Tuesday, 23 November 2010
Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Budget Measures) Bill 2010
Debate resumed from 29 September, on motion by Ms Kate Ellis:
That this bill be now read a second time.
I am pleased to speak on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Budget Measures) Bill 2010. This bill is detrimental to Australian families and the coalition is opposed to this legislation. Decreasing the cap on the childcare rebate and removing indexation for the next four years will further increase the financial pressure on Australian families who are already struggling to meet the costs of child care.
Over the next few years the number of families affected by capping the rebate and freezing the indexation will increase from 20,700. This will be a progressive increase for families as more and more are affected over the duration of the indexation freeze. The Prime Minister, in her previous role as Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, acknowledged that 20,700 families will be affected. Clearly, as inflation kicks in and fees rise that number will only go up. The cost of child care will also continue to rise further because of the national quality framework measures, which will increase overheads and running costs for childcare centres.
In their submission to the inquiry into the childcare budget measures legislation in June 2010, the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Union stated: ‘It must be recognised that without alternative allocation of funding, the proportion of affected families will certainly increase over the subsequent years. We draw attention to the fact that childcare fees have risen by 34.9 per cent since June 2005, more than two and a half times the headline inflation rate over this period. With the capping of the childcare rebate and continuing fee inflation the cost of future fee increases will be increasingly met by parents at all income levels, exacerbating the cost of child care for many families.’
But the minister has her head firmly in the sandpit on this one and is deaf to the concerns of parents and even, remarkably, to the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Union. I might just add that that union has changed its name I read today in the press, airbrushing the word ‘union’ completely out of its title and calling itself ‘United Voice’. Surveys, focus groups and marketing consultants indicated that, amongst other things, people could not spell ‘miscellaneous’. That is a bit of trivia, and I now return to the serious subject matter of the bill.
This capping of the rebate comes on top of the decision to implement the national quality framework agenda, which will further increase the cost of child care. The former CEO of GoodStart estimated that costs in New South Wales could increase by up to $20 a day. So where you have parents currently paying $105 a day for their 18-month-old to attend child care that cost will potentially increase to $125 a day. Cuts to the childcare rebate mean that this family will be even further out of pocket as they were already receiving the maximum rebate prior to the national quality framework price increases. That means that, if you are already receiving the maximum rebate of $7,500, any increases above that in your fees must be met by you, 100 per cent, with nothing to offset them. This bill aims to generate savings of $86 million over four years and the savings, according to the minister, will go towards the cost of implementing the government’s national quality framework agenda.
These cost increases, which really do concern members on this side, will come about as a result of higher staff to child ratios and the need for more highly qualified staff. This equates to higher labour costs for a given number of enrolments. These overheads will not be able to be absorbed by childcare providers, so of course they will be passed on to parents. Research undertaken by Childcare Alliance Australia showed that 74 per cent of parents surveyed would have difficulty meeting additional costs of $13 to $22 a day. This increase in costs may force many parents out of the workforce or they may need to cut their hours as child care becomes too expensive. The alternative is to seek additional forms of care for their child. The concern here is that parents will be forced to use backyard care, thus negating any form of quality regulation. There is considerable pressure on parents when it comes to finding appropriate child care. Every member of this parliament should have firsthand examples of that. We do know about unqualified child care or friends struggling to help out. And grandparents are always under pressure but perhaps feel unable to say no when they are asked whether they can take the children a couple of days or an extra day a week. There is a range of unsatisfactory arrangements.
The minister has been critical of the quality of child care in Australia in an attempt to justify her reform agenda. The argument on which she based the need for the capping of the childcare rebate is fundamentally flawed. She said that many childcare centres are failing to meet basic safety, hygiene, education and wellbeing standards. She said that audit and accreditation decisions made in association with NCAC had found that toileting and nappy-changing procedures were not done in accordance with advice from recognised health authorities and dangerous products, plants and objects were accessible to children. I am sure those things are true but they have nothing to do with this agenda. They are decisions and circumstances that would quite rightly be addressed by licensing bodies in each state.
No child should be attending a centre that does not follow proper health regulations and that has potentially dangerous items that children can reach. There is no need to cap the childcare rebate and introduce a quality framework because of those things. Those things will be addressed by the state bodies in their normal licensing, regulation, accreditation et cetera. Childcare providers tell me that they already do that to death. We really can have confidence in the safety and quality of our centres. The minister bases her decision about this legislation, which will cap the childcare rebate and increase the cost of child care to Australian families, around the argument that our childcare centres are somehow not up to scratch. It is disingenuous and it is insulting to the hard-working private and community providers of those childcare centres.
The minister fails to recognise many things, but one of them concerns the qualifications of childcare workers. While there are thousands of childcare workers who do not have a university or a TAFE qualification, many of these people have been in the industry for years. Many have raised their own children. They have on-the-job experience second to none. And, most importantly, they love their job and they love the children they look after. Nowhere does the minister acknowledge the fabulous job done by many of these childcare workers, instead she is adamant that only a qualification will do. I have firsthand experience with each of my children attending child care. Often children form an incredible bond with their carers. As a parent, my No. 1 priority was that my child was safe, happy and in a caring environment. I am sure that would be every parent’s priority. I can guarantee that just because someone does not have a qualification does not mean that they cannot impart some of life’s valuable lessons to our children.
All of the literature that we have seen over recent years concerning disadvantaged children and children at risk says that the key to developing resilience in the early learning years is in forming a bond with a person who cares. It does not say anything about qualifications or university degrees. Important though those things may be—and of course they have their place in the early-learning environment—we should be conscious that there are people who, at the moment, are being dismissed as not needed in the future because they do not have the qualification that the minister and this government insist on.
Particularly in rural and regional communities, many are already struggling to find child care for their children. But, despite all the rhetoric on increasing access, the government are actively working against this agenda. They are increasing the costs of child care and imposing a quality framework to which the childcare sector has not had sufficient opportunity to respond.
Lack of access and increasing costs will undoubtedly force many parents to either withdraw their children from child care or seek alternative, less attractive, care options. If parents have no choice but to work in order to meet the mortgage repayments—and those are going up—or pay off the car or other debts, they may resort to placing their child in care arrangements that are far from ideal.
The coalition believe there was a serious lack of consultation with the childcare sector on these proposed changes. We have concerns about the impact of these changes on the accessibility of child care. We have concerns about the feasibility of the framework, particularly surrounding the prerequisite qualifications for staff. All in all, the government has failed to put forward a consolidated, coordinated approach to child care. Certainly, improving the quality of child care is a very worthwhile aim, but it is just as critical that child care remains affordable and accessible. The actions taken by the Gillard government show just how out of touch with Australian families Labor has become. The government is ignoring the cost ramifications, instead intent on its own poorly consulted and poorly designed agenda.
Families are struggling at the moment. Many are experiencing real financial stress, with rising interest rates making the servicing of the mortgage an increasing struggle for many families. There are car repayments; there are credit card bills; there are gas and water bills to consider; there is the cost of electricity, which, particularly in my home state of New South Wales, is increasing all the time. The Labor government need to understand that people are doing it tough. Instead they are intent on increasing the cost of child care for Australian families. They just do not get it.
If we move for a moment from the social aspects of this policy to its economic aspects, we see there is a productivity agenda that should be addressed. We know that in this country women’s workforce participation rates are extremely low; the OECD has told us this. The Henry tax review looked at the question of underparticipation, if I could put it that way, in the workforce, and the minister’s other portfolio is employment participation, so she should be well aware of these facts and well aware that there are mothers, usually, who are waiting to return to the workforce, keen to do more time and anxious about losing their skills. The threshold question for those families is the cost of child care. Do members opposite understand that threshold concept?
Child care, thanks to governments of both persuasions over the years, has decreased in cost. I can remember, as a young mother on the farm, facing the questions as to whether I could afford to put children in child care, whether I had to set up a playpen at the dairy or keep an eye on them while I was in the shearing shed—both very unsuitable options, I can tell you—or whether I would just delay returning to study and training. In the end I went to university when I was 30. But the only reason I did was that there was affordable child care on campus. It was safe and reasonable and my budget would allow it. So these really are threshold questions for families, the first thing they think of: is there child care available, is it close to where I live, can I afford it, is it safe et cetera?
What I am seeing from this government, who have lost their way, is that they are working actively against that agenda and then trying to say to the opposition that we have a problem with safe, hygienic, properly run childcare centres and somehow we do not want child care to be of a high standard. That is outrageous. It is a claim that they should not make. There is a productivity aspect to this agenda that we should not overlook. The key finding of an April 2010 treasury department working paper is:
… in contrast with previous Australian estimates, the cost of child care does have a statistically significant negative effect on the labour supply of … mothers. This finding supports policy that reduces the costs of child care to encourage maternal labour supply.
So the Treasury is telling us: reduce the cost of child care and you will encourage mums back into the workforce. I say again: parents who have already reached the new maximum childcare rebate of $7,500 a child will have to meet the entire increase in fees. If you are a low-income family you will be forced out of formal care because you will not be able to meet 100 per cent of the increase in fees. These families might not be affected by the initial reduction in the cap but they will be affected by the freeze on indexation. Because parents are already struggling financially, there will be a large number of children unable to access an early-learning program at the present time.
The worst thing that we could do with a policy like this would be to remove the options of maybe an extra one or two days a week for families who really do need child care because the children have early-learning difficulties, are at risk in some way or for whom child care has been recommended as a very important option at a time in their life when the family is not managing well.
Eighty-six million dollars is the amount the minister says this will save, and in her second reading speech she said that it would be put towards making the government’s quality agenda happen and supporting ‘the government’s quest to increase the quality of child care and early education in Australia’. That does not give me a lot of comfort. Apart from opposing this measure, I would like to see $86 million attributed to something more concrete than supporting ‘the government’s quest to increase the quality of child care’.
Perhaps that money will be paid to state governments. Perhaps it will be absorbed in the increasing bureaucracy surrounding this agenda, and that, I think, is the sad thing. We have a COAG process. We have a hundred million dollars allocated by the government just to support the marketing and administrative components of the COAG reforms. This has nothing to do with the reforms themselves, it is just the marketing and administration—the glossy ads, the TV campaign and more people working behind the scenes. But, as always, at the grassroots, at the cutting edge where the rubber hits the road the relationship between a carer and a child in a childcare environment that families can afford is left until last.
The government has been very tardy with its legislation. The first quarterly payment of the childcare rebate for 2010-11 was due to be made to families by Centrelink from 18 October 2010. That is because, the way it currently stands, it is paid quarterly in arrears, and that would be for the first quarter of a current financial year. The government had plenty of opportunity to introduce this bill to meet its own deadlines; however, it appears that the minister has stood by and watched as her legislation has disappeared from the agenda time after time. This in itself is a clear indication, I believe, that the minister has grave misgivings about her own legislation or that for some reason the government has some hesitation about bringing it in. Here it is, at the 11th hour, already not working to meet the needs of families in terms of the payment schedule.
Child care has been an absolute embarrassment for the Rudd-Gillard government. Their elaborate scheme to end the double drop-off was a promise they found easy to break. When it came to building 260 childcare centres, they suddenly found that real buildings are considerably more challenging than the Lego models that the government’s own hollowmen had been playing with. It is a desperate cash grab from a desperate government and it does show how out of touch they have become with ordinary Australians. Families are struggling to pay their bills and make ends meet. The coalition opposes this legislation and urges all members of the House to do likewise.
I speak in support of the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Budget Measures) Bill 2010. I was interested in the comments of the previous speaker, the member for Farrer, who said that she was able to go to university at 30 years of age because she had affordable child care. Yet, if memory serves me right, I think she actually voted against legislation in this chamber in the last 24 hours that would have made childcare facilities available, which were provided by student associations, at campuses in regional and rural areas across the country. If memory serves me right she was in this chamber. So the person who said that she is all in favour of affordable child care is the same person who in the last 24 hours voted against the provision of child care at university campuses and the like. That is the reality, so there is a degree of hyperbole and hypocrisy about the previous speech.
When you have a look at what we are doing here, you can see that we are setting the childcare rebate annual cap at $7,500 per child per year and pausing indexation of the maximum rate of the childcare rebate for four years. Let us look at the facts. We heard the fiction from the member for Farrer. I do not want to take the alliteration any further but we heard the fiction from the member for Farrer and you can hear the facts from me. Here are some facts. In referring to child care and to education in this country the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, the member for Curtin, when she was the education minister, said:
It is unacceptable in country with Australia’s relatively small population to have a fractured and inconsistent system that can change dramatically between States.
She was referring there to early childhood education. In 2006, Australia had one of the worst rankings in public expenditure and early childhood education. We were 13th out of 14 in the OECD. What a farce. What a fiasco. What a failure under the Howard coalition government. Did they bring in paid parental leave? No. We had that ridiculous policy proposed by the now opposition. It has festered across there. They sit there with their idea on paid parental leave, which is a great big tax on people. If they ever get onto the Treasury benches that is what would happen. Let us look at what an independent report said in relation to early childhood education, and this report was tabled on 22 April this year. The Childcare Vacancies Quarterly Snapshot is a snapshot of the state of child care in Australia. This was not made up by us. It is a statistical analysis of the Australian childcare market over the previous five years. We had been in power for only 2½ years when this was looked at. The findings were very interesting; it said:
In 2004 families earning $55,000 a year—
I would think that the average Australian would probably think that is pretty middle class—
spent 13% of their disposable income on child care, this has fallen to 7% in 2009.
We were in power in 2009 and the coalition was in power in 2004. In 2004, 13 per cent of disposable income; seven per cent by 2009 under us. The report found that the Australian federal government, the Labor government, ‘funding for child care had more than doubled in the past four years, up from $1.7 billion in 2004-05 to $3.7 billion in 2008-09’. Facts, not fiction. This is the reality.
When we came to power, we had a look at what was happening with respect to assistance for families. We were the ones who made a difference. We fulfilled the commitment which we took to the 2007 election campaign, which was to deliver an increase in the childcare rebate from 30 per cent under the coalition government to 50 per cent of out-of-pocket costs, from a maximum of $4,354 to a maximum of $7,500 per child per year. So it is a bit rich for coalition spokespersons to come into this place and give us lectures on what they think about regional and rural areas and about child care. The facts do not bear out any commitment from them to child care. We believe that the 800,000 Australian families who place their children in child care every week deserve to know that the childcare facilities in which they place their kids are safe, happy and stimulating and that they are learning environments. That is what the minister was talking about in her second reading speech on 22 September 2010, and for her to be criticised about that by the member for Farrer is appalling.
We are fair dinkum about making sure that we spend money and get the ratios right for child care. The quality of child care and early childhood education in this country is critical. When the coalition were in government they spent a fifth of the average of OECD countries—our competitors in the Western world—on early childhood education. They decided to spend a little bit on child care and a little bit on early childhood education. They put up flagpoles in the state primary and high schools and, when it came to tertiary education, they foisted Work Choices on that sector. That is the way they linked their funding. That was their commitment to education for young people. The coalition should not come in here and give us lectures about their commitment to childhood education when the reality is that it was a federal Labor government, this government, that made the commitment to good quality education for children of all ages. I strongly believe that it is a matter of social justice and social equity that we provide affordable and accessible quality early childhood education and child care. As I said, we have backed it up with far more money than the coalition. The commitment is backed by an investment of more than $18.2 billion over the next four years—almost $11 billion more than what was provided by the coalition government in its last four years of office.
The $86.3 million that we are going to save by this measure will be directly reinvested into the National Quality Framework, which will assist in better staff to child ratios. How can this be bad? This is a good thing. Each child will get more individual care and attention and there will be a boost in staff qualification requirements. We want staff in early childhood education to be focused on that. We have great childcare workers and some wonderful facilities in my electorate. When I think of great organisations and great facilities I think of Cribb Street Child Care Centre in Sadliers Crossing, Bush Kidz in Brassall and the wonderful work at the One Mile Community Child Care Centre in Leichhardt. We fulfilled an election commitment when we established the $1.6 million Early Learning and Care Centre at Yamanto, at the relocated Amberley District State School. They also received BER funding. I was pleased when the then Minister for Early Childhood Education, Child Care and Youth, the member for Adelaide, visited my electorate to open that centre with me. It is a wonderful facility. I am pleased that the staff are committed and that the kids are learning well. The kids make the transition from that centre to next door, to the Amberley district school. This is a fast-growing school. We have committed nearly $27 million to relocate the school. I commend C&K for the work they have done and the commitment of people, many of whom live in the Yamanto area, but also those military families whose children go to the Amberley district school. I am very pleased to see the progress there.
We are making big commitments to early childhood education and care. One of the things that I am pleased to see in my electorate, as I think it makes a big difference, is the Home Interaction Program for Parents and Youngsters—HIPPY. It has been rolled out to 35 locations, of which 26 were established last year and into this year. My electorate is receiving one of these programs, and I warmly welcome it. I sent out a press release on 4 November this year about the fact that we were going to help children in Blair prepare for life and learning. I warmly welcome the expansion of this national home parenting and learning program to Ipswich and its surrounding areas, including rural areas. In 2011, HIPPY will be expanded to 15 communities across Australia, taking the number of communities involved nationally in this program to 50. It is an important initiative that gives young people the best chance in life as they start school. It will be a great asset to the Ipswich area as it will help many parents and children in our community.
The program empowers parents and carers to be a child’s first teacher. I think this is important for not only the childcare workers who work in our wonderful facilities in Blair but also the parents, who are the best and first teachers of young people. The program provides education resources and home tutors to help families prepare their children for a successful start in school. The government has committed $32.5 million over five years to roll out the program, which will help up to 3,000 families nationwide. It is not always easy for mums and dads to provide such assistance, but the program will provide them with a bit of a helping hand, and this will be great for families in Ipswich and the surrounding areas. The Australian Red Cross, in partnership with the Brotherhood of St Laurence, has been selected to deliver the program in Ipswich. The program should be up and running in Ipswich by mid-2011. The fact that the Australian Red Cross and the Brotherhood of St Laurence will be working together on this program will make a difference to the kids in Ipswich and the surrounding areas by giving them the best possible start in life.
This legislation is important. It is part of our overall agenda to make sure not only do we give good quality and affordable child care to young people but also that the bottom line is protected and we can make the system viable. We have raised the childcare rebate to 50 per cent of parents’ out-of-pocket expenses. We have made a difference there. We are looking to make further changes. The Minister for Employment Participation and Childcare has already foreshadowed some additional changes to ensure that payments are made more periodically to parents, and I look forward to her announcing that in the future. I think this will make a big difference to parents. Early investment in our children’s education is crucial, and getting them to focus on literacy and numeracy and to have a love of learning when they are young will make a big difference as they progress through school and on to university or TAFE. Learning is a lifelong experience and something that should be encouraged. The emphasis of the federal Labor government, of which I am proud to be a member, is to be applauded and welcomed and not criticised by those opposite whose record in this area is a disgrace.
There are some 800,000 families who make use of professional child care in Australia. We need to stress that the old idea that child care was an optional extra for mum so that she could play tennis for the day—or that it was a luxury—is an absolute nonsense in the 21st century, when so many know that, unless they can have that professional, affordable and accessible child care, they simply cannot earn the second income that is going to make the purchase of a house, paying down their mortgage or paying their bills possible.
When child care in Australia gets beyond the means of the average family to pay, we have a serious problem. No longer does the mother-in-law or the mother of the woman who is working live just next door. It is not a case of reaching into the community and saying, ‘You mind my kids while I go to work.’ That probably never did happen, but it certainly does not happen now. So we have this extraordinary situation where this government is choosing to save $86.3 million by stripping—out of the pockets of working families—a childcare subsidy which makes it possible for that second income to be earned. When I went around Australia consulting specifically on Labor’s plan to remove the indexing of the childcare rebate, to remove some $300 a year out of the subsidy that those parents rely on, I said to parents in childcare centres, ‘How are you going to manage with this; is it going to be a problem?’ The then minister of the day, Minister Ellis, had said, ‘This will only affect a few rich families; less than one per cent—and we, of course, know Labor does not like rich families—so it is not a problem.’
When I went around Australia, I found that it was your average earning family, your single parent family, saying, ‘We are already doing our calculations. If our fees are to go up $5 or $10 a day, if any change in the amount of fee we are to pay occurs, we are going to have to re-evaluate if it is a sensible, rational decision to go out to work each day and earn a salary because the net return to us per week is just too little.’ If you, as this government is doing, imagine that the costs of a new National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Care is not an enormous impost on the sector, then you really are not tuning in to what is happening across Australia.
We have childcare advocates and childcare associations—both the for-profit and not-for-profit sector—saying, ‘Of course, we believe in standards of quality for child care and early childhood education.’ So does the coalition, let me stress, despite the misinformation given in the second reading speech. We believe in quality child care and early childhood education. But this government managed a COAG agreement which took no notice of the fact that, if you require a much smaller ratio of teachers to children in care, if you demand much higher qualifications of staff involved, if you put a limit on the size of those in care to gain a certain category of registration, you put the prices up exponentially. This is already occurring right across the sector due to the costs of utilities going up—energy—whether it is gas or electricity. The costs of wages are to go up shortly. So you have incredible increases in costs in child care at the same time as you have this government removing part of the subsidy that was making it possible for the second income to come into the household to pay the mortgage, the rent and for the car. What an extraordinary calculation.
The government put in the demand that a new framework be implemented without doing the proper costing. Why would we be surprised because this government fails to do proper costing on most major projects. Before us we have the National Broadband Network which was not costed. We did not have a proper costing of the insulation installation debacle. We did not have the Building the Education Revolution costings. So I guess not costing the National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Care cannot be a surprise to us. But the problem is that, at the same time, they have chosen to remove $86.3 million out of the subsidies for families who desperately need to work to make ends meet. Then we move on to say that the indexing of that subsidy is to be removed for four years. This is now a long haul for families looking carefully at their salaries and wondering how they are going to pay their mortgage if the childcare fees are $100 or so a day—as they are quite commonly right across the system—and still make ends meet.
The previous speaker ranged over the area of early childhood education. These days there is a blurring of the distinction between child care and early childhood education, most specifically in the area of four-year-olds. There is a hybrid model where some children remain in professional child care in accredited places and receive a curriculum that has been designed to prepare them for their following year in formal education, the primary school system.
I want to know—and a lot of other people out there in the community want to know—what on earth does Labor mean by guaranteeing universal access to early childhood education in the year preceding their primary education for 15 hours a week with qualified teachers? That is the statement. Does ‘guaranteed access’ mean that I am going to get a preschool built in Whroo or Bearii or in Waiaa or Girgarre in my electorate where I have preschool aged children who have no access within 40 or 50 kilometres to another early childhood education centre? The Koondrook centre closed, sadly, because the parents could not afford the fees. They are recovering from seven years of drought. They could not afford the $100 to $150 a term, given that a number of the mothers are also trying to work, they could not afford the volunteering time—commonly called the ‘milk and fruit time’—and they simply had to back away from that early childhood education centre. So its very existence was under threat.
Is the Labor government going to ride into Koondrook and say, ‘Oops, we guaranteed universal access. We are now going to underwrite the losses in the Koondrook not-for-profit community childcare centre?’ Are we going to be serious about how it continues into the future? I do not think so. Indigenous outstations in outback Western Australia, Northern Territory and South Australia only have a handful of very small children—four-year-olds, for example. Is this federal government going to make sure that they have universal access to early childhood education? I do not think so.
So what does this statement actually mean? I suggest it means nothing in reality. It is a feel-good thought bubble out there. If this Labor government had been serious, they would have said that they had mandated a year of early childhood education for every child. It would typically be for a four-year-old for the year before they entered their primary schooling and it would be for at least a minimum of 10 hours a week with qualified teachers in registered centres and that access would be free, universal and compulsory. Is this government going to consider that sort of mandating? I do not think so. So let us get away from the nonsense being spoken by the other side that they are the champions of early childhood education in Australia—and, yes, we are way behind other developed countries in our preparation of children for their primary schooling—and let us also get away from the nonsense that this government has been amazing in its offering of professional, affordable and accessible child care.
It was this government who abolished the start-up grants for family day carers. Family day carers were typically women, mothers, offering professional child care in their own home. It is the most affordable and often the most accessible child care for a lot of women, particularly those in country towns where they do not have enough kids for a childcare centre to be established. What did this government do? They abolished the start-up grants of over $1,000 for family day carers.
This government also turned its back on the funding of part-time long day care centres, particularly those in remote places like the Wheatbelt of Western Australia. Women came to me in despair and said, ‘We need to work in our communities’—as nurses, as teachers or as administrators—‘and we don’t have any other options for child care in our small communities. We only need three or four days a week.’ But Minister Ellis of this government declared that she did not want to fund part-time long day care centres or family day care centres because she thought they might be in danger of falling over after becoming financially unviable. What she did, of course, was guarantee that those centres could not employ anybody without more than a six-month guarantee of government support. In fact, she rang the death knell for these small centres. I am very pleased to say that a lot of pressure from the coalition made her think a little harder about that, but that was the upfront government statement about early childhood education in part-time circumstances.
We had the shocking situation in Australia whereby this government decided that the Active After-school Communities program supported through the Australian Institute of Sport, a program started under the John Howard government and launched originally in Launceston, was to cease being funded. At the same time we had an obesity epidemic in Australia. This after-school care involved young people experiencing different sports, sometimes in teams and sometimes individually, and also being provided nutritious snack foods. It was universally applauded as a great place for kids to have good care after school while at the same time it was very beneficial for their physical and emotional development. What did this government do? Until enormous pressure was put on it by the coalition, it said, ‘No, we’re not going to fund it beyond the end of this year.’ As that particular program depended on regional coordinators, a number of them had already moved on by the time this government finally said, ‘Oops, we might have got that wrong too.’ So we had the Labor government once again saying it did not really understand what was happening out in the after-school and holiday program providers sector. It did not understand that you do need coordinators of those sorts of activities as you just cannot depend only on volunteers.
Whenever the childcare sector puts its head up and says, ‘Please, give us a break and understand the costs of providing professional child care in Australia and stop stripping away the subsidies and support for families,’ I am very disappointed to say that what they get, as we had in the second reading speech, is reference to how unhygienic and dangerous childcare centres are. So we have this very serious situation where the childcare sector are being bullied into going quietly rather than complaining that they are being forced to put up their fees or contract the size of their service in order to be able to comply with the conditions that are now being placed on them.
In Queensland alone, as you will probably recall, Mr Deputy Speaker, hundreds of childcare places have already been identified to be lost to the sector on the basis that, in order to comply with the new national quality standards, they are forced to have smaller sized facilities. I do not know what those parents are going to do when they do not have any places. That is particularly so for the very young people, the babies, whose places are most in demand. It is very often the case that, because of the very much higher costs of servicing the needs of babies in care, they are the places that are let go. So as someone who regularly has mothers and families coming to me saying, ‘What are we going to do?’ I am very concerned. I am talking about communities in Nagambie and Mansfield, communities in rural and regional Australia, where the need to have a second income is more desperate than it ever has been. Those communities are saying, ‘What can we do to convince this government that we have to have the childcare rebate indexed and we need to have restored the hundreds of dollars that are now stripped away when the annual cap is reduced back down to $7,500?’
The government also gets very excited about the fact that it is now going to have the childcare rebate paid fortnightly rather than quarterly, as was the case before. I would have hoped that the Labor government would have looked at our coalition policy which said that it is an even better idea to pay it weekly directly to the facility, so there is no cash flow problem, it is administratively much more simple and it cuts out the red tape. I really commend that coalition policy to the Labor government. That would be one small move towards a far fairer and more affordable situation for 800,000 Australian families. (Time expired)
Child care underpins this government’s participation agenda and quality child care is critical for Australian parents. Emily Murray, who is a volunteer in my office, has done some back-of-the-envelope sums to work out the share of Australian workers whose participation in the labour market is underpinned by having access to child care. Her estimate is that there are 305,825 parents who can enter the labour force as a result of formal child care. In other words, our participation rate is 2.7 percentage points higher than it would be if parents did not have access to quality child care.
Quality child care is also critical for children themselves. Through high-quality child care children learn social skills—learning to interact with their peers—and cognitive skills: from counting to reading to shape recognition. Economists—and I was one before I entered the parliament—have increasingly developed a research interest in early childhood. Nobel laureate James Heckman is chief among those who are exploring this area. Increasingly the research in this field is uncovering the fact that, particularly for the most disadvantaged, high-quality child care can be a great leveller, it can be a great secret to breaking the intergenerational poverty cycle. I spoke a little about this in the adjournment debate on 18 November.
Child care provides greater choice to Australian families and, put simply, it makes for happier parents. When I drop off my two little boys at the Acton Early Childhood Centre at the Australian National University on the way to the parliament, I am certainly pleased to be leaving them in the hands of carers that I know will give them an interesting, engaging and stimulating experience all the way through the day.
I spoke in the 90-second statements by members yesterday on the ACT Children’s Services Awards—awards which recognise the terrific work done by early childhood workers across the ACT. This work is backed up by an investment of more than $17 billion over the next four years—some $10 billion more than the amount provided in the last four years of the former coalition government. The Labor government has delivered on our commitment to increase the childcare rebate from 30 per cent to 50 per cent of parents’ out-of-pocket expenses and we have increased the maximum from each child in care to $7,500 a year. Under the former coalition government the rebate was 30 per cent and the maximum was less than $4,500.
The comments from those opposite today reflect the fact that Labor governments always face higher standards, and we have met those. We are happy to meet those higher standards but we would also like a little more honesty from those opposite—to have those opposite willing to walk in here and say ‘Well, you’ve done an awful lot, you’ve really raised the bar here and frankly you are providing more support to Australian working families than we ever did in our time in office.’
In 2004 the out-of-pocket costs after subsidies for a family with one child in long day care and earning $55,000 a year was 13 per cent of their disposable income. In 2010, out-of-pocket childcare costs had declined to just seven per cent. Labor has also delivered on our promise to pay the childcare rebate quarterly so parents do not have do wait until the end of the year to receive crucial assistance. And watch this space for further reforms.
The direct effects of the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Budget Measures) Bill 2010 have been covered by previous speakers. It will do two key things. It will reduce the childcare rebate annual cap to $7,500 per child per year from July 2010, where indexation had previously taken that cap to $7,778 per child per year; and it will pause indexation from the maximum CCR rate for four years, that is, until 30 June 2014. Why are we doing this? We are doing this in order to save $86.3 million over four years. This money will help fund the government’s $273.7 million investment in early childhood education and child care. That money will help invest, for example, in the $82 million implementation of the National Quality Framework, also referred to as the National Quality Standard for early childhood education and care providers, currently being prepared for introduction in January 2012.
In her second reading speech, the Minister for Employment, Participation and Childcare and the Minister for the Status of Women pointed out that the National Quality Framework is necessary because the National Childcare Accreditation Council reports that many childcare centres are failing to meet basic safety, hygiene, education and wellbeing standards. The minister pointed out that, of the 1,129 centres that received an accreditation decision during the first six months of 2010, 30 per cent failed to ensure that toileting and nappy changing procedures were consistent with advice from the recognised health authorities; 26 per cent failed to ensure that a child’s learning was documented and used in a planning program; 34 per cent failed to ensure that staff members supported each child’s needs for rest, sleep, comfort and sun protection; and 32 per cent failed to ensure that potentially dangerous products, plants and objects were inaccessible to children.
The member for Murray referred to this as bullying. Far from bullying, Labor’s quality childcare agenda is ensuring that in the small minority of centres where there are problems—a few hundred centres in the case of the evidence I have just cited—the government has a quality framework that is able to ensure that Australian parents can drop their kids off in the morning without the fear of the sorts of problems that the National Childcare Accreditation Council has documented. Labor believe that we can do better and we must do better when it comes to the safety, wellbeing and early learning of Australian children. So we are working in partnership with state and territory governments to implement this National Quality Framework in order to lift the standard of child care right across Australia. The National Quality Standard is going to improve staff to child ratios so every child gets more care and more attention.
The new system will raise staff qualifications to ensure that they are better able to lead activities that help children to learn and to develop. It is going to introduce a quality rating system for all childcare services so that parents know the quality of care on offer and can make more informed choices. It will reduce the red-tape related to services so that providers only have to deal with one regulator. That means that the providers can spend less time on paperwork and more time with the kids in their care. From my own experience at my sons’ childcare centre, that extra time is crucial. When the director is able to move out among children, get to know them and assist the other carers rather than being in his or her office they can make a real difference to the care of children. That is how this red tape reduction will assist Australian families.
In her second reading speech, the minister said:
The 800,000 Australian families who place their children in care each week deserve to know that they are safe and in a happy and stimulating learning environment.
The minister pointed out that the National Quality Framework will increase educator to child ratios. It will introduce educator requirements and the terrific rating system. That is going to ensure that childcare services only need to deal with the one regulator.
Labor’s childcare reforms go on. We will provide $59.4 million to improve the quality of the 142 budget base funded early childhood services in rural and remote Australia. We will provide $1.9 million to support new regulatory measures for ongoing stability in the childcare market in the wake of the ABC Learning crisis. That includes developing measures that would require large childcare providers who enter the market to prove their financial viability.
In finishing, I would like to point out that 97 per cent of parents are not eligible for the full rate of childcare rebate. Their ability to pay any varying costs of child care is not increased by the measures in this bill. But what the measures in this bill will do for all parents who use child care is give them that sense of confidence and that sense of certainty that every childcare centre in Australia will be a great childcare centre. They will know that, wherever they drop their children off in the morning, those children will be safe, happy and learn new skills. They will know that their children will come home at the end of the day engaged, interested in learning, more curious and more interested in the world. That is what great child care can do. Through Labor’s quality childcare reforms, which are the heart of this legislation, we are going to ensure that every childcare centre in Australia will be a quality one.
I rise to speak on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Budget Measures) Bill 2010. In doing so, I want to highlight my community’s concerns with the increased cost of living and this government’s failure to deliver on the promises that it made in relation to child care. I note that the previous speaker was seeking credit for achievements made by the Rudd and Gillard governments. That is all very well, but you also have to own up to some of your faults and some of your mistakes. I will dwell on those in a few moments time, particularly in relation to the pre-election promise made in 2007 to deliver 260 childcare centres in schools when only 38 have been built.
The budget measures contained in this bill will result in an additional cost to an estimated 20,700 Australian families. But over the next few years it is also anticipated that the number of families affected will increase as a result of the cost of child care rising further through the national quality agenda, which will inevitably increase the overheads for childcare centres. Some industry groups are predicting cost increases of up to $22 per day as a result of the National Quality Framework. There is no doubt that these costs will be passed on to parents. The coalition is opposed to the removal of indexation for the childcare rebate and the reduction in the cap for the current rebate.
Despite the claims to the contrary, the government has a poor record when it comes to child care. The minister tried to gloss over things in her second reading speech but the Australian public will not be fooled. This is a government that has been very long on spin and promises and very short on delivery when it comes to child care. I refer to the example of the promise to build 260 childcare centres on school grounds. Tomorrow the government reaches its three-year anniversary. You would think that over three years the government would be well on its way to building these childcare facilities. After three years, you would think that perhaps the government might even be halfway through. Not a chance.
I would like to refer to a media report that was in the Australian in April this year. At that time, the government announced that it had decided to ditch this policy. It was the Rudd government at the time—this was before the knifing of Kevin. The report read, ‘The Rudd government has quietly dumped its election pledge to end the double drop off by parents by building 260 childcare centres on school grounds.’ At the time, the childcare minister, Kate Ellis, said that it would cause disruption for parents and unsettle the childcare industry after the collapse of the childcare giant ABC Learning. She also announced that the government would finish building the 38 childcare centres that had been started. Talk about getting elected under false pretences. That was a cornerstone of the Rudd government’s election in 2007. Those 260 centres were promised. You have to wonder whether the 38 that had been started have been finished yet.
I raise this broken promise because it goes to the core issue of trust in this government. You cannot trust a government that will not deliver on its promises—and particularly one that does not deliver on promises made to families and promises that were such an important part of the then opposition’s platform at the 2007 election. The people in my community of Yarram in my electorate would not need any reminder of this fact. I have told the House in the past about the plans by the Yarram community to build a childcare service. The fact is that the service is lacking at the moment and is desperately needed so that professionals can be attracted to the community.
When the announcement was made by Minister Ellis in April this year that the government was abandoning its plans, she acknowledged that there were circumstances in which families faced challenges finding child care that met their particular requirements. She said that she would continue to keep a watching brief on the childcare market and childcare vacancies and take action if required. A week later in another press statement she said that all Australian families deserved high quality, affordable and accessible childcare services, no matter where they lived. She said that a separate funding program would help them achieve that.
We have a minister who said that all Australians deserve access to high quality child care and we have a town—Yarram in my electorate—that needs childcare services. But nothing has happened except another example of a broken promise. The broken promise that I am specifically referring to this time dates back to the 2007 federal election and the Labor candidate at the time, a lady by the name of Jane Rowe. The context of this is that the coalition candidate at the election, my predecessor, Peter McGauran, provided a guarantee of $1 million to build a childcare centre in Yarram if the coalition won the election. The bold headline of the Yarram Standard News of 31 October 2007 read, ‘Labor backs childcare centre’. Not to be outdone by the Liberal Party, Ms Rowe had announced that the Labor Party would provide in the vicinity of $1.5 million for a childcare complex. So one-upmanship was obviously heavily in play. To me and the people of Yarram that was a fair indication that, no matter what happened in the election of 2007, childcare services would be accommodated in the town. If it was a coalition government, Peter McGauran had his heart set on delivering a $1 million facility; if it was a Labor government, the Labor candidate had promised $1.5 million.
The story from the Yarram Standard News says, in part:
Ms Rowe has pledged a child care centre would be incorporated into a broader community centre, rather than built as a stand alone complex.
“If we can get together and build a multi-function centre, rather than putting in a child care centre and having two facilities to maintain, we would provide one centre that will cater for the lot,” she said.
… … …
“There is no doubt there is a need for child care all over the place but I don’t think that a one-off centre would suit Yarram. I think there needs to be a more comprehensive service that goes beyond child care,” she said.
That must have been the problem in the first term of the Rudd government—the community was after a childcare centre and Ms Rowe, as your candidate, was after much more than a childcare centre. That clearly was a problem.
That problem does not exist any more, because the Yarram community has now agreed that they would like a children’s services hub. Obviously, they would like the government to honour its promise—the $1.5 million promised by Ms Rowe on 31 October, 2007—and to deliver on it. As I referred to earlier, however, 260 childcare centres were promised in the previous term of this government but only 38, it is claimed, have been built.
I recently met with representatives from the local community along with the council and state MP Peter Ryan. There is a genuine community commitment to this project. The proposal, as it now stands, is for a Yarram community centre, which is right along the lines of the children’s hub promised by the Labor Party in 2007. So, quite frankly, there is nothing stopping the government; there is nothing stopping the minister from doing more than keep a watching brief and actually coming down to the Yarram community. I extend an open invitation to the minister to come to the Yarram community and meet with this community group and work with us on delivering the promise that was made to this community several years ago.
The Yarram community centre, if it is built, will enable people from within Yarram district to access a range of children’s services that have not been previously made available in that community. It would be fair for those opposite to ask us what we, under my predecessor Peter McGauran, did in our term in government and that is a fair criticism. I think it is fair to say, ‘You had 12 years in that position; what did you do for the Yarram community?’ I think that is only reasonable in these circumstances. But, given that there had been a clear commitment from both sides, the people of the Yarram district had every reason to believe that, whichever party formed government in 2007, some action would be taken. Three years later, we are still waiting for action. I implore the minister to do more than just keep a watching brief and to come to Yarram and work with my community to ensure that the Yarram district community does receive the type of service that it deserves and the type of service that the minister herself has constantly referred to:
All Australian families deserve high-quality, affordable and accessible child care services …
Currently, there are no childcare services in Yarram and I urge the minister to work with this community in the weeks and months ahead.
The issues surrounding the government’s budget measures and this childcare bill before us extend beyond just one community in my electorate. I have also met with residents in Omeo who have very similar concerns about their inability to secure funding for childcare services. I also listened very closely to the contribution to the House of the member for Murray, because she has had similar experiences with some of the more rural and remote parts of her electorate. It is very difficult, under the current rules, regulations and funding models, to secure services for some of the smaller communities in regional Australia.
Omeo was one of those communities adversely affected by the local government amalgamations in December 1994—a decision made by the then Kennett government in Victoria. It is fair to say that some of the smaller communities suffered more significantly, I would say, than the big regional centres. As someone who was working close to local government at that time—I was involved with the East Gippsland Shire—I think it is a fair criticism to make that the ‘one size fits all’ approach to local government amalgamations caused some degree of disharmony and some degree of financial stress in many small regional communities.
Omeo was once a seat of local government. It lost that status under the amalgamations and lost a lot of professional staff from the community, something the community has never really recovered from. Following the withdrawal of the local government staff came the withdrawal of state government staff from the Department of Sustainability and Environment, VicRoads and other organisations. I raise this in the context that there are many issues facing a small community like Omeo. One of the biggest concerns the residents have raised with me about getting the town back on its feet is the issue of childcare. Despite the fact that the minister says:
All Australian families deserve a high-quality, affordable and accessible child care services no matter where they live—
and I stress ‘no matter where they live’, because it is a very interesting point—the funding models that are currently available do not work for all communities. We need to work with these local communities to develop individual and innovative solutions to the local problems they are faced with. As I said, I have met with community representatives in the Omeo area and I gave them an undertaking to raise their concerns in the House.
Omeo, for those who have not been there, is a small town in the High Country of Victoria. It is in a beautiful setting and it has a great history and heritage, with links to the goldfields. It is set in the foothills of the Great Dividing Range and there is easy access to the snowfields. It is a town which is determined to improve its fortunes in the future, whether through regional tourism or through being a service centre for other industries in the immediate vicinity. It is a great place to raise a family, but it is also a place where services are very hard to deliver. Even though houses are more affordable in the Omeo community, families often need two incomes or 1½ incomes and they need access to childcare.
In a moment, I will refer to some stories from my constituents about their experiences with trying to access childcare in Omeo. Professional people have left the town and school enrolments have suffered, so the town is continuing to dwindle. It needs an injection of government resources to ensure that people, particularly people with professional skills, can remain in the town and raise their children and be heavily involved in helping this town back to get on its feet. I make my comments tonight not with any anger or bitterness but to reflect the community’s disappointment with the direction the town is taking.
Several people have written to me to express their concerns about the lack of services in the Omeo district and I will quote a couple of them. One communication was from a local business owner who has trouble getting staff because her staff cannot access childcare services and have trouble making their shifts. She points out that:
We are one of many businesses that are affected by the school holidays and the common sudden cancellation of childcare, sometimes only minutes before our staff are going to drop their children off. The population numbers are such that we do not have a very big pool to source good, suitable staff from and we want to retain the staff we have.
It is about time the rural areas were looked after as well, if not better than the city areas. We came up to Omeo from Kilsyth and are appalled by the discrimination towards small towns in the way of suitable services to keep the small towns prosperous.
Another one is from a lady who is a paramedic, who has actually now been forced to leave Omeo because she cannot access childcare services. I will quote from her experiences:
I currently travel from Omeo to Traralgon in order to maintain employment with Ambulance Victoria. I pack up the children on a fortnightly basis and we all travel down to stay with my Mother-in-law for four days. I go to work and Nana looks after my girls. It is exhausting for us all as my Mother-in-law is an aged pensioner who has barely recovered from a battle with breast cancer.
… … …
After completing my shifts, we all pack up and travel back to Omeo …
As you can see, this is obviously not an ideal arrangement and definitely one that cannot be sustained. With community support and with an extension of child care hours and days in Omeo, my family would be able to remain in this beautiful part of rural Victoria. We love living here. We love the close community spirit and lifestyle opportunities that Omeo’s region has to offer. It is with great regret and heavy heart that we have chosen to leave and move back to the Valley where we can easily receive the child care support my family needs … I know the child care issue has been an ongoing problem for many years, and with many families before my time fighting the same battle. I wonder how long this cycle will continue until something is done to keep young families like us in this region.
As I said, it is not through anger or bitterness, it is just disappointment, that we have got young families who are prepared to move to a town like Omeo and then cannot stay once they have children.
The promises were made in 2007, specifically in relation to Yarram but more generally across Australia, to build 260 childcare centres and the program has been pulled. At the same time there are communities that are still waiting and still urging the government to work with them, to show some flexibility and abandon this one-size-fits-all approach which prevents them securing funding at the moment. Children’s services funding models often restrict the capacity to provide childcare and education services in some of our more remote communities. The Omeo and district community has been challenged by government policy and funding models for service provision for a number of years and I am not pretending that this is a new problem or that it is just this government which has failed to deliver for this community.
If we are serious about promoting opportunities to live and work in regional communities, we have to get serious about service delivery and that includes child care. There are many aspects of this bill before the House that are completely irrelevant to people in my electorate because they cannot access childcare services and access any rebate in the first place. We need to improve the delivery of services to children in regional areas to give them every opportunity to achieve their full potential in later years. One of those areas is child care. I urge the minister to consider the impact of future decisions on service delivery outside our capital cities.
I rise this afternoon to speak on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Budget Measures) Bill 2010, which amends the Family Assistance Act 1999. It returns the childcare rebate annual cap to $7,500 per child per year and suspends annual indexation for four years until 30 June 2014. It should be indicated that the bill will generate over $6.3 million to be directly reinvested in the National Quality Framework, allowing higher quality care to be provided in our childcare system. I will come back in later comments to the importance of quality care.
These reforms will allow for better staff-to-child ratios, hence allowing children to get more individual care and attention; a boost to staff qualification requirements, allowing childcare workers the opportunity to better lead activities that help kids learn and develop to their full potential; and high-quality care from which 800,000 families will benefit. Although nationally the impact of the bill will be fairly minimal, I indicate that in my electorate of Cunningham the median average income is under $100,000 a year and many of these families will benefit from the reforms proposed in child care. I should also indicate it will also help fund our $59.4 million investment in improving the quality of 142 budget based funded early childhood services, predominantly located in rural and remote Australia, that provide care to some of the most vulnerable children in our community.
As the previous speaker, the member for Gippsland, indicated, the importance of reforming the childcare area is particularly important for those of us who come from regional areas. I notice my colleague the Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs is at the table, with whom I have just finished a meeting with a delegation of great people from the city of Geelong talking about regional development in their area as well. There are many synergies between the two. I just want to acknowledge that for many of us in regional areas, as the former speaker said, the provision of quality child care is particularly important for the future of our young people. That is exactly part of what this bill sits within: a reform agenda of this government to provide better quality child care at more affordable rates.
The important point that needs to be acknowledged in the impact of the bill, because it is a budget bill, is that the vast majority of Australian families will not be affected by the changes that are proposed. My understanding is that about three per cent of families who currently use child care will be affected by these measures and many more will be supported by the redirection of funds into the quality program. In order to reach the cap, most families would need to place their child in care for 10 hours a day for more than four days a week at average fee levels. That is the group we are talking about. In fact, if you look at the average cost of the use of child care across Australia, the vast majority of people are much lower than that—most parents are around 2½ days per week. So less than one per cent of families who use child care will be impacted by the proposed changes in this budget bill.
It is important, therefore, to acknowledge that part of the government’s commitment that has been ongoing since the election of 2007 has been to provide better affordability for families in child care. We want them to have affordable, accessible and quality early education and child care. The reason that we are committed to that is we well understand that the foundations that young people get through childcare activities in a variety of formats before they commence school is particularly important. There is a role for government in ensuring the quality of the delivery of that care, and the focus on the reforms in this area has been particularly important to me as a former educator.
The commitment is backed by an investment of more than $18.2 billion over the next four years. As the former speaker—I thought quite generously—acknowledged from the other side of the House, it was an area where there had not been enough done by the previous Howard governments. This $18.2 billion is almost $11 billion more than was provided in the last four years of the coalition government, so this is a significant commitment to this important area. Overall, we are investing $14.9 billion to help 800,000 Australian families annually with the cost of child care. This is through the childcare benefit and the childcare rebate.
We have delivered on our commitment to increase the child care rebate from 30 to 50 per cent of parents’ out of pocket expenses. That is a particularly important measure that has been put in place to assist families cope with the cost of living. We have increased the maximum for each child in care to $7,500 a year. Under the coalition government the rebate was 30 per cent and the maximum cap was less than $4,500. In 2004, the out-of-pocket costs after subsidies for a family earning $55,000 a year with one child in long-day care was 13 per cent of their disposable income. For that same family now, in 2010, the proportion has declined to seven per cent of their income. That is an important commitment to assisting families cope with the cost of living, but we are also committed to ensuring that they have confidence and a reasonable expectation that child care is also of quality and will be preparing their children for their future in school.
We have also delivered on our promise to pay the childcare rebate quarterly, so parents will not have to wait until the end of the year. I well remember as an opposition member people being particularly frustrated by the whole process of having to pay out and then wait until the end of the financial year to get that money back. To further help families manage childcare costs, for the first time parents will be able to choose to access their childcare rebate payments fortnightly. When it comes to improving the affordability of child care, our record stands solid. We have provided important support to assist families to manage their costs of living.
This bill proposes not only an affordable program for child care but also a quality program. As a former teacher I am passionate about the fact that, particularly for young people who might come from quite disadvantaged households, the provision of quality child care is very important in good transitions to school and provides a much greater chance of success in a child’s schooling. Parents need peace of mind that the place they drop their child at for child care is safe, happy and stimulating. That is fundamentally what quality comes down to. It sounds simple but they are really important concepts for people who leave their children in child care. Although many childcare centres across Australia are doing well in these areas, the National Childcare Accreditation Council’s latest report did show, sadly, that too many childcare centres were failing to meet those basic safety, hygiene, educational and wellbeing standards. The report showed that, of the 1,129 centres that received an accreditation decision between 1 January and 30 June, 30 per cent failed to ensure that toiletting and nappy changing procedures were consistent with the advice from recognised health authorities; 26 per cent failed to ensure each child’s learning was documented and used in a planning program; 34 per cent failed to ensure that staff members supported each child’s needs for rest, sleep, comfort and sun protection; and 32 per cent failed to ensure that potentially dangerous products, plants and objects were inaccessible to children.
We believe that we can and must do better against these quality standards for our child care. This is why the government has been working in partnership with state and territory governments to implement a national quality framework. The intention of that framework is to lift the standard of care across Australia. The national quality standards are intended to improve staff to child ratios, so every child gets more individual care and attention, which is very important at those early developmental ages; to raise staff qualifications, in order to ensure staff are better able to lead activities that help children learn and develop; to introduce a quality rating system for all childcare services, to provide information that is meaningful to parents so that they know the quality of care on offer and they can make informed decisions—this government has a great track record on providing good quality information to parents, and the My School website is a good example of that; and to reduce red tape related to services, so providers only have to deal with one regulator and can spend less time on paperwork and more time on the kids in their care. The issue of red tape and the whole process of filling out forms and reporting has been regularly raised with me over my years as a member, so if we could get a national framework that allowed reporting to a single regulator that would ease the pressure on the providers themselves.
We must do better when it comes to the safety, wellbeing and early learning of our children. That is what the whole childcare reforms framework is about. Parents expect nothing less of us and providing national leadership to ensure those quality reforms are delivered is one of our most serious duties.
The child care budget measures bill 2010 directly addresses the childcare rebate and provides savings which can be redirected to the quality agenda of the national quality framework, and it supports the imperative I have talked about—providing affordable, accessible and quality child care. In an economic context we already have ample evidence that, if we want to increase productivity and participation, we need to ensure that all children get a quality education and that all young people go on to undertake vocational education and training or university studies which set them up for the future. The foundation block for so much of that are those early years of life and how young people transition into kindergarten and into starters school. It can be a make or break period and if child care is being provided it is very difficult to argue, on a social or an economic basis, that the government does not have a responsibility to ensure a quality framework around that child care. For those reasons this budget bill sits within an important government reform agenda. It certainly has my support and it should be supported by the House.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Budget Measures) Bill 2010. I will say at the outset that this bill is noble in its intentions; however, it is short on delivery to the people in my electorate of Canning. This bill seeks to cap the childcare rebate at seven and a half thousand dollars per annum for the next four financial years, with the intention of generating $86.3 million in savings over that period of time. The Labor Party needs the savings to help fund the national quality framework, which is estimated to cost some $273.7 million. Currently, the child care rebate is $7,778 indexed. In other words, the intention of this bill is to provide, on current figures, $278 less per annum.
As I said at the beginning, the intention of this national accreditation program is quite noble. This agenda had been agreed to by the states and territories through COAG in December 2007. The national quality agenda has three key elements: the national quality standard, enhanced regulatory arrangements and a quality rating system. The national quality standard will seek to introduce nationally consistent staff to child ratios and staff qualification requirements. It seeks to enhance the quality of each service by applying an assessment rating of one to five against seven quality criteria.
The national quality standard qualifications prerequisites will require many workers to either upgrade their qualifications or see them possibly leave the industry if they cannot. This gives no consideration to the life experience and maturity of these workers, as many of them have worked in this industry for years and have raised their own children.
Higher staff to child ratios and more highly qualified staff will mean higher labour costs for a given number of enrolments. Increasing staff levels will lead to services cutting places or possibly being forced to close if their business model is no longer viable because of the wage and cost pressures. The coalition supports improved quality standards because we want to ensure the best possible start for our young Australians while they are in care; however, this framework has been developed without sufficient consultation with the child care sector and it certainly needs to be reviewed.
It needs to be noted that teachers, teacher’s aides and carers in this area are currently some of the lowest paid workers in Australia. The consistent message to me from people in my electorate is that there are qualified people in this area who battle to exist on the meagre pay—it is barely above the basic wage. Coming to government in 1996, the coalition went through a similar process for the accreditation of the aged care sector. Yes, reform is needed in a lot of care sectors. The difference is that when we put in place the aged care reforms they came with not only sufficient money to implement them but also sufficient incentives for people to invest in the business of providing aged care beds and facilities. That is the difference between what is being organised here and what was done previously in another care sector.
As I said, families are going to have this rebate capped. It is expected that there will be more than 20,000 families financially worse off as a result of this bill. It could not come at a worse time, as increased cost of living pressures are hurting working families. You do not hear the Labor Party talking much about working families lately. It was one of their focus group buzzwords under the leadership of Prime Minister Rudd, but it does not seem to have carried over into the new paradigm. I wonder why. The Labor Party talk about workers and working families, yet they are more interested in the elite latte set in the leafy suburbs than in working people.
As I have said many times in this place, the best thing you can do for a family is to give them a job. We found out recently that the unemployment figures have risen. The cost of living pressures for families was recognised by the Rudd government, but they failed again. They were going to have Fuelwatch, GroceryWatch—in fact, they were going to watch everything. They watched a whole lot of things and had hundreds of committees report and look into these matters, but those reports are now gathering dust on the shelves. Those reports might have recommendations or surveys, but they have not actually been dealt with or implemented. Most of them have been shoved sideways onto a shelf with little done about them.
As a digression, Madam Deputy Speaker D’Ath, do you remember the thousand people who came to this place for what I nicknamed the ‘kilo brain’ competition early in the last parliament? Whatever happened to all the ideas that came from that? They evaporated. I have not seen any of them.
Returning to this bill, the fact is that many people who face cost-of-living pressures are going to find they will either have to pay more or won’t be able to pay at all. I heard the member for Cunningham say that she was a schoolteacher. So was I in a previous life, and I am happy to say so. My wife is also a teacher and most of my family are teachers. We know a bit about education and the need for quality care. The goals and ambitions around this bill are very noble, but the consultation and the money are not there.
Putting a child into child care is a serious business. If you have children you might have been in the situation of having to drive your child early in the morning—when it is cold or hot, whatever—and walking with them into the childcare centre and hoping that the people in that centre are good and caring people. I recall an experience I had where my wife and I made the mistake of taking our daughter to a particular childcare centre. We thought we had done the right thing and checked it out first. We wondered why she was so reluctant to go to this place until we found out from other mothers that the treatment at the centre was pretty ordinary. We felt really sick about having to put our child into that sort of care until we were able to find an alternative place where the care was far better.
It is a serious business if you cannot afford to stay at home with your child but have to return to work. My wife had to return to work as a schoolteacher because of cost-of-living pressures. We had a mortgage. We had all the things that most Australian families experience. Cash was tight. We needed two incomes coming into our house. You put your child into care knowing that kids who go to childcare centres end up with more communicable sicknesses like coughs and colds than other kids who have the opportunity to be raised at home. Parents who have to put their children into child care are willing to pay for it. But when the cost of child care gets close to the amount of money they earn, they you have to ask, ‘Is it worth while putting my child into this childcare centre, with all the dislocation that goes with it, when I am barely earning above what I am paying in childcare fees?’ This is the conundrum that a lot of families face.
In the Canning electorate most couples with children earn a gross weekly income of between $1,400 and $1,700 and most single parents earn a gross weekly income of between $500 and $600—much less than the average full-time adult income which is about $1,200 a week. Obtaining affordable child care is the major concern for many parents in my electorate. Not only do the Labor Party want to stop the future indexation of the childcare rebate; they want to immediately reduce the amount of the rebate. Through this bill, the Labor Party want to reduce the childcare rebate to the 2008-09 level. So much for Labor ‘moving forward’. They are going backwards on this issue.
The member for Cunningham spoke about how much money the government was providing and all that sort of stuff. You have to ask: ‘Is this new money? Is this re-announced money?’ Some of Labor’s promises like the double drop-off and the childcare arrangements post the ABC Learning failure have not materialised. How can we trust the government to deliver on something as serious as this when their history on these sorts of issues is one of failure? The Labor Party claim that the national quality framework they are developing will improve childcare services. Hopefully it will, but at what cost? At the cost of working Aussie families doing it hard? Some industry groups have already predicted that childcare fees will increase by up to $22 a day. Imagine this additional cost for a single working parent who only earns $600 a week. The increased cost of child care could force people out of jobs, out of study or out of further training.
The Labor Party basically want to rip off Australian families so they can continue their wasteful spending on some of the big budget, ill-informed projects like the Building the Education Revolution and the pink batts program—areas where money went down the drain. There is no point having better child care if parents cannot afford to put a roof over their child’s head or food on the table. We do not really know whether childcare services will be better. We hope they will. Overheads for childcare centres will increase. Who will bear these extra costs? These costs of course will be passed on to parents. Childcare workers may leave the industry or be forced to upgrade their qualifications. That will mean fewer workers in the sector if they do not have the financial capacity to upgrade.
The national quality framework qualification prerequisites give no consideration to the experience of workers and the work they have already done. The national quality framework will lead to childcare services having to increase staff levels and may force some operators to shut their doors, which will mean fewer places for child care. The competition for places is already tough. The coalition is supportive of improving the quality of child care. As a father and as somebody involved in education previously, I want Australia’s children to have the best possible start to their education. However, the Labor government’s national quality framework requires much more consultation with the childcare sector and it must be reviewed.
The Building the Education Revolution started off admirably, but many people now say, ‘Rather than a small building that could not fit a fridge or having to have two gyms in the one school, we would have liked more funding for teacher education and quality training for teachers, and smaller class sizes.’ We saw that failure again with the pink batts issue. I hope that, as was said in the MPI debate today, this is not another trophy of failure that will go into the Labor Party’s trophy cabinet. They failed to discuss and they failed to consult. The major losers in this whole exercise are not just the working families of Australia but also the children of Australia who are entitled to receive care. We owe them more and to do so we need to make sure these proposals are properly funded and that there is proper consultation to get the best possible outcomes.
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 Labor 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 childhood 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. It is important to note, after listening to the previous speech, by the member for Canning, 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 Labor 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. 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 to families more frequent than had been the case under the Howard government. In our first budget, in 2008, we honoured our election commitment to increasing 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.
Those of us who were in the parliament during the Howard government remember when the rebate was introduced by the Treasurer at the time, Peter Costello, and families were told that they would be waiting 18 months to receive their first payment from the government. When we came to government we acted quickly 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. Of course, we went to the last election with a further commitment to paying the rebate to families on a fortnightly basis, and that will be implemented in time for it to take effect midway through 2011. We are obviously very mindful of making the rebate work for families to help them meet the costs of child care.
It was good to see those changes in the 2008 budget—the increase in the rebate and the change to quarterly payments—reflected in the most recent data on childcare availability and affordability. The report State of child care in Australia, released on 22 April this year, showed 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 fell to seven per cent in 2009.
The bill we are debating this evening implements a budget measure that will make a change to the childcare rebate affecting a small number of families. From 1 July this year the childcare rebate annual cap will be set at $7,500 per child per year. It is important to note that 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 and going forward. 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. The 2010 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 that were 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 what we saw happen with ABC Learning. 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 government 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 a 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 local 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 Labor 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. I am pleased that the government has been able to play such a positive role in steering the potentially disastrous collapse of ABC Learning to a conclusion that has been able to give 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, since we came to office, child care has been more accessible and affordable. 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: not enough attention was being given to their needs and there was not enough investment in quality childcare and educational opportunities for children under the age of 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-degree 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. 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 am pleased that during this year there have been a number of announcements by the state government that they will be opening kindergartens in conjunction with many of the schools in my area.
In the context of early childhood development, cost of living pressures for families and the way that the government is supporting working families with their cost of living, I want to mention paid parental leave. This is a very important initiative, which we have waited far too long for in this country and which comes into effect from the start of next year. Parents will be able to be paid for 18 weeks at the minimum wage on the birth of their child. I am very proud to be associated with this initiative through this government.
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 this support through the childcare rebate and these other measures on quality.
When the Labor Party went to the election in 2007 their big pitch to the electorate regarded the cost of living. They made the claim that the Howard government had given up on working families and their day-to-day concerns. They claimed that only the Labor Party was in tune with their needs. So they talked about petrol prices going up. They talked about grocery prices. They talked about electricity prices. They talked about housing affordability and they even had, if I recall correctly, a housing affordability summit. They also, of course, talked about interest rates. The cost-of-living pressure facing everyday Australian families was one of the central themes in their bid to be elected.
They told us that they had plans to fix the cost-of-living pressures. They were going to take the pressures off families. Prices were going to drop. They had two big policies to supposedly address the issue of the cost of living: GroceryWatch and Fuelwatch. So this was their claim, their pitch and their basis for being elected in 2007. We now know that this claim, which helped the Labor Party get elected in 2007, was based on naivety or was a lie. I do not know which one it was. Perhaps they honestly thought that a website to monitor grocery prices would actually bring down the costs of fruit and vegetables, milk and bread. Perhaps they did. Perhaps they honestly thought that a website to monitor petrol would actually bring down prices at the bowser. Maybe they were that naive to think that those things would actually make a difference to everyday prices.
I am prepared to give the Labor Party that benefit of the doubt, but my suspicion is that Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and the Labor Party knew that their policies would make no difference to the cost-of-living pressures. My suspicion is that they went to the election—
Order! The bill is the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Budget Measures) Bill 2010. I ask the honourable member to come to the bill.
I will be coming to the bill very soon, Mr Deputy Speaker. I was talking about cost-of-living pressures, and this bill directly relates to cost-of-living pressures. We know that the Labor Party, as I was saying, did not deliver on their promise to address the issue of the cost of living. Their two big policies in 2007, GroceryWatch and Fuelwatch, have since disappeared and, if you look at what has happened to prices across the board since November 2007 when the government was first elected, you will see that water and sewerage prices have gone up 46 per cent, electricity prices have gone up 42 per cent, gas has risen by 29 per cent, medical costs by 20 per cent and we have had several interest rate rises.
As the member for Wannon points out, it is seven or eight. So instead of addressing the cost-of-living pressures over the last three years, the government has made things alarmingly worse for Australian families—and, what is more, there are many plans to continue to put upward pressure on the cost of living and make things even harder. If you look at some of the things that the government are planning on doing which are putting up cost-of-living pressures on families, they have cut back on the private health insurance rebate, so private health insurance is likely to go up.
Yes, Mr Deputy Speaker, but it is within this context of cost-of-living pressures that I am opposed to this particular bill in this House because the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Budget Measures) Bill 2010 represents just another way in which the government is going to put pressure on many Australian families. It is another way in which they are going to raise the cost of living for families in Australia, and that is the particular context in which I raised those other things. This bill before the House makes child care that little bit more expensive. I have talked about electricity prices, medical prices, fruit and vegetable prices, petrol prices et cetera, but as a result of this bill child care will also become that little bit more expensive.
The bill seeks to set the maximum per child amount of the childcare rebate to $7,500 per annum and suspend indexation until July 2014. So this sees a reduction from the current indexed amount of $7,778 per annum. On the basis of the government’s own figures, families will now pay an additional $86.3 million for child care over the next four years. That is $86.3 million in additional childcare costs from the party who claimed that they were concerned about cost-of-living pressures and were going to put downward pressure on them. In addition, the national quality agenda measures are likely to increase overheads for childcare centres, and some industry groups predict that associated cost increases of between $12 and $22 will come about as a result of the national quality framework—and of course every family that uses child care will be affected by those price increases.
Child care is essential to many families today. It is not a discretionary service. It is often the case that a family has no choice but to use child care, whether it is a single parent who needs to access child care in order to go to work to pay the bills or whether it is couples for whom the cost of housing and other living costs are going up so enormously. As I was saying before, such costs are now so high that both members of a couple need to work in order to make ends meet and to pay the mortgage. The Howard government recognised the importance to families of child care and the cost pressures back in 2005. That is when the Howard government introduced the child care tax rebate and backdated it to 1 July 2004. It was introduced because the coalition understood the importance of families being able to have affordable, accessible and good quality child care and that this was an essential part of a family being able to manage its work and its family obligations.
The question must be asked: why is the government now pulling back on its assistance to families using child care? The answer of course is because it has spent such enormous amounts of money over the last few years on a multitude of issues that it is now in serious financial trouble. It has taken Australia from a budget surplus of $20 billion to a deficit of approximately $50 billion. It is still continuing to borrow $100 million per day. So this bill is a measure to try to claw back some money for the budget.
But my argument is, instead of clawing it back from parents who badly need child care so they can go to work, why doesn’t the government look at some of the other measures which the opposition have put forward through which legitimate savings can be made? This bill will not help Australian families struggling to meet cost-of-living pressures. It will not help them afford child care more easily. On the contrary, it will make getting child care that little bit harder for over 20,000 families across Australia. It is time that the government put a stop to all its new taxes and to its efforts to claw back savings from badly needed government services, such as child care. This bill should be opposed.
I rise to support the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Budget Measures) Bill 2010. It is an important bill and it forms part of our plan to assist working families as they cope with the costs and vicissitudes of modern family life. It goes hand in hand with the assistance that we are giving to working families through the education tax rebate, the doubling of the funding that the Labor government has given over the last three years to child care and early childhood education, the introduction of fair and reasonable workplace relations laws for the families with children who are occupying childcare centres and the workers in those childcare centres, and of course keeping unemployment low through the worst financial crisis to hit this nation in the last 100 years.
Whilst I am dealing with the issue of cost pressures, I might respond to some of the observations made just now by the member for Aston. Interest rates are still lower today than they were when Labor came to office in 2007, and we are the only country in the OECD to have unemployment below five per cent. Most other comparable countries are dealing with unemployment in excess of 10 per cent. If you want to talk about cost pressures on working families, the best thing you can do to alleviate cost pressures on working families is ensure that people have a job.
Child care is an industry that is changing, and so too must the Commonwealth government’s approach to child care change to ensure that we meet the new demands of the industry and ensure that it is appropriately regulated. The sector is growing at a rate of around 250 new centres per annum. There are around 4,750 long day care centres in Australia. Around 75 per cent of these are privately owned, 22 per cent are community owned and around three per cent are in the government sector, run predominantly by local governments. Around 800,000 families and 870,000 children are using approved childcare centres each week in Australia. This is an increase of over eight per cent since 2005.
It is important that we ensure that we continue to meet the costs and address the issues associated with families who have their children in child care and who are in need of child care to assist them in their daily working lives. I make the observation that the out-of-pocket costs for families have fallen across all income levels. Indeed, families earning $55,000 a year spent around 13 per cent of their disposable income on child care in 2004. This figure fell to seven per cent in 2009. Clearly more work needs to be done, but we are heading in the right direction.
The measures within this bill will generate an additional $86.3 million in savings that are going to be specifically redirected to support the government’s quest to increase the quality of child care and early childhood education in Australia. I make the important point that, as we bring in new social innovations and new policies to support working families, we need to do that in a broader fiscal context to ensure that all of our policies are properly costed and affordable. It is one of the things that distinguishes our approach to these matters from that of members opposite. Members opposite went into the last election with a $10 billion black hole of unfunded promises, whereas each and every one of our promises has to be offset by savings and has to fall within our strict fiscal rules.
The Gillard Labor government’s $273.7 million investment in the national quality framework, which has been endorsed by COAG, will improve educator to child ratios so that each child gets more individual time and individual attention—a proposition which is very difficult to disagree with. It will introduce educator qualification requirements so that educators are better able to lead activities that inspire youngsters and help them to learn and develop. It will develop a new rating system so that parents know the quality of care on offer and can make informed choices. It will also reduce regulation burdens so that services only have to deal with one regulator. This is particularly important for national operators operating across numerous state and territory jurisdictions. This measure will also help to fund our $59.4 million investment in improving the quality of the 142 budget based funded early childhood services which are located in rural and remote Australia and provide care to some of Australia’s most vulnerable children. We are doing this because the government believes that each of the 800,000 Australian families who place their children in care each week deserve to know that they are safe and in a happy and stimulating learning environment.
The Australian government is committed to providing Australian families with access to affordable, accessible and quality early education and child care. This commitment is backed by an investment of more than $18.2 billion over the next four years. That is almost $11 billion more than was provided in the last four years of the former coalition government. Overall, we are investing $14.9 billion to help 800,000 Australian families annually with the cost of child care through the childcare benefit and childcare rebate. We have delivered on our commitment to increase the childcare rebate from 30 to 50 per cent of parents’ out-of-pocket expenses and to increase the maximum for each child in care to $17,500 a year. Under the former coalition government, the rebate was only 30 per cent of out-of-pocket expenses and the maximum cap was less than $4,500 per annum. So it really is quite galling to hear the complaints of members opposite that the Labor government is not doing enough to support working families and their childcare needs. The rebate under the former coalition government was only 30 per cent and the cap was less than $4,500 per annum. So we have moved that a long way in our four years in government.
We have also delivered on our promise to pay the childcare rebate quarterly—a significant improvement for working families in meeting their household budgets so that parents do not have to wait until the end of the year to receive crucial assistance. To further help families manage their weekly childcare costs, for the first time parents will be able to access their childcare rebate more regularly, and we hope that by July 2011 we will be able to introduce fortnightly payments of the childcare rebate.
The Gillard government has a very clear record of supporting Australian families to manage their budgets, particularly when it comes to the costs associated with early childhood education and with child care. We know that parents support these measures. Research conducted earlier this year by the union representing childcare workers, the LHMU, showed that over 90 per cent of parents support childcare reform and over 84 per cent of those parents would support a small increase in fees if it led to better education, better care and a higher quality service for their children.
When it comes to improving the affordability of child care, the record of the Gillard Labor government stands head and shoulders above those opposite. We are getting the balance right between quality and affordability. That is because we know that cost is only one part of the equation when it comes to decisions about child care. Parents also need the peace of mind that when they are dropping off their children at care they will be in a safe, happy and stimulating environment. Indeed, it is in our national interest to ensure that working families with very young children can participate in the economy knowing that, as they drop their kids at the childcare centre on their way to work, their children will be cared for to the highest possible standard.
The member opposite mocks at this, but I am proud to be part of a government that is working in partnership with state and territory governments to implement a national quality framework that will lift the standard of child care across Australia. We believe in continuous improvement in this area. We believe that government has a role. We believe that we should not just leave it to the market to rip because we have seen the disastrous consequences of that with the recent collapse of ABC Learning.
Through the national quality framework we will improve staff-child ratios so that every child gets more individual care and attention. We will raise staff qualifications to ensure that staff are better able to lead activities that help children learn and develop and we will assist the workers in these childcare centres to acquire those qualifications and support them through that process. We will introduce a quality rating system for all childcare services so that parents know the quality of care on offer and can make informed choices. This, I can say through personal experience, is an important issue because most parents, and I am a parent with children in child care, have got so much going on in their working lives that they do not have the ability to do a detailed audit of all the childcare services available in their area and it will be of great assistance to know that an accredited childcare provider will meet a national standard and will be, at the very least, complying with a quality rating system for all equivalent childcare services.
We will in the same process reduce red tape related to services, particularly by having a single national provider so that providers only have to deal with one regulator—they can spend less time on paperwork and more time with the kids in their care. There is no doubt that parents see quality child care as an important issue and are willing to pay a small amount more to get the best start in life for their children. We have been upfront with families and the sector about these moderate cost changes and we have made sure that the changes will be introduced over a number of years so that the cost increases will be gradual. Hopefully, as the economy recovers, as we fully expect it will due to the work of this Labor government in partnership with workers and businesses throughout Australia, we will be able to ensure in the years ahead that any increases in costs will be offset by increases in wages.
We have undertaken this important reform because we know that the research tells us that the early years shape the future happiness, the future health and the future wellbeing of our children. It is therefore disappointing that the Leader of the Opposition wanted to put the national quality standard on hold indefinitely. Indeed, when you read and study what the standard is about, it is hard to believe that any reasonable-minded Australian could disagree with what is being proposed. Federal Labor believe that we can and must do more when it comes to the safety, wellbeing and early learning of our children. That is what parents expect of us and, through our quality reforms, that is exactly what we will deliver.
On this side of the House, we are readying our economy for the challenges of the future. We are ensuring that our children are ready for that future. That includes providing Australian families with access to affordable, accessible, quality early education and child care. We are also building on the National Broadband Network, dealing with pricing carbon and tackling climate change and all the other costs that have been alluded to in the course of this debate to ensure that the working families that we represent have a decent shake at getting ahead in the years ahead. I commend the bill to the House and thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to speak on this important matter.
I rise tonight to speak on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Budget Measures) Bill 2010. Or perhaps what it should be titled, if we were being truthful, is the ‘reduce family assistance legislation amendment (child care) (try and fix the budget) measure’. The small community of Casterton, in my electorate of Wannon, has been struggling for several years to fund a new, quality day care centre. In August I announced that the coalition would fund the entire $1.2 million project if the coalition were elected to government. The Labor Party, unfortunately, refused to help this small community and match this promise, so families in Casterton have been left disappointed and still struggling to gain funding for the new centre. This example goes to the heart of what we are discussing in this bill tonight.
As reported in the Casterton News, local families have battled authorities for years to get a quality day care centre built in Casterton. They are forced to use the former health centre building that was built decades ago and is totally unsuitable for this purpose. To their credit, local families in this small regional community have created their own action group to try to raise the funds desperately needed to improve the quality of child care offered in the region. The Casterton Day Care Action Group has been campaigning for the centre for several years and is trying to raise upwards of $75,000 so it can contribute a share towards the project.
The project was originally costed at $800,000 in 2007, when it was put to the Glenelg Shire Council. I commend the Glenelg Shire Council for putting the day care centre on their agenda and understand their desire to provide such a service, but I am also extremely cognisant that they are facing competing demands, especially because the Victorian state Labor government has failed to provide adequate road funding and other necessary infrastructure for the region.
I would like to place on the record again that a coalition government would have delivered quality childcare services at an affordable rate to Casterton by providing $1.2 million for the building of a child and family complex, which would have provided desperately needed childcare services for that region. This announcement, if we had formed government, would have been a great reward for the Casterton Day Care Action Group, who have been working so hard to secure support for this centre. They have met with me on numerous occasions to outline their needs, and it is a great shame that their hard work was not rewarded as it would have been if the coalition had formed government.
The coalition recognises that investing in children’s wellbeing at an early stage greatly increases their self-confidence, health and educational prospects later in life. We believe all families should have access to quality services for their children, whether they live in the city or in the country. If delivered, this investment, importantly, also would have eased the burden on Glenelg shire ratepayers into the future, because direct investment by the Commonwealth in this project would have enabled the shire to save on the expenditure it had forecast to outlay. The coalition initiative would have encouraged skilled professionals to stay in the region and also would have helped encourage other professionals to come and work locally due to the provision of proper child care.
I would like to place on the record my support for the coalition at the state level providing $500,000 towards the building of the Casterton child and family complex. It once again demonstrates that we on this side understand the importance of providing child care in rural and regional areas and shows Labor’s complete disinterest in doing so. Sadly, this is another case where we have to look at what the Labor government does rather than what it says.
At the 2007 election Labor promised 260 new childcare centres but scrapped the plan before the 2010 election, using the highly cynical excuse that there was no demand for new centres. The Casterton community would argue with the government on that point, and I would encourage the minister to talk to the Casterton Day Care Action Group so she can hear firsthand that there is still demand for childcare centres. Hopefully, this would prevent in future such cynical media releases that argue that such demand does not exist. Hopefully—and this goes to the heart of this bill—it would lead to the Gillard government being upfront and honest with the Australian people, and they would clearly state the reason that they are ignoring the needs of towns like Casterton: because of their massive budget blow-out. We should not be under any misapprehension as to why the Gillard government, in this bill, are now slashing the subsidies to parents paying childcare fees and capping the childcare tax rebate, making it even harder for working parents to afford child care. They are doing this because they cannot manage themselves, let alone manage the economy.
It was only two years ago that the Rudd-Gillard government deemed that childcare costs were rising and putting increased pressure on families who were struggling to pay their bills. To this end, the Labor government increased the childcare rebate by 30 per cent in order to address the growing concerns about increasing childcare costs. What has changed, I ask, from 2008 to now, such that the Labor government now thinks that childcare costs have not just stopped increasing with the consumer price index but in fact fallen? The Labor government must feel that families are not struggling, to propose a reduction in the childcare rebate from the current indexed amount of $7,778 per annum to set the maximum per child amount of childcare rebate to $7,500 per annum and suspend indexation until July 2014. Does the government think that families are not struggling to make ends meet, despite the increasing cost of living and inflationary pressures they are adding with their proposed carbon tax plans and their failed schemes wasting billions of taxpayers’ dollars? The BER is highlighted just down the road from Casterton at Dunkeld, where $800,000 has been wasted. The pink batts fiasco—
I will come back to the bill. It is this mismanagement of the BER and the pink batts fiasco which has led to this bill. What this bill basically is is a cash grab from the government, with 21,000 families losing up to $9 a week, and as the years progress and the consumer price index increases, taking the cost of child care with it, the burden on families will grow even further. And that is the point I was trying to make, Mr Deputy Speaker. If the money had not been wasted, there would be no need to cut family assistance to child care.
Rest assured, sadly, that the government’s mismanagement and waste of taxpayers’ dollars will continue unabated as well. Let us call this bill for what it is—a cash grab. Nowhere is this reflected more than in the growth that is estimated in the savings, rising from $5.7 million in 2010-11 to $42 million in 2013-14. This will come from those parents trying to access child care. Some industry groups predict associated cost increases of $12 minimum to $22 maximum a day as a result of the national quality framework, so add those costs on to it as well. If the worst-case fee increases projected by industry representatives come to pass, it would substantially increase the impact of this change. It is obvious that as the indexation freeze progresses, the financial burden on families will only grow.
How can the Gillard government argue that something that increases its coffers by cutting funding to families will not be to the detriment of those it is taking the funding away from? This is Labor’s spin at its best. This government knows no shame. How it could argue that cutting funding from families struggling with increased childcare costs is fair is beyond belief. The government is squeezing the life out of Australian families already. In my electorate, small rural and regional communities are already being forced to fundraise for kindergartens, for community centres, for improved health services and for aged-care facilities. They are being forced to fundraise within an inch of their existence. These communities will not be helped by this bill. These communities are often under some of the greatest strain in the nation, as local government rates are forced upwards because state Labor governments continually cost-shift services onto rural councils. That the government still wishes to make it more difficult for these families is beyond belief.
Let us look at their record. Child care: in my electorate of Wannon, if you want a childcare facility, you now cannot get one. And if you are lucky enough to have access your costs will go up. Kindergarten: under the Gillard government’s so-called universal access to early childhood education reforms, it is looking more and more likely that kindergartens across rural Victoria will be forced to close. So, rather than providing universal access, this policy will be actually taking it away. Tertiary education: there is a well-recognised growing divide between country students accessing tertiary education and their city cousins. What is the Gillard government’s solution? To make it harder, not easier, for country students to access tertiary education by cutting the independent youth allowance. How anyone can think that making tertiary education more expensive for country students will address this divide is well and truly beyond me.
So with this bill we will have the learning trifecta. The Gillard government are making it harder for families to access child care, they are making it harder for their children to go to kindergarten and they are making it harder for students to access tertiary education—and all this coming from a Prime Minister who brags that her biggest claim to fame is her education credentials. This bill is shameful in its cynicism. It is nothing but a cash grab and that is why I oppose it. I go back to where I started. It should be retitled the ‘reduce family assistance legislation amendment (childcare) (try and fix the budget) measure’.
I rise to support the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Budget Measures) Bill 2010, which amends the A New Tax System (Family Assistance) Act 1999. I am very pleased to be able to speak on this bill. I think it has the potential to provide good care in our community for our young children, who are engaging more and more in early childhood education.
The outline of the bill lets us know that it is to return the child care rebate annual cap to $7,500 per child per year and to pause indexation of the annual cap for four years until 30 June 2014. Obviously, that saving is being directed in a very powerful way, a very symbolic way, in this legislative change. It is going to generate $86.3 million, which will be directly reinvested in lifting the quality of child care, through the national quality framework. That is going to deliver better staff-child ratios and improve staff qualifications. This is where I would like to spend most of the time that I am going to be speaking this evening: the implications of the lift in quality that is possible.
The other outcome of the bill, which is something that is very important to achieve, is the funding of quality improvements in 142 budget based funded early childhood services that are predominantly in rural and remote Australia. These are critical services that provide education to some of Australia’s most vulnerable children.
With regard to early childhood education, in my very first speech I referred to my anticipation of getting into primary school and commencing my own junior studies. It does not feel that long ago, but how much has changed in that period of time from when the first experience of schooling, education and access to educational professionals happened when one turned five. We have learnt so much in the last 30 years about the power of early childhood education and we know from this that we are impelled to act to improve the quality of the experience that young children have when they attend early childhood settings.
My experience in the seat of Robertson gives me a sense of confidence about what it is that we are embarking on here. When I fell pregnant with my children the possibility of engaging somebody to help look after them was very important to me. Like many people who have moved into the seat of Robertson, we have dislocated up the coast and away from our families and our base, often in the Sydney suburban areas. Without family support the preschool, as a hub for new young mothers and fathers and as a hub for connection with other kids of the same age, becomes even more important. If we extrapolate that out into the rural and remote sector, that story is written even more largely.
Commuters on the Central Coast rely on childcare services to provide the highest quality of care. We have 30,000 commuters heading to Sydney each day. Many of them are parents with young children and they need to know that at a distance of more than an hour away they are in high-quality settings. I am pleased to report to the House that during the recent campaign the minister and I attended a rather exciting afternoon at a preschool setting at Green Point. It is a perfect example of what happens when there is a high-quality agenda at the heart of what an early childhood centre is seeking to achieve. In that school we saw a great deal of care in programming and planning for each individual child. We saw excellence in terms of mentoring by older, experienced and well qualified staff building up expectations and capacities for younger staff to engage in the sorts of study that are going to increase the quality of experience and deepen their understanding of the complex elements of a growing child. We know that if we do well in early childhood, if we start off well with our young kids in this country, we give them a great start for a life in which health and wellbeing will be benefited by that good start. Schools are in fact hubs of the community and, as early childhood centres, they are the primary places in which many families connect with one another. They learn from staff who need to be highly qualified.
Another key feature of the bill is the impact of the cap. This is an important issue to address, and I think it is very important to be upfront and say that this change is going to affect fewer than one per cent of families using child care who are earning less than $100,000 a year. The transfer of funding to a quality agenda is a critical and important development that this bill will provide for. In fact, by 2013-14 it is estimated that the average childcare rebate claim will be $2,300, which is well under the $7,500 cap. This national quality framework is going to deliver higher quality to almost 800,000 Australian families, and that is an important impact.
One of the key questions that are being debated here this evening is that of affordability. The Gillard government has been answering many questions in the parliament since its return in the most recent federal election about our commitment to affordability in a whole range of areas. This is an important measure. We are on the record for increasing the rebate to parents from 30 per cent to 50 per cent. I happen to have had my children at a time when there was no rebate and I definitely understand that going from zero to 30 per cent had a powerful impact on my family’s capacity to budget and on cost savings. It took pressure off my family and increased our capacity to parent.
The commitment we are talking about here tonight is backed by an investment of more than $18.2 billion over the next four years. If we compare that with what we saw from the former coalition government, it is almost $11 billion more than was provided in the last four years of the former coalition government. So any debate here that tries to create the impression that the Gillard government is not investing in early childhood care is simply a misrepresentation of the facts. Overall we are investing $14.9 billion to help 800,000 Australian families. This is an important part of our commitment to looking after the communities in which we are working.
One of the things we know about early childhood is that it is important that we develop an ethic of care at these critical sites. We need sites where parents can have peace of mind that, when they drop off their child, they not only are going to be safe and happy but also are going to be in an educationally stimulating environment. My experience of lecturing students in English and sociology at the University of Newcastle put me in a situation where I had secondary, primary, and early childhood teachers working in the same room. Early childhood teachers who do quality training deeply understand that the learner needs to be at the centre of all of their planning processes. Learner centred programming is a critical skill that we need all our early childhood educators to be able to deliver. That kind of outstanding capacity to program and plan for individual children is not achieved by easy measure. This is not child minding; it is child caring at the highest level. It is about education and setting kids up for success in the future and success in their future educational experiences. Great quality early childhood sets up dispositions for learning in young people that can be with them for the entire learning experience, right through to adulthood. It is so important that we attend to it well.
One concern that has been raised is the need for transparent measurement and accounting of what is going on in different childcare centres. As I said, in the seat of Robertson we often have families that have moved from one area to another. They do not have the benefit of the community experience and the grapevine that might tell them where a great childcare centre is or about another one that has perhaps not met those standards. It is important, through accreditation, to make available descriptions of what is going on in these early childhood centres to all Australian families who are seeking the best education for their children.
The report from the National Childcare Accreditation Council lets us know that, sadly, there are some failures out there. Those on the other side would have you believe that everything out there is going very well, but the reality is that quality is something we have to strive towards at all points in time, and we need to critique what we are doing currently. We now have records showing that 30 per cent of centres, when audited, failed to ensure that toileting and nappy changing procedures were consistent with advice from recognised health authorities. This is an alarming statistic. There are great early childhood centres out there. There are great educators and great carers who are operating at the very highest level. But we have to acknowledge that there is a need to address that 30 per cent—which is not an insubstantial figure—of centres that have displayed noncompliance with what health authorities are recommending as best practice.
We also have records that show that 26 per cent of centres failed to ensure that each child’s learning was documented and used in a planning program. I alluded to that a little earlier. We need to document what kids do, because sometimes our casual perceptions about what they are doing are not a very accurate measure of where they have been and where they might be heading. Also, when we have somebody else’s child in our care in an early childhood setting, an important part of the journey is sharing the records of what has been done while the parents have been away so the parents and the carers can jointly care at the highest quality level to make sure that the story of the young person’s learning is documented and can be gradually built on. It will be impacted by the professional learning of the teacher and conversations with parents, making sure that the best quality education is being offered from the earliest point in time.
Sadly, we know that 34 per cent of centres failed to ensure that staff members supported each child’s need for rest, sleep, comfort and sun protection. As a parent, you sometimes wonder: ‘Have I always attended to all of those elements myself?’ But as a parent there is the imperative of care deeply bounded inside you. You just have to rise to that level, even when you are tired yourself. Parents set those standards through an exercise of love and care. We expect those standards to be met in our early childhood centres. To ensure that those standards are met, we need to make some changes. That is why we must invest in a quality agenda for our early childhood centres.
I was alarmed to find that 32 per cent of centres failed to ensure that potentially dangerous products and plants were moved away from where children were playing. One of the liabilities that you have as a teacher is that you do visual audits everywhere you go. I can recall going to a number of children’s parties with my own children and seeing the odd rake turned up the wrong way, with the pointy ends facing up to the sky, while the children were all running around. I would have to go and do a bit of an audit of the site and remove those dangerous items. That mindfulness is an important part of the care teachers provide for the people in their care, and it is certainly a critical part of what early childhood carers do in looking after the children who are entrusted to their care.
We believe that we can and must do better when it comes to the safety and wellbeing of our children in early learning. That is why we are working on partnerships with state and territory governments to implement this national quality framework. Clearly, making that framework explicit is the first step towards lifting the quality of care for all those young Australians who are being born now and who are about to enter into the early childhood setting. This will include improving staff-child ratios, raising staff qualifications, introducing a quality rating system and reducing red tape. These are the things we will achieve with our new agenda for early childhood.
To revisit the key points, this bill is going to generate $86.3 million, and this will be directly reinvested in the national quality framework. Each child will be getting more individual care and attention. Staff will be better qualified, and our dedicated childcare workers will be better able to lead activities that we know will help kids learn, will help them develop and will lead to happier, healthier children. In summary, the measures proposed in this bill are very reasonable and aspirational. The changes to the budget will not affect the vast majority of Australian families, but they will fund essential improvements in the quality of care through the national quality framework, and 800,000 Australian families will benefit. I commend the bill to the House.
The Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Budget Measures) Bill 2010 will set the maximum per childcare rebate to $7,500 per annum for the next four years, starting from 1 July and applying until July 2014. The Labor government has effectively removed indexation from the childcare rebate, which in 2009-10 was an indexed amount of $7,778. I can only assume from this move that, having wasted billions and billions of taxpayers’ funds on rorted and mismanaged schemes and programs such as the BER, the Home Insulation Program, the Green Loans program, Fuelwatch and GroceryWatch, just to name a few, and on Labor’s reckless spending, with nearly $90 billion of debt, a record $57 billion dollar deficit last year, a projected $41 billion deficit for this current year and current Labor government borrowings of over $100 million a day, the list is endless—and all this from a government that promised before the 2007 election to make child care more affordable and build an additional 260 childcare and early childhood education centres on school sites and community land to end the ‘double drop-off’.
What we have now is the Labor government clawing back funds from Australian families with this measure, making families pay once again for their waste and mismanagement at a time when childcare costs are increasing, particularly with the implementation of the National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Care. Through this legislation, the Labor government is aiming to generate savings of $86.3 million over four years to help offset the cost of this agenda. On one hand the government is taking away indexation from over 20,000 Australian families, a number that is expected to increase over the next few years, while on the other hand it is using the savings for its national quality agenda. But this simply picks winners and losers in the same way that the youth allowance debate picked winners and losers.
I note in the Senate inquiry the National Foundation for Australian Women and the National Investment for the Early Years jointly pointed out that this policy change will result in increased costs for some parents. They stated:
We draw to attention that this will inevitably mean that out of pocket expenses for some parents will rise, providing a further disincentive for women with dependent children to return to the workforce or to remain work-force attached.
We in this House are all very well aware that increased and increasing childcare costs may well have a negative impact on women’s participation in the workforce. Child care is central to many women’s workforce participation. They cannot engage in the workforce without that childcare option. Families claiming the 2009-10 current maximum childcare rebate of $7,778 would be paying childcare costs of $15,556 or more each year, and full-time child care over 48 weeks at just under $70 a day will reach this limit.
Parents who have contacted me are also concerned that they may well have to pay higher fees because of the higher staff ratios required by the quality agenda. An article in the Daily Telegraph stated:
Parents face fee rises of up to $33 per child per day …
The centres referred to, which supply nearly 13,000 childcare places, said:
… fees for children aged under two would have to rise by 30 per cent …
For a family using full-time care, the cost increases could amount to $2970 per year.
That reinforces why the indexation of the childcare rebate is so important to families, given that, under the government’s changes from 2011 staff to child ratios for under two-year-olds will be cut from one carer to every five children to one carer for every four children and childcare centres will also have to employ a fully trained early childhood teacher.
I note that there is a very strong and increasing need for childcare places, with the 2008 figures showing that over 1,300,000 women with children under the age of 15 years were employed either in full-time or in part-time work, either because of economic necessity or to pursue their careers. We all know that the participation of women in the workforce is and will be a key part of our nation’s productivity capacity.
In the same year, 2008, over 700,000 children used some form of child care. I understand very well why improved standards and conditions for early childhood educators will ensure that quality care is provided to Australian children, but we must also be aware of the overwhelming importance of affordable child care to Australian families. That is why we are so supportive of our election commitment to improve access to quality, affordable child care for families, such as reintroducing indexation of the childcare rebate to help ease the cost-of-living pressures on families struggling to meet childcare costs, the very indexation that the Labor government is removing, and to pay the childcare rebate weekly and directly to childcare providers so that families will face smaller out-of-pocket expenses and there will be less pressure on family budgets—very important to families.
We would also have reintroduced $12.6 million of occasional care funding which was cut by the Labor government. That decision affected many occasional childcare centres in my electorate, cuts that demonstrated yet again that the Labor government clearly do not understand the needs and issues facing families in regional and rural communities in Australia. If they did they would not have made that decision.
The Gillard government’s decision to cease funding the Neighbourhood Model Occasional Childcare Program from July 2010 was a major blow to 28 affected childcare centres in Western Australia alone. Many of them still have no certainty in their ability to continue providing the services at all. This should be of concern to members on both sides of the House. In rural and regional areas, many of these centres simply do not have the numbers to sustain themselves on a full-time basis, but they need to provide that service because of the number of families who need the service. There are four occasional childcare centres in Binningup, Dardanup, Harvey and Nannup in my electorate of Forrest that are suffering as a result of that funding cut. All these centres have groups of great young mothers. They do not simply sit back and expect a handout from government. They take responsibility for these community based centres because they know that they will not be able to pursue their home based business or their job without it. They fundraise. They manage their own centres and finances. They play a direct role in their children’s day care but they cannot afford the increased fees caused by the loss of that federal funding.
The state Liberal government in Western Australia has offered some support until 31 December, but after that time their future remains uncertain, and that is a very serious issue in these small towns. If you do not live and work in these sorts of areas, you simply cannot understand at all what it means to lose occasional child care, what distances these mums and their families have to travel to be able to access the child care and their work and also how important and integral child care is to the way in which these communities function. This is a crisis for these centres and the families who rely on them. That is the way it is.
Before the 2007 election, Labor promised Australian families that it would make child care more affordable, yet this legislation and the cut to occasional childcare funding demonstrate that the government has failed to meet its commitment. On the other hand, the coalition recognises the importance of affordable child care to help families meet increasing costs—they are ongoing. We support improved standards and conditions for early childhood educators to ensure quality care is provided; but, overwhelmingly, we have to be mindful that child care must be affordable and not at the expense of others in the industry. While I am here, Madam Deputy Speaker, I want to congratulate Little Angles Day Care Centre in my electorate for receiving the National Children’s Service of the Year award. The centre provides an excellent service. However, I am concerned for the number of families in my electorate who may find that their child care is less affordable or not affordable under the changes being proposed by the government in this legislation.
Child care is a matter that is of crucial importance to the Greens, and it was a matter of pivotal importance in my electorate of Melbourne during the recent federal election campaign. Many people in the electorate were acutely aware that the government had reneged on its promise to build the additional 222 community childcare centres and were somewhat taken aback by the rationale given for not building those centres—namely, vacancy rates in cities like Melbourne were around the 92 per cent rate. Before and during my election campaign, I received a number of representations from parents in the area who were keen to get their children into quality child care who said that the figure simply did not reflect the reality. We conducted a survey of all the centres in my electorate and found that the actual availability, especially for zero to two-year-olds in community centres, was somewhere in the order of 11 or 12 per cent and that, across the board, it was not that much higher. There is clearly a demand for affordable, quality child care. One of the things that was particularly notable about the survey that we conducted and the feedback that we got from parents was that they were voting with their feet. Even when there were vacancies with private providers, they preferred their children to be in community centres. One of the reasons for that is the quality child care that is provided by community and not-for-profit centres. These centres are also the hubs of the community, where people are involved in running the organisations and looking after their children.
The bringing in of the ABC Learning Centres under the GoodStart model will not make an appreciable difference to either vacancy rates or fees in my electorate. The figures ultimately do not change and the vacancy rates hover somewhere between 10 and 20 per cent. The average time on the waiting list is well over a year and sometimes closer to 18 months. There are particular pockets in the electorate—areas like Flemington and Kensington—where, at the same time that the councils and the state government are projecting massive growth in the number of young families, there is no provision of corresponding planned investment in quality child care.
The Greens are supportive of moves to increase quality in child care, and we have made our position clear in that respect. Also, we understand that the government is making the argument that that somehow needs to be funded, but it is with quite some hesitation that we approach the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Budget Measures) Bill 2010 and look at the methods that are being used to find savings. Having said that, there are a number of amendments that we will be seeking to this bill. In accordance with the agreement that the Australian Greens have with the Labor Party that assisted in the formation of this government, I will be supporting the passage of this bill through this House, but that is without prejudice to our right to move amendments and vote as is needed in the Senate. One of the key amendments that has been circulated in my name, although I will not be moving it here, is an issue that we will be pursuing in the Senate, which is to ensure that parents receive payments fortnightly—something that will make a significant difference. Ultimately, the answer to this question is a significantly higher level of investment in our community and not-for-profit council run childcare centres. They are doing a fantastic job and getting parents to vote with their feet by moving their children into them—as the long waiting lists attest.
In the meantime, until the government gets back on track and starts building those 222 centres that were promised and that are needed, I urge the government to examine a short-term solution of an injection of funds to allow existing community childcare centres to expand. That would go a long way to alleviating some of the crisis and allow for greater quality childcare places to be provided. Some relatively small capital grants would go a long way for many existing community childcare centres who have the staff and the infrastructure. I know there are a number in my electorate who are in this position. If they had the funds to build one or two more rooms and employ some more staff, community needs would largely be met. I will be supporting the passage of the bill here, but that is without prejudice to our rights to move amendments in the Senate.
in reply—I take this opportunity to thank all of the members for their contributions in the debate on this important Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Budget Measures) Bill 2010 and also for the manner in which they have been conducted. A wide range of diverse issues have come up during this debate and I would like to take the opportunity to address a few of them and to set the record straight. The first thing I make absolutely clear is that ours is a government that recognises the importance of affordable child care. This is something that we do not just come into the parliament to talk about but that we have acted conclusively on. In fact, it is really interesting that some members of the opposition were coming in here and comparing this bill to the situation that existed under the Howard government as if they had something to be proud about. Whilst this bill is capping the childcare rebate level at $7,500, those who opposed capping it at $7,500 here tonight were quite happy under the Howard government to see that level set at just $4,354. The increase when we came to government was substantial. The amount of $3,146 a year or some 72 per cent is over and above what parents could claim each year under the coalition government and is the result of our increasing the level at which the CCR is capped but also increasing the childcare rebate from 30 to 50 per cent of parental out-of-pocket expenses. We have done more than just talk about affordability. We can measure the impact that these measures we have put in place have had on the Australian childcare market. From ABS statistics, it is clear that in 2004 the out-of-pocket cost after subsidies for a family with one child in long day care and earning $55,000 a year was 13 per cent of their disposable income. In 2010, this proportion of their disposable income has declined to seven per cent.
To make very clear to the House and all of those who have raised issues about the importance of affordable child care, I restate for the record that this government recognises how important it is that child care be affordable and that this is a government that has acted to ensure that the level of affordability is increased. We are spending over double what the previous Howard government was spending on affordability. We have put our money where our mouth is in that regard.
We also recognise that, whilst it is important that child care be affordable, it is important that Australian child care has quality. The bill that we are debating tonight will facilitate further government investment in our critical reforms to lift the quality of child care right across Australia. This is in response to the clear evidence that it is the early years which can shape a child’s life—they are absolutely critical. In fact, a child’s experience in their first five years shapes their future outcomes for life. Both domestic and international research show that one of the most effective measures of increasing educational attainment, social attainment and health outcomes throughout the life of a person is to make sure that we are investing in those critical early years.
We also know that, with the evolving nature of Australia’s workforce and with the caring arrangements of families, more and more often those early experiences are happening in our childcare centres, so it is important that they have quality. Despite all this research, National Childcare Accreditation Council data has revealed that many childcare centres are failing to meet basic safety, hygiene, educational and wellbeing standards. Thirty per cent of childcare centres receiving accreditation decisions in the first half of this year failed to ensure that toileting and nappy-changing procedures were consistent with advice from recognised health authorities. Thirty-two per cent had failed to ensure that potentially dangerous products, plants and objects were inaccessible to children.
I know from regular visits to our early childhood centres across Australia that they are filled with a remarkable workforce. They are filled with people who are amazing in their hard work, their passion and their dedication. But I also know from discussions with those workers that many of them would love to be able to give more individual attention to the children in their care and would love it if they could ensure that they were getting valuable results out of each and every one of those interactions. Our government believes that each of the 800,000 Australian families that places their children in care each week deserves to know and be confident when they drop their child off in the morning that they will be safe and will be well looked after throughout the day. We believe that we can and must do better when it comes to ensuring that the safety, wellbeing and early learning of our children come first. This bill will mean that the government can invest more money in these important reforms, which we think is incredibly important.
This bill will also allow the government to provide an extra $59 million to improve the quality of our budget based funded childcare services. Our budget based funded childcare services are, as the name suggests, funded directly by government. This is because they are not deemed to be viable to operate otherwise. In other words, they are in communities with a level of disadvantage such that they would not be able to operate on normal market principles or they might be in an area that was so remote that these children would otherwise not be able to access early childhood education.
These services are predominantly located in rural and regional Australia and they do provide care to some of our nation’s most vulnerable children. Sadly, it is the children from low-socioeconomic backgrounds who are most likely to miss out on these essential early learning opportunities, the very children who we know could actually benefit the most from those very experiences. So this $59 million investment will better support services to provide these children with high-quality early learning in an effort to improve their future health, their future development and their future wellbeing outcomes. Through the infrastructure and facility upgrades that this government will deliver, children will be able to learn and play in a safer and more appropriate environment in these particular communities.
I would like to take a moment to touch on the contribution of the opposition in tonight’s debate but it is really rather difficult to know where to begin. The fact is that it has been rather difficult to identify exactly what the reason for the opposition’s position on this bill is. When our government first started our extensive consultations on the national quality reform agenda, the then coalition spokesperson, the member for Indi, complained. Her response was that we were spending too much time out communicating and consulting with parents and that the government was treating parents with contempt for holding additional consultations with them. Of course, the member for Indi then backflipped on that and criticised the government for overconsulting and today the member for Farrer has criticised the government for not consulting enough on these quality reforms, so those opposite might want a bit of consistency. Whether they want more consultations or whether they think the government has been wasting time by overly consulting is not clear from the discussion we have had tonight or over recent months.
Indeed, when it comes to whether or not they support the quality agenda has been brought into question tonight. At least during the election campaign the Leader of the Opposition and the then coalition spokesperson, the member for Murray, claimed to be supportive of the government’s quality reforms. The member for Murray described it all on ABC radio as ‘the new quality framework which we, the coalition, totally support’. ‘Totally support’ before the election but after the election they come in here and argue against the very measures which would put it all in place! Today the member for Farrer has decided that it is no longer the case that the opposition are supporting the quality reform agenda, and she is rapidly backing away from the commitment. But perhaps if we want to note the height of hypocrisy of the backflips and the inconsistencies of those opposite, it is best demonstrated, however, by the fact that the coalition have not just flip-flopped on particular aspects of the quality agenda but have flip-flopped on this particular bill. Whilst people might have come in here, one after the other, to argue against this tonight, I note many of these very same coalition members, prior to the last election, supported this. When this very same bill was first introduced into the parliament the coalition supported the measure. It passed this very chamber this very year with the support of those opposite.
I know that the shadow minister, who is sitting opposite, has also assisted us with a particularly original contribution to the childcare debate tonight. I think that she might actually be the first member of the opposition to come in here and claim that there is no link between quality child care and staff qualifications, that there is no link between quality child care and the ratio of staff to children. If you ask any academic or if you look at any study to see what increases the quality of early childhood care, the first two answers will be these. As for the first thing, the quality increases if you have greater attention. If you have a low staff to child ratio that means that children are getting more individual care and attention to detail, and if you have more staff to ensure a safe environment and build a relationship with those children, that increases quality. The other thing which clearly increases quality is if you increase the qualifications of those staff members, so if you make sure that they are trained in every way to get the absolute most out of those individual children. Given that particular contribution to the debate, I would like to humbly suggest that the shadow minister opposite might want to review her notes. In particular, she might want to review her criticism that the national quality agenda is actually not our issue at all and that it apparently is a state licensing issue to have a look at the accreditation details. That is true in one regard, except that the whole idea of these groundbreaking COAG reforms is that we will replace state licensing with a national benchmark.
Those opposite have also argued that this has been a cash grab or that it has been increasing our coffers. On this point I think we need to be very clear. We heard a lot about this during this debate and we heard a lot about it during the election campaign. I know in my local community I had opponents putting out flyers about the ‘fact’ that we were about to slash funding to child care. So let us be very clear about the fact that this government has more than doubled our financial contribution to early childhood education. That is something that we are incredibly proud of. Let us also be clear about the fact that this bill is designed to make sure that funding is available for those early childhood centres who need it the most and to ensure that we lift the quality of all of those centres right around the nation. So I think we do need to talk about what the effect of this bill actually is, because this is not about a single cent going into savings measures; this is about making sure that the funding is allocated to where it is needed the most.
The measure that we are debating tonight will return the childcare rebate annual cap to $7,500 per child per year and it will pause indexation of the annual cap for four years until 30 June 2014. This will generate $86.3 million that will be directly reinvested to support the government’s quest to increase the quality of child care and early education in Australia. It will also help to fund the government’s $59.4 million investment in improving the quality of the more than 140 budget based funded early childhood services, predominantly located in rural and remote Australia, that are providing care to some of our most vulnerable children. This adjustment to the childcare rebate will not affect the vast majority of Australian families who use approved child care. The average childcare rebate last year was less than $2,000. What we are talking about tonight is ensuring that a cap of $7,500 is set. In the current financial year we know that the vast majority of families, some 97 per cent, will not be affected in the slightest by this change. Importantly, this change will support the government’s important investment to lift the quality of child care right across Australia.
I want to acknowledge the contribution from the member for Melbourne, who put forward the case that the Greens have been arguing for more regular payments, particularly fortnightly payments, and flagged that they may be raising this in the Senate. We are proud that it was one of our election commitments to ensure that families receive their payments more regularly. We committed to fortnightly payments after, of course, earlier moving from yearly payments to quarterly payments. So I would like to support the member for Melbourne in that regard, and the Australian Greens in long arguing that particular position.
Our government recognises the importance of the early years. We are committed to assisting parents. We are committed to giving Australian children the very best start in life. We believe that our record is clear when it comes to delivering for child care and quality early learning experiences in Australia, and I commend the bill to the House. (Time expired)
That the motion (Ms Kate Ellis’s) be agreed to.
Bill read a second time.