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Speech on Early Childhood Education

On October 26 2022 I moved a second reading amendment to the government's Family Assistance Legislation (Cheaper Child Care) Bill 2022, calling on the government to make early childhood education and care universal and free, and address the workforce crisis by ensuring educators receive better pay and conditions.

This bill provides some limited support to families that are currently paying high fees for early childhood education and care. We welcome that the new government is making the right noises about the fundamental importance of early childhood education and care for children's development, for families and for our society. 

But, realistically, this is only a very limited investment. Families will still be paying high fees, and many will continue to be locked out altogether. Early childhood education is just as important as primary or secondary education, yet we don't means test access to public schools. But, under Labor's plan, parents will still have to pay thousands of dollars to access what should be a universal right—not only that, but, by retaining the complex means-testing system, you also retain the perverse situation where it is often cheaper for one parent to quit work than to pay for child care, forcing often women to stay at home and leave work, even if they don't really want to.

At a broad level, this bill fails to address one of the major structural flaws in child care—that is, that an essential service like early childhood education is increasingly dominated by large for-profit providers. Corporations shouldn't be making a profit out of providing an essential service. Once again, we do not leave primary and secondary education to for-profit providers, so why is early education any different? We know that early childhood education costs have risen by 41 per cent over the last eight years. Australia is regularly near the bottom of global lists of wealthy countries on affordability for child care. In a UNICEF report released last year, Australia was ranked 34 out of 40 on affordability. 

Rather than spending $254 billion on the stage 3 tax cuts, we could have universal free child care at a fraction of the cost. It's not that we just don't think this bill goes nearly far enough. In the Senate inquiry into this bill so far we have heard from a range of stakeholders—centres, peak bodies, advocacy groups and early childhood development experts—who agree this bill doesn't go nearly far enough to ensure that early childhood education and care is considered by the government as an essential service. This bill does not tackle the workforce crisis in early childhood education. 

Early childhood educators do extremely important work but have been underpaid and undervalued for far too long. We don't have to wait for the proposed Productivity Commission inquiry in two years time to know that early childhood education workers are underpaid and undervalued. The Greens will push the government to act immediately on workers' demands for better wages and conditions. There are a range of ways this bill could be improved. I understand my colleague Senator Faruqi will elaborating on this in the Senate. One terrible aspect of this childcare policy is that retained in this bill is the activity test. 

The activity test—a classic coalition measure—restricts the amount of subsidised child care a family can receive, based on the number of hours they work, study or volunteer. The fewer the hours of activity, the less subsidised child care that household can access. It is estimated that at least 126,000 children are missing out on child care due to the activity test, and the majority of these children are from low-income families. 

The government should stop punishing low-income families with insecure work, who are most likely to miss out on child care, by getting rid of the activity test. That disastrous coalition policy deserves to be consigned to history. We absolutely know what will fix child care, and that is: making it universal and free. It is absolutely affordable. We know we can afford it by scrapping the stage 3 tax cuts. And that's exactly what this government should do.

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