Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Cheaper Child Care) Bill 2022

I am very pleased to stand and speak on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Cheaper Child Care) Bill 2022 today. The coalition, as we know, is supporting the bill, but it is
offering some additional amendments in an effort to improve the bill itself, with the purpose of helping even more families, particularly those in rural and regional areas. The member for Moncrieff has also moved an amendment to the second reading motion.

We all understand the very great importance of childcare, but there are a couple of matters that really need to be addressed and aren’t addressed by this bill but that we see out in our communities. They involve both the current workforce and also issues around access, particularly if you’re in a regional, rural or remote part of Australia.

Yes, we certainly believe in choice, and we want parents, whether they are working or studying, to be able to access care through formal or informal arrangements, whatever those arrangements may be. But, within what we’ve seen today, there isn’t a plan to address the current workforce shortage and the shortage pressures being faced by educators, which is why we’re seeking to make the bill better. There are currently 7,200 vacancies in the sector right now, and the measures in this bill, with $4.5 billion being invested, will create even greater demand, so additional educators will be needed. I understand that means that an extra 9,000 people will be required to work in this space in childcare. This is really important because we need a plan that helps to address the access to care for so many who are struggling to find a place for their children. There’s also no plan for the thin markets that we see in rural, regional and remote areas. There isn’t, within this package, one cent allocated to create additional places and services that are so desperately needed. We know that around 50 per cent of childcare areas that need extra places are located in metropolitan locations, and 50 per cent are in rural, regional and remote locations. We really need those extra places—we need those people who need these places most desperately to be able to access them.

I want to speak a little about our Connected Beginnings program, which we initiated as part of what we were doing in this space. The Connected Beginnings program, which was established by the coalition, provides access to Indigenous Australians living in regional and remote Australia. There are currently 31 Connected Beginnings sites, right across the country. I was very impressed with the work being done when I visited Tennant Creek in my ministerial role. I really want to acknowledge the work being done in Tennant Creek, with the young
people, through the Connected Beginnings program. We committed, in 2021, an extra $81.8 million to expand this Connected Beginnings program to 50 sites nationally. When we know the great level of need out there, we see that there’s a great need for this program, in the same way that there is for the Community Child Care Fund, which is funding grants for services in disadvantaged and vulnerable communities.

As I said earlier, the access to additional staff is a really critical issue. The Mitchell Institute’s research shows a 7,200 shortage now, and an extra 9,000 staff needed to meet the extra demands created by the measures in this bill. That’s 16,200 extra workers needed for the existing childcare places that are on offer—not for any new places but for the existing ones—and there are no new places provided for within this particular bill or budget measure. We know that there are three children competing for every one place available right now, so 35 per cent of the population miss out.

While I speak of those who miss out, I want to talk about one of those places, which is Augusta, in my electorate. A group of wonderful women have been working for years—and I’ve been working with them since 2019— trying to secure a facility to house a childcare service in Augusta. In 2021 they sought a premises, and that year the Shire of Augusta-Margaret River, voted to support the upgrade of the Augusta Recreation Centre. There was not a lot happening there at that time, and it was to provide the venue for the childcare service to be able to
operate in this tiny community in Augusta. But in more recent times the shire voted against this project, and you can imagine the impact that had on these women who have worked so hard and are very engaged in their communities. I’ve suggested that, given that the Augusta-Margaret River shire is unwilling to use council funding to upgrade the Augusta rec centre, we have another round of local roads and community infrastructure grants. I’m calling on the council to dedicate this funding to the upgrade for the families, the community and the businesses
in Augusta. Their purpose is to provide a nurturing, enriching childcare service in our rural location. That’s how they describe themselves and that’s exactly what they want to do. They want to increase the liveability and inclusivity in Augusta, whether for the old, the young or the in-between.

I can’t think of a better purpose for that funding than for the Augusta childcare group. They’ve worked so hard and for so long. Their children deserve this opportunity. When you look at the cost of fuel and the fact that the nearest childcare centre is in Margaret River, some distance away, transport both ways is simply not doable for so many of the mothers in Augusta. They deserve access to childcare services in Augusta. It is a lost opportunity for those women if they’re not able to pursue a job or a career—a lost opportunity for them, their families and these beautiful little kids. I want to see them have access to this service as soon as possible. I will keep working with them and had secured an election commitment in that sense as well.

There are so many wonderful childcare providers in my part of the world, as there are right around Australia — wonderful workers and staff members who love what they do. That’s the one thing we all notice when we walk into a childcare centre — the people who are working there love being there and do such a fantastic job with our children.

During Book Week, I’ve been into some of these centres to read my favourite book, and I’ve kept one of the books I had when I was a child specially for that purpose. It’s certainly one that entertains the young people. The young children love it, and they’re very engaged with it. It is, with my farming background, about Dabbity Duck, who has all sorts of wonderful experiences—and is not dissimilar to some of the wonderful ducks that live in and around our farm, for which I have a great fondness and that spend a lot of time on my lawn. They decided to set up a nest with many eggs and babies outside my front step. This is a very personal issue for me when reading to these young people.

I go to places like Annie’s Angels Play and Development Centre in Harvey. There is BlueBird Childcare in Busselton. Capel has a wonderful childcare centre. Here’s one I don’t think many would have—it’s called Cowtown Calves childcare centre, and that is in the location of Cowaramup, where you can see a wonderful group of cows throughout the town. There’s the Harvey Community Play and Learning Centre, Little Angels Early Learning Centre and the Margaret River Community Centre for Children. One I’ve had a bit to do with over the years—another small community that needs childcare for their families—is the Treehouse Childcare Centre in Donnybrook. Again, it is really important to our local community. Each one of these is offering invaluable services to the community. But there’s no doubt that, in many parts, like Augusta, there is demand and a need for more childcare places, which is what we were seeking to do in the amendment we are providing while supporting this bill.

When we were in government, we basically almost doubled childcare investment, to $11 billion in 2023. We locked in ongoing funding for preschools and kindergartens, making the biggest reforms in the early childhood education system for about 40-odd years. More than 1.3 million children from around one million families have access to the childcare subsidy, and there are over 280,000 more children in early childhood education. We abolished the annual cap on the childcare subsidy. So around 90 per cent of families using childcare are currently eligible for a subsidy of between 50 and 85 per cent. Since March 2022, there has been a subsidy of up to 95 per cent for families with multiple children in early childhood education. That is increasing workforce participation and cheaper access to care. That targeted extra support in March this year made a real difference, and childcare costs came down by 4.6 per cent in the year to June 2022. As well, we saw women’s workforce participation reach record highs, at 62.3 per cent. It was 58.7 per cent when Labor left office.

I am very pleased to support the bill but also the amendment that we have proposed. I go back to the fact that, in so many areas around Australia, rural and regional, those smaller communities, there are either no childcare places available or, as we see in Augusta, no childcare available at all. These are the places where we don’t have the two things I’ve spoken about that are the focus of the amendment—access and staff numbers. Both of those things are real issues, particularly in regional and remote parts of Australia. It is a huge challenge. We are facing real challenges around workforce in general, and this particular sector is no different.

So, in the government’s funding of this bill and in its funding of childcare, we would like to see it address those two really critical issues. Access is the first thing for so many of us who live in rural and regional areas. Access is the most important thing that’s not there, with 35-odd per cent of kids not being able to get childcare at all. There are so many families that sit in that bracket. The Augusta group is but one that I’ve been able to talk about today.

I am supportive of the bill, but I also want to underline the importance of the shadow minister’s amendment. I think that what we all want to see is greater access to childcare in the locations where it’s needed, like Augusta and like so many other small communities that I’m sure we’re going to hear about in this discussion and debate. We need access to more childcare places. The other worry I think we all have, if we’re being really honest, is about the access to the extra staffing that will be needed to support the measures in this bill and for ongoing services.