10 August 2021


Labor's support for this legislation shouldn't be taken as an endorsement of the Liberals' childcare fee policy. It is not. It's a missed opportunity. As I said, it's a missed opportunity in terms of the economic recovery, a missed opportunity to support families with kids in early learning. Our policy, Labor's policy, is clearly more beneficial to more families and more children in care. It's better because we genuinely believe in the benefits of early learning. We believe in the benefits for productivity for our economy. We haven't, like the Liberals, been dragged kicking and screaming to a sensible position on fees. We value early learning. We value the children in it. We value the families who rely on it. We value the workforce which delivers it.

Despite promising a once-in-a-generation reform of early learning, we have seen consistent fee increases under the coalition government—indeed a 36 per cent increase since 2013. Childcare costs have been growing at approximately double CPI over the past quarter. The government predicts these costs to grow by a further 4.7 per cent in the next four years. Why does this matter beyond cost-of-living concerns? It matters because child care and early learning are beneficial for the children in it. It's beneficial for the many families who rely on it. It's beneficial for productivity. It's beneficial for our economy.

The policy which underpins this legislation was announced to great fanfare earlier this year. While the fee relief is welcome—of course it is—and that's why we'll support this bill, let's be clear about who misses out under the Liberals' policy. We know there are more than 700,000 families who will receive no lift at all. Under this policy every single Australian family with one child aged five or under in care with a combined family income of less than $530,000 a year will not receive any lift in benefit. Any extra support the Liberals' policy provides to families with two children in child care will be ripped away once the family's oldest child goes to school. What's more, it doesn't start until July 2022, which is absurd when we know how important and urgent fee relief is for families now.

Of course, there is another way. There is Labor's policy, which the government could adopt. Labor's policy, which does not discriminate based on the size of a family, which has no age cut-off and which applies to all children using outside school hours care during primary school. Our policy will boost support for every child whilst they're in child care and will leave one million Australian families better off. Push your pride aside and sign up to it. It's good policy. It's good policy if you genuinely believe in the importance of fee reform and fee relief. But of course, that's key, right? You've got to genuinely believe in it. You've got to genuinely believe in the sector which this legislation seeks to assist, the sector which holds the key to greater productivity, greater economic benefits and greater social benefits from improving access to early learning. Every time we invest in early learning in Australia we're not just investing in social reform, we're investing in productivity, we're investing in economic growth. That's critical to remember.

Labor gets it. We get the importance of early learning. I stand up here and I speak about this frequently. We get it. We believe the science. We've just had a far-ranging discussion in this place on science. Let's talk about the science of early learning. We know that in those first 1,000 days of a child's life critical brain connections are formed. If those brain connections aren't formed there can be dire consequences for the children involved. They're formed through some of the most simple and pleasurable things for a child: counting fingers and toes, singing songs, telling nursery rhymes. These sorts actions help a child develop. For some children the place they get that interaction, they get that stimulation, they have that opportunity for those connections to form, is in an early learning setting. For particularly vulnerable children that can be the only place where those brain connections have the opportunity to come alive. That's why it's so important for vulnerable kids especially. That's why our early educators are absolutely doing life-changing work every single day, life-changing work for the children in our community who stand to benefit the most from the work they do and the support they provide.

Fee relief is absolutely an economic reform, an economic measure, a productivity measure, but it is one of the greatest things we can do socially in terms of enabling children—and particularly those children who may not get a chance to go to an early learning setting if fee relief isn't provided—to attend, to have those brain connections form, to have that stimulation, that care, that support which is provided in an early learning centre. It's a way of ensuring that children get that opportunity for the basic fundamentals of their early learning and development. That's what should guide our approach in this place to early learning and early education.

Of course, early learning has been put at risk by the pandemic. We have seen the pandemic shut some children out of their early learning centre—shut them out of that connection with their educators, shut them out from the potential to have those connections formed. We've seen our early learning educators under extraordinary pressure in trying to deliver the life-changing and critical work that they provide for children. We've seen them ignored. We've seen them let down. We saw their calls for help go unanswered at the beginning of the pandemic, when they were saying: 'Where's the PPE? When I wipe a child's nose, where's my PPE?' They were performing essential work not just in terms of the work they were providing for children in their care. The essential work they were doing meant our essential workers in other industries could go and do their jobs. The parents of the children they were caring for were on the front line of this pandemic. They couldn't have done that work, couldn't have staffed the hospitals, couldn't have been in our aged-care centres, couldn't have provided caring roles or policing roles or, indeed, even political roles if it hadn't been for the incredible early learning workforce standing there behind them and supporting them. It's those workers and those educators who have been let down so severely by the government during this pandemic.

We're looking at a policy that to a great extent is about access, because fees—costs—determine access for many, many families. When you don't get that right, you don't give as many children the opportunity to attend an early learning centre. For many children, if they don't attend the early learning centre, they will miss out on so much.

Conversations in this place about early learning can be controversial. The reason for this is beyond me. This isn't about pitting families against each other. It isn't about your choices as a parent. It's about ensuring that all those children in our community who stand to benefit from access to an early learning centre, from access to our dedicated childcare workforce and from access to all the opportunities in terms of their development that early learning can bring have the opportunity to do that. That's what fee relief is about. It's about ensuring that all those parents who stand ready to make a contribution to our economy, to our society and to our community aren't prevented from doing so because they can't afford the hours and time in early learning and the hours and time in child care. It's absolutely critical on the economics, in terms of its social reform, in terms of productivity and of course for our children, for the kids in Australia who stand to benefit from it.

While I stand here as part of the Labor team, yes, supporting the legislation, we wish it went further. We wish it did better. And we wish it provided the critical recognition of the value of early learning, the value of child care and the value that the opportunity of attending care can bring to so many children. I earnestly wish that it did more, that it went further, that it did better, because there is so much more we can do to support the early learning and development of children in Australia. There is so much more we can do to show that we value our early learning educators, not just in what we say about them and how we thank them but also in how we pay them, how we respect them, how we treat their work and how we prioritise them as the essential workers they are.

There is a huge road ahead in getting early learning and childcare policy right in Australia. This was an opportunity to do so much more. Put your pride aside, follow Labor's policy and perhaps think creatively about the way our investments in this sector, our investments in early learning, could be truly transformative for our economy, for productivity, for families, for children in early learning and for our society as a whole. That would be a truly visionary thing to come out of this place, something worthy of the word 'reform'.

In saying that, we do support the legislation. We support any effort to provide fee assistance for families. I am happy to do that. But I will be fighting every single day in here to make sure we strive to go further—to deliver more, to value the children in early learning, to value the families who are using it and to value the sector for its contribution to Australia.