Liberal Government’s $1 billion cuts to childcare

BILL SHORTEN, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: It’s fantastic on a lovely Canberra morning to be spending it with great little children at a hard-working community childcare centre in the electorate of Gai Brodtmann. I'm here of course with our Shadow Spokesperson for Childcare, Kate Ellis. 

We're here to talk about childcare. Australian families don't want political games on childcare. They just want to see the Government get on with making decisions which will provide relief from cost of living pressures. Speak to any parent this morning anywhere in Australia, what they want is what Labor wants. They want affordable childcare, they want accessible childcare. They want quality childcare which puts the interests of the child first. They want to make sure that the price of childcare allows them to participate in the work force, and that people aren't working just to pay childcare bills. 

Scott Morrison the new minister is making a speech at the National Press Club today. Labor will be constructive. We're always open to good ideas about the future of childcare, because after all, we have the runs on the board, we are party of childcare. But I think an important test for the new minister and the Liberal Government on childcare is will they reverse some of their damaging cuts? Will they reverse the billion dollars in cuts to childcare? Will they reverse the family payments which are costing families $6,000 or practically three months' worth of childcare? It won't be good enough for a new minister to pretend that half the game hasn't been played and that they haven't scored some own goals. They must deal with the cost of rising childcare fees. That's what families want. 

I might ask my colleague Kate to say a few words about childcare. But before I do it is important I believe to address one of the issues this week and for the last 10 days which has been neglected in the hubbub of the Liberal Government's infighting over who gets what job. I speak of course of the public health scandal arising from the contaminated berries imported from China. Not once but twice during the week, in the Parliament of Australia, we have asked the Prime Minister of Australia simple questions, how many people have possibly been exposed to the contaminated berries? He did not know the answer. How many people have been exposed and the Prime Minister cannot tell us is it one hundred thousand Australians, two hundred, three hundred, four hundred thousand, half a million Australians? That's simply not good enough and then when we've asked the Prime Minister not once but twice how many Australians face the potential of contracting Hepatitis A, he doesn't know. He can't even tell us the number of packets of contaminated berries which have come into the country. It is scandalous that it's only nearly 10 days after the contaminated berries outbreak that we're now seeing 100 per cent screening. 

The Liberal National Party Government want you to think about it's all about food labelling laws. Labor will work with the Coalition on food labelling laws to make sure that ambiguous or dodgy references on food packages are made clearer. But let us be clear in the frozen berries scandal, it said product or imported from China, it was very clear, the source of origin. The real issue here is that we've got a government who cannot tell you how many Australians have been poisoned. They cannot tell you that from day one they started screening 100 per cent of berries. This is a disgraceful lapse in public health and the Liberal Government needs to take full responsibility. I mean, for instance, there are over 100 schools in a range of jurisdictions who are now investigating if their children at those schools have been exposed to Hepatitis A. And yet in Canberra we've got a Prime Minister who simply doesn't know or doesn't care. I might ask Kate to speak further on the childcare matters.


KATE ELLIS, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EARLY CHILDHOOD: Well thank you very much, Bill and thank you for your commitment to the issue of childcare. We know just how critically important early childhood education and care is to Australian families and Australian children. Can I also thank the Member for Canberra Gai Brodtmann for joining us here today and acknowledge all of the hard-working professionals from Manuka Childcare Centre and all of the wonderful children who have kindly greeted us this morning. 

Labor is pleased to welcome the release of the long-awaited Productivity Commission report into childcare. I can confirm that I have now met with Scott Morrison for the first time in what we hope will be the beginning of a constructive engagement as we cooperate as the Government forms their response to the PC's recommendations. Of course, we know that any upcoming families package has to, in the very least, remedy the damage that was done by the Abbott Government's Budget cuts. 

I have commended Minister Morrison for a number of announcements he’s made since coming to the portfolio. Namely, he has reversed the previous Minister's ill-considered family day care regulations about the children of carers and he has also clarified the Government's support for the National Quality Framework. But we still have some incredibly damaging cuts on the table. We still have cuts to the family day care sector that will increase fees by $35 each and every week. We still have a bill before the Parliament to cut the means-tested childcare benefit which will impact thousands of low and middle-income Australian families. So we know that Australian families, they want us to engage and they want real solutions when it comes to childcare. 

We've outlined the four principles by which will be the parameters for our support for any upcoming packages and which we are working on our own policy development processes around. Those four principles are, firstly, that any package must be based on the dual outcomes of increasing work force participation, whilst importantly, also, being in the best interests of Australian children and it is important that that is maintained at all times. 

Secondly, there must be a focus on the affordability for Australian families and not just on limiting government costs. We are particularly concerned that the out-of-pocket costs data that Australian families are facing hasn't been released by this Government for some time and we need to make sure that in any future package, it is Australian parents and Australian families who are benefitting from affordability. 

Thirdly, accessibility is an incredibly important issue. Families across Australia who are battling lengthy waiting lists need to know that the impacts of any changes to the system and the impacts that that's likely to have on investment and on accessibility have been considered by the Government in any future package, and finally, we also need to recognise the critical work force issues facing the sector at the moment, and in the future. 

So we look forward to continuing to engage in a positive manner. We want to ensure that the Government remedies the damage that has been done through a billion dollars in Budget cuts and we look forward to working on this process. Lastly, if I can just add something on the berries issue, which Bill has mentioned - we know that this is an issue which is now affecting childcare centres and schools right across Australia. The latest figures are incredibly alarming. We know, for example, in South Australia, 22 schools and childcare centres, 53 schools in Victoria, 18 schools in Queensland, have confirmed that students or staff may have contracted Hepatitis A from contaminated frozen berries there. Now, parents right across Australia need to know from this Government how many schools have been impacted, how many childcare centres have been affected. Of course parents have control over what they feed their children in their home but parents want information and the Government needs to be forthcoming about how many schools and childcare centres might be affected by this latest scandal.


SHORTEN: Thanks, Kate. Are there any questions?


JOURNALIST: Bill Shorten on another major review to government that Scott Morrison will be addressing in the Press Club today the McClure Review. Your Shadow Minister this morning Jenny Macklin said she wanted the Minister to rule out any cuts to payments to vulnerable Australians that could leave them worse off. Now the report specifically says that no-one on a current payment will be left worse off. Are you concerned your Shadow hasn't read the report? And secondly does Labor actually support the streamlining of the payments system?


SHORTEN: I am completely in agreement with what Jenny Macklin has said about making sure that vulnerable people don't get punished by this Government and let's face it, vulnerable people do get punished by this Government. This Government has a track record of inflicting its mean, austerity, broken promises upon vulnerable people. People on the disability pension are often the target of a lot of coverage from people saying that they don't deserve it. Jenny Macklin, through her lifetime commitment, my own commitment, know that many people on the DSP would desperately rather not be on the DSP but their disability prevents them getting work. What Jenny Macklin’s doing is speaking for Labor when we say that the way this country becomes a better place is not by punishing the vulnerable, the sick, the disabled. So we'll look at the report carefully but I have no doubt that given this Government's track record, they will just be looking to cost-cut vulnerable people who can't protect themselves from a mean, promise-breaking government.


JOURNALIST:  Do you accept the welfare system needs to be made more sustainable, though?


SHORTEN: I believe the welfare system constantly needs to be improved. What I also believe is that I'm not going to start a campaign of vilification of everyone on welfare. I know a lot of people with disabilities. I have spent a lot of time working with people with disabilities. I can assure you that I've never met a person with a disability who wouldn't rather not have the disability instead of just having the disability pension. So I think that when we have a debate about the future of welfare, it's important we don't get into blame the victim that doesn't mean changes shouldn't be made, that doesn't mean improvements can't be made, of course, we always need to be making sure it's sustainable. But having a good safety net in this country is one of the reasons why we don't necessarily have some of the vast disparities between rich and poor. There's a lot of working Australians who are uncomfortable with the images of beggars, of people who've got no income and are concerned to make sure we have an ok safety net. We'll work on welfare reform with the Government if that's what they want to do but Labor will never sign up to harshly kicking people when they're already down.


JOURNALIST: A journalist from The Australian newspaper was essentially assaulted at an MUA conference in Perth yesterday. Should that member be expelled from the Party?


SHORTEN: I don't know anything about that.


JOURNALIST: It’s on the front page of The Australian, did you read the papers today?


SHORTEN: Sorry James, you just asked me a question, I said I don't know anything about that. But what I do say very clearly is that there is no time for any assault or violence, full stop. If someone has broken the law, then they deserve to get the full punishment that the law metes out. I have no time for any of that conduct.


JOURNALIST: Do you believe the AFP should be looking into the job offered to Gillian Triggs by George Brandis in the Attorney’s Department?


SHORTEN: I think we saw a low point in federal politics yesterday. We've got the President of the Human Rights Commission, certainly saying things that the Government doesn't like. This is an independent statutory holder, statutory position holder. I think it was disgraceful that we find revealed at Senate Estimates that the Government is trying to suborn this person out of their position with the promise of another job. This is remarkable interference between the executive and other branches of our political system. It doesn't pass the pub test and I also have to say that statutory office holders don't have means to fight back when the powerful government of the nation starts vilifying you in Parliament. It's tantamount to bullying.


JOURNALIST: Why does Labor think the AFP needs to investigate?


SHORTEN: Well, that's part of what the AFP does, and the other thing is, this wouldn't be an issue except the Government has decided to shoot the messenger rather than deal with the message of this report about children in detention and the Government's got to stop trying to shout down and hound out people who disagree with the Government. What we need in Australia is not a government yelling and shouting and using the full force of its bully pulpit to force people into silence, surrender or resignation. What this Government should do is do its day job; tackle unemployment, tackle cost of living, tackle your unfair Budget, stop the pension cuts, don't have the $100,000 degrees. This Government should drop its GP Tax, instead what it wants to do is just shout at other people it doesn't like.


JOURNALIST: Are you disappointed the Bali Nine - the latest Bali Nine legal bid has failed and what more do you think the Government could do to ensure that these two men are spared?


SHORTEN: Yes, I am disappointed at this latest development. I've said previously I believe the Government behind the scenes is doing all that it possibly can. I've been in communication with the families' lawyers. I'm conscious of the great trauma this is for these two young men. I believe all of the reports I've seen that these two young men have changed their ways. I do not believe that executing these two men will serve the cause of justice. The Indonesian people are a generous people. I believe that we need to see and encourage that generosity being extended to these two young men. The work they've done in that prison in those last 10 years, by all accounts, has made a difference to other people's lives. I am not saying that they should be forgiven and I'm not saying their crimes should be forgotten, but I am saying that I do not believe that executing these two men solves anything at all.


JOURNALIST: Tony Abbott's been hit by a rolling series of leaks in the last two weeks. It's been by any account a fairly disastrous week for the Government, fortnight for the Government. You took a 16-point hit in the opinion polls in your personal standing and the Government's primary vote went up as well. Why do you think that is?


SHORTEN: Well as you know I haven't made of practise of commenting on the polls when the polls are good, bad or any otherwise. What I know are that numbers that really count in this country, are that we see unemployment unacceptably high. We see business confidence, despite the protestation of the Government, going in the wrong direction. We see a whole situation where pensioners are worried about how much money they will have in the future. We see sick people wondering if they’re going to have to pay a GP Tax. We see university students and we're getting reports now from universities of enrolments being down, most disturbingly amongst mature age students who are discouraged by the prospect of much higher fees. These are the numbers that count. I would also say that this Federal Government, and you referred to it in your question, with its stream of leaks is completely dysfunctional. The vitriol of the Liberal Treasurer's email leaked by Mr Abbott's enemies to the newspapers shows the great disquiet within the ranks of the Liberal Party and also we see on key issues; pensions, GP Tax, we see the blame game and acrimony within the Government rearing its head and clearly Mr Abbott's enemies in the Liberal Party are determined to bring him down and in the meantime it's those earlier numbers, unemployment, the GP Tax, pension cuts which are worrying the rest of us, they're getting ignored.


JOURNALIST: Sure but you’ve said 2015 would be a year of ideas for the Labor Party. Is it time that you shared one or two with the Australian people?


SHORTEN: We are and we will. Again, you heard myself and Kate Ellis -


JOURNALIST: Can you put a timeline on that though Bill Shorten?


SHORTEN: Well I’ll still try and answer your first question and then I’m happy to take your next question. In terms of what Kate and I said this morning, we've enunciated principles which I believe indicate very clearly our view on childcare. Accessible, affordable  encouraging participation, making sure there's quality, promoting best interests of children. These are the principles which will govern our work and we enunciated them this morning and again across this year you will see us roll out more ideas. Of course, the Government is keeping us very busy with their chaos and confusion, and that does tend to take some of our attention. And I do want again to reiterate that it is a public health scandal where a Victorian senior medical adviser has estimated that 450,000 Australians have been exposed to contaminated berries. We know that at least 18 Australians have now contracted Hepatitis A. We heard my colleague Kate Ellis make clear that there's about 100 schools we're aware of and childcare centres in Queensland, Victoria and South Australia, we now worry if the children have been exposed to contaminated berries and Hepatitis A. And yet I asked the Prime Minister in Question Time time and time again, how many people? How many people? We have a Prime Minister who cannot tell Australians how many Australians have been exposed to Hepatitis A, it's not good enough. Last question thanks.


JOURNALIST: There are suggestions Australia may be sending more forces to Iraq, is that something Labor would support?


SHORTEN: Well the Government hasn't briefed us directly on this matter. When they do, we will look at the matter in, with great seriousness. I should say I visited our Australian troops in Baghdad. They are elite, they are professional. It's a privilege to visit them. I'm sure that Australians back home, if they saw the quiet understated professionalism and skill of our troops in Iraq, would be even prouder to be Australians and one thing I did promise our Special Forces in Baghdad is that all Australians support the well-being of their families back home. So we will talk to the Government, we have been constructive, even the Prime Minister's conceded that on national security we've been working together, and we will just adopt thea long-term interests of Australia when we look at these matters. Thanks, everyone. See you at Question Time.