Thank you to everyone who has enabled me to be present through this technology and allowed our parliament to catch up with workplaces across Australia so that we can all be representing our constituents this week. In fact, being able to use this technology today means that I started my day by dropping my daughter off at her early education centre. And so I feel very passionate in speaking about this Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Improving Assistance for Vulnerable and Disadvantaged Families) Bill 2020 because I see firsthand the hard work of our early educators at this time. I know how important the work they do is for our children and for Australian families and I know that they are feeling unsupported by this government at this difficult, difficult time.
This bill is important for children from vulnerable and disadvantaged families, but the most critical action the government could make for vulnerable children and the early education sector right now is to reverse their snapback policy which removed the JobKeeper payment from early education workers. It is critical to our country’s future that we have an early education system that’s equally accessible to everyone. That’s not what we have in Australia at the moment. Instead, we have a system where vulnerable children are at risk of being shut out and missing out on the vital preparation they need to start school. We have a system where, even before this pandemic and recession, Australian families were paying some of the highest fees in the developed world for child care, and current economic circumstances make those fees even more of a burden for Australian families. We have a system where this government has abandoned our early childhood educators, targeting them as the one sector to have JobKeeper removed and leaving many workers without pay at this time.
Australian families and Australian workers deserve better. I’ve spoken before in the chamber about how vital early education is to giving our children the best start in life, and I don’t think I need to run through all that evidence again. But I do need to highlight that early childhood education is particularly important for vulnerable children and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Early evidence from this pandemic tells us that, as a result of COVID disruptions, too many of these children have now lost contact with their early education centres, which puts them at increased risk of starting school at a disadvantage. While this amendment will provide some continuity of care for children at risk of abuse or neglect, it doesn’t go nearly far enough, given current circumstances. Without additional support, these children are now at increased risk of starting school even further behind or in fact not engaging with our education system again.
Of course, the very people who are in a leading position to reach out and help these vulnerable children are the people who’ve been thrown under a bus by this government. Early childhood educators and providers have been treated disgracefully. They are the one sector in this country to have had JobKeeper ripped away. I—like most of my colleagues in Melbourne, I’m sure—have spent a good part of the last three weeks talking with early childhood educators in my community. I can tell you they are angry, they are upset, and they feel as though they’ve been actively discriminated against by this government at a time when they are putting themselves at risk and being asked to do frontline work.
I’ll list some of the people I’ve heard from in these three weeks. There was a 59-year-old early childhood educator who was stood down without pay for six weeks. Her husband is retired, and this has a significant impact on their family income. There is a provider in Macleod who is trying to do the right thing by her employees. In fact, she doesn’t want to stand any of them down. She’s been trying to keep everyone employed and trying to provide places to children of frontline workers, and yet she’s not getting enough financial support from this government to be able to do that.
I spoke with early childhood educators from Eltham North, who are feeling unseen and unheard and are worried about their future. I will quote from what they sent to me, because it reflects how our early childhood educators feel so badly let down by this government at this time. They said: ‘The loss of JobKeeper has really upset a number of educators in early childhood education, and it’s heartbreaking not being able to provide certainty to the educators who are so passionate about the job they do every day. They’ve been left feeling extremely undervalued, especially since they’ve showed up to work every single day since the COVID-19 pandemic began. They’ve constantly been made to adapt to a variety of changes, sometimes with little to no warning at all. Still, they come to work and provide high quality education to the children and provide continuous support to families each and every day with a smile on their faces even when they’re going through their own personal challenges.’ What an indictment on this government that these are the people that they have cut off from JobKeeper and that these are the people they’re not giving support to. I wrote to Minister Tehan to highlight this problem over a week ago. I haven’t had a response yet. In fact, I note, looking at this debate today, that there are no members from Victoria on the other side speaking on this legislation, either remotely or in the chamber. I refuse to believe that their constituents haven’t been coming to them and talking to them about this problem as well. Do they just not care? Do they not want to stand up for early education workers? It really is a disgrace that, at a time when we’re asking these people to be on the frontline, we are not giving them the support they so desperately need.
More broadly, Australian women must be getting used to this government failing to acknowledge them, even as they are the hardest hit by the effects of this recession. More women than men have lost their jobs or had their income reduced. More women than men have had to scale back their hours at work or take on the responsibility for home schooling, caring or cleaning. We know the data tells us that in Australia women spend 64 per cent of their average working hours each week on unpaid work compared to 46 per cent for men. During the pandemic, we’ve seen mothers spending an extra hour each day on unpaid house work and four extra hours on child care. If we look at all the things that this bill fails to do, we’ll see that it fails to make Australian child care more affordable, and we know that is going to hit women hard.
This pandemic highlighted what we knew to be a huge problem in this space—that is, the cost. Before the pandemic started, we saw the cost of child care continue to go up and up under this government. The cost of living was continuing to increase, wages stagnated and families were feeling the strain of ever increasing fees, and yet, again, the government has failed to address this. At a time when people are losing their jobs and losing income, this government is doing nothing to make child care more affordable for these families.
The cost of child care had already increased by 7.2 per cent in one year alone before the pandemic hit. We’ve had recent analysis from the Grattan Institute highlighting how the cost of child care is a disincentive, keeping Australian women out of the workforce or from working beyond part-time hours. The Grattan Institute suggested that, for an extra investment of $5 billion a year on childcare subsidies, we could create an $11 billion increase in the GDP from increased workforce participation. At the same time, we could boost the earnings of the typical Australian mother by $150,000. How important could that be at this time? There would be more women able to work and more jobs for women in a female-dominated industry, like early childhood education. But are we getting any of this from this government? Not at all. In fact, we’ve got a government targeting stimulus in male dominated industries such as construction while cutting off areas where women are working, like early education, and making it too expensive for Australian women to afford child care so that they can work where needed.
This is an important bill, but it doesn’t address the important issues at this time. It doesn’t support our early-childhood education workers on the front line. It doesn’t make child care more affordable for Australian women and Australian families who are struggling through this pandemic. I urge the government to think carefully about what more it needs to do. It’s leaving too many people behind. It’s left too many workers without the support they need at this time. It’s urgent that it acts now.