Mr RAMSEY (Grey—Government Whip) (16:30): Deputy Speaker Andrews, it will come as no surprise to you that children are not cheap to raise. I understand you have five of them. Given that you are a similar vintage to me, I suspect it’s a little while since they attended child care—and it’s a little while since mine did—and a few things have changed since then.
This bill, the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Subsidy) Bill 2021, seeks to remove some obstacles in the payment schedules for childcare support that are actually proving to be an inhibitor to two parents working in the workforce. While I’m quite keen to make the comment that there are no laws in this country that prescribe that women should be the primary childcare provider in families, it’s a fact of life that they often are and certainly more often than not. So, in that case, it’s important that we maximise our workforce effort by getting two parents into the workforce. Not everybody will want to do that, of course, and we fully understand and support those decisions that families make for themselves. But there is no doubt that, in Australia at the moment—and certainly out where I live—we are experiencing an extreme skills shortage crisis, and we need all the people we can get into the workforce.
While this is a little off subject, I know you’ll be tolerant enough to allow me to discuss this issue, Mr Deputy Speaker. In Whyalla we are at the moment facing the closure of one of the three age-care facilities run by a community organisation called Kindred Living simply because they do not have enough registered nurses to keep the place open safely. It is going to entail 37 residents being relocated, and I suspect at least 20 of them out of the city of Whyalla and quite possibly to Adelaide, 400 kilometres away. Having better support for child care is not necessarily going to halt the closure of the Annie Lockwood facility, but we do need every person possible who can be contributing to the workforce to be there. Though it is not exclusive and there are a lot of male registered nurses, in many cases there are certainly more female ones than there are male ones. So we’ve got a worker shortage.
The current childcare support mechanisms do present some fairly nasty cliff faces for those that are getting the second person into work, particularly when they might be working the third or fourth day of the week. In fact, with a combination of taxes and extra payments for child care, because they’ve reached the maximum threshold, they might find that they’re not taking any extra pay home at all. This is a significant disincentive that the amendments in this bill seek to remedy.
With this legislation we are supporting families that have more than one child in child care. If they have a second child going into child care, their support subsidy rate will go from 85 per cent to 95 per cent. That will be quite a significant saving for families. For instance, a family on $100,000 a year could save up to $102 a week and a family earning $180,000 a year will also save. That sounds like a lot of money but, in today’s world, it’s not through the roof and there would be many middle-income people that are operating around those levels and trying to pay off expensive houses and all the other modern accompaniments to modern living that cost money. So this is not aimed at the top end of town and there are caps on it. In fact, once these new rates come into place, the subsidies that’ll be going to those people at the lower end of the pay scales will still heavily outweigh those going to those at the upper end. So I think it’s a pretty fair kind of thing, really; 85 per cent of the cost of child care picked up by the taxpayer is good support.
As to the fact that now we extend a higher support to those with two children, I am reminded of when former Treasurer Peter Costello was in this place and I think delivered the first intergenerational review in 2004. He made a very famous statement at the time: ‘Have one each and one for the country.’ In this particular case, we are saying: ‘If you are prepared to have that extra one for the country, we’re prepared—the taxpayer is prepared—to offer you more help in paying for that child care.’ That will enable those two workers to go back into the workplace as well. It’s a good reform.
Removing the $10,000 cap for families earning over $189,000 will be quite significant. It’s the kind of situation at the moment where you get to month six, seven, eight, nine or 10 and all of a sudden the childcare subsidies dry up and it can present short-term financial stress to families. So this kind of reform makes sense.
It’s well supported. I’ve been out quite recently at some childcare centres, at some openings and various things that we do with members of the electorate, and, while it’ll be a little while before it all kicks into place, parents seem to understand what’s coming down the pipeline and understand the government’s ambitions in this area. So that’s a good outcome.
While I’ve been out speaking to people, it’s worthwhile taking this time to point out that not all things are equal in this world, and the further you get from the population centres the more and more difficult it is to actually find childcare. The childcare sector is largely run as a private operation that is subsidised heavily, as we’ve just been speaking about, by the taxpayer. But it still requires a business model for somebody to invest in that location.
In smaller towns, often there are community based centres; often they start off as an adjunct to the kindergarten or preschool, and often they end up, in South Australia at least, on South Australian education department property, which can present problems for expansions in the future and looking for federal government assistance for the expansion of those childcare centres. As to these smaller communities, generally speaking I’m thinking of two towns at the moment that have approached me recently. One is Cummins, down on the southern end of the Eyre Peninsula, and the other one is Crystal Brook, around 30 kilometres from Port Pirie in the mid-north. These are towns with around 2,000 to 3,000 people—though Cummins is a bit smaller than that, to be fair, at around 1,000 people—but with more people living in the farming districts that surround them, and actually finding a business model there that works to offer childcare arrangements for five days a week is really difficult. There’s a lot of demand, but finding the business model is quite difficult and normally requires a lot of elbow grease and shoulder work from those in the community to support these things to make them happen. It’s something that I think governments need to be very aware of and something that I’ve raised with my colleagues—that we need to make sure that people remain living, working and producing in our country regions, and we need to make sure that we’re utilising all the talent that we have out there at the moment. As I’ve spoken of before, a lot of these people providing the extra care are women and a lot of them have had high levels of training, skills and education before they get to that part of their lives. So it’s very important that we don’t let them slip out of the workforce.
So, pretty much covering off on all bases, the legislation is good. It’s good reform. It’s good support for parents and for families, and families, after all, are the foundations of our society. They are the bedrock on which we build good communities—families that give the right kinds of messages to their children about community responsibility. By saying ‘families’, I am not singling out any particular family configuration; I just mean ‘families’ as parents, guardians and caregivers who love their children and provide the kind of loving and giving environment in which they need to grow up.