Improving Assistance for Vulnerable and Disadvantaged FamiliesSpeech
I rise to support the amendment moved by the member for Kingston. Labor will support this bill, the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Improving Assistance for Vulnerable and Disadvantaged Families) Bill 2020, which makes several changes to improve assistance to vulnerable and disadvantaged families.
But let's be clear: this legislation is yet another in a long list of 'told you so' moments. It's another example of a government that repeatedly gets it half right and half wrong, and ultimately it's working people and families who suffer. I will return to this later.
The additional childcare subsidy for child wellbeing, or ACCS, is a vital program which ensures children in extremely vulnerable situations at home are provided with a safe and nurturing learning environment. For many of these children it can make the difference between staying at home and entering the child protection system. In July 2018 this coalition government introduced a range of requirements, resulting in restricted access to an additional childcare subsidy. These changes included: reducing the initial approval period from 13 weeks to six weeks; approving eligibility certificates for only 13-week periods; only allowing 28 days of backdating of ACCS payments; and refusing applications that aren't approved by Centrelink in 28 days, regardless of merit. The government ignored warnings from both Labor and the sector that these changes would have a detrimental impact on vulnerable families—and we were right. In the six months following the July 2018 changes, the number of children receiving the child wellbeing subsidy collapsed by 21 per cent. These numbers returned to pre-July-2018 levels, but only after significant effort and an injection of resources from providers themselves. Shockingly, in Senate estimates the department said that it wasn't concerned about the drop. They also confessed they weren't even tracking if families had dropped out of the system.
Despite this disappointing performance, the bill is a step towards reducing the administrative burden on early-learning providers and at-risk families. It provides greater financial security to these families with four key improvements: firstly, by amending provider eligible enrolment, providers will now be able to enrol children in child protection rather than via a parent or foster carer for up to 13 weeks while the parent or foster carer is applying for a CRN and CCS through Centrelink; secondly, providers may apply to ACCS to be back-paid up to 13 weeks instead of the current 28 days; thirdly, providers will be able to access ACCS determinations for up to 12 months for children on long-term child protection orders or in foster care, rather than the current 13 weeks; and, lastly, the calculation of annual income for couples who haven't been a couple for a full year will change to ensure that childcare support eligibility more accurately reflects the proportion of time they've been together.
The sector worked with the department on this bill, and they are supportive of it. Labor will support these changes because they will fix some of the design flaws in the government's system and will help get vulnerable children the support they need. But, having said this, the Liberals are just tinkering at the edges of a seriously flawed system and are not invested in supporting service providers, educators, families or even employers by providing a world-class, accessible early-childhood education system.
Early evaluations of the supposedly overhauled package this government introduced in 2018 indicate that one in four families is worse off. A full evaluation report is due in 2021, but initial evidence demonstrates that the government has let down this sector and, importantly, the families that rely on these services. Many providers say the 2018 package was onerous and placed a heavy burden upon them. Providers expressed concerns about the IT system. Issues with the operation of the additional childcare subsidy were also reported, which, hopefully, today's bill addresses; and to date, whilst some providers have introduced shorter sessions, the charges for these services are often prohibitively high. Notably, only 41 per cent of families reported to the independent reviewers that the system has resulted in positive change for them. What we have seen is an IT system that has sent out blunt letters telling around 91,000 families to date that they owe the government money—without any explanation. This is just more evidence that the system is too complex and is not working for families.
In 2018 the government boasted that their new system would put downward pressure on fees and that they were driving down the cost of child care. But the reality is that CPI figures show that childcare costs increased 1.9 per cent in the December quarter of 2019 and had increased by 7.2 per cent in that 12-month period. Disgracefully, fees have risen by 34 per cent in seven years under this Liberal-National government. This is bad enough—in particular, punishing women who need to return to work. And now this pandemic is exposing the deep flaws not only in early childhood education but also in aged care. And who is suffering? Our youngest, our most vulnerable and our frontline workers.
The Minister for Education last year claimed that Labor plans for taxpayer funding of early education and care were 'communism'—and then COVID-19 hit and, suddenly, free child care sounded like a good idea. 'Centres would be opened and kept open, enrolments would be maintained, and staff would not be worse off.' But we know this is not the case. In today's Age we hear from several early years educators that their hours and pay have been significantly reduced or they have been stood down. It does not help that, on 20 June, the Minister for Education announced that JobKeeper was being ripped away from this sector. The Prime Minister's rescue package for Victoria's early years sector has also failed to protect the jobs of many early years educators. The Prime Minister boasted at the announcement on 5 August that the package would secure childcare spots while ensuring no centre closed or no jobs were lost. It would be a triple guarantee with no job losses and no fees for parents. But what we are finding is that this triple guarantee is not worth the paper it is written on.
These rushed measures are complex and confusing, leaving many service providers wondering how the package will ensure their ongoing viability. We know that attendance numbers are significantly reduced. Staff are being sent home. Some of our most underpaid workers are now experiencing financial hardship from significantly reduced hours and no JobKeeper assistance. And many casual workers from the sector have joined the unemployment queue.
Importantly, the transition payment introduced as part of the Victorian package was meant to be a replacement for JobKeeper and directly protect the wages of early years educators—or so we thought. Nothing in the transition program ensures that any of the money is used by service providers to protect educators take-home pay. The transition payments included a so-called employment guarantee stating that service providers must maintain existing employment levels and may not terminate an employee other than for misconduct.
This guarantee is just not working. One local educator who wanted to remain anonymous because she was afraid of losing her job said: 'I was stood down with no pay on Tuesday. I was waiting for government support but received none. It has been an extremely stressful time for myself and my colleagues, some of whom are single mums. We've been caring for the community's precious children while feeling that weight of uncertainty, stress and doubt about our own financial future. How are we going to pay the bills? Most of us used annual leave in the first lockdown. I will have to apply for Centrelink to survive. The government has let us down.'
The government are not protecting workers, services or families with their flawed system and their flawed transition programs for Victorians who are doing it hard during this pandemic. We know that with a stroke of the pen the Treasurer can extend JobKeeper to all early-years educators and give these frontline workers some certainty. We ask the Treasurer to act now, because two-thirds of the sector have no protection and are not covered by the Prime Minister's so-called guarantee.
The plight of the sector in Victoria aside, the broader picture is that free child care ended on 12 July and JobKeeper assistance for the sector ended on 20 July, despite the fact that it was supposed to remain until September. Early-years education services providers are receiving only 80 per cent of their usual fee revenue as the system transitions back to the so-called normal system, but our economy isn't anywhere near normal, with double-digit unemployment and nearly 20 per cent underemployment. It is scandalous that this government thinks it can snap the early childcare system back to normal when many families cannot afford the gap fees and are losing jobs. It means parents rebuilding their small businesses or women who wanted to return to work will instead have their little ones around their ankles rather than in care, like Dee Behan, who was quoted in an ABC story on 9 June. Dee had a six-month plan to rebuild her graphic design business, but now a return to the co-payment means withdrawing her son, Max, from care again. Parents like Dee needed the free child care. The problem was that it excluded many parents returning to work and many providers were left with less revenue than they previously had or were shut out of the system altogether. Now we're returning to the system built for five per cent unemployment, not the 12 per cent we're currently experiencing along with massive underemployment.
This bill we are debating is just another example of legislation that can only visit the edges. It does little to fix the mess of the government's own making—in this case, the additional childcare subsidy for child wellbeing. Labor supports fixing this mess, but there is so much more to do. I call on the Morrison government to do its job andShare Tweet