Interview on ABC Radio Darwin, Breakfast with Adam Steer
Topics: New child care system; Naplan; Liberal pre-selections

Adam Steer: How will changes to child care impact your family? The Government’s changes to child care payments begin on 1 July this year. Chances are they will affect you. The plan is to roll two payments, the Child Care Rebate and the Child Care Benefit, into one payment and there are also changes to the activity test. What does that mean for your family? Will you be worse or better off under the changes? And more importantly have you tried to reapply for your subsidy?

Simon Birmingham is the Federal Education Minister. Minister, morning. Before we get to the changes and what they mean, tens of thousands of parents across the Territory will be required now to reapply for the child care subsidy. I’ve spoken personally to many people that are taking the day off work to try and deal with the myGov website and Centrelink. Are you confident or happy with the process parents face to reapply for that subsidy?

Simon Birmingham: Good morning Adam and thanks for having us on. It’s not correct that parents have to reapply to get their child care subsidy. Yeah they do have to provide some updated information. So if you’re already in receipt of child care rebate or child care benefit, then it is a fairly simple process that most people say takes only about 10 minutes. Indeed as a dad to a five-year-old and seven-year-old who occasionally do outside school hours care, I sat down the other Saturday night with the iPad on the couch and completed the process myself in around about 10 minutes of just providing information about my income, my wife’s income, the level of hours that we work or study and that’s about all that was necessary. So it is a very straight forward process. I know if you’re applying from scratch that there are of course ID issues and other things that you need to provide but I’d urge anybody who thinks it’s tough to actually just log on via education.gov.au/childcare, follow the links from there. I think most will find it very straight forward but they will also find that there’s a phone number they can ring to help get them through it if required.

Adam Steer: Why aren’t those details updated automatically as they’re already on the system. If you’re on the myGov website then, you know, that’s one of the advantages of that myGov website is that all of the government departments they’re all interconnected.

Simon Birmingham: Where we can that information is prepopulated. So in a sense where we can information is brought across from other parts of government into that system. But there are still fairly strict privacy rules around how myGov works and how much data or information can be shared across different agencies. So we use what we can and we make sure that that is there and up to date. But what we’re doing with the new child care system is providing support that’s better targeted to people who are working the longest hours and to those who are earning the least amount. And so we want to make sure that everybody before 2 July has provided up to date information so they’re getting every cent they’re entitled to in terms of support for child care.

Adam Steer: Well let’s move to some of the changes you say are designed to help hard working families. Labor is saying low income families will be hit hardest by these changes but you’re saying everyone will be better off. Who’s telling the truth there?

Simon Birmingham: Well around 7500-plus Northern Territory families will be better off. You’ll be better off if you are working, studying or volunteering at least four hours per week – which is not a particularly onerous test – and that can be averaged out over a period of time. So if you’re working casually or studying and have a lumpier profile in terms of the number of hours you do, you’re able to average that out over a three month period. You’re better off if you’re working, studying or volunteering more than four hours per week and earning certainly less than 185,000 as a family.

Now, what we’ve done is ensure that the average rate of subsidy goes up from about 72 per cent for families who are earning less than $65,000 to 85 per cent. And some of these families will be on average over the year, $2000, $3000 a year better off if they have a couple of children in long day care settings for a few days a week and are simply a low or middle income earning family then they will benefit because we’ve provided this additional support, $2.5 billion in total of extra taxpayer’s support, but also we’ve re-targeted to make sure the greatest level of assistance goes to those working the longest hours but earning the least amount.

Adam Steer: So at the moment $7500 a year is the cap, and as a background almost all full time child care places for kids under six probably cost around $100 to $120 a day to keep those kids in care. That cap’s now lifted and then there’s a new cap of $10,000 a year to be introduced for families earning over $187,000 a year. How did you arrive at that amount, Minister?

Simon Birmingham: You’re right, that’s the other big change that the current child care rebate cap, the $7500 cap which many families who have a couple of children in care or who have one child in care and are working full time, they will find that they’re hitting that cap already at this time of the year and therefore they have to pay the full amount of their child care support for the rest of the financial year.

Adam Steer: Yeah, which could be more that $1000 a fortnight, so it’s a lot of money.

Simon Birmingham: It absolutely is and what it means is that some families choose to work less or indeed they find great strain on their household budgets. So by abolishing that for families earning less than around $186,000 what we’re ensuring is that people can then choose to work the hours and days that suits them without child care costs becoming a sudden barrier midway through the year to them being able to do work.

Now, in terms of the figures we’ve set the income threshold there at around $186,000 of family income to ensure again that the maximum support is targeted to those families where child care fees can be the biggest barrier to participating in the workforce. So if you’re a low or middle income earning family we’re guaranteeing that you get the greatest level of support in terms of the rate of subsidy increasing, the abolition of this cap so that you can work the hours and days that best suit your family circumstances above that $186,000 level, we’re increasing the cap from $7500 to $10,000 so there’s still very significant additional assistance for those families as well.

Adam Steer: It’s 7.19, Adam Steer with you this morning on ABC Radio Darwin. You’re also hearing from the Federal Education Minister, Simon Birmingham.

We’ve been contacted, Minister, by mums who are going back to work in, what you would call, that new gig economy, essentially as freelancers in their chosen profession. They’re concerned about changes to the activity test. Can you tell me how that works, that activity test?

Simon Birmingham: Sure, Adam. So, I touched on the activity test a little before, which is that it’s simply to get on the first rung of the activity test you have to be working, studying, training, volunteering on average four hours per week. You can average out over a three-month period. So, indeed if you are freelancing in the gig economy or undertaking casual work, and some weeks you might work 10 hours and other weeks you might work nothing at all, you’re able to average that out over a three-month period to make sure that then your place in a child care service is certain, and that you don’t have unpredictable amounts of support coming to your family. But we’ve put that in place again so that we can target support. I think most people would expect that child care assistance is targeted to those who are working the longest hours. Now we’re making it fair by ensuring it’s a stepped rate, so as you work more you’re entitled to more hours of subsidised care but also ensuring that that averaging is there to take account of people who might work variable hours, who might study variable hours, they’re able to aggregate that together, and indeed even volunteering in activities such as helping out in your pre-school setting or at your child’s school can be an eligible activity to help count towards your child care entitlement.

Adam Steer: Minister, just a couple of other questions on a few other topics. This question has just come in. There was some questions this week as the kids are sitting down the NAPLAN tests, that some of the NAPLAN questions are a little too southern centric, as you’d be aware we don’t really have winter and spring, summer up here in the Top End and some of those questions are like that. Do you think that the NAPLAN’s a bit too southern centric, some of those questions?

Simon Birmingham: Look, that is a topic that I will absolutely take up today with the Curriculum and Assessment Reporting Authority. I haven’t heard that criticism before but if there are slants towards the southern climate in terms of the types of questions asked, then that is something that we should certainly take account of and be very mindful that whether it’s across the Territory or right across the Top End of Australia, Queensland and WA as well. This assessment still needs to be as relevant for those children as it is for those down south. So, I haven’t heard the criticism but I’ll certainly go and ask some questions about what the questions in the test are if there are some that skew in that direction. I can’t imagine that too many would because of course much of what NAPLAN is assessing is basic literacy skills, basic numeracy skills, it’s not like a geography test in that sense. But if some of the writing tasks lean on terms such as summer and winter, then that’s something for us to look at.

Adam Steer: Just very briefly back to the child care support, is this per child or $10,000 per- or $100,000 per household is the question, it’s $187,000 per household isn’t it?

Simon Birmingham: The income tests are at a per household level. So in that sense, to have the unlimited amount of child care subsidy you must as a household family be earning less than around $186,000. The $10,000 cap for families earning more than that is a per child cap in terms of the amount of child care support that they could receive.

Adam Steer: Per child. Thank you, Minister. News today, final question: number of female Liberals facing pre-selection battles even as the party reckons with its underrepresentation of women. Is this damaging for the Liberal Party, Minister?

Simon Birmingham: Look Adam, I’m proud that as a government we’ve put the first ever female Foreign Minister into office, Julie Bishop, first ever female Defence Minister into office is Marise Payne, and then currently serving Cabinet ministers along with a number of other women around the Cabinet table. In my home state, we’ve just pre-selected Georgina Downer to contest a by-election in the Seat of Mayo, that would add another woman to our ranks. So, I think we need to keep working hard to ensure we have greater female representation, greater diversity.

I was only up in the Territory a few weeks ago and spent time with Jacinta Price in Lingiari, around Alice Springs, and indeed I think our candidate in Solomon as well is another highly skilled and able woman. So, we’re working hard to boost those numbers. We need to keep doing so. That doesn’t mean that some female MPs won’t face pre-selection challenges from time to time just as many blokes face pre-selection challenges from time to time. But certainly we need to keep a focus on increasing the representation of women in Parliament. I think recent pre-selections in a number of cases are showing that we are doing that.

Adam Steer: Minister, good to talk to you this morning.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Adam.

Adam Steer: That’s Simon Birmingham who’s the Federal Education Minister.