Thursday, 3 June 2010
Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Budget Measures) Bill 2010
Debate resumed from 2 June, on motion by Ms Kate Ellis:
That this bill be now read a second time.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to support the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Budget Measures) Bill 2010 and to talk about the achievements of this Labor government in the area of child care, and early childhood development and education more broadly. They are achievements that we are very proud of, and they are built on an unprecedented level of investment by any federal government in child care and early childhood education. Overall, the Rudd government is providing more than $17.1 billion over the next four years for early childhood development and support for child care.
Ensuring that children and their families have access to high-quality, affordable child care is a key part of the government’s objective of building a stronger, fairer and more productive Australia. Access to affordable child care is important so that families can maximise their employment and training opportunities. And the national focus on early child development and education in all settings, including childcare centres, family day care, kindergartens and schools, is vital if our children are to get the start in life they deserve and a chance to participate fully in the future success of Australia.
So first to the bill, which makes some changes to the childcare rebate. The first thing to remember is the change, the great improvement that this government made to the affordability of child care for working families across Australia. The previous government gave families a childcare rebate equal to 30 per cent of their out-of-pocket childcare expenses. Families could claim that rebate up to an amount of $4,354 per year. In 2007 we promised, and introduced on coming to government, a substantial increase in the childcare rebate. Families using child care are now able to claim a childcare rebate of 50 per cent of their out-of-pocket childcare expenses and, consequently, we increased the maximum amount of rebate claimable for each child in care to $7,500 a year. That is a big jump in assistance to families for a vital service that can really put pressure on their budget. In fact the maximum limit is 72 per cent higher than it was under the Howard government.
The Labor government also took steps early in its term to make the payment of the childcare rebate back to families more frequently than had been the case under the Howard government. In our first budget in 2008 we honoured our election commitment to increase the childcare rebate and also made it possible for families to receive the rebate payment quarterly rather than annually as it had been under the previous government.
Of course we all remember the situation under Peter Costello when the rebate was first introduced by the Howard government and families were told that they would be waiting 18 months to receive their first payment back from the government. We acted quickly in government to address that and the rebate is now more generous and paid to families when they need it every quarter. That is a big jump in the assistance the government gives to families to help them meet the costs of the child care that they rely on so much to make their family life and their family finances work. We understand the pressures that families are under and have acted to make child care more affordable for them through these measures: the increase in the childcare rebate and the move to pay the rebate quarterly.
It was good to see those changes reflected in the most recent data on childcare availability and affordability. The report released on 22 April this year—the State of child care in Australiashowed that out-of-pocket costs to families have fallen across all income levels. For example, in 2004 families earning $55,000 spent 13 per cent of their disposable income on child care. This has fallen to seven per cent in 2009.
This bill before the House implements a budget measure that will make a change to the childcare rebate affecting a small number of families. From 1 July 2010 the childcare rebate annual cap will be set at $7,500 per child per year. There is no change to that cap, but there is a change to the indexation arrangements. Indexation of the maximum rate of childcare rebate will not occur for four years and therefore the annual cap of $7,500 will continue unchanged until 30 June 2014.
The change in this bill needs to be understood in the context of our overall approach to the budget this year. This measure to keep the childcare rebate annual cap at $7,500 for the next four years delivers $86.3 million in savings. At the time the government put in place the package of stimulus spending and projects to protect our economy from recession in 2009, we made a commitment to fiscal discipline and a budget framework to ensure a return to surplus when normal growth recovered. This budget required the government to stick to those rules we set for ourselves, and that meant finding savings to offset new spending measures. In this instance, the projected savings of $86 million from this measure will go towards some important new initiatives also announced in the budget. First of all, there is $59.4 million to improve the quality of 142 budget-based funded early childhood services in rural and remote Australia. This funding will help those centres to improve infrastructure and staff qualifications and will benefit some of our most isolated and disadvantaged children.
In addition we have announced $81.9 million to implement the new national quality standards. This includes the first national ratings system for child care and early education services so parents have the information they need to make those important decisions about the best care for their child. There is also $1.9 million to support new regulatory measures to help achieve ongoing stability in the childcare sector in the wake of the ABC Learning crisis. This includes developing measures that require large childcare providers in the market to prove their financial viability—something that no-one would argue against after we saw what happened with ABC Learning not so long ago. Since taking government we have taken steps to improve the affordability of child care through assistance to families. Now we also need to continue our work with the sector on standards and quality. These three budget initiatives progress that quality agenda.
It is fair to ask what effect the change in this bill to hold the annual cap to $7,500 until 2014 will have on the affordability of child care. The vast majority of families receiving childcare rebate—an estimated 760,000 or around 97 per cent of families—will not be impacted by this change in the year following its introduction. On average, families use only 26 hours of care per child per week. This measure will mostly impact on the small number of families who use care for much longer periods, such as 50 hours per week, or those who use more expensive child care. Those families who are affected by this change will on average have a reduction in childcare benefit of an estimated $5 per week, or $266 per year. Compared to that very small proportion of families who will be minimally affected by this change all families are benefiting, and will continue to benefit, from the significant lift in the childcare rebate cap introduced by the government. As an example, a family earning $80,000 with one child in full-time care would have received a childcare rebate of $3,359 under the Howard government. Under this government that same family receives $5,598 in childcare rebate. They are better off by $2,239 under our more generous system.
We came to government with substantial commitments to improve the affordability of child care and we have delivered on that commitment. Not long after coming into office we were also faced with a crisis of viability in the sector. The collapse of ABC Learning at the end of 2008 threatened the closure of hundreds of centres across Australia. There was a very real prospect of families losing access to care for their children and thousands of childcare workers losing their jobs and entitlements. The collapse of ABC Learning was very much the product of the company’s unsustainable business model but it can also be attributed to the Howard government’s hands-off, let the market rip approach to the childcare sector.
The Howard government did not care that child care was effectively an essential service for the families that relied on their childcare centre. It did nothing to ensure the ongoing viability of the whole sector, preferring to leave it to the market and those who sought to exploit opportunities while the going was good. It was left to the Rudd government to clean up the mess when ABC Learning fell over. We worked with the receivers and provided funding to ensure that the doors of ABC Learning centres stayed open, giving families assurance that their children could continue to receive care. Had we not acted quickly, over 62,000 families would have had to find alternative care or potentially give up work.
There was good news for many of those ABC Learning families and childcare workers this week with the formal transfer of 570 childcare centres from ABC Learning to GoodStart, the not-for-profit company set up by Mission Australia, the Brotherhood of St Laurence, the Benevolent Society and Social Ventures Australia. Three of the GoodStart centres are in my electorate, at Rockhampton, Walkerston and Gracemere. Parents and staff can now be confident that these centres are in safe hands and their future is assured with their new owners. I am particularly happy to know that Mary and her team at the Campbell Street centre in Rockhampton can rest easy and get on with the great job they do for the kids in their care. They look after my daughter one day each week and I know she loves the time she spends with them. I am sure that is the case for the children at all three of these centres. I am pleased that the government has been able to play such a positive role in steering this potentially disastrous collapse of ABC Learning to a conclusion that gives assurance to parents and strengthens the sector by creating a better balance between private and not-for-profit providers.
The recent report about the state of child care in Australia shows that, two years into office, child care is more accessible and affordable under this government. The other aspect of child care that is just as important, and which this Labor government has really put on the agenda, is quality. Quality in child care—whether that is achieved through better staff to child ratios, improved staff qualifications or the early years learning framework—is part of our drive for improved developmental and educational outcomes for children.
Despite all the evidence that tells us how important the first five years of a child’s life are in their overall development, for many years the federal government has not been seriously involved in policy or funding in this crucial area. This neglect was showing up in all kinds of indicators telling us that young children in Australia were being short-changed—that not enough attention was being given to their needs and there was not enough investment in quality child care and educational opportunities for children under five. Too many children were starting school, and are still starting school, without having a chance to participate in activities that promote their development and get them ready to learn. We want to turn that around and the government has put massive funding towards improving the opportunities for children and in turn their educational and developmental outcomes. Our total investment in early childhood education and child care will be $17 billion over the next four years.
One of our priorities has been to work with the states and territories to achieve universal access to early childhood education. Our commitment is that by 2013 every child will be able to access a quality early childhood education program in the year before they begin formal schooling. This will be a play based learning and development program for 15 hours a week, taught by four-year university qualified early childhood teachers. It will be available across a range of settings, including childcare centres and family day care so that it fits in with parents’ arrangements. I am pleased to say that the Queensland government has already responded by promising to build over 200 new kindergartens across the state because we have a lot of catching up to do in this area of early childhood education.
For too long the federal government has had a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ attitude to early childhood education and development. The previous government did not see it as their responsibility at all. They were content to just take pot shots at the states whenever it suited them to blame the states for any perceived shortcomings. It was never anything to do with the federal government, of course. We have a different approach. We want to know exactly what is going on with our children—the good and the bad—so that we know where extra support and investment is needed. We are doing that through the Australian Early Development Index, which asks teachers to answer a series of questions about the children in their class in their first year of school. The data that is compiled is broken down region by region and will help communities to better understand how their children are doing by the time they start formal schooling. The data shows that there is a lot of work to do in my electorate to bridge the gap that exists in children’s experience of preschool education. While children in Central Queensland scored around the average for things like their wellbeing and readiness to be at school, the measures that rely on some formal educational experience showed the lack of access to preschool education for many children in the area.
I welcomed the announcement by the Minister for Early Childhood Education, Childcare and Youth a few weeks ago that the government is going to fund local champions in the places where the Australian Early Development Index data indicated a higher than average number of children were developmentally vulnerable. I believe that there are certainly places in my electorate where that is the case and I will be urging the minister to allocate a number of those local champions to communities in Central Queensland. The local champions program will support nominated people or organisations with local experience and expertise to work with communities to make the best use of their AEDI results and ensure that children in those places can start school as happy and confident learners.
The need is certainly there in Central Queensland for this extra assistance. That has already been identified by the federal government through its investment in the HIPPY program in Mount Morgan. HIPPY stands for Home Interaction Program for Parents and Youngsters. It is a home based program that provides home tutors, books and other educational resources to help parents prepare their child for school. By helping parents to improve their child’s readiness for school, the program offers preschool students a better start in life. The program only started in Mount Morgan this year. It is great to know that parents are being given this support to get actively involved in their child’s education. The town of Mount Morgan has had many setbacks over the years and that can lead to a sense of disadvantage and loss of motivation, but these kids should not have to carry that burden. Instead, this kind of program, with the right support from parents, can have kids starting school and being ready to make the most of their educational opportunities.
These investments in child care and early childhood education and development are necessary and urgent if we are to achieve our goals of a fair and prosperous country. They increase the value of investments in other parts of our education and training system, because we know that every dollar spent on a child before the age of five has a cascading effect throughout the rest of their education and beyond. I am proud to be part of a government that places such value on children through these measures. We also realise that valuing children means supporting their parents. Our time in government has seen child care become more affordable and accessible and we will continue to support families by giving them the assurances they need about quality and the means to make reliable decisions about the best child care for their children. The changes proposed in this bill will create funding to go towards those measures and it has my support.
The Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Budget Measures) Bill 2010 is extremely important legislation. It is a timely reminder of the Rudd government’s commitment to child care and to working families across Australia, particularly in my electorate of Blair in South-East Queensland. We have many fine childcare centres in my electorate—wonderful community centres such as Cribb Street Child Care Centre at Sadliers Crossing, which has been there for a long time; the childcare centre in inner-city Ipswich, which I know is struggling for numbers because of the demographic changes in the area; and the One Mile Community Child Care Centre in Leichhardt, which is staffed by very strong communitarian people and is devoted to the children in that community.
There are for-profit childcare centres such as Bush Kids. Why do I mention Bush Kidz, which runs the childcare centre at Brassall? Because Bush Kidz took over the ABC Learning centre at Brassall in the electorate of Blair. Brassall is the largest suburb in Ipswich in the electorate of Blair and, as a result of the debacle of the ABC Learning collapse under the watch of the previous government and the let-the-market-rip attitude that was permitted, ABC Learning centres across Ipswich were in dire need of support and assistance. Hundreds of young people were in a position where child care was at risk, which meant pressure on families across Ipswich. The reality is that the coalition government took little opportunity to provide for child care for working families. The truth is that, when it comes to child care, they saw no responsibility on the part of the federal government. Their attitude was: ‘It’s not our responsibility. We should take no action. We should let the market operate.’ That allowed one particular company to develop into an oligopolistic position in the market. When that company fell into receivership and liquidation then the consequences to about 62,000 families across the country was dire, including in the electorate of Blair—in Ipswich and the rural areas outside.
The truth is that the coalition has never been a friend of the childcare sector. The truth is that the coalition harks back to some sort of 1950s mythical, nostalgic moment when women had no choice—or by economic necessity did not have to work. It was a sort of ‘leave it to Beaver’ attitude that infests and operates on those opposite. The truth is that, because of the economic circumstances of families across my electorate and across the country and by reason of women wanting to fulfil their potential in life, women actually engage in the workforce. Those opposite, for nearly 12 years, let this sector down. That is the truth. In 2006 Australia was one of the worst ranking countries in terms of public expenditure on early childhood education—13th out of 14 in the OECD.
The Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, the member for Curtin, the then education minister, had this to say. She admitted it was:
… unacceptable in a country with Australia’s relatively small population to have a fractured and inconsistent system that can change dramatically between States.
What a disgrace, what a failure, what a fiasco. The attitude of the coalition when it came to child care was: do nothing, say nothing, let it go, and blame others—claim child care was the responsibility of the states and territories and claim there was no national responsibility. We know adequate, accessible, affordable child care does not just benefit families, particularly those with young children, but it helps business. It is good for business. It is particularly good for small business and the nearly four million people who work in 2.4 million small businesses across the country. The coalition do not get it when it comes to child care. They claim they support small business, but if they did they would support child care and would have done so for nearly 12 years. Instead, they did very little indeed.
I heard the member for Murray talking about this matter yesterday. It was 30 minutes of hyperbole, hysteria and hypocrisy on this topic. This is the mob that refused to bring in paid parental leave. Their current leader said in 2002 it would be brought in over his dead body. They have this mythical, fictional policy at the moment that they are never sure when they can do it. At some stage in the dim, distant future they might do it. That is their policy. I have read it. I have read the transcripts of what their leader has said and their spokesperson, the member for Murray, has said. It is esoteric, it is obtuse, and it is vague—it is just nonsense. No-one could possibly believe they would ever be committed to this stuff. They certainly never in 12 years brought in paid parental leave in this country—not understanding how important the link was with child care; not understanding at all.
That is the legacy of the coalition government. They thought perhaps when it comes to child care a nanny might do, a babysitter might do. That is their attitude—without realising how important education is to the development of a child. We were spending one-fifth of what our OECD partners were on early childhood education. That is the legacy of the coalition government. That is why we have invested massively when it comes to early childhood education. Giving a young person a chance in life in those very young developmental years is so crucial to educational attainment in primary school, high school and tertiary education. They did not understand that. It is not just about equality of opportunity; they also did not get the link with business, and they claim they are the party that supports business. They did not understand that as well. That is the legacy of those opposite.
The new reports which the Minister for Early Childhood Education, Childcare and Youth, who I see is at the table, welcomed on 22 April this year, the Child care vacancies quarterly snapshot and the State of child care in Australia, demonstrate that we are making progress. We are catching up after the failures of the coalition government. We are dealing with the apathy and the inaction of those opposite. We are seeing more affordable, accessible, stable and high-quality child care in the Australian community. It is good for business and good for families.
The State of child care in Australia report makes it very clear. It undertook a statistical analysis of the Australian childcare market over the past five years. We have been in power for 2½ of those years, so it is a snapshot of us and them. What did it find? Amongst other things, out-of-pocket costs for families have fallen across all income levels. In 2004, families earning $55,000 a year—the average Australian would probably think that is a middle-class family—spent 13 per cent of its disposable income on child care. That had fallen to seven per cent by 2009. That is pretty clear: it fell by nearly half. So we are making progress. It is painstaking, but we are making progress. The report found that the Australian government’s funding for child care more than doubled in the past four years, up from $1.7 billion in 2004-05 to $3.7 billion in 2008-09.
That is clear, independent analysis of the achievements of the Rudd Labor government. It is not from a body or report of an internal Labor Party mechanism or organisation; it is independent analysis of the childcare sector and of the government’s commitment and the previous government’s lack of commitment when it comes to child care. We committed $114.5 million to deliver 38 early learning centres and care centres in the 2008-09 year, and we have provided that in my electorate. We have fulfilled our commitment. Recently the Minister for Early Childhood Education, Childcare and Youth was in my electorate and we opened the Early Learning and Care Centre at Yamanto. I am pleased to say that that is the fulfilment of a commitment that we made at the last election. We invested $1.6 million in this new facility. It is a great facility. The minister and I were there, reading about the Billy Goats Gruff and all kinds of things and entertaining the children. I am not sure whether they were entertained more by me than by the stories. One little boy, Sam, had the good sense to be a Broncos supporter and was wearing a Broncos outfit. The Brisbane Broncos are a great team. Sam was there and said hello to us as we both walked in. It was great to see the delight on the children’s faces.
That is part of a new education precinct at Yamanto. We fulfilled our election commitments to the people on the south side of Ipswich—around Yamanto, Amberley, Walloon and Flinders View—when we said we would transfer Amberley District State School over to the Yamanto and Amberley District site. We said that it was up to the state government to determine the actual location. We paid nearly $28 million to the Queensland government while undertaking the expansion of the RAAF base at Amberley and for the relocation of Amberley State School to that site. We also said that we would provide sufficient money to relocate the C&K located at Amberley, and we have done that. In addition to that, Amberley District State School got BER funding. We are talking about an education precinct there at Yamanto—Amberley District State School—which received well above $30 million of federal government money to be built, and it is a wonderful facility. Numbers in the school have gone up from the low-300s to nearly 500. That is an indication that people are prepared to support the new school. There has been a very small reduction in the number of students just up the road at Churchill State School—only 12. There has been no loss of teachers there. So the alarmism and the criticism of my predecessor and some in the LNP in Queensland have not proved to be accurate.
The Early Learning and Care Centre at Yamanto is simply a fantastic facility. It cares well for babies and toddlers and will help them progress all the way to primary school by just going next door in the same precinct. I congratulate the C&K Amberley family. They have been passionate about their support of child care in their area. With their advocacy and the listening ear of the Rudd Labor government, they have facilitated a wonderful community resource which has been highly prized and valued by local families and, of course, their children. I am very confident that that facility at Amberley District State School will continue to educate our young people very well in the Ipswich community.
Government is about making some hard decisions. I know that this legislation before the House sets a cap on the amount of the childcare rebate—an annual maximum cap of $7,000 to $7,500 per child per year. But this government fulfilled its commitment by increasing the CCR from 30 per cent to 50 per cent. The member for Capricornia accurately stated what that increase means to families across the country—thousands of dollars per year on average. This budgetary measure saves $86.3 million across the forward estimates. This government is committed to economic discipline and responsibility. Those opposite talk about that stuff, but we have seen nothing except gutting Roads to Recovery Program funding, gutting computers in schools, getting rid of trade training centres and getting rid of the National Broadband Network, and there are so many more things that they would do if they sat opposite. We are about making sure that we bring the budget back into surplus. We have a good and steady record with respect to child care. It stands in direct contrast to that of those opposite, who should hang their heads in shame for their apathy, inaction and procrastination in this area for so many years.
I would like to take the opportunity to thank all the speakers who have contributed to this debate. I particularly acknowledge the previous speaker, the member for Blair, who I did have the good fortune to visit and to open the new childcare centre at Yamanto which was the honouring of an election commitment and see firsthand that the member for Blair does the finest ‘troll under the bridge’ voice of the Billy Goats Gruff. He amused the children out there whilst also delivering on a very important election commitment. I would like to thank all of the previous speakers.
In relation to affordability, we have also delivered on our election commitment to increase the childcare rebate from 30 to 50 per cent of parents’ out-of-pocket expenses. We know that last some 670,00 Australian families benefited from our significant reforms, which enabled them to claim back half of their out-of-pocket childcare costs where they spent up to $15,000 a year for each child in care. We have also delivered upon our commitment to change the payment of the childcare rebate from an annual payment under the previous government to quarterly payments under our government, giving parents assistance closer to the time when they incur their childcare costs.
In total, we are proud that our government will provide $14.4 billion over four years in financial support to parents with the cost of their child care and to help them manage the family budget. This is some $8 billion more than the Howard government provided in childcare fee assistance in their last years, which you may not have picked up on from the shadow minister’s contribution to this debate. Understandably, they are not trying to highlight the fact that we have more than doubled our commitment to helping parents with the affordability of their child care. We on this side have shown time and time again that we are committed to affordable and high-quality child care and that we are putting our money where our mouth is when it comes to delivering this. It is also really important to note that the majority of Australian families using child care—some 760,000 families—will not be impacted by this change. This is because the average claim for the childcare rebate is less than $2,000 per year per child which is obviously a long way off the $7,500 cap.
Our government has a strong commitment to early childhood education and child care with a record investment of $17.1 billion over the next four years, some $10 billion more than that provided in the last four years of the Howard government. We are proud of this record; we will continue to get on with the job of working to deliver affordable, quality and stable child care. I commend this bill to the House.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.