I rise to speak on behalf of the Greens on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Building on the Child Care Package) Bill 2019. This bill can probably best be described as fixing some, but definitely not all, of the problems with the government's childcare package. It includes extending the time frame in which an enrolment is ceased due to nonattendance, removing the limit on the number of children a childcare centre can classify as at risk and allowing the minister to prescribe specific circumstances in which subsidies can be paid where the child is absent at the start or end of enrolment. While we support the bill, I don't congratulate the government on it. These mistakes were made by the government, so the least they can do is fix them.
As we can always predict with this government, even when they try to fix a problem they inevitably cause another one. As highlighted by Early Childhood Australia, ELACCA and Goodstart in their submissions to the inquiry into this bill, there is a significant change, which is negative. Currently, the family assistance administration act allows a parent or carer to make an immediate claim for childcare subsidy, CSS, provided they also submit a written statement that they will provide their bank account details and/or tax file number within 28 days. This bill removes this 28-day period, which means a CCS claim will be rejected; and it actually risks a family incurring a debt for a subsidy they are otherwise entitled to. Why would we want to make life harder—
The PRESIDENT: Order. It being 11:45, the debate is interrupted. Senator Faruqi, you will be in continuation.
This bill removes the 28-day grace period, which means that CCS claims will be rejected and risks families incurring a debt for a subsidy they are otherwise entitled to. Removing the 28-day grace period only makes life harder for families, and why would we want to make life harder for families—particularly low-income families that already have trouble accessing child care? There has been no explanation from the government for this change. I know that the government is moving an amendment to the bill that will allow the secretary of the department or their delegate to approve a 28-day extension on a case-by-case basis, but that's not good enough. The 28-day grace period should be maintained so everyone who needs it can access it easily. I understand that the opposition is moving an amendment to keep the 28-day grace period, and the Greens will be supporting that amendment.
We know the current childcare system doesn't work for most families with young children. Families are working hard, sometimes putting a whole income towards just paying for child care. The two major parties treat child care as a workforce participation measure, not the essential service it is. We know that affordable, quality and accessible child care benefits everyone. I know firsthand the value of affordable and accessible child care. When I came to Australia, I would not have been able to study, I would not have been able to continue my higher education if it wasn't for affordable child care. No-one should be denied opportunities because it doesn't fit the narrative of who the government decides is worthy of receiving child care.
If there's going to be a process of identifying the problems of the government's childcare package, let's make this systemic, not ad hoc. Let's bring everyone into the tent, listen to what they have to say and commit to fixing the problems—and there are a lot of problems. The Early Childhood Australia submission to the inquiry into this bill makes this point and identifies the administrative complexities and inconsistencies surrounding the use of additional childcare subsidy and the impact of the childcare package on former budget based funded services. The most urgent thing we can do is scrap the activity test. Concerns about this test and the impact on children's participation in early learning and care have been raised constantly by the sector but ignored by both the Liberal and Labor parties. It is clear it has negatively impacted access to child care for families on lower incomes. By ditching the test completely, we will ensure that people who need access to child care are able to access it without any barriers.
The Australian Institute of Family Studies report Child care package evaluation: early monitoring report was released earlier this year. I found this report quite concerning, particularly the impact of the childcare package on low-income families. Page 133 of that report states:
Under the Child Care Safety Net, low‑income families earning $66 958 or less per annum, who do not meet the activity test, are entitled to access 24 hours of subsidised care a fortnight. As most Long Day Care sessions are 12 hours, these families are able to access one day a week of subsidised Long Day Care. This is a substantial reduction in the amount of subsidised care available to these families.
The report goes on to say:
Some interviewees pointed out that it could be difficult for these families to meet activity test requirements, such as looking for work or volunteering, particularly in areas where employment opportunities were very limited or non-existent or when families did not have the skills, social capital or resources to take up volunteering.
This is deeply concerning.
At the end of the day, child care is an essential service and should be provided for free. Australia's current public funding into early childhood education and care is the second-worst in the developed world. We expect families to pick up more of the tab across the board. As a result, primary carers, who are overwhelmingly women, are having to give up work and career opportunities or not go back to work at all, because child care is simply too expensive when combined with the loss in childcare subsidy. We can make corporations pay their fair share of tax and invest in our children and our future. The Greens' firm position is that the activity test needs to be abolished. It is a real shame that that is not the view of the Labor and Liberal parties.