I rise this evening to oppose the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Measures) Bill 2014 currently before the House. I oppose it like my Labor colleagues because it seeks to freeze indexation not just on the non means-tested Child Care Rebate but also on the income thresholds of the means-tested Child Care Benefit.
This bill seeks to cut $336 million from childcare support that lower and middle income families across Australia currently rely on. They rely on this to make ends meet, to pay the mortgage, to pay the bills and to buy the groceries.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I am not sure if you have ever popped down to my part of Australia, but, if you have, you will have noted that the population is predominantly made up of families. We have a welcoming and affordable community and many families—in fact, almost 60,000—choose to make Lalor their home. We have huge new housing estates and schools that regularly welcome 250 new preps each year. We have the highest number of births in Victoria—in fact, 70 births a week, which sees the maternity ward at the Werribee Mercy Hospital bursting at the seams. It also means we have a huge number of playgroups and a vibrant kindergarten community. It means also that we have a thriving childcare system.
Families in Lalor rely on the provision of child care. They rely on it because cost-of-living pressures mean families have both parents working to make ends meet. They rely on it because women in our community also know the value of being connected in the workforce and the benefits that brings for themselves and for their families. These are not families that choose a nanny or an au pair as a childcare option; that is out of reach. They rely on the usual forms of child care. They rely on well-resourced centres that provide structured early learning. They rely on family day care, particularly valued by the many shift workers for its flexibility, and they rely on out-of-school-hours care for school aged kids. The families in Lalor work hard, often for modest wages, and, as such, these families also value the current childcare assistance provided by government.
There are only five electorates across Australia that have more than 10,000 families utilising child care. Lalor is one of them. Indeed, almost 10½ thousand families in Lalor use formal child care and around 9½ thousand of those receive some form of childcare benefit. The impact of the changes to childcare funding in this bill on our community will be huge.
Families in Lalor may have taken the time to read the coalition's election policy document, titled The coalition's policy for better child care and early learning September 2013. You will note from the date that it was a policy that was taken to the election last year. While it was lacking any real forward direction, it did provide some comfort for families. I would like to remind families of some of its key points. I quote from that document:
Our approach will ease the financial burden placed on child care centres and families, without compromising the standard of care that must be provided.
They went further:
The Coalition understands that many families are struggling to find high quality child care that is flexible and affordable enough to meet their needs.
They quoted ABS data and said that it:
… shows that child care costs to parents have increased by 27 per cent over the past three years.
The coalition said that it was:
… concerned that parents all over the country are reassessing whether they can afford good quality childcare, or the number of days … per week they use.
Another quote says:
We understand that there is a direct relationship between affordable child care and the amount of hours parents—especially women—can work.
I think it is fair to suggest that there is a theme coming from those extracts—that the document developed a theme around the issue of costs of child care. I think it could be said that this policy document that the now government took to the election raised expectations in the community that the cost of child care was something they were concerned about. Some may have even thought that this document implied that they would offer a solution.
As actions speak louder than words, what is it that the government have done to support the working families across Australia to meet the costs of child care? Not much. I would go further and say they are actively making it more difficult for families. Let us look at what they have actually done. They have stripped away almost $1 billion from early education and care. They have taken $400 million from out-of-school-hours care and $157 million from family day care. The support for parents to study and go back to work is gone. Programs to increase childcare places have been slashed. Funding has been taken from the Indigenous child and family centres and $300 million set aside to support low-paid early childhood educators has been cut.
What will they do? The measure that this bill seeks to implement, according to the education department, will leave over 500,000 families worse off through the changes to the childcare benefit alone. This bill will cut modest, targeted and means-tested childcare support from families earning as little as $42,000 a year. Most worrying, however, is that this measure is being introduced with minimal analysis of the impact. Who will these measures hurt and how much extra will families have to pay? The truth is, we do not know; the work has not been done.
It is also worrying that it is being done on the back of the $157 million dollar cuts to family day care that I mentioned earlier. This measure alone is causing enormous angst in our community. A local newspaper reports that family day carers have warned they will be forced to close if a $500 administrative levy touted by local council in response to cuts in the federal budget for family day care is imposed. I can tell you what the impact of that will be if it eventuates in Lalor. Already oversubscribed childcare centres would be swamped with new enrolees. Why is this being rushed through this week, when the government has a current Productivity Commission inquiry into child care and early childhood learning? What will that inquiry find? What action will this government take when those findings are released? Based on current form, more cuts would be my suggestion.
This initiative is yet another example of this government's broken promises and twisted priorities. Why introduce such a measure, such a hurtful cut? And why do it while stubbornly insisting on retaining the deeply unpopular and unfair paid parental leave scheme?
We know this government is very keen to provide assistance to allow for nannies and au-pairs to be brought into the childcare rebate system. But these are options not utilised by many in our community. Indeed, very few families across Australia can afford them. Whilst doing this, the government sees fit to remove the very support that assists low- and middle-income families and supports women to remain productive in the workforce.
I feel a little like a telemarketer tonight—or like the member for Wentworth on one of his question time rants—because there is more. Whilst this bill introduces measures to reduce childcare benefit payments, there are still more government measures to come. I suspect the government does not fully understand the impact of those changes either. The Jobs Education and Training Child Care Fee Assistance program assists parents to return to the workforce. There are over 550 families in Lalor benefiting from this program. There is a similar number of families in my colleagues' electorates, like Watson, Blaxland and Rankin, and in some coalition electorates like Dobell, where 550 families have benefited. But I do not think the Prime Minister, in Warringah, understands. There are only 90 in Wentworth and there are only 60 in North Sydney that are probably not aware of the benefits of this program. Only 70 in Higgins have benefited. The benefits of the JET programs would hardly hit the radar of those on the front bench opposite.
It may also surprise some that out-of-school hours care accounts for approximately 55 per cent of childcare services. This government has cut $450 million from this program. This is money that assists out-of-school hours programs to be established. In an electorate like Lalor where we have new schools opening every year with huge numbers of new students joining our schools throughout the year, this funding is vital. It allows new services to open, for hours to be extended and for homework support to be offered. All of this is now at risk. Labor worked hard to increase access to out-of-school hours care. Over 100,000 more families now utilise this care across Australia, because of Labor. That is all at risk.
Another cruel budget cut is the accessibility fund, a fund designed to assist local councils to increase childcare provision by expanding centres, freeing up vacant land for centres to be built and to allow for centres to be incorporated into TAFEs and schools. Those opposite would have limited understanding of the impact of this measure. Lalor has 123 childcare centres serving 10,500 families; Warringah has 128 centres serving 7,000 families. Do the maths. It is easy to see from these figures where there is pressure for the new childcare centres and the electorates most in need. It is not the electorates currently held by those in cabinet.
For the government to introduce this bill, I naively—like many others—assumed there must have been support. So I looked to some major stakeholders. I found no support. There was no support from Early Childhood Australia. There was no support from Family Day Care Australia. There was no support from the Early Learning Association Australia nor from the Australian child care coalition. There was none even—as the member for Shortland outlined—from the Australian Industry Group. All oppose the measures.
Labor has a proud history of supporting families in the early childhood years. Labor increased the childcare rebate from 30 per cent to 50 per cent. Labor made changes to have the rebate paid fortnightly. It introduced the quality standard frames. It improved the staff-child ratios. It established the Australian Children's Education and Care Quality Authority. It introduced the quality rating system. It provided for 15 hours a week for universal access to kindergarten. Labor did these things because Labor understands that it is not just about cost, it is also about quality. Labor understands both the pressures on families and the way support can assist. We understand that women want to remain connected in the workforce. We know both the value of women's participation in the workforce and the impact on productivity and on the economy of providing incentives to work.
A study by the Grattan Institute in 2012 showed that if Australia could match the level of workforce participation achieved in Canada, it would result in our economy being possibly $35 billion better off. How did Canada achieve this result? It invested in childcare rebates. It did not come cheap. The cost of the rebates went from $300 million in 1997 to $2.2 billion in 2012, but the return was a $35 billion boost to the economy. This current government does not seem to understand that sometimes you have to spend money to make money. Labor understands that you need to invest in our children to grow our future and our economy.
There are 10,500 families in Lalor that utilise child care, and almost one million across Australia will be impacted. The sector does not support the measures. It knows both the value of an active, engaged workforce and the impact of childcare support to achieve this. There is a current Productivity Commission inquiry into child care. For some reason, the government is keen to rush these measures through without support, with the huge impact not yet appropriately measured and with the Productivity Commission report coming. It makes no sense.
I would finish with a few observations about this bill. This bill encapsulates all that is wrong with this government's budget and with all that is wrong with this government's logic and rhetoric. The implications of this bill for families across the country show us clearly that, contrary to the Treasurer's words, the age of entitlement is not over. Entitlement is very clearly enshrined for some Australians in the policy to give millionaires $50,000 and paid parental leave for the first six months of their child's life. No, Deputy Speaker, with this bill we see clearly that for working mothers and fathers who utilise child care in this country and for countless other Australians being hurt by this government's budget measures, it is the age of fairness that is over.