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Second Reading: Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Improving Assistance for Vulnerable and Disadvantaged Families) Bill 2020, Senate, 26 August 2020

It’s my pleasure to rise and speak on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Improving Assistance for Vulnerable and Disadvantaged Families) Bill 2020. I want to start my contribution by noting with some concern the contribution of Senator Faruqi. While Senator Faruqi made a number of statements critical of our government’s support for families and for child care, she didn’t really reference any facts. We are interested in the facts, and the facts of the matter are that around one million Australian families who are balancing work and parental responsibilities are benefiting from this package. At the moment in this country, Senator Faruqi, 72 per cent of families pay no more than $5 per hour in day care centres. We have monumentally reformed child care in this country and, of that subset of 72 per cent, Senator Faruqi, 24 per cent pay no more than $2 per hour. We reject the proposition, which the Greens did not speak up about a number of years ago, where families earning $1 million and more were being subsidised on their childcare payments.

Senator Gallagher:  Madam Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I believe the senator should be making her comments through you rather than them being directed at any particular senator in the chamber.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Stoker):  Senator Henderson, please direct your comments through the chair.

Senator HENDERSON:  Through you, Madam Acting Deputy President, I reiterate my concern about the Greens’ position and the distortion of the facts. The fact is that this government is providing record funding for child care—$9.9 billion by 2022-23. Australians listening to that contribution from Senator Faruqi would not actually know that the most disadvantaged families in our country receive a rebate of 85 per cent of their childcare costs.

What our government has done is fundamentally change the way families are supported by directing the greatest amount of support to families who need it the most. We reject the proposition that the same level of subsidy should be provided to families earning very high wages. We don’t think that’s fair. Why is it the Greens have not addressed this issue? The fact of the matter is that when the Greens make a contribution on this issue they should be candid with the Australian people as to what we are doing.

As part of our reform of child care, we are also proudly preventing $3 billion of taxpayers’ money from being claimed as part of the very strong stance that we have taken against fraudulent behaviour. So I am very proud of the way our government is supporting families and of the way our government is supporting the most disadvantaged families, and that is a fact.

Honourable senators interjecting

Senator HENDERSON:  It is also regrettable that—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT:  Senator Brockman on a point of order?

Senator Brockman:  Interjections are always disorderly and, from the end of the chamber, we have constant interjections through this second reading contribution from Senator Henderson. I would bring the matter to your attention.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT:  Interjections are disorderly. The senator has the right to be heard in silence. Senator Henderson, please resume.

Senator HENDERSON:  It is also regrettable that Senator Faruqi did not mention that the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Improving Assistance for Vulnerable and Disadvantaged Families) Bill 2020 before the Senate now for debate in adopting the $700 million transition package is making all employees of childcare centres who are currently working eligible.

She did not address the fact that one-third of childcare workers working in Australian childcare centres are not currently eligible for JobKeeper.

We have been criticised for that. But now this issue is being remedied because we’re providing a new wave of support, and this is something that the Greens have suddenly forgotten to mention. The fact of the matter is that casuals who have been working for a childcare centre for less than 12 months, visa holders and other people who are not currently eligible for JobKeeper are eligible for this new transition package. As I said, it is regrettable that that very important point has been conveniently overlooked by the Greens in the contribution that we just heard.

The childcare relief package before the Senate will keep 99 per cent of childcare centres open. We know how difficult this has been; this pandemic has been so traumatic for families, has caused so many issues in our community and has put families under such pressure. For those who run childcare centres, when the numbers dropped away dramatically our government took immediate action to keep those centres open by providing free child care. And we’re now working to give childcare centres the support they need and, importantly, childcare workers the support they need. Our $708 million transition package will provide 25 per cent of fee revenue—that’s 25 per cent of the existing hourly rate cap, whichever is lower, during the relevant reference fortnight and the last two payments scheduled for September 2020 will be brought forward. Childcare fees will be capped and services need to guarantee employment levels by maintaining the same average number of employees. Activity tests will be relaxed until 4 October 2020 to assist families whose employment has been impacted by COVID-19—again, a further concession to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to support families. That’s so families impacted by COVID-19 can receive up to 100 hours of subsidised child care per fortnight during this transition period. There is also a very significant gap-fee waiver when services are forced to close on public health advice as a result of COVID-19. That gap-fee waiver has been extended to 31 December.

It’s also important to point out that we know how much pressure many Victorian families are under at the moment, with very extreme stage 4 restrictions applicable in Melbourne. Essential workers are struggling to find the child care that they need and so, as a government, we are providing some $33 million in additional support for Melbourne. Melbourne services will receive a higher transition payment of 30 per cent and may also be eligible for a top-up where the childcare subsidy is received. That of course depends on attendances at the childcare centre. Victorian families will get an extra 30 days of allowable absences to a total of 72 days. All services which are subject to stage 3 or higher restrictions—and stage 3 is applicable to regional Victoria—can waive gap fees if children are not attending. Absences are claimed, allowing enrolments to be maintained and the childcare subsidy to be paid. Outside hours school-care services in Victoria will also receive an additional viability support payment of 15 per cent of their revenue if attendances have fallen by 40 per cent. On average, the government expects that services in Melbourne will receive between 80 and 85 per cent of their pre-COVID revenue.

We understand that childcare centres need incredible support at this time. The relief package with JobKeeper was a temporary measure. It did keep the very large majority of childcare services open but, as I mentioned, with one-third of educators not eligible for JobKeeper, educators and services asked for a more equitable arrangement.

That’s what they asked for, and that’s why the bulk of the childcare industry is supportive of these measures.

The $708 million transition payment, which is 25 per cent of the services revenue on top of the $8.9 billion dollar per year childcare subsidy and the many other top-up payments, is replacing what we had in place before in relation to JobKeeper. The transition package will see services receive the majority of their pre-COVID revenue even while their attendance is low. So the support is very much on par with what they were receiving previously, but, very importantly, one-third of childcare workers who were previously not eligible are now being supported.

A condition of receiving the transition payments—and this is a very important point to make—is that there will be an employment guarantee where the childcare service is required to maintain the same average number of employees. These payments going to childcare centres can’t be just pocketed by childcare centres; they must be passed on and there must be that employment guarantee. That will, of course, ensure the viability of childcare centres and also make sure that childcare workers are receiving the support that they need.

I commend this bill to the Senate. This is another example of how our government is working so incredibly hard to support families at this time. We acknowledge that in every sector of the economy families, small businesses, sole traders, young people, students—so many Australians—are under pressure. As a member of the Morrison government, I am incredibly proud of the support that we are providing—support that represents in excess of $300 billion in payments. Under JobKeeper, for instance, payments are rolling out for the $100 billion JobKeeper program, the $1,500 per fortnight wage subsidy, which, of course, flows through until September. With jobseeker we’re paying a supplement at a rate of $550 per fortnight. We recognise the extraordinary impacts this is having on mental health and on social isolation. Many people with spouses and children are getting by, but we also recognise that many Australians are living on their own and they are effectively locked in their houses on their own, and that social isolation can lead to some dramatic consequences. That’s why our Mental Health and Wellbeing Pandemic Response Plan includes very substantial investment for mental health.

In my own region that I proudly represent—my Senate office is based in Geelong—there’s been a very traumatic number of suicides involving young teenagers. We’ve made a commitment for a special suicide prevention program of in excess of half a million dollars just to support young people and school students, because we recognise that, when you cut anyone off from their friends and their family, stop them playing sport, stop them connecting, it can have very drastic consequences.

We acknowledge at the moment that stage 4 restrictions are causing a huge impact on the Australian economy—an impact that will cost the Australian economy some $10-12 billion. I’ve spoken out about my concerns in relation to the restrictions and how they must be justified and they must only be to the extent required to combat this terrible pandemic. Treasury estimates job losses in Victoria of up to 400,000 as a result of what we are enduring at the moment. So I say to all Australians, as a member of the Morrison government, led by our magnificent Prime Minister, who is working night and day in conjunction with the leadership team, in conjunction with the National Cabinet, to get Australians through this: I am incredibly proud of the way that our government is supporting Australians. The measures that have been set out in this bill are evidence of further support for families.

I want to finish off my contribution by reminding anyone listening or reading this speech in the Hansard that help is available 24/7. The National Coronavirus Helpline is 1800020080. Of course, if you are suffering from mental illness or mental health challenges please don’t forget Lifeline and Beyond Blue, or 1800 RESPECT if you have concerns about family violence. Right across this economy we are working incredibly hard, including for families, childcare centres and childcare educators. I commend this bill to the Senate.

26 August 2020

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