Questions Without Notice: Child Care

10.56am | December 07, 2020

It is hard to imagine what would actually provoke this government to meaningfully respond to women's economic interests, in particular, the significance and importance of Australian women having access to the labour market and consequently developing their own economic and financial independence, because the true meaning of 'independence' is the ability to find your way out of circumstances not of your choosing, to make real choices in the knowledge you have the economic resources to support you.

Senator McALLISTER (New South Wales) (15:04): I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Finance (Senator Birmingham) to a question without notice asked by Senator Chisholm today relating to childcare.

It is hard to imagine what would actually provoke this government to meaningfully respond to women's economic interests, in particular, the significance and importance of Australian women having access to the labour market and consequently developing their own economic and financial independence, because the true meaning of 'independence' is the ability to find your way out of circumstances not of your choosing, to make real choices in the knowledge you have the economic resources to support you. The indifference to women's labour market participation, the indifference to their economic interests, the indifference to their wealth and the indifference to their super is absolutely remarkable.

The question on this occasion was about child care. For many families, the cost of child care is far too high. Childcare fees in Australia are amongst the highest in the OECD. In fact, our costs as a proportion of income are only eclipsed by a handful of other countries. It comes at a cost and it shows in our statistics, because high childcare fees are not only a hit to household budgets but act as a very, very significant barrier for parents, especially women, to return to work. The issue is that the childcare subsidy interacts with the personal tax system and the family tax benefit to mean that many mothers actually pay if they take on additional hours, and many more lose most of the additional income that they would obtain through working those hours. Women are being forced to reduce their working hours, missing out on career opportunities and advancement, missing out on superannuation, missing out on income.

Women need to balance earning enough money to afford these very high childcare fees but not so much that the childcare subsidy plummets and makes the experience of work financially pointless. The impact of this was shared by one young mother recently, who said: 'Realising it made more financial sense to work four days rather than five felt like an absolute blow. At no point did we consider my husband dropping down to four days. He has a secure job and his employer would not consider this. I, on the other hand, being a mum returning from leave, am nearly expected to be the one to request part-time employment.' And that young mum isn't alone, because her story is borne out again and again and again in the data. Data from the ABS shows that, of parents with a child younger than five, only 64 per cent of women were in the workforce compared with 95 per cent of men. And of those mothers who do work, 60 per cent of those are working part-time compared to only seven per cent of fathers. Even when children go to school, women continue to work part-time, and women are much more likely to be underemployed than men. One of the structural reasons for this low workforce participation amongst women is because of the high out-of-pocket costs of child care and the punitive tax rate that secondary income earners face.

We are facing very difficult economic circumstances. This is a time when governments all over the world are searching for solutions for growth, searching for solutions for productivity. If you want to increase Australia's productive capacity, it is pretty straightforward. There is an army of women out there, waiting for opportunities to work but on the condition that they actually are meaningfully financially rewarded for that contribution. You would think that it would be a policy priority for this government to consider their interests because it would be fair. It would not only be significantly fairer for those women but it would also be a good thing for the economy. It's a flat-out no-brainer. It is the most straightforward thing you could do to lift Australia's productive capacity. But there is zero interest, because this is a government run by men with almost no interest in the interests of women, who treat women's issues with contempt when they are raised, here in this chamber, at the estimates table, in the media. We get glib responses: 'Well, women are Australians; we look after all Australians.' I can tell you that is not what the data shows. The data shows women's economic interests are not improving. Women still face a gender pay gap. They face a super gap, they face a wealth gap, they face increasing rates of homelessness and, under this government, they face some of the highest childcare costs in the OECD.

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