House debates

Tuesday, 17 June 2014


Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Measures) Bill 2014; Second Reading

7:01 pm

Photo of Andrew LamingAndrew Laming (Bowman, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

You could almost be forgiven, having listened to that previous speech, for not realising that we have probably one of the highest quality childcare systems in the world. It is a system that balances affordability with access and the needs of vulnerable children. There is no doubt that all systems can be improved, but there is also no doubt that what the coalition inherited was a system in stress. I will go into a bit more detail about that later.

What is a little more concerning is that the shadow minister sat down with time remaining, ran out of material and virtually exclusively read from notes—speaking with almost no departure from them. Given that she has been in this portfolio now for four years, you would have hoped that she would be in a position to speak extemporaneously about this area. It is breathtaking that she still, to this day, cannot do that.

We want the highest quality child care in the world. There is no doubt about that. We have to cater for the 24/7 needs of families, mostly young families of course, who are moving between needing occasional care, long day care and, in some cases, family based day care. If we want to be a fast-moving economy, we are going to have to respond to the needs of our skilled workers and ensure that at no time does seeking out access to child care become a barrier to entering the workforce. We still tend to forget, however, that child care is genuinely about preparing the child for school as much as it is about freeing up the parents to enter the workforce. Childcare operators and their staff do a brilliant job balancing those competing needs. There will be no easy solutions. As a new father, Deputy Speaker Vasta, you can yourself well understand that there is always a need to balance affordability, the viability of the service and remuneration of the staff who work there.

Labor had a chance to improve the childcare system over the last six years. I think almost everyone would agree, however, that apart from a well-meaning but failed attempt at a quality framework the situation in child care barely changed over that six-year period. The legislation we are considering today quite rightly looks at the childcare benefit thresholds, looks at the limit on the childcare rebate and proposes three-year freezes on those amounts. The opposition has devoted almost all of their attack at the issue of the childcare benefit, mindful that about a million families that are eligible for childcare payments will, on average, be seeing a change of around $230 to $300 per person per year. They fail to mention, however, that that compares to the $3,500 increase in fees for that same child that we saw under the Labor administration. We are talking about an absolute drop in the ocean compared to the loss of control over fees that we saw under the Labor administration.

What do we have here? We have a childcare sector of $28½ billion; we have a commitment from the coalition to look at occasional day care, which was cut by Labor; and we have a determination to make long day care professional development available to all 44,000 educators and all 6,000 childcare centres in the system. We will not embark on anything like what I think was one of the most shameful pieces of social welfare policy that I have seen for a number of years—Labor's Early Years Quality Fund, a program that basically siphoned money to union-friendly applicants.

This was your classic childcare pinata. Labor filled the fund with money, lined up all of their own mates—mostly large providers—and gave them first bite at the cherry. You saw this almost unseemly display of childcare providers in the know scrambling for the dividends, while smaller operators, who did not realise that they had only 13 hours to put in their application, missed out. In Bonner, in Bowman and in every electorate around this country, well-meaning, committed childcare operators missed out completely because they were not in the know and not in a position to apply. It was unseemly and, as has already been independently identified, was really used as a membership drive for the unions to set up enterprise bargaining agreements—which quadrupled over the period of that fund. It was shameful. It was embarrassing. You would hope that no government would stoop to that level, but in fact they did.

The opposition's main attack is on the issue of low-income earners. It is only right that this place focuses on the needs of low-income earners. But, like all payments in Australia and in developed economies, yes, childcare payments taper. I do not think that is news. Between $41,907 and $97,632, you see a tapering of the childcare benefit. In many cases, however, those families are also eligible for the childcare rebate. It is exquisitely balanced and works very well. Yes, we would all like more and, if you are getting one dollar less this year than last year, I guess you can say you are worse off.

But I think everyone appreciates the bigger picture: that we have inherited a massive debt—due explicitly, uniquely and completely to the former Labor Treasurer's inability to balance the books, despite all his promises about one day returning to surplus. So, yes, it is true that there is a tightening of the belts and that we will see that in childcare as well. But, as I have pointed out before, that tightening is only between five and 10 per cent of the burden on families that arose out of the total fee change we saw over the six years of the Labor government. There was a 53 per cent increase in childcare fees over that six years—3½ thousand dollars a year, or $75 a week, for the average parent per child in child care. That is a significant increase which Labor never got their head around.

Of course Labor were full of promises about the 53c a day that would be the likely increase in fees as a result of their quality framework. Despite the well-meaning efforts of a minister out of control and out of her depth, what happened was obvious—they created barriers for staff, they raised the requirements too quickly and they made it virtually impossible for a lot of these providers on the margins to remain viable. What did we see? We saw hundreds of providers unable to meet those guidelines applying for waivers, and we had the ridiculous situation where the Labor government was happily collecting $100 off these providers simply when they applied for a waiver.

The common sense approach to this was to be more flexible, but that was a word not in the vocabulary of the then Labor government, who of course brooked no variation. I am delighted that the coalition have streamlined and simplified this approach. They have allowed a three-month probation period for staff before they embark on training. Most importantly, they have offered flexibility for remote and rural providers, who operate in a completely different space. In many cases they cannot always rely on being fully occupied, and even in outer metropolitan areas of Australia—in areas like my own electorate—there is definitely an oversupply of quality providers and occupancy rates sit at around 70 per cent. That has a significant impact on viability, and it makes it even harder for these providers to adhere to the requirements of the national quality framework. Let us get one thing straight—that quality framework does not get diluted. We fully support high quality staff working in childcare, but we also understand that these are small businesses who need time to adapt to new regulations and time to bring them into force—and the workers themselves need time to make the arrangements to gain those skills.

I have been distressed by what I think has been an inordinate focus on millionaires, and I have said this before. I have challenged Labor to come up with a millionaire who is in her late 20s or early 30s who might be having a child at the moment who does not work for a corporation that already gives her wage replacement, or who is not a senior public servant who gets wage replacement. The very Labor MPs who sit here and moan about the PPL scheme proposed by the Liberal-National coalition are the same union reps who barged into workplaces insisting on, yes, paid parental leave for their union members. Did one of those union members ever say, 'We want it at the minimum wage, we only want it for 18 weeks and, by the way, forget about superannuation'? Oh no, the unions were right up to their eyeballs wanting wage replacement for the members. That is exactly what they get in the public service and that is exactly what they get if they work in this building—wage replacement. That is exactly what they were chasing at every union meeting—wage replacement and not the minimum wage.

I still challenge the Labor opposition to find me that millionaire—find me the millionaire who stands to benefit from this arrangement that does not already work for a corporation or a large company that provides them with PPL or does not work already in a high position in the public service that enjoys, yes, wage replacement. That hypocrisy is laid bare. The only problem for Labor with the coalition's PPL scheme is that we proposed it. That is their problem, and that is why they are utterly focused on the search for a millionaire rather than the realisation that we can look in the eye every parent who decides to have a child and is earning more than the minimum wage and say, 'You are worth your wage while you go and do the most important of things for the nation, and that is to have a child—set up your financial arrangements in your household based on that wage and you can rely on a coalition government to continue that for six months and to provide you with the superannuation that you will need in your retirement.' That is why we found the cut-price Labor scheme not only obnoxious but also completely out of line with any other proposal bar one in the OECD.

Let us remember that we have a Labor government that over six years could not stop the double drop-off. Do you remember all the promises around that—the hundreds of millions of dollars that were going to lead to 222 childcare centres being built right next to schools? Every person in their right mind said, 'Gee, that'll be great, built right next to our school.' You would think that a Labor government presented with a job no more complex than spending money could have pulled that off. But no. We appreciate that bringing in a tax can be tricky, we appreciate that doing a major reform can present challenges, and getting legislation through this building might, but it was just a bucket of money and all they had to do was build childcare centres. Is there a simpler job in public life than spending money to build childcare centres? It is probably the easiest piece of contract management you can dream of. Out of 222, they got to 38. They ran out of steam and quietly cancelled the double drop-off program, on the second page of one of those perennial Kevin Rudd press releases.

We know that the quality framework became a problem for the Labor government, we know the double drop-off was too hard and then, to put the icing on the cake, they cancelled occasional care—only a relatively modest amount that looked after people particularly in regional areas who were working in highly variable occupations where they may have needed child care at very short notice. You would have thought that that would be right at the frontier of an adaptable and flexible child care system. You would think that the $13.8 million committed to that area would be money well spent. We all have to accept that we do not all have the same living arrangements, and some people who work in grazing or fruit picking or a highly mobile profession may well need child care at very short notice, with their shiftwork. Of course that was a bridge too far and too complex, for no other reason than it did not suit the unions. So that fund was chopped—but it comes back under the coalition.

In conclusion, the most vivid image that policymakers will have of Labor and child care, apart from a rote read speech from the shadow minister, will be that shameful display of the money grab for the Early Years Quality Fund. Many of my centres called me on the day of application, and I simply said 'I hope you have your application in.' It has been independently reviewed as a sham, and I hope the Auditor-General will look at it in great detail. The money that was promised by the coalition government, that had already been committed, was in fact delivered, and the money remaining will be directed into looking after long day care professional development. You cannot ask for anything more than that—the idea that we will support the providers around the country in the 6,000 centres and give them an opportunity to increase their skills.

It is an impressive approach to engage the Productivity Commission. Just how hard is it to make a phone call or send an email to the Productivity Commission on this most complex area of child care before we dive into any of these policies? Why not engage the Productivity Commission? But it was an anathema to the other side—'No way will we in any shape or form engage the Productivity Commission.' It was a complete scotoma to the very good work that the agency could have done. It was the coalition government that proposed it in opposition and, for no other reason than it was our idea, it was fiercely resisted by the other side. That is disappointing.

There was evidence that it was the right thing to do. There were 1,000 submissions to that inquiry and half of them are online. We will get some fascinating insights into this most complex of sectors. I do not pretend for a moment that fees and out-of-pocket expenses are not a significant challenge, but, as many investigations have shown in the past, the out-of-pocket expenses are in many cases nowhere near as high as made out by opponents of the sector. We know that there is a certain cost that we have to assign to highest quality child care, looking after vulnerable children and making sure that all Australian children by the age of five are ready for school. This sector does an enormous job. It will benefit from the coalition's policies and will benefit more so by seeing the failures of Labor fade into the rear-vision mirror.


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