25 November 2019

Childcare Fees - Adjournment Speech

There are few matters more important to young Australian families than the quality, access and affordability of early childhood education and care. So it is with frustration that I rise to call out this Liberal government's complete and utter failure of families with children in child care.

The government recently released its quarterly data, which has shown that, despite their assurances, childcare costs are still going up around Australia. The data confirmed that fees have now increased by a staggering 30 per cent since the election of the Liberals. In the last year alone, we have seen out-of-pocket costs for child care increase by 4.9 per cent in roughly the same period that the consumer price index rose by 1.6 per cent.

In South Australia, the data shows us that in areas such as Campbelltown, in the electorate of Sturt, fees have increased by 8.5 per cent over the last year to March 2019—almost double the national increase of 4.9 per cent. Fee increases in other areas of South Australia are also well above the national average. For example, in Gawler, Playford and Port Adelaide, fees have increased 13.3 per cent, 13.9 per cent and 10.4 per cent respectively. At a time when the cost of living is increasing and wages are stagnating, South Australian families are struggling to meet ever-increasing childcare fees.

The government promised that investing additional funding into the new childcare package would provide more support for families, more choice and more opportunity. But instead it has only left families out of pocket. If that is not enough, now one in six families who use the childcare system, or around 90,000 families, have been accused of owing a childcare subsidy debt to the government. The government's new childcare system was introduced just over a year ago, and Australian families are already paying the price for the system's flaws. It's an overly complex and onerous system, with rigid and confusing income and activity tests. To top it all off, it's supported by a malfunctioning IT system. With no information on the debt notice to explain how the debt came about, families are forced to spend hours on the phone with Centrelink to get the details and explanation they need to verify the debt's legitimacy.

A South Australian mum, Ruby, was recently asked to pay back more than $6,000 even though she had overstated her income. Lucy, another Australian mother, received a letter from Centrelink telling her she had been overpaid for her childcare subsidy. Lucy had also overestimated her family's income, so of course this news came as a complete shock. A childcare system that does not work for all families is a failed system. And why does it matter? It matters because child care is not just babysitting; it is a critical part of children's early learning.

The system should be designed with children at its heart, and it should be centred around families. It must accommodate flexibility and diversity in our communities, families and centres. It should support families to access vital, quality early education and care and make it easier for parents, particularly women, to return to the workforce. Instead, the government is chasing its tail on administrative bungles in a system that was hailed as the greatest childcare reform by this government just over one year ago. If the government really cared about Australian families and making significant reforms to our early childhood education system, then they would at the very least be committing to providing long-term funding certainty for four-year-old preschool.

I have said it before and I will say it again: the most meaningful way we can tackle generational disadvantage is through universal quality and free education during the early years, because in the early years critical brain connections are formed. If a child does not develop well during this period and is not exposed to the right mix of play based learning, love, nutrition and nurture, then they cannot reach their full potential. On the other hand, children who are exposed to high-quality early education have everything to look forward to in their futures.

I see evidence of this every day in quality childcare centres across South Australia. Just recently I visited Margaret Ives Community Children's Centre in Norwood, where some of the three- and four-year-olds presented me with an incredible piece of artwork. Their artwork represented the children's learning about the UN's global goals and being good global citizens. As part of this learning, the children took a particular interest in goal No. 14, life on the land, and decided to inquire into minibeasts in their community. Using foam print blocks and ink transfer techniques, the children created a masterpiece of incredible bug art, which they presented to me for my Parliament House office. I invite all my colleagues to visit my office and admire the artwork and this spectacular display of early learning from a community based childcare centre in South Australia.

Of course, the best examples of early learning involve a high-quality early education backed up by learning shared with loved ones in the home. Reading books to our children is critical to their early development. It fosters bonds between children and their caregivers, and it cements the learning that takes place outside of the home. To this end, another South Australian organisation, Raising Literacy Australia, is doing tremendous work to support the early learning of children in my state. Through their Little Big Book Club, Raising Literacy brings the joy of books and early learning to every baby, toddler and preschooler in South Australia. Just this past weekend, my staff and I joined Raising Literacy Australia for their packing week of 2019, where book bags are stuffed full of age-appropriate books and early learning materials for little South Australians. We packed books for children from the APY Lands to Murray Bridge, books which I know will make a huge difference in the lives of the children they reach. I want to take this opportunity to put on the record my thanks to Belinda, Janet and the team at Raising Literacy Australia for everything they do to support the early learning of South Australian kids.

Every child in Australia deserves access to a fantastic early education. We can deliver that to them, but not whilst this government continues to sit on its hands and waste the opportunity of a generation in early learning. Ninety per cent of a child's brain development occurs in the first five years of life, meaning an investment in early education is one of the smartest investments our country can make. Labor's universal access to preschool scheme for four-year-olds was a critical first step in this investment. Since the first agreement was signed by Labor in 2008, preschool enrolment for four-year-olds has increased from 77 per cent to between 93 and 97 per cent. Universal access to preschool is a critical part of ensuring all children can access world-leading early education and care, regardless of what their parents do, how much their parents earn or where they live. But, instead of backing in these investments and backing in universal access, the Liberal government is refusing to commit to preschool funding for four-year-olds beyond the next school year. This presents unacceptable uncertainty for the sector and for families. Labor took to the last election a policy to extend preschool for three-year-olds, and that's where I believe we should be heading. But, at the very least, the government should provide funding certainty to ensure universal access to preschool for four-year-olds is here to stay.

We know that properly funding early education is good for our children, good for parents and good for the economy. Indeed, a recent study from the EU showed that, for every dollar spent on early education for three-year-olds, $4 was returned to the economy. This evidence shows us that we must do more and we must do better. Just today the State of early learning in Australia 2019 report was released, and it paints a grim picture of the direction early learning is taking under this government. The report highlights that Australia ranks 11 out of 21 surveyed OECD countries for investment in early learning. It also highlights that federal government investment per child fell between 2016 and 2019—a shocking indictment of this government's record.

This week early education advocates are presenting a report to the parliament which urges this third-term government to extend preschool funding to three-year-olds. I have introduced two motions in this chamber calling on the government to do exactly this, and the government have voted against this call every time. They've done this because they see education as a cost. It's why they've cut $14 billion from public schools and left preschool funding in limbo. But Labor see early education as an investment in our collective future. We see it as a right of children and their families. This government must act to ensure affordable, accessible and high-quality early education and care is available and accessible to all families in Australia who need it. They can start by fixing their bungled childcare system and by extending the promise of preschool. That is what families expect of this government, and I won't rest until it is delivered.

25 November 2019