes locked so many people out of the system and left workers with nowhere to take their kids. What did this mean? They had to stay home and turn down work. We know that no-one could afford this, especially not in an area with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. The government tried to shift the blame onto providers, but many local providers told me how desperate they were to keep providing as much care as possible. To keep their doors open with such a reduction in revenue, some early-learning providers are left with no choice but to reduce staff, cut opening hours, deny care to new families, or cancel existing enrolments.

In the days after the announcement, I spoke with so many providers who just wanted to be heard. Just a day after the announcement, Barry said, 'Unfortunately, the initiative announced yesterday by the coalition to provide free child care to the larger childcare centres has counter-intuitively affected the funding model of the smaller home based family daycare providers and has in fact halved the income available to family daycare providers.' Barry's concerns were echoed by so many.

To blame the childcare providers simply missed the point and showed the government's complete lack of understanding of the sector. Perhaps the government should have listened to people like Tina, a family daycare operator. She said, 'Even with the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been able to continue running my business without a loss in enrolments. I have been able to provide a safe place for the children to be to escape the stresses of the outside world at present. I did not ask for a bailout. My business, luckily, was pandemic-free. Then came the government's announcement. Now, I am left feeling undervalued and insignificant. On top of losing 50 per cent of my hard-earned income, I will probably lose much more than that as there are administration levies deducted from our income.' Tina said, 'I am baffled how this idea was even given approval. What other essential service in our community right now still fronts up every day, works their shift, does their job, acts professionally, gives service with a smile and then happily accepts a 50 per cent pay cut?' A great question, Tina. Chloe is local to the New South Wales South Coast, but she has been delivering essential early-learning services on a sheep station in outback New South Wales. She had a particularly unique story to tell. She said, 'These changes mean that I will be working for considerably less than half my current wage. I am very concerned for the hardworking farmers that myself and others work for. If forced to leave their role on these stations because of severely reduced wages, someone would be required to take over the role as supervisor of the children doing School of The Air.' More examples of the government ignoring regional and rural Australia. Emma, a parent, writes, 'What was not fantastic, however, was when I was also informed that because my family receives zero per cent childcare subsidy payment, my daughter is not eligible for care at all under the interim relief package. This means that now, for the next three months, either my husband or myself cannot work in our businesses. We employed 20-plus locals. We are doing everything in our power to work within our businesses and keep them afloat so that we have employment for our employees to come back to after this terrible time. I'm not asking to get free care—I'm happy to pay—but to be denied care at all is unacceptable and discriminatory. I implore the government to revisit this decision'.

But it wasn't just family day care. Childcare centre after childcare centre told me their concerns about the halving of their income. They didn't know whether centres would be eligible for the JobKeeper payment because of how they are set up, or need to be set up, to provide services and survive. They were worried about not being able to access the traineeship subsidy. As Darlene, an early educator said: 'I feel the early childhood education care relief package is nothing more than a marketing ploy by the government to gain some extra votes and appear to be doing the right thing by Aussie families; however, what is hidden behind this blanket free child care for everyone banner is the discerning truth that early childhood educators without consultation have been told to continue working despite isolation and social-distancing rules that apply for everyone else and in addition services will be financially worse off forcing many services to reduce educator hours, many of whom are not entitled to the JobKeeper package.'

I have raised concerns about this package with the government and, while I was pleased when they finally announced a supplementary relief package to assist, it did not solve all the problems. Then the government decided they would just snap back to the old system on 13 July. This was not a plan and it was not a solution to the problems the government has created.

I just want to tell you about one preschool in my electorate which I think is a great example of the government's failings to fully consider this policy. Andrew runs the Culburra Beach Preschool. Along with preschools across Australia in April, Andrew was receiving 50 per cent of what the fees were at the end of February before being told he now had to give free child care. When numbers of children dropped, they rejigged staff rosters to adjust to lower numbers. They put in place social-distancing to help protect staff and children. They also lost their director and, because of the government's JobKeeper rules, a newly employed director was not eligible. While Andrew's centre did receive JobKeeper, while they still could at least, he said that many centres didn't and it would be hard to survive.

These centres provide care for vulnerable children and children of essential workers. When school went back this also sent a message for parents to send children back to child care or preschool where social distancing is even more difficult. At school kids either get dropped at the gate or travel by bus, but at child care families come in and want to stay with children for a while.

Then the government's department sent an email to providers which said: 'We will look carefully at the government help you are receiving both through the relief package and the JobKeeper payment to consider if the care you are providing is reasonable. Providers found not to be following the requirements of the family assistance law, including the relief package, may have their payments cancelled. Services experiencing a significantly higher demand should apply for an exceptional circumstance supplementary payment.'

To clarify, that's a payment that centres had applied for and that, when they received the email, they had still not received—just gobsmacking.

Then, after all the difficulties they have already been put through, the government decided to rip away the one lifeline that many of these workers had: JobKeeper. They decided that early educators didn't deserve that help; they can make it on their own. You know what that meant, Deputy Speaker? More hardship for early educators, more parents without support and even more people who can't pay their bills.

The government try and try again to make changes to the childcare system, but the problem, as so often with those opposite, is that they are not listening. The truth about the free child care is simply that the government were spending less money than they had budgeted for the childcare subsidy—almost half a billion dollars less—so they ripped half a billion dollars from the sector on top of the revenue losses from not being able to charge fees. Then they just wanted to go back to things as they were, switching from one flawed system to another and leaving parents, children and early educators to suffer the consequences.

It is absolutely vital that we have a properly funded childcare system that does not overburden our hardworking educators. It must adequately support parents to keep their employment during this unprecedented crisis. The consequences of not doing so are dire for parents, for children, for early educators and for our economy. I welcome the changes the government is making today through this bill, but again I find myself asking: what took so long? So, as I always do in this place, I will keep sharing the stories from my community until those opposite stand up and listen.