Matter of Public Importance - Childcare

 I, too, at the start of my contribution would like to recognise the hard work and commitment of those involved in the childcare sector. They were pretty tense times a few months ago. We clearly and rightly recognised the workers on the frontline of our health system at that time, continuing to be there in response to this coronavirus crisis. But there were other crucial sectors as well that contributed to keeping all Australians safe, and our childcare sector was an essential one because, without those types of services, the healthcare workers that we essentially need couldn't continue to do their jobs.

Many of them relied on having access to childcare services so they could be at testing centres, be at fever clinics and be adjusting our intensive care facilities in preparation for what we thought might, or feared might, occur. That's why the government acted very early and swiftly to put in place arrangements to help childcare places stay there.

The concern, obviously, at the beginning of this situation was that large numbers of parents, if they didn't have to go to work or their older children weren't going off to school, would also take their children out of child care and that that would cause a spiral for the economics of childcare centres and that, if they were only servicing the essential workers in the middle of a pandemic or a broader lockdown, they would not have the money to survive. They would not have the money to stay open, and then they wouldn't be open for the essential workers. That domino effect, so to speak, was what the government was responding to when it introduced what was always intended to be a temporary package. We would no longer charge parents fees—I'll come back to this in detail—but the government would provide, I think, around 50 per cent, about half, of a childcare centre's normal revenue. That would be provided by the government to help them keep open, and the JobKeeper scheme was also made available to help them effectively get the other half, if you like.

I think the scheme was correctly designed for what we feared was going to be a significant increase in coronavirus numbers and a significant reduction in Australians working, or at least physically attending workplaces, and the scheme has been successful, at least in terms of childcare centres remaining open. The review that has been recently completed found that 99 per cent of the around 13½ thousand childcare services around the country remained operational as at 8 May, so the objectives of the scheme have been clearly met. That's not to say, though, that there weren't some unintended consequences of it. It was always a scheme designed for a particular fallout in the economy. It did actually make it hard for some childcare centres.

This is a complex situation, but it's one that has been glossed over by Labor senators because it's unhelpful for the slogans and the headlines that they're seeking to pursue here. But either they are ignorant of the complexities of the childcare sector—or haven't made themselves familiar with them—or they're just wilfully ignoring those complexities. I think it's the latter, because I'm sure they've been contacted by childcare centres in the last few months, in the same way I have been, and I'm sure they have had the same issues raised with them about this particular package.

The primary issue is that our scheme was all about keeping a childcare centre open for business, not necessarily viable at 100 per cent of its capacity. Because we required no fee from parents—so they couldn't charge a fee—that meant, of course, that revenue sources available to a childcare centre were limited to the government's support plus the JobKeeper subsidy. For some centres, that did not actually add up to 100 per cent of their capacity. Now, we thought that wouldn't be an issue, because there was going to be a significant reduction in utilisation of childcare centres. That has not always worked out, because we have not had the fallout. Thankfully, it's been a good outcome that we haven't had the fallout and that we haven't had an increase in coronavirus cases. So there were many cases, which I'm sure have been raised with Labor senators and with Greens senators, where centres were not able to keep 100 per cent of spots open, even though parents were willing to pay money. Parents were willing to pay fees to help centres stay open, but we said, 'No, we want to make child care free through this period to keep them open.'

It was a perverse outcome, which has been reported on. On 10 June the Ballarat Courier reported that Sebastopol's Brady Bunch Learning Centre had a waiting list of 30 families and daily inquiries about childcare facilities. I had childcare facilities throughout Queensland contact me. I won't name them, because I don't want to embarrass them, but there were many who said, 'We want to provide more services.' I have spoken to many parents in Rockhampton. They want to pay for child care; they're happy to. They've got jobs. They're lucky enough to still have jobs, but they don't have places, because they are being rationed. That's what happens when you put price controls in place—you get rationing. And that's why we've had to make sure that we adjust to the circumstances we have right now and that we adjust to the fact that we have not had the fallout in coronavirus numbers. We have not had the reduction in working that we thought we would have, and effectively returning to the old system, with some transitional assistance—that's key—is the best way to go about things.

Another thing I'm sure you will not hear from Labor and Greens senators in their contributions is the reaction of much of the childcare sector itself to the government's announcement that we would transition back. For example, Josephine Tait, the CEO of the Weipa Community Care Association in Cape York in my state of Queensland, said, 'We are pleased the government has listened to our requests and has vowed to implement some very favourable changes.' Emma Murphy, the CEO of Kids Capers Childcare in Queensland, employs 200 staff across eight centres and she said, 'It's really exciting to see that early educators have been recognised and federal government funding has changed and adapted to help the community.' The Australian Childcare Alliance has commended the Australian government for putting a transition process in place that supports the early learning sector.

As I say, this is a complex arrangement that we have in place to help support parents in their childcare needs. The childcare subsidy, which we are re-implementing, ensures that those who are on low incomes have the vast majority of their fees subsidised by the taxpayer. Up to 85 per cent of childcare fees are subsidised through the childcare subsidy payment. In fact, under the childcare subsidy, out-of-pocket costs for parents were less than $5 per hour per child for 72.4 per cent of parents. The vast majority of people using child care have a job. That's why they need child care, because they've got to go and work somewhere else. They're earning a wage. They're earning a salary in that job. It's good that they've got a job. It's great that unemployment has not risen as much as we feared. Therefore, for those people who have a job, we think it's right that there is a co-contribution. But there is significant support from the government that will continue under the arrangements we have in place, with transition arrangements as we move back to a more a normal economic circumstance.

This is the right decision to make. This is the right decision to make to support normal childcare services being widely available for Australian parents and Australian working families. That's why it is supported by those actually in the industry and those who know. What is happening though is that a commonsense response is not being pursued here in this chamber by those moving and supporting this MPI. What there is is an attempt to run a different agenda about whether or not child care should be free. That's a different debate.

The Labor Party has not committed to making child care free—let's make that very clear. We had an election last year. They could have done that. They could have taken a policy to make it free. It would cost billions and billions of taxpayers' dollars. They didn't do that. Does the Labor Party support people earning $300,000 or $400,000 a year having their child care paid for? Is that what the Greens support? I don't think that's fair. If you're earning hundreds of thousand dollars you probably should make a contribution to your child's care. You shouldn't expect the taxpayer to have to pay for you. Those on low incomes absolutely deserve to have significant support, which they do through the childcare subsidy scheme. But for those on high incomes, those who can afford to look after their own circumstances in life, including their own children, I think, it makes sense and is fair for them to pay those costs, not to impose those on taxpayers—some of whom will earn less and be less well-to-do than themselves.

This is what we're returning to. All I can finish on is by saying that the government has a track record of supporting businesses that have been hurt by coronavirus. If circumstances change, if things get worse, we will live by our track record of continuing to help assist and help Australians, making sure we survive through the coronavirus.

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