The Covid response and those who have fallen through the cracks

June 11, 2020

Ms SWANSON (Paterson) (11:31): Australia's collective response to the COVID-19 pandemic—Australia's greatest challenge in 75 years—is something that we should all be proud of. In terms of health outcomes, with 7,276 cases and 101 deaths, we're doing much better than many other countries. But we still have a long way to go. The world is still in this crisis, and this virus is still circulating. We must acknowledge how far we've come, but we have a long way to go. In the Hunter region, we have had no new cases in the last six weeks. I want to acknowledge the Minister for Health, the Department of Health, the Chief Medical Officer and the New South Wales Premier for this good outcome. I want to thank our frontline workers, particularly the staff of Hunter New England Health and our hospitals and doctors, who have made such an effort to protect our community.

I went to the Raymond Terrace Community Respiratory Clinic and got tested. It wasn't a pleasant experience; it stung! I want to thank Doctors Damien Wellborne and Sarah Bailey for their exemplary care. It was an uncomfortable but quick test, and it obviously came back negative. I want to thank them for setting up a professional practice that is helping many people in our community. And please keep getting tested. Don't just think it's okay; it's all over. If you feel unwell, go and get a test.

Whilst all Australians have had to sacrifice, the burden—let's face it—hasn't been shouldered equally. Those working on the front line and in the tourism, hospitality and the arts sectors have had the most job losses, and the businesses have been impacted the most. Women have disproportionately lost the most jobs, while taking on most of the caring and responsibilities at home. Many young people have lost their jobs. With their working lives ahead of them, they've been faced with that first sting of not being employed, and they're going to have to carry these economic cans for years to come. The costs of the decisions that we make right now in this place will be carried by those people.

Significant economic policies have been rolled out rapidly, with well over $200 billion in stimulus packages. Whilst this has supported many Australians, there are still many being locked out of really critically needed assistance. Labor has taken a constructive approach. We've identified gaps and delays and we've called for action where it's needed. As the months roll on, this government must do more to help those who are in need of assistance.

Child care has rightfully taken its place under this harsh spotlight during the crisis. Many years of bad child-care policy has created a broken and expensive child-care system. The crisis has exposed the neglect of this government of the next generation of Australians, through thoughtless and underfunded child-care policies. The Liberal and Nationals have overseen an increase in child-care costs by 34 per cent since they were first elected. This has been compounded by a rescue package that really has created winners and losers, at a time when we're all being told we're all in this together.

I held an emergency Zoom meeting with child-care and early education providers last month, and invited the shadow minister for early childhood education, Amanda Rishworth, to be part of that, so we could hear the issues firsthand that were being caused by these policy changes. These child-care providers made it clear that the only thing worse than the current COVID policy was snapping back to the old one. The COVID-19 rescue package has left parents without child-care spots they need and, conversely, educators without the work that they desire. How is that a great system? Now they're going to snap back to very expensive child-care fees whilst many families are still struggling financially. The Morrison government has a complete lack of understanding about the child-care and early childhood education sector. Many families are under financial strain right now, and adding sky-high child-care fees on top of this is unfair. Parents relying on JobKeeper for income couldn't afford fees for child-care rates before the pandemic and they're really struggling now.

Many families are under financial strain right now, and adding sky-high childcare fees on top of that list is completely unfair. Parents relying on JobKeeper for income can't afford fees for child care at the rates before the pandemic, and the government's latest announcement on the transition fees goes to centres, not the parents. Parents looking at returning to work or increasing their hours, which we desperately need for our economy, will have to think about whether they can afford to. No-one should have to think about whether they can afford to go back to work or have their children adequately cared for and educated. Early educators on JobKeeper thought they at least had certainty until September, but now JobKeeper is being ripped out from under them in a few weeks. Providers are already struggling to keep their doors open. Going back to the old system of high fees risks lower attendance and revenue.

Here presents an opportunity to do something different, to build a better early education childcare system, one that works for every working parent. I plead with the government to do more to fix this childcare crisis so that parents can get back to work and children can get that early education that we need to build a better country and build better citizens. In the long run, if you want to talk about the economy, it builds a far more prosperous economy as well.

This government must fix JobKeeper. We all said it was necessary and a good idea, but we know, being honest, that it was speedily rolled out. It is ridiculous that some people's casual income has doubled or tripled to $750 a week, whilst others have lost their income and are getting absolutely no support. JobKeeper does need to be better targeted. It's creating a big debt that we'll have to repay in the future, and it must be used to support critical industries. We on this side of the chamber know that that has to include education. This government really needs to come to terms with the value of education. For the life of me, I can't understand why my free-market colleagues don't get this. From early education right through to university, our educators have been on the front line and not getting the assistance they need.

Whilst early educators are set to lose JobKeeper next month, university workers have been locked out of the program from the get-go. Today it was revealed that the brilliant University of Newcastle has climbed into the ranks of the world's top 200 universities. That is a fantastic thing. It's a regional university—it was started by the steelworkers at BHP—but it's under incredible pressure. The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Newcastle, Professor Zelinsky, projected and told me last week that they're going to lose $46 million in fees for 2020. This is a well-run organisation. The University of Newcastle not only employs many people in our region but is a breeding ground for our brightest minds and, more importantly, best ideas. It's through collaboration with the university that local manufacturers were able to develop ventilators to help us tackle this virus. But the government is happy to expose them to the ill winds of the moment and cast them to those winds.

Universities need to be supported and treated decently because they are the petri dish where we grow the cure for corona. It is no more basic than that. We need to be supporting them because fundamentally we need them. We need their bright ideas and we need their research. We need them for our future and we need them for our economy.

Another critical industry that has been overlooked is the arts. While everyone that has had the luxury of being able to do so can cocoon at home and perhaps catch up on Netflix or binge on whatever they want to binge on, we don't want to look after the people who are artistically creating this stuff that we rely on when we're cocooning. And small businesses, mum-and-dad businesses in my electorate are really suffering. I want to send a shout-out to all the businesses that completed my small business survey. We'll keep working for you and keep supporting you. (Time expired)