I rise to speak on behalf of the Greens on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Improving Assistance for Vulnerable and Disadvantaged Families) Bill 2020. The bill makes changes to additional childcare subsidy (child wellbeing) and to the calculation method used when an individual whose relationship status changes throughout the year meets the childcare subsidy reconciliation conditions. A major intention is to ensure that providers can care for a child at risk of abuse or neglect while a foster family determines its eligibility for the childcare subsidy and, potentially, the additional childcare subsidy. The bill will also allow for the backdating of the additional childcare subsidy (child wellbeing) certificates and determinations for up to 13 weeks, which is up from the current 28 days in certain circumstances. Finally, it will extend the maximum period for an ACCS (child wellbeing) determination period from 13 weeks to up to 12 months for classes of children to be prescribed in the minister's rules.
The Greens support this bill as we support every measure to make subsidised early learning more accessible and more generous for families and children. Sadly, the way early learning in Australia is regulated is enormously complex and families can fall through the cracks of the system. This bill will help to ensure that more families can access subsidised early learning, particularly those where the children may be at particular risk of serious abuse or neglect.
In a second reading speech on this bill way back in February, Minister Tehan said:
Just over 18 months into implementation of the childcare package and it is clear that the government is delivering on its goals to create a more affordable, accessible and flexible childcare system.
They say hindsight is 20/20, but I think, in the intervening six months, we have seen that early childhood education and care is not the affordable, accessible and flexible system that the minister so wishes it to be.
After a brief flirtation with free childcare, most families are now back to paying fees in one of the most expensive childcare sectors in the world during a pandemic which has decimated our economy and jobs. As for accessibility, childcare is still out of reach for plenty of marginalised and disadvantaged families. As for flexibility, COVID-19 almost toppled the whole system. Far from being an agile, resilient and flexible system, it is a house of cards. Obviously the pandemic rattled our whole economy and society, but, unlike other sectors, early childhood education and care almost went under completely in a matter of just weeks.
As many have said, COVID-19 has exposed the cracks in the system which governments have tried to ignore or downplay for far too long. Precarious and insecure work, expensive child care, overstretched aged-care systems and health systems and an unemployment benefit that keeps its recipients below the poverty line are just a few of these structural problems that the government has had to face up to during this seismic change in our economy.
At the moment, across the country, families are struggling with the burden of going back to paying full fees for early learning. Free child care being cut off in July was the first of the big COVID measures to be wound back. Fees are back. We have a bizarre and, frankly, shameful situation now where parents are forced to pay fees, early learning centres can't access the JobKeeper wage subsidy and ECEC workers don't have a wage or income guarantee at all. They were the first workers to lose JobKeeper by decree of this Liberal government. This is unacceptable and clearly unsustainable. We need to chart a new course. We need proper government investment to make early learning well funded, high quality and fee free.
A recent report by the Grattan Institute looked at the value of investing to raise the CCS to make child care cheaper for families and, in particular, looked at the impacts of women's workforce participation. It found that getting rid of expensive fees is good for women, good for children and good for the economy. The reality is that expensive child care has held Australian women back for far too long. Child rearing in Australia is highly gendered, and it's women who lose independence and income when decisions have to be made about who will stay at home.
The government should invest in early learning and make it fee free for all. This will benefit women, this will benefit families and this will benefit the whole community. Early learning and care should be recognised as a critical part of a child's development and funded as such by government. It should be fee free so every family can access it without any barriers. It is an essential service, and it should be universally accessible.
I have enthusiastically welcomed growing calls to make early learning permanently free for Australian families. This is not pie in the sky thinking. Like free higher education, free child care is now in the basket of, 'We had it, and we can have it again.' I urge the government to go back to the drawing board on early learning and invest to make big changes needed and ultimately make this essential service accessible, universal and fee free for all families. Until then, we will continue to tinker around the edges.
As early childhood education consultant Lisa Bryant wrote in The Guardianrecently:
… now would be a really good time for the government to announce that Australia's early education and care system is not fit for purpose, that the funding is still nightmarishly complex and they are going to make a fundamental change to how they are going to fund it.
They need to stop funding parents and start funding services.
This would certainly be a good place to start.