Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Improving Assistance for Vulnerable and Disadvantaged Families) Bill 2020

I also rise to speak on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Improving Assistance for Vulnerable and Disadvantaged Families) Bill 2020. I'll state from the outset, as my colleagues have done, that Labor is supporting this bill because it makes a number of changes which will improve assistance to vulnerable and disadvantaged families. Fundamentally, they need help now more than ever and if this bill goes some way towards providing that help then it's something that we of course would support.

But the conversation can't be left there, because we know this bill doesn't go nearly far enough in supporting the vulnerable families who depend on our early childhood system, the educators within it and the system itself. Even prior to this pandemic, the early childhood sector in Australia was in crisis. Fees were soaring without any real way of getting them under control. There were serious issues with the rollout of the government's response, which we warned them about and which still manifested because, ultimately, the government don't get early childhood. They don't get child care. They don't get the sector. They don't value it in the way that they should. When it comes to early childhood, our expenditure in this area and the things we do are ultimately a choice about what we as a community value. We see time and time again from the government that they see this sector, that they see child care, as babysitting. They don't see it as early learning. Fundamentally, we have to see it as early learning, because that will drive the appropriate policy responses on cost, quality and access, especially for vulnerable families.

We know parents are paying too much for child care at the moment and that is a huge issue. It is an issue which the government needs to get control of. But I know that's difficult because in early childhood you're always balancing this question of cost and this question of quality and this question of access. It's a tricky conundrum. It's an expensive conundrum, but it's a conundrum worth trying to solve. It's a conundrum that we need to put our money and our minds towards if we really want to make a difference not only to the lives of children but to productivity in Australia. Ultimately, investing in early education is one of the best things we can do to grow our economy not just now but well into the future. We know that for every dollar spent on early learning in Australia we could generate $2 worth of benefits to our broader economy. That's a huge return on investment. We also know that child care is critical to women's participation in the workforce. The Grattan Institute has shown us that it's one of the best ways that we can enhance this participation and that could bring us a multibillion dollar impact on gross domestic product.

Of course, these were the issues that surrounded this sector prior to the pandemic. The pandemic has come along and, in so many ways in our community and our country, it has just completely changed the way work operates and the way sectors like early childhood operate. The pandemic has had a devastating impact on our early childhood sector. The government was far too slow in responding to it. Our educators, who I talk to every day, were worried and scared early on that they were on the frontline of this crisis but no-one was really seeing that they were. They didn't have access to PPE. They didn't know where to get it. They didn't know how to run their centres, what to do and how to handle these changes. The package which came in to support them wasn't well thought through. It left some centres much worse off. It left families not able to access the care they needed. It left women who were returning from maternity leave and wanting to go back into jobs such as being ICU nurses unable to access a place in child care and therefore not going to work and fighting the pandemic. And the early-childhood educators who were raising these issues were never given that seat at the table that they needed so that the government could get on top of it.

The package saved a lot of centres, and we're grateful for the ones it helped. But then came the inexplicable decision to throw early-childhood educators—and only early-childhood educators—off JobKeeper. What does that say to these educators, who, through this pandemic, have been doing critical work and, let's face it, often risky work? It's very hard to socially distance from a toddler. I've got one; I know. It's not really possible. When a toddler needs their nose blown you've just got to get in there and do it. These guys were doing risky work, and they were the first ones—the only ones—thrown off JobKeeper.

Their anxiety has been sky high during this pandemic. And I get it. But he government doesn't; they never have. There is so much more we need to do for these early-childhood educators to see them through this pandemic, to give them the confidence they need that they'll have the PPE, that their centres can survive, that they can provide the care that the children need. And for vulnerable kids especially, we need to make sure we get this right. When this pandemic started and we saw parents having their children home from school—either by choice or by necessity, depending on the state they lived in—and we saw parents withdrawing their children from early-childhood education, because they too were worried about the implications for the health of their kids, one of my first fears, my first thought, was: 'What about those most vulnerable kids in early-childhood care?'

We know that for too many children in Australia that interaction with their educators in early childhood, that attendance at child care, can make an enormous difference to their lives. It can be the difference between abuse being reported and not being. It can be the difference between knowing that a child is getting enough meals and enough nourishment or not. These early-childhood educators working with vulnerable children are saving lives and often they provide the only love and support a child gets. Often they're the only ones who do things like sit with a child and count their fingers and toes—critical things that so many of us take for granted. But if you don't count a child's fingers and toes out loud, if you don't have that early counting and language and interaction, then critical brain connections will not form and that child will not develop as a child should.

The work our early educators do is critical. It's critical for individual children and it's critical for our community. What happens to those vulnerable kids who left early-childhood care? What happens if they don't come back? What happens if they miss that critical part of their early learning? It will change their brain development. That is a lifelong implication for these kids, to be locked out of the early-childhood sector, even for weeks—and imagine if it's months, or even years. We can't afford that. Those kids can't afford that. Our country can't afford that. For these vulnerable children who, I acknowledge, this bill tries to help, there are much bigger challenges ahead, too. Until we get a handle on those, until we know we can ensure access, until we know that our early educators have the confidence to do their job, to be there for these kids and all kids, then we're failing.

The government needs to do so much more in this space. I implore them to look at the research, look at the brain maps. You can actually hold up scans of brains and see those critical connections form. It is incredible, some of the most simple acts that we do as parents and that are repeated by early-childhood educators and built on. Their work is incredible, and they've been doing it so incredibly tough during the pandemic.

I want to take this opportunity to thank them, not just the educators but also the administrators who are working in centres and trying desperately to balance the books to keep their centres thriving and continuing, because they know how important it is that children have continuity of care. They know how important the work they're doing is. They also know how important it is to keep their early educators in work, and secure and safe. To our administrators and our directors as well: I thank you, because it has been such an incredibly stressful time for all of you.

During this pandemic our early childhood workers have been on the front line. They are also some of the workers in our community who have been the least valued historically in terms of their pay and conditions. So let this be a wake-up call for us. They are doing essential work and doing it at the toughest of times. Once we get through this pandemic, once we get through the critical questions we have to face to make sure our educators and the children they care for are okay, let's look at the workforce—let's look at wages and at actually valuing these educators for the critical role they play. They are changing lives and, more than that, they are changing our country and our future. Our productivity, our future prosperity in Australia, depends on our education system. And our education system does not start at school; it starts when a child first walks into an early learning centre. We have to make sure during this pandemic that we don't see any child walk out of their early learning centre and not return, because the consequences of that would be absolutely catastrophic. I commend the bill to the Senate.