House debates

Tuesday, 17 June 2014


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

6:30 pm

Photo of Kate EllisKate Ellis (Adelaide, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Education) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to outline that the opposition cannot and will not support the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Measures) Bill 2014 in its current form. I move:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"the House declines to give the Bill a second reading as:

(1) the Government has failed to provide sufficient information about the impact on families of the changes to the Child Care Benefit;

(2) the Government has not completed an assessment of impacts on workforce participation of the changes to the Child Care Benefit;

(3) the changes to the Child Care Benefit should not be legislated just weeks before the Productivity Commission inquiry into Childcare and Early Childhood Learning provides its interim report;

(4) families have not had a chance to have their say on these changes; and

(5) for these reasons, calls on the Government to remove the changes to the Child Care Benefit, set out in Item 2 of Schedule 1, from this Bill, to allow separate and fully informed consideration by the Parliament of the changes to the Child Care Rebate and the Child Care Benefit."

I move this amendment because this is a bill before the House that is built on total and utter hypocrisy. It is hypocrisy because this comes from the Prime Minister who promised 'no cuts to education' but since being elected has announced the biggest ever cuts to schools and massive cuts to universities and is now attacking the earliest part of our education system through these and other cuts to early childhood education and care.

It is a bill based on hypocrisy because the Prime Minister himself wrote to childcare centres across the country in the lead-up to the election promising to address affordability and saying that caps and freezes on childcare assistance would have the impact of 'increasing out-of-pocket costs for families'. But everything this government has done is driving up the cost of child care. Now they have the audacity to come into this parliament and introduce exactly what they were out there campaigning against in the lead-up to the last election.

Ultimately, how can those opposite come in here and push ahead with a paid parental leave scheme that will deliver $50,000 cheques to millionaires while at the same time introducing this bill attacking the existing childcare support that people who earn just $42,000 a year rely upon each and every day? Members opposite might get upset about that—that they are supporting handing out large cheques to those wealthy families who do not need them. But then they come in here and attack low- and middle-income families in this bill which those opposite have the audacity to support.

We also know that this is a government that set up a Productivity Commission inquiry to inform any changes to the childcare system but is today coming in here and proposing significant changes and drastic cuts just weeks before we will see the Productivity Commission's draft report. There is hypocrisy in this bill, because the Prime Minister says that it is a priority for this government to improve women's workforce participation but today his government has introduced a bill that cuts modest, means tested support for low- and middle-income families and women. Those are the very same women for whom the cost of child care is the biggest barrier to them returning back to work.

This Prime Minister said:

We will make child care more accessible and more affordable for Australian parents.

But in this bill he is doing exactly the opposite. He is hitting the family childcare assistance that so many thousands of Australian families rely upon. We also know that the minister at the table told this parliament in 2010 that removing indexation would:

… further increase the financial pressure on Australian families who are already struggling to meet the costs of child care.

But that is exactly what this minister and government are doing in this very bill.

We know that more than 978,000 families across Australia rely on childcare support on a daily basis, and each and every one of them could stand to lose if this bill is allowed to proceed in its current form. Before the election, the government promised more affordable child care. If they are were serious, if this were not just another one of the mistruths they peddled to the Australian public in order to get elected, they would not have cut almost $1 billion from early childhood education and care since coming to office. But that is exactly what they have done: $450 million for outside school hours care—gone; $157 million for family day care services—gone; support to help parents complete study and get back to work—cut; programs to increase the number of childcare places—gone; Indigenous child and family centre funding—gone; and support to raise the wages of educators—gone. And now we see before the parliament an attack on the very backbone of the childcare support system—the childcare rebate and the childcare benefit have been cut. They have been cut by those who hypocritically went around campaigning against measures to pause the childcare rebate.

I want to talk for a moment about the measures in this bill and the impact they will have on the childcare rebate. Never before have we seen moves to cap the childcare rebate come before this parliament without that funding being directly reinvested into early childhood education and care. Because of this freeze 74,000 families will reach the Child Care Rebate cap in 2014-15, and 150,000 families will reach the CCR cap in 2016-17—a total of around 15 per cent of families.

The government knows the impact of this cap will grow in time through bracket creep, but the savings put forward on CCR alone—freezing the cap until 2016-17—will see over $106 million cut from childcare assistance for Australian families. When we were in government we massively increased the cap on the Child Care Rebate from $4,354 to $7,500. The remarks the assistant minister made about Labor in the past freezing the cap on CCR are quite true, but it was done only temporarily and only ever to offset the cost of important investment in improving the quality and affordability of child care by contributing towards the National Quality Framework and towards wage increases for low-paid educators in order to reduce turnover in the sector.

In opposition, the now government opposed freezing the CCR cap, even when the money was to be reinvested into the childcare sector. Before the election, the now Prime Minister personally wrote to every childcare centre across Australia about the impact capping the Child Care Rebate would have on families, saying it would mean 'increasing out-of-pocket costs for families'. Yet today that is exactly what he is doing. This Prime Minister and this government are once again doing exactly the opposite after the election to what they told the Australian public they would do.

Childcare support is absolutely essential to provide a financial incentive for parents to re-enter the workforce, particularly mothers. The cuts that are before the parliament will mean that many parents will simply not be able to afford to return to work. This will have huge impacts on productivity, workforce participation and on women's superannuation savings later in life. We know that once a family reaches the cap for each child, there is no more assistance for child care and they must meet the full cost, and there will be 150,000 families in this situation as a result of this bill and this government's hypocrisy when it comes to the Child Care Rebate.

Labor does not support cuts to child care. What we see before us now are savings, plain and simple. There is no reinvestment, and there are no new programs and no improvements to services. There are just cuts, and massive cuts at that.

This is a proposal of government and they must take responsibility for it. If the government is listening, and they do respond to our call to split this bill, we will outline our opposition to these Child Care Rebate cuts and the impact they have, but we will not prevent them from progressing through the parliament.

What I want to particularly focus on is the outrageous attacks that this bill contains on our Child Care Benefit system. Never before has any government even thought about attacking the means-tested and targeted Child Care Benefit payment. To understand the impact, and just how outrageous and retrograde this measure really is, it is important that we look at the Child Care Benefit—who is receiving it and what it goes towards. This is a payment that starts to cut out when families earn just $42,000. That is who this government is attacking in this measure. It is a payment that tapers out as income rises. It is a modest, targeted and means-tested payment. For many women and families this payment means the difference between being able to afford to go to work or not. It is fair and it makes sure that the most help goes to those who need it most.

What better example of just how twisted this government's priorities are than the fact that under the Prime Ministers signature paid parental leave policy they are quite happy to send $50,000 cheques to millionaires. If you want to lift women's workforce participation, everyone knows that you target assistance to low- and middle-income earners. That is where the government can make the biggest impact. But what are they doing for low- and middle-income earners? They are cutting and attacking the modest, targeted Child Care Benefit that these families rely on.

Instead of investing where it counts, this government is attacking where it will hurt the most. Cuts to Child Care Benefit—the targeted, means-tested payment for low- and middle-income families, who all too often bear the brunt of this government's attacks—totalling $230 million will permanently decrease the affordability of child care.

The minister opposite knows this. On 11 September 2012, she said:

There are parents having to make the heartbreaking decision to leave the workforce because their wages do not cover the cost of child care.

Yet in government they introduce this never before seen attack on the Child Care Benefit.

On another occasion, the minister said:

We have no intention to make childcare less affordable and every intention to make it more affordable.

Minister, I ask what the intention is with this piece of legislation, because it will make child care less affordable, it will cripple the workforce participation of many families and many women out there, and it will mean that some of the children who have the most to benefit from critical early-childhood education are denied the opportunity to get just that.

It is not families on high incomes who will decide that the cost of child care simply makes going to work unviable. It is people who work in hospitality, in retail, in agriculture, and many of the heath sector workers. They are the ones who this measure will hit hardest. We simply do not know exactly what impact this unprecedented attack on the Child Care Benefit will have, and we do not know because the government simply did not bother to find out. The education department says that more than half a million families will have their childcare assistance cut because of these Child Care Benefit changes. But that is where the information stops. Whilst the department has said that 'around 500,000 families will receive less Child Care Benefit' as a result of this proposal, we do not know exactly who is impacted, where they live, how much they earn, what jobs they do, and what impact this will have on workforce participation. It is arrogant, it is heartless, and it is deeply irresponsible for this government to have made a decision of this scale—one that has the potential to impact up to one million families—without having any meaningful information and without bothering to do any modelling on what the impact of it will be.

Instead, this government is trying to rush changes to the Child Care Benefit past the parliament in a sneaky and underhanded way. This is not good enough. The government needs to come clean about the facts before even asking this parliament to consider this bill. As the deputy secretary of the education department told estimates, 'We have not done that level of analysis.' They do not know who it will affect, do not know how badly they will be affected and do not know what the impacts on workforce participation will be. I say it is not good enough to bring this bill to this parliament when you have not bothered to do your homework. I say that the Australian public expects better from this parliament and expects better from this government than this cruel and underhanded attack. It shows arrogance and utter disregard for Australian families that the government would press ahead with these changes without undertaking a proper assessment of the financial impact that this is going to have on Australians.

The government is trying to make changes before the community even has an opportunity to understand their impact. In the five days that stakeholders were given to comment on this bill when it was referred to committee there was an incredible response. It was as though the Prime Minister had declared war on parents and children, saying it was some kind of emergency. But so retrograde are these cuts that stakeholders have rallied in just those five days. I want to share some of the thoughts of stakeholders who have actually had the chance to be consulted, unlike the parents and families across Australia. Early Childhood Australia said:

Freezes to the Child Care Benefit thresholds will have a significant impact on low and middle income families accessing early childhood education and care services and should not be supported.

The National Welfare Rights Network's submission on the bill said:

The government has announced a budget that hits families on low to middle incomes the hardest (eg by proposing to cut family tax benefit B payments for single parents with children over 6). This Bill only adds to the financial strain on families and has the potential to undermine their ability to access child care.

Particularly telling was the business perspective, pointing out, again, the government's twisted and wrong priorities. We heard from the Australian Industry Group in its submission on this bill:

The Government's proposed 'gold plated' Paid Parental Leave (PPL) Scheme should be abandoned and the existing PPL Scheme retained. This would allow additional funding to be devoted to child care measures. If additional funding was available through the abandonment of the proposed PPL Scheme, the measures in this Bill may no longer be necessary.

So, if those opposite are looking for a solution, the Australian Industry Group has put forward one option right there—an alternative to cutting the support that is so critically important for low- and middle-income families.

It is also utterly illogical for the government to make these significant changes to the Child Care Benefit at this time, at the time when their very own Productivity Commission inquiry into child care and early childhood learning is underway. The PC inquiry is due to hand down its draft report in just weeks—in July—and its final report in October this year. The government has put in train its own process for making changes to child care that are ridiculously undermined by pursuing this bill at this time.

The minister has said countless times that the Productivity Commission review will solve issues of affordability, availability and flexibility. If she really believed that, though, she would not be undermining and pre-empting the entire inquiry with the drastic and terrible measures in this bill. There was more hypocrisy from the minister when we heard now Assistant Minister Susan Ley say in September 2012:

We have a very sensible approach to ask the Productivity Commission to examine those settings, to have a look at the entire world of female participation in the workforce—usually it is female—and at the cost and availability of child care.

These changes to the Child Care Benefit will create uncertainty for parents and for the sector. And this has not been missed. The submission to the bill by Goodstart said:

Goodstart believes that while the inquiry is underway, current policy settings and indexation should be maintained to ensure affordability for families.

And the Community Child Care Co-operative of New South Wales said:

To make such changes in the context of a wide ranging review into the provision of early education and care in Australia (Productivity Commission Inquiry) seems to be contradictory to the development of sensible, well developed policy.

Also, the government promised that the Productivity Commission review would at least maintain the same 'funding envelope' as is currently dedicated to child care. But this is a government desperately trying to reduce the size of that envelope by cutting $1 billion from childcare since coming to office. Any responsible government would not even pursue these wide-reaching Child Care Benefit changes without understanding the full impact, without receiving its own Productivity Commission review report first, and without letting families have their say on an issue that is going to be of such critical importance to their workforce participation.

Cuts to Child Care Benefit will have a huge impact on the workforce participation of parents, particularly mothers and particularly those with more than one child or those who are low- or middle-income earners. Research shows that the relationship between childcare affordability and women's workforce participation is strong—that a one per cent increase in the gross childcare price results in a decrease in a mother's employment rate of about 0.7 per cent. And lower-income families have been proven to be the first to drop out of work as childcare costs increase. This was a point the Australian Childcare Alliance made when they said:

In the 2013 ACA What Parents Want Survey 48 per cent of respondents indicated that they would decrease their usage of childcare or withdraw their child completely if out-of-pocket childcare fees increased by 10 per cent.

Now, we know that the Prime Minister has the wrong priorities. We know that attacking existing practical support for low- and middle-income families and women returning to work at the same time as continuing to argue for the $50,000 payments in paid parental leave for high-income earners is just plain wrong. We know it, the Australian public knows it, and I am sure that some of those opposite might be able to see that that is a clear indication of badly twisted priorities.

The government also looks set to provide taxpayer funding for nannies and au pairs, specifically asking the Productivity Commission to look at how it could be done, even though we know that nannies are one of the most expensive forms of care and that they are not covered by the National Quality Framework. Just like the rest of this unfair, cruel and heartless budget, these childcare cuts will hit those who can least afford it. Early Childhood Australia modelling on the combined impact of the proposed Child Care Benefit and Child Care Rebate changes indicates a family on less than $60,000 with one child in care will be out of pocket by an additional $1,800 a year, and a family on $100,000 with one child in care would be out of pocket by an extra $3,600 a year by 2016-17, taking into account these changes and the rising cost of care.

Of course, maybe we should not be surprised by the hypocrisy of the Abbott government when it comes to child care and early childhood education. We have had enough evidence to suggest that this is a very strong pattern. We have seen ongoing and constant attacks on the childcare sector. We have seen the Abbott government declare war on family day care services, with the budget cutting $157 million from assistance to family day care services, which will be passed on to parents through higher fees and will lead to family day care educators closing down. We know that there are more than 400 family day care services and 140,000 children in family day care across Australia. Family Day Care Australia has estimated this one cut, this one attack, will drive up fees by $35 per child per week.

Child care benefit, child care rebate, family day care—all of them cut, all of them attacked by this government, who said 'no cuts to education'. Sadly, it does not end there. In one of the most despicable examples of attacking those that can least afford it, of making those that are out there struggling in our community do the heavy lifting resulting from this government's unfair budget, the budget contains changes to the jobs, education and training child care fee assistance. These changes will limit the number of places for those people who are on income support, who are our there studying, trying to get back into the workforce so that they can get off the welfare payments the Treasurer claims he would like Australians to get off so quickly. They will lose access to their JET child care payment. The budget caps assistance at $8 per hour and cuts the maximum accessible hours from 50 to 36 per week. Again, this is total hypocrisy from a government who claim that they want to see people out there in the workforce yet are cutting every support to help them get there.

We saw earlier that this government will not hold back when it comes to attacking the education sector. We saw the Abbott government cut $450 million from outside school hours care. This money would have funded new places, new services and extended hours and would have delivered better programs. We know that work does not finish the moment the school bell rings at three o'clock. Outside school hours care is a necessity if people are going to be able to continue to participate in the workforce. After stagnating under the Howard government, outside school hours places increased by 100,000 under Labor, with over 335,000 children currently in care. There is a shortage of outside school hours care places in many areas across the country, and this savage cut of $450 million—from a government who said no cuts to education and who said that they would make child care more accessible and affordable—will make it harder for parents with school age children to return to work.

Continuing the pattern, the government has cut the $5 million Child Care Accessibility Fund, despite receiving grant applications from councils across Australia looking to increase childcare places in their local area, looking to tackle the waiting lists that meant that people could not take up work opportunities. This funding was to be used to create new places, expand centres, cut planning and development red tape, free up vacant land for childcare centres or incorporate child care into schools and TAFEs.

Perhaps in one of the lowest blows on limiting the access to early childhood education and care for those children who have the most to benefit from it, this government also discontinued funding for the Indigenous child and family centres which were being set up across Australia in the areas they were required in the most, making it even harder to close the gap for these children.

One thing I hope we all know in this parliament is that the first five years are critically important to a person's life outcomes. We have seen all the research. We know that 90 per cent of brain development occurs in the first three years alone. This is why early childhood education and care is so important, and why Labor worked so hard to reform the sector, to increase the funding available, to increase quality and to work to increase staff retention and ensure that we value the educators. Research also shows that early childhood education is particularly important for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. That is why the government's attack on childcare affordability—particularly on the childcare benefit and through JET child care funding, will have such incredibly damaging long-term consequences.

Australian studies show that children who attend preschool or kindergarten go on to score significantly better in their year 3 NAPLAN tests. This is also backed up by international research that shows that Australian students with one year of pre-primary education achieve more highly in year 4 reading, maths and science. We know how important this is. We know that this is one of the best investments that this country can make to ensure that children from disadvantaged backgrounds go on to have improved health outcomes, educational outcomes and social outcomes. Yet this government is intent to slam the door shut in the face of the Australian children who need them and need this support the most.

Labor will be doing what the government has not. We are demanding that this government produce detailed information about the financial impact these changes will have on Australian families, and we will be talking to communities about what impact these measures will have on them. We will be talking to parents looking to return to the workforce to find out whether these changes, these attacks on the childcare benefit, will take away the financial benefit from working—and to find out just how much extra they will be forced to pay. We will find out what stakeholders and employers think of these changes. Unlike this government—who seem intent on undermining their own childcare review by making drastic cuts to the system when the first report is due in just a few weeks—we think that the childcare review report should be available for consideration before major changes to the existing childcare system.

Now it is up to the government to do the right thing—to listen to what Australians actually have to say about these cuts to their childcare support. I challenge those members opposite—each and every one of those who will rise and speak on this bill—to justify how they are defending the Prime Minister's non-means-tested paid parental leave scheme but supporting these cuts to modest and targeted assistance for low- and middle-income families. It is a challenge they will struggle to rise to here tonight. But, even more—and even more importantly—it is a challenge few of them would be brave enough to rise to in their own communities, at their own local street corner meetings or in their own local shopping centres. How can those opposite stand up say, 'We will support $50,000 cheques to wealthy families who have a baby, but we will support cuts to the modest, targeted and means-tested childcare benefit that goes to families on as little as $42,000 per annum'?

I challenge those opposite to say how those priorities are not very twisted and wrong. Why is the coalition defending $50,000 cheques to millionaires but silently supporting these cuts to the practical, everyday support that over half a million low- and middle-income families rely on? How can those opposite defend this bill? How can they defend this cruel budget and these wrong priorities? How can they defend being part of this government at all when they introduce measures such as this unjustifiable attack on the childcare benefit?

7:00 pm

Photo of Ross VastaRoss Vasta (Bonner, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

Photo of Mark ButlerMark Butler (Port Adelaide, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Water) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the amendment.

7:01 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7:16 pm

Photo of Lisa ChestersLisa Chesters (Bendigo, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Measures) Bill is another example of broken promises by this government to the Australian people. In starting my speech today, I want to touch on a couple of things that the member for Bowman just raised in his contribution. The member for Bowman and I are co-chairs of the group Parliamentary Friends of Early Childhood. Elements of his speech struck me because, in every event that we have held so far in this term of parliament, every speaker and every organisation has said that quality matters. Every speaker has said that our national quality framework is world-class and other nations are looking to Australia to adopt our very own national quality framework as it stands. So the comments made by the previous speaker attacking quality matters and attacking the framework strike me as quite odd because, even when we have the industry experts telling us that the reforms by the former Labor government were making a difference, we still have those in government saying the complete opposite.

There is the claim about paid parental leave. I find this also quite amusing because this is a government that in all other areas of IR is completely opposed to any form of pattern bargaining. This Liberal Party government is ideologically opposed to collective bargaining and workplace entitlements like annual leave and sick leave. My question to the government is: now that you are paying the paid parental leave for people, replacing wages for people, will you start to pay annual leave for people? Will you start to pay sick leave? Will you start nationalising all of industry and taking on the whole role of managing the Australian workforce?

On this side, we recognise and respect collective bargaining. The other side keeps talking about public servants and how they get replacement of wages. Absolutely they do, because they, through their union, collectively bargained for that right. What we have said on this side is that every woman who has a child or a parent who wishes to take paid maternity leave should get some payment. The employer and the workers, through collective bargaining, can then top that up. But what we have seen from this government is a skewing of workplace relations and moving into the space of almost pattern bargaining. If they want to have a debate about pattern bargaining, then bring it on, because I reckon that there are a lot of industries out there and a lot of workers ready to have the debate about bringing back pattern bargaining. But that is exactly what this government is proposing to do with paid parental leave.

As I said, this bill is another broken promise to the Australian people by this government. In opposition the coalition said that they were opposed to freezing the childcare rebate cap. They said that they would continue to fund childcare services through the national quality framework and better wages for low-paid educators, yet in government they have done the exact opposite. When it comes to the critical area of early childhood education and care, this government have broken a number of promises that they made to the Australian people before the election. These decisions are not only broken promises and they are not only mean decisions that will hurt families; they also do not fit with the government's rhetoric about productivity and participation in the workforce.

Let's start with the changes that they are proposing to make to the childcare benefit. The childcare benefit is means tested and it is targeted at low- to middle-income families. The payment increases as your income decreases and it increases as to the number in the family. In my electorate of Bendigo, in suburbs like Golden Square, this particular benefit enables women to get back to work. They are on lower incomes and they have two or three children. This benefit helps them get back to work. This bill will see $230 million ripped from the assistance that helps over 889,000 families who rely on it, including many in my electorate of Bendigo.

The education department told a Senate hearing looking over the bill that almost half a million families will receive less support as a result of these changes, but that is where the information stops. Another critical problem with this bill is that it is rushed policy. It is rushed legislation in this parliament to try to bring it on before families really know the impact, before there can be proper scrutiny and proper engagement with the industry and the families that will be affected. It shows utter arrogance and disdain for Australian families. It shows that the government will press ahead with these changes without taking into account the proper assessment of the financial impact to families. I believe that these changes will also take away the financial benefit of parents returning to work. It will simply be too expensive for one of the parents to return to work, and they will choose to stay at home because it costs them more in child care than what they earn in wages. And what do we know? It will be predominantly women who end up staying at home to care for children.

Perhaps this is the government's plan. Perhaps this is the Menzies in the Prime Minister coming out—that 1950s view that the role of women is first to raise children and then maybe think of a career. These changes will have a huge impact on workforce participation for parents, particularly mothers, those with one or more child and who earn a low income. And let's also be clear about the incomes that women earn. We have still not caught up in the gender pay gap. Women still work predominantly in industries which are lower paid. There will be pressure on them to drop out of the workforce because they are not receiving the support that they need from their government when it comes to meeting the cost of childcare fees.

The research also backs this up. Just a one per cent increase in the gross price of child care sees a resulting decrease in mothers' employment of 0.7 per cent. Every per cent that childcare fees increase, we see a decrease in women participating in the workforce. At the moment, the childcare rebate is non-means tested and covers 50 per cent of the out-of-pocket costs of care. This is where the government also fails to understand the direct link between wages and the quality and cost of care. We have heard speaker after speaker speak about how outrageous the national quality fund was, how it was really unfair and so on and so forth, but what it did was ensure that some of our lowest paid workers—who have skills and an education—got a pay rise of between $3 and $5 an hour that did not increase the cost of fees for parents. We on this side of the House know that, the moment fees increase, women and parents cannot afford it and step out of the workforce. Again, the cuts to the childcare rebate are another broken promise and will have further impact on women's participation in the workforce.

As I have stated, in opposition the coalition opposed freezing the childcare rebate. The Prime Minister even wrote to every childcare centre across the country, claiming that he would freeze the index on the childcare rebate, that it would be an unfair burden to place on families not to increase it. Yet now in government the Prime Minister has done the exact opposite and he is cutting assistance across the board to early childhood education. As I have mentioned, there has been a cut to early childhood educators' wages. Before the election, the government promised that they would honour the commitments made under the Early Years Quality Fund to increase the wages of qualified early childhood educators.

It is vital that we increase the wages for our early childhood educators. It is because of low wages that the sector has a high turnover. These are not low-skilled workers; these are people with a qualification, with a cert. II, cert. III, diploma or even degree, yet they are still on minimum rates of pay. Because of the low wages, there is a high turnover in the sector, and I know this from talking directly with educators in my electorate. They say to me when I am in their tearooms talking to them: 'I love my job. I find it rewarding. But I want to buy a house and, on my partner's income and my income, we simply cannot afford to buy a house because the wages in early childhood education are so low.' Educators are moving in with family members in order to pay their bills because the wages are so low in this industry. It is another broken promise by this government.

Yes, we acknowledge that the long-term correction of wages in this sector needs to be done through Fair Work Australia, but what the Early Years Quality Fund did was provide the early money to help bridge the gap until we got to that point, because Fair Work Australia does take time. It does take time to get the result that these educators are looking for. The Early Years Quality Fund was created as the first step on a very long path to professional wages, and it was essential to address the turnover issue being experienced in the sector. Every week 180 educators are leaving, driven away because of low wages—not because they do not like the job, not because of job satisfaction but because the pay is literally too low for them to survive on. This cannot continue. As an early childhood educator said at the time the fund was created: 'This fund is recognition of my professional skills and qualifications. It's the first step towards a professional wage, and I'm excited.' She was not the only one who was excited for the first time to be recognised in her pay for her quality, for her education and for her skill.

This is why early childhood education and the investment in it is so important. We also know through the research that the first five years are the most important to a person's life. It is when 90 per cent of the brain's development occurs. That is why the national quality framework, which has been so attacked by this government, is so important. It is the framework that sets up early childhood education as education. It is making that fundamental shift from care to education. If we acknowledge in the science and the research that the first five years are the most critical then it is time we acknowledge them in the sector and invest in the sector properly.

Labor and I are not alone in saying that; the industry agrees. Wendy McCarthy from Goodstart said just recently, on Lateline:

… paid parental leave money will be much better put into investing in the first two years. Then women will go back to work.

If you want the best for your child then you want the best education. When asked the government's role in achieving this, Wendy replied:

The Government's role is to fund it.

She is not alone. The Australian Childcare Alliance and Early Childhood Australia have also said that the money that has been allocated for the paid parental leave scheme would be better invested in the early years, supporting the sector and supporting quality.

Quality does matter. If our nation's goal is to increase women's participation in the workforce then the solution is quality early childhood education and care. Parents want, and deserve to know, their children are going not just to a care institution but to an education institution. Without quality, affordable and accessible early childhood education and care, the Prime Minister's proposed paid parental leave scheme cannot succeed. It will not entice mothers back into the workforce because after six months what happens to those children? That is the critical flaw in the government's proposal. What is the plan? Come clean and tell women what you are really planning? Is it for them to stay at home? Is it to go back to the 1950s view of the world where women stayed at home and took care of the children while the husband went out to work? News flash to the government: the world has changed. What women want and what families want is quality early childhood education and care. That is why I join the shadow minister in opposing many measures in this bill and supporting the proposed amendment she has moved.

7:31 pm

Photo of Nickolas VarvarisNickolas Varvaris (Barton, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am pleased to be able to speak on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Measures) Bill 2014, which amends the A New Tax System (Family Assistance) Act 1999. These amendments are pivotal to the coalition's promise to provide a sustainable, equitable and accessible childhood education and childcare framework. This is also crucial to our promise to restore the nation's finances and bring the budget back to surplus. As the member for Barton, an electorate that is family oriented, I am acutely aware of the impact on working families of the previous social policies surrounding child care.

Child care is one of our most fundamental social investments as a federal government. Child care which is accessible, flexible and of a high quality is indispensable for families not just in Barton but right around Australia. High-quality early childhood education and child care are in increasing demand by working Australian families. As families are increasingly forced to operate on dual incomes, there is a vital need for accessible and high-quality day care, after hours school care and long day care in our society. Some families are fortunate to have the luxury of extended family members to assist with the care of their young ones. However, many families, particularly in my electorate of Barton, rely on high-quality childcare services.

Australian governments have a history of providing funding to assist families with early childhood education and care. This commenced in 1972 and ever since then there has been a significant investment in child care. The Australian government subsidises the cost of child care for eligible families through the childcare benefit, known as CCB, and the childcare rebate, known as CCR, which were implemented in 2000 and 2004 respectively. Families receive these important subsidies because governments from both sides recognise the importance of family units, the early years of childhood education and developmental needs. The coalition understands the cost of raising children as a top priority and that, at times, financial assistance must be provided for families on lower incomes.

Currently, the CCB is a means tested payment based on a family's income. It is financial assistance with childcare costs that is indexed each year with CPI. Whilst this bill will maintain the income thresholds for the next three income years and is part of the coalition's 2014-15 budget measure, the government is still essentially increasing the CCB standard hourly rate, minimum hourly amount and multiple child loadings on 1 July each year. The amount a family receives in CCB depends on the income levels, the type of care used, the number of children and the hours of care, as well as the parents' work, training and study commitments.

These measures will not impact on families on an income below $41,902, which will see families on the lower income CCB threshold receive the maximum rate of benefit. As income increases for a family, the CCB tapers to zero. However, out-of-pocket expenses incurred by families who receive less CCB will be partially offset by the CCR. The CCR is not means tested and provides up to 50 per cent of out-of-pocket childcare costs up to $7,500 per child per income year. This maximum amount of CCR is not being reduced through this bill.

This bill will continue to maintain the CCR limit at $7,500 for the next three calendar years. The freeze was first introduced by Labor in 2011 and they extended this in their last budget of 2013-14 but did not provide the legislative requirements to do so. When the coalition decided to legislate the measure, as first intended by those opposite, Labor colluded with the Greens in the Senate to block it. In essence, Labor introduced their own measures this time last year as part of the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2013, then a few months later sought to oppose it. Labor claimed at the end of last year that the coalition's attempt to freeze the CCR provision was a cut of $100 million from the Early Years Quality Fund and that there was no justification for that. The coalition did freeze the fund because there was an independent review of the funding being undertaken, which concluded that the fund was flawed and inequitable, benefiting less than 30 per cent of long day care workers, and that it was a tool for union recruitment. This is not a sound business model. There is no evidence of any cost-benefit analysis having been undertaken and now the Auditor-General is conducting a performance audit of Labor's Early Years Quality Fund.

Australia taxpayers and families deserve better. This is why the coalition is following through on current measures to ensure we have a family assistance model that is sustainable now and into the future. There is much work to be done. The CCR and CCB freezes are the first steps in rectifying an untenable childcare sector. The CCR measure is expected to deliver net savings of $105.8 million over three years whilst the CCB measure is expected to deliver net savings of $230.4 million over four years, from 2014-15 to 2017-18, for a combined total of $336.2 million. Overall, this government is increasing childcare assistance to $28.5 billion over the next four years, 2015 to 2018, to assist around one million families each year through the CCB and CCR. The government's total investment between 2013-14 and 2016-17 is expected to exceed $22 billion.

I would like to note that these budget measures are necessary, because in order for families and children to thrive and to access the benefits they require we need a strong economy and a budget surplus. The government considers that maintaining the current CCR limit until 1 July 2017 is a reasonable, necessary and proportionate measure that is in the interests of Australia's current fiscal and economic position, given savings from the measure have already been taken by the previous government.

The government is absolutely committed to ensuring that Australian families have access to high-quality, flexible and affordable child care that really meets their needs—and vice versa, with service providers that are afforded the flexibility and durability to meet the needs of its families. I make no pretence that we are operating under a bleak financial landscape, one that was painted by Labor with six record deficits, meaning $123 billion in cumulative deficits ahead. The untenable position in which the system we inherited has been left means that we need to make the system sustainable into the future.

All families are unique, and no benefits paid are identical. Indeed, the CCB sounds complex because it is. The many variables which determine the monetary benefits that a family receives is an issue that has been raised by families and service providers in my electorate. It also invariably adds to the bureaucratic complexity and red tape burden that inundates childcare workers. Whilst both sides of government recognise the importance of family and how critical the early years are to a child, and that necessary assistance should be given to families, where there is not an option of a stay-at-home mum or extended family help there are ways of going about this which sustains the social policy to maintain longevity. And cost is certainly a factor in child care for many families. From the feedback I have been given in just my electorate alone, the issue is largely one of availability and accessibility.

Too many childcare facilities are burdened with administrative red tape and layers of bureaucracy as part of the National Quality Framework. Good intentions aside, the reality is that owners, operators and workers are trapped in offices inundated with paperwork instead of committing their time to the needs of children. Labor's way of ensuring childcare workers are doing their jobs properly is by proving themselves through endless piles of paperwork as part of a stringent quality process. The myriad bureaucratic complexities associated with claiming benefits due to several factors at play—family income, number of children, type of care, hours used, which I mentioned earlier—are unnecessary. Families and childcare service providers have provided their concerns on this unnecessary red tape that are getting in the way of providing the actual services that families desire. The impact of this unnecessary burden which has been placed on childcare centres via Labor's National Quality Framework includes things such as childcare centres having to employ extra staff or staff having to work longer hours to deal with additional paperwork, resulting in about $140,000 a year just to administer it. These measures by Labor do not directly impact on the positive welfare of the child and only hit the pockets of families, some of whom are already struggling. This is not conducive to actual needs of children, the parents and childcare facilities around the country. Furthermore, it does not address the issue of childcare needs, because subsidy alone does not sprout much-needed childcare workers.

In other words, the solution is not to just further increase subsidy or lower childcare costs but to actually have more childcare facilities and workers. This is the crux of the problem. As such, the coalition has asked the Productivity Commission to launch an inquiry into child care and early childhood learning as a substantial review into just what is required by the sector and to make recommendations on its sustainability. This bill does not pre-empt that inquiry but is a necessary part of the government's plan to repair the budget and to restore and strengthen the economy.

The stark reality is that childcare costs are rising, and the coalition is acutely aware of this. I suspect Labor knows this as well. Unfortunately, Labor's credibility on child care is negligible. Under Labor, childcare costs skyrocketed. Between September 2007 and September 2013, long day care fees increased from $5 an hour on average to $7.65 under Labor. Over a week, this was almost $75 extra and, over a year, $3,500. This is in spite of Labor's investment in child care fee assistance increasing by 45 per cent over the same period. This is what hurts family budgets the most. That was despite Labor promising it would make child care more affordable. Moreover, Labor created an efficient system of messy red tape burdens that was complex to monitor and administer, which ultimately meant parents and families were negatively impacted.

Labor also said it would create 260 more childcare centres; it provided only 38. Again, this is what hurts families in my electorate and across the nation. As a responsible government, we have to recognise the reality of the situation and do what we can, right now, to ease the pain of families in the long run. Australian families need a sustainable, long-term solution to high-quality childhood education and child care. They do not want increasing fees with no increase in availability of affordable care. It makes no sense to families that child care should be out of reach when governments are investing money and childcare costs are increasing. Furthermore, only through accessible and flexible child care can we improve work force participation opportunities, especially for women.

The coalition has been left with the job of cleaning up Labor's mess, from six record deficits, and in creating a system of tenable child care that can be sustained for the children of today and tomorrow. The measures put forward in this bill are vital to ensuring that we can produce the best outcomes for the deserving families across the nation and ensuring that these families have a bright future for their children who are not left to pay for Labor's debts for years to come. High-quality affordable child care is a reality that can be matched by the right mix of social policy and business practicality, but reforms must take place to achieve this. This bill is the first step in laying the path of a sustainable childcare sector. I commend this bill to the House.

7:44 pm

Photo of Adam BandtAdam Bandt (Melbourne, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

In my electorate of Melbourne there are more women as a proportion of the workforce than there are anywhere else in Victoria. In fact, it is the second highest proportion of women in the workforce of any electorate in the country, with 49 per cent of the workforce being women. One thing that is crystal clear is that, if we value people's mental health and family stability and also if we value getting women into the workforce and being able to remain in the workforce, then affordable, accessible quality child care is vital.

In Melbourne the need is only going to grow. More and more people are choosing to live closer to the city. Our state government has a policy of knocking down small warehouses and building the tallest, most expensive thing that you can on the site. That brings lots of people into the city, which is a good thing, but increasingly we are finding that there is no planning for the childcare needs of the people who live in Melbourne.

We have a situation at the moment in Melbourne where 76 per cent of the centres have no vacancies for under-two-year-olds and 43 per cent have no vacancies for three- to four-year-olds. The centres that did have some vacancies were often inflexible—for example, they were only available on particular days. It is not at all uncommon for women in my electorate to have to juggle to get their child to different childcare centres on different days of the week.

Parents will usually spend on average between six and 24 months waiting for a place for their children. Some centres in the electorate of Melbourne have over 300 families on their waiting list. The level of unmet demand—the lack of child care places—in Melbourne is appalling. It is absolutely appalling. We know that these pressures developed under the previous government. I will be the first to say that the previous government did some good things about child care. Labor's focus on improving the standards of childcare workers, recognising their role as educators, and lifting the quality framework were things the Greens were pleased to support because they echoed our view that child care should be treated as an integral part in the education process for young children.

What was not recognised by Labor is that, if you increase the quality of the workforce, as one should, unless you put additional money into the system then the other two key elements of child care—accessibility, the ease to get a place, and affordability, making sure child care is within your means—will suffer. That is exactly the problem that we have seen and that is exactly the problem that we face. It was not made any better by the previous government's decision to abandon building 222 new childcare centres.

We are in a position where there is enormous demand and enormous pressure on the system, especially in inner-city Melbourne. We have to decide now which way we are going to go: do we value child care as a community or don't we? Then into the fray comes this government that says, 'Before we decide to do anything else after freezing some existing funds that were going to find their way into child care the first thing we will do is freeze the childcare rebate for a further three years and freeze the childcare benefit income thresholds.' Taking money out of the system is not the answer for child care at the moment. It is just not the answer.

I think in some respects the opposition needs to tone down its sanctimony on this because freezing the childcare rebate is in fact just extending a policy that Labor introduced. It was wrong then and it is wrong now. That part of it is wrong, but what the government is also proposing to do to the childcare rebate and the childcare benefit in tandem is going to hit low-income earners and it is going to hit a household that earns $60,000 somewhere in the order of $3,000 a year. That is a massive whack. Under the previous government it got to the point where some parents were asking whether it was even worth returning to work because of the cost of child care. To now take an extra $3,000 out of the pockets of a middle- to low-income family is absolutely appalling and wrong.

The sector is outraged by this government's decision to take money out of child care and so are centres in my electorate. Acacia Fitzroy Creche, which I visited a couple of times and which provides services to people on low incomes, believes that helping families get affordable child care is very important. It is a community childcare centre that works with many refugees, single parents and people from low-SES backgrounds.

That centre sees a lot of families who want to contribute and work but cannot get jobs without affordable child care. If parents cannot access child care, the kids end up staying home and falling behind in education. These are often children who have come here as part of a family from a refugee background, who have come in under Australia's humanitarian system. They are living in the flats in Fitzroy. The parents are struggling to break into the labour market or hang onto a job. They are reliant on low-cost child care to be able to stay employed.

Acacia Fitzroy Creche have said that, as a result of changes in this bill and the budget, they have decided to freeze their fees because they know that otherwise parents will not be able to continue. As a result, the staff are not getting a pay rise. Already underpaid staff are not getting a pay rise. They face a big problem with retaining staff, as many childcare centres do, and this is only going to exacerbate it.

What will that mean? It will mean that people—predominantly women—will decide to opt out of the workforce because they are on low incomes and they cannot, now, afford the cost of child care. So that will increase the unemployment rate. That is the effect of this government's policy that attacks, disproportionately, low-income workers. More women will no longer stay connected with their jobs, because they will not be able to afford child care.

Not everyone can do what Fitzroy Acacia Creche is doing. The other centres in my electorate have fantastic staff but many boards of management are tearing their hair out trying to make ends meet. There is plenty of money available for us if we decide that child care is a priority. For example, if the government chose to stand up to wealthy miners like Gina Rinehart and her associates and scrap the subsidies and concessions that they get—we do not even need to worry about a new tax if we make the likes of Gina Rinehart pay the same for petrol as everyone else in this country and stop give them subsidised diesel—$13 billion would be available for the budget. That $13 billion could build a lot of childcare centres, and would allow the existing childcare centres to expand.

It is ultimately a question of priorities. This government is choosing a priority in favour of the likes of Gina Rinehart—the government is letting her off the hook; she is, for all and intents and purposes untouched by this budget—and instead saying, 'We don't mind if the women in the Fitzroy flats are now no longer able to continue in their jobs because they cannot afford to send their kids to child care. They have to contribute.' A family on $60,000 has to contribute three grand a year, and that might be the difference between working or not, or child care or not. But the government says, 'We will let Gina off the hook. We will let our wealthy backers off the hook and the top end of town off the hook.' That is what this budget and this bill do.

So we will be opposing it. And that means, hopefully, that this will be opposed in the Senate as well. What is important, and what matters, is making sure Australia is a place where people look after each other, and where, not matter how much money you earn or where you come from, if you want to do the right thing and try and get into work, there will be a childcare place available for you. We are not going to discriminate against people on the basis of their wealth. That is what is at stake in this budget and with this bill.

I am pleased to hear that Labor may now oppose it—even though they proposed some of these measures in the last parliament—but I do want to address something that some of the opposition speakers have said. They have suggested that, somehow, having paid parental leave as a workplace right is somehow wrong when the money should be put into child care instead. If I had an unlimited pot of money, yes, I would probably go and build childcare centres, first and foremost, as well. But I say to Labor: if it is that important why didn't Labor put a 1½ per cent levy on big business and build new childcare centres? They did not. They did not have the guts to stand up to big business and raise the revenue that is needed to fund the services that Australians expect. Instead, Labor said, 'We're going to cut the taxes for corporate Australia and, as a consequence, we are not going to build 222 new childcare centres.'

So, I am not going to be lectured by the opposition about the lack of priorities or that, if you advance the cause of paid parental leave, somehow that is money that should be going to child care. If Labor really believed that they you would have acted on it, and they not. The proposal that the Greens took to the election was to put a new levy on big business for money that would not otherwise be there and use that to fund a paid parental leave scheme, and ask others to chip in so that we can have the child care that everyone deserves. So it is not an either/or. Labor does not come to this with clean hands, having previously proposed one of the freezes in this bill and having failed to act to build those new childcare centres that are needed.

But we have to deal with the bill that is in front of us. The bill that is in front of us will only do one thing—that is, it will make life harder for people on middle to low incomes, and take money out of the childcare system at a time when we need to be putting more money into it. For that reason this bill cannot be supported.

This bill, like many other budget measures, is going to be blocked by this parliament. There is only another week-and-a-bit to go before the Senate changes over. I tell you what—there are billions of dollars in so-called savings measures from the government, which are really attacks on the young, the old, the sick and the poor, which are not going to find their way through this parliament. I hope that after 1 July they will not find their way through the parliament, either.

There is a reason people have been talking about this budget for so long after the fact—and that is that people understand that measures like this threaten what is good about this country. They threaten what is good about this country. The Prime Minister is a threat to the Australian way of life and the principle of egalitarianism. It is our job, as the Greens, to stand up for those principles of compassion, sustainability and equality, and to defend that spirit that beats at the heart of this country—egalitarianism. That spirit says that we will not become a US style of society, where access to health care, access to education, and access to child care depends on your wealth. We do not want to go down that road. We value the fact that here in this country we look after each other. This bill is just one element of a very brutal budget, and I am very pleased that the Greens will block it.

7:58 pm

Photo of Lucy WicksLucy Wicks (Robertson, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This bill is part of the coalition government's ongoing commitment to families, particularly those with young children who rely on child care. The Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Measures) Bill 2014, which I commend to the House today, will apply from next month, for three years, to 30 June 2017. This bill maintains the childcare benefit income thresholds for three years and ensures that the childcare rebate limit will continue at $7,500 per child, per year for a further three years. It is an important reminder of how this government is making fair and responsible choices for the people in my electorate on the Central Coast. There are around 7,720 children from 5,760 families who attend child care in 109 dedicated services in my electorate of Robertson. For many of them, child care is essential because one or both parents are commuting to Sydney or Newcastle. We have 30,000 to 40,000 people on the Central Coast, as I often say in this House, who leave early in the morning to work and return home late at night to their families because that is where their job opportunities are. I am actually a mother in one of those families. My own husband, Chris, travels to Mascot every day, relying on the right connecting train to be home in time for dinner. We have been married nearly 18 years and he has never been able to work locally. His story reflects the story of thousands of other people on the Central Coast.

We are fortunate, of course, to have access to great child care for my own two children, Oscar, who is five, and Mollie-Joy, who is 3½. This includes some amazing grandparents—and I acknowledge my parents, Max and Mary Warren, who help out on so many occasions; a fantastic babysitter, Isabella Mitchell, and I thank you, Isabella, for all you do; and an incredible long day care centre, Little Miracles, where Oscar and Mollie-Joy are taken care of every week in a wonderful, supportive, caring and nurturing environment. I take this opportunity to place on record my thanks and my appreciation for the directors of the childcare centre at Terrigal, Rob and Sue Bateman, and also for the centre's supervisor, Sue Noble, and to say thank you to the 109 centre supervisors and operators who do such a great job for our children every single day.

Yes, child care does come at a cost. Childcare fees now average $370 per week for families who work full time on the Central Coast, which is an average cost per hour of $7.15. While this is lower than the national average of $7.35 an hour, $375 per week is a lot of money for most families and it underlines the need to make child care more affordable, more accessible and more flexible. That is why the coalition's decision to task the Productivity Commission with looking at this issue is an important part of the process. While the bill before the House tonight is important, it is also timely to note that the measures do not in any way pre-empt the Productivity Commission's inquiry into child care and early childhood learning.

We need a holistic review into how we can best ensure that child care is affordable, accessible and flexible for families in my electorate of Robertson, for families in New South Wales and, indeed, for families right around our nation—for the sake of our children, for the sake of their parents and for the next generation and generations to come. That is why the Productivity Commission's draft report, due next month, will give us a good first insight into their proposed reforms. In the meantime, the measures in this bill are necessary.

Families are struggling to access affordable, accessible and flexible child care due to fees skyrocketing 50 per cent nationally during Labor's six years in government. These increases are simply unsustainable. The former government, including the former member for Robertson, claimed to support child care and families and yet they watched while family budgets were thrown into chaos due to these soaring prices. In contrast, the coalition government is making decisions that repair the budget and, through our Economic Action Strategy, build a strong, prosperous economy and a safe and secure Australia.

Let us remind ourselves of one salient fact: because of Labor's debt, $1 billion a month in interest is being wasted. If no action is taken now, debt will grow to $667 billion in a decade and that monthly interest bill I mentioned before will become $3 billion per month. It is clear we need to get the debt and deficit back under control and this budget is part of our responsible plan to do just that. Included in the budget is the childcare benefit measure contained in this bill. It is also part of the government's broader measure to maintain eligibility thresholds for Australian government payments for three years. It is estimated that maintaining the childcare benefit income thresholds will provide a saving of $230 million over the forward estimates.

This bill amends the A New Tax System (Family Assistance) Act 1999 to continue to maintain the childcare rebate limit at $7,500 for three income years, starting from the beginning of next month. The rebate covers half of the out-of-pocket childcare expenses, up to a maximum amount per child, per year, and it is not means tested. As a result of these amendments, a family on the Central Coast will continue to receive up to the maximum rebate amount of $7,500 per child, per year to help pay for out-of-pocket childcare costs. This will be in place for those three years.

The bill also locks in the childcare benefit income thresholds for three years, again from 1 July this year. Unlike the childcare rebate, the childcare benefit is means tested. It is based on a family's income level and is designed to help with the cost of child care. It is important to note that the government will continue to index the childcare benefit standard hourly rate, the minimum hourly amount and the multiple child loadings by the consumer price index on 1 July each year.

So what this bill means is that families' childcare benefit income thresholds will remain at the amounts on 30 June 2014 for the three income years ending on 30 June 2017. It proposes a three-year pause on the indexation of income thresholds which set out how much parents are eligible to claim. But even with this measure government assistance through the childcare benefit and the childcare rebate combined will still increase to $28.5 billion over the next four years. These measures are about ensuring this substantial investment rises at more sustainable levels over the long term. There is, as any parent or childcare provider would know, a pretty complex way of calculating the childcare benefit. It depends on a family's income, the number of children in care, the type of care and the hours used. But this bill ensures that these measures will not impact families who have incomes below $41,902.

As a reminder to those opposite, keeping the childcare rebate limit at $7,500 per child per financial year for a further three years was a savings measure first implemented by the former Labor government in 2011. Labor announced an extension of the measure as part of their 2013-14 budget and then took the $105 million in savings from the budget bottom line but never legislated for it. The savings were included in their budget, but the legislative amendments that we are debating here today were not introduced in the last parliament. Yet, when this government sought to legislate the measure as part of the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2013, Labor combined with the Greens in the Senate earlier this year to block its own measure. So, put simply, our hands are tied.

The simplified arguments that we heard earlier tonight about raising the rebate will not work either, as we found in 2008. Back then, Labor increased the amount parents could claim under the childcare rebate from up to 30 per cent to up to 50 per cent of their fees. The result was that out-of-pocket costs for parents soared by up to almost 40 per cent in low- and high-income families between 2008-09 and 2012-13. Raising rebates makes these payments more unsustainable in the longer term without providing a plan to slow the rate at which the fees are increasing.

I recently invited the Assistant Minister for Education, Sussan Ley, who spoke on the second reading of this bill, to my electorate of Robertson on the Central Coast. The minister spoke with parents and childcare providers at a childcare forum in Erina where there was a rigorous debate about the need for affordable, flexible child care. We visited one of our biggest childcare centres, Erina Kindergarten. The owner there, Paul Klumper; directors Melissa Commins and Ashlea O'Rourke and their team do an absolutely fabulous job of providing a warm and caring environment where our little 'coasties' can learn and be nurtured.

During the day we discussed the government's reforms including the coalition's record $200 million Long Day Care Professional Development Program. The program helps day care centres with the cost of upskilling and training educators to meet the requirements of the National Quality Framework. Our Long Day Care Professional Development Program will use the remaining funds from Labor's Early Years Quality Fund, which was shut down after an independent report found it was a vehicle for union recruitment. The minister's visit was a firsthand look at why we have to get the policy around child care in Australia right. Overall, the coalition is increasing childcare assistance to $28.5 billion over the next four years to assist around a million families each year through the childcare benefit and childcare rebate.

As well as increasing support to child care, we are also committed to a genuine paid parental leave scheme for families. This is a commitment we have taken to the last two elections. It is also something that I know is of great importance to people in my electorate of Robertson. Our paid parental leave scheme pays a real wage plus compulsory superannuation. This not only values women's current work, but also makes sure there is future recognition in the form of proper superannuation. It reflects the true value of a woman's lifetime of work and it is about delivering appropriate workplace entitlements for women who choose to work and have a family. This is important as it is often at the crucial point of time in their career cycle that they will have their family.

I firmly believe that paid parental leave should not to be treated as a welfare entitlement. It is a workplace entitlement. The opposition wants to frame the coalition's paid parental leave scheme as a $50,000 gift to rich people, but I know from talking to people on the Central Coast every day that this is a genuine hand-up for families—not the millionaire families that Labor talk about, but for women who are nurses, who are teachers, who are shop assistants, who are factory workers, who are clerical workers, who are casual workers and who are small business owners. For these people, our genuine paid parental leave scheme—especially in those early months of juggling the demands of a family—could be a real help with their family budget.

I want to say in relation to paid parental leave and the current debate in this House that I believe this is about a real cultural change in Australia. It is about moving the paid parental scheme and debate from a welfare entitlement to a workplace entitlement. This cultural change is important for Australia; it is important for productivity in our nation and it is important for our future generations in Australia. In time I believe we will look back in the annals of history at this argument and wonder what all the fuss was about, because why should people be paid at their real wage when they go on holidays, when they take long service leave and when they take sick leave and then effectively be paid a welfare wage when they go on parental leave? It just does not add up.

The coalition government has an Economic Action Strategy that will fix Labor's debt and deficit disaster. We have delivered a budget that ensures we will get back to living within our means, just as households must. We are taking responsibility and fixing up Labor's mess through strong and fair action. I commend this bill to the House, as a parent, as a member of parliament and as a resident on the Central Coast who knows we need to make responsible decisions to get Australia back on track to a secure future.

8:14 pm

Photo of Jill HallJill Hall (Shortland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Measures) Bill 2014. I take great pleasure in following the member for Robertson and I will certainly make sure that everybody in Robertson on the Central Coast—an area that I also come from—is aware of her unconditional support for paid parental leave. I will make sure that all those pensioners, who are receiving a very low income and whose income is going to be affected by the change in indexation, know that she is out there spruiking the $50,000 a year for high-income workers is much more important than ensuring that child care is properly indexed. Just for the record, in Robertson electorate there are 7,130 families that are using approved child care. Of those 6,340 are receiving childcare rebates.

Those families are going to be disadvantaged by this legislation. The member for Robertson is not telling the families on the Central Coast just what this legislation means. This legislation is bad legislation and it shows that this government has its priorities all wrong. It looks after people who are on high incomes whilst at the other end of the spectrum they are making it harder for families who are not on high incomes to enter the workforce or maintain employment. One of the key indicators as to whether a person can afford to utilise child care, research has shown, is that the relationship between childcare affordability and women's workforce participation is strong. A one per cent increase in gross childcare prices results in a decrease to the mother's employment rate of 0.7 per cent. This is what the member for Robertson is advocating—that the people she represents get less money and that child care is made less affordable. She supports that, whilst at the same time she supports women receiving a $50,000 bonus for having a baby. As the Prime Minister said, he wants the right kind of women to have babies. I think the right kind of people to have babies are the people who are hard-working and go out there every day and look to government for support.

One would think that the government would get support from business, but, unfortunately, even business is slow to give support to the government on these measures. Business knows that the one thing that is imperative when it comes to child care and women utilising child care is its affordability. What this government is doing is making it less affordable for those people who need it most. I would like to refer to an article in the Australian, which points out that the Australian Industry Group has called for the Prime Minister

…to abandon his paid parental leave scheme and redirect the money to maintaining childcare benefits.

The Australian Industry Group knows that fairness is in maintaining the childcare rebate. It is not fair to give those women who are on high incomes a bonus or a gift of $50,000. The Australian Industry Group, in this article, says that:

…the Coalition's proposed "gold-plated" PPL scheme "should be abandoned" and the less generous scheme introduced by Labor retained.

Can I say that the members on the other side of this House are so out of touch that they do not know what is being said in their electorates. I give the member for Dawson credit for speaking out on behalf of his electorate by saying that this is the wrong way to go, but, unfortunately, many members on the other side of this parliament do not take time to communicate with their constituents and do not listen to what they are saying, rather they just tell them. This article goes on to say that

…the more generous PPL scheme should then be used to reverse the continued freezing of the Child Care Rebate at $7500 a year and the non-indexation of Child Care Benefit thresholds for three years announced in the May budget.

This is to allow extra funding to be devoted to childcare measures.

The one thing we know about this government is that, when it comes to fairness and equity and to seeing that a struggling family gets a fair go, they are always missing in action. This bill will whip $230 million from the means-tested Family Assistance Child Care Benefits from 889,000 families. Those 889,000 families rely on this benefit; it makes child care affordable for them. It enables them to go to work and, if it comes to the situation where they receive no childcare benefit or it is reduced to such a low level that they can no longer afford child care, their children will be taken out of child care. When children are taken out of child care, they will be no longer able to work.

This is arrogant and it just shows how little this government is able to communicate or understand the needs of families in Australia. When I look back to the last election, it is very interesting that the minister was floating around the country saying that she was going to make child care more affordable and to reform child care so every child could attend child care. She even came to my electorate with my Liberal Party opponent and argued for more affordable child care and access to child care for everyone. I look back to the community support program that was going to provide grants for family day care services and that has been cut. Family day care is one of the most affordable forms of child care.

The round of grants to local government was also cut. Local government is one of the leaders in providing not-for-profit child care. Grants were put out there for local governments to apply for. The one thing that this government has done is cut that grants program. Everywhere you look, this government is attacking families. It is attacking the family tax benefit. It is putting the GP tax in place. There is its action in relation to the Child Care Rebate and the Child Care Benefit. The Child Care Rebate, as everyone knows, is not means tested and is up to $7,500 for every child. Childcare support is absolutely essential to provide financial incentives for parents to re-enter the workforce and, as I have already stated, particularly women.

A woman needs to know that her child is cared for in a quality childcare centre that is accredited, with well-trained carers. When she knows that, she can confidently go to work and engage productively. But, unfortunately, 74,000 families will reach the Child Care Rebate cut-off in 2014 and 150,000 families will reach the childcare cap in 2016-17. They are significant numbers, and this measure will have a very significant impact on some people—but the government are not telling the Australian people this. They are making it sound like they are doing wonderful things in the childcare space when, in actual fact, they are making child care less affordable. They are looking to provide taxpayer funding for nannies and au pairs, which is a very expensive form of child care. Their every action is designed to benefit those people who least need help from government. I am appalled at what the government are doing in this area.

I thought a good way to look at how effective the government has been in relation to child care—and to be quite fair about it—was to make a comparison between what Labor did when it was first elected, following the 2007 election, and what this government has done. It is quite interesting when you look at the figures. One of the first actions of the new Labor government, following the 2007 election, was to increase the Child Care Rebate from 30 per cent to 50 per cent for out-of-pocket expenses and to increase the cap from $4,354 to $7,500 per child. The Howard government had no appetite to make child care more affordable, and those on the other side under the leadership of Tony Abbott are in the same position. They are making child care less affordable. They will make it harder for families to actually access childcare. They stand condemned for that. Labor also gave families the option of claiming their childcare rebates fortnightly, halving up-front costs at the time that they were billed.

The government does not understand just how hard it is for families to make ends meet. Many families go from week to week just trying to balance the budget. As one of my constituents told me recently—a constituent who has been extremely disadvantaged by this government; a constituent who has really done it hard—at the end of the month he just throws the bills in the air, and the ones that land on the table first are the ones that he is able to pay. It is really interesting when you compare a government, as in the Rudd and Gillard governments, which understood how much families rely on assistance such as the Child Care Rebate and the Child Care Benefit, with a government which is freezing assistance and making child care less affordable. Childcare fees went up by more than twice the rate under the Howard government compared with Labor. I hate to think what the rate will be under the Abbott government because of their lack of commitment to keeping childcare fees low and making child care affordable. Modelling shows that, under Labor, out-of-pocket costs for families earning $75,000 a year were reduced by 13 per cent of their disposable income. Under Labor the number of children in child care grew; under this government, we are set to see a reduction simply because it is making it unaffordable.

I would like to put on the record that I cannot understand why this legislation has been introduced with only five days of consultation and with very little research evidence from the department and without waiting for the completion of the Productivity Commission inquiry and report, which is due in October this year. The government is not waiting for that report.

This government stands condemned for their action in the area of child care. It stands condemned for not researching what impact this legislation will have on families. This government stands condemned because it does not really care about low-income families. This government stands condemned because it has its priorities all wrong. It is prepared, on the one hand, to give a $50,000 gift to highly paid women or families and, on the other hand, to cut money from those people who look to government most for assistance.

8:29 pm

Photo of Joanne RyanJoanne Ryan (Lalor, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise this evening to oppose the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Measures) Bill 2014 currently before the House. I oppose it like my Labor colleagues because it seeks to freeze indexation not just on the non means-tested Child Care Rebate but also on the income thresholds of the means-tested Child Care Benefit.

This bill seeks to cut $336 million from childcare support that lower and middle income families across Australia currently rely on. They rely on this to make ends meet, to pay the mortgage, to pay the bills and to buy the groceries.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I am not sure if you have ever popped down to my part of Australia, but, if you have, you will have noted that the population is predominantly made up of families. We have a welcoming and affordable community and many families—in fact, almost 60,000—choose to make Lalor their home. We have huge new housing estates and schools that regularly welcome 250 new preps each year. We have the highest number of births in Victoria—in fact, 70 births a week, which sees the maternity ward at the Werribee Mercy Hospital bursting at the seams. It also means we have a huge number of playgroups and a vibrant kindergarten community. It means also that we have a thriving childcare system.

Families in Lalor rely on the provision of child care. They rely on it because cost-of-living pressures mean families have both parents working to make ends meet. They rely on it because women in our community also know the value of being connected in the workforce and the benefits that brings for themselves and for their families. These are not families that choose a nanny or an au pair as a childcare option; that is out of reach. They rely on the usual forms of child care. They rely on well-resourced centres that provide structured early learning. They rely on family day care, particularly valued by the many shift workers for its flexibility, and they rely on out-of-school-hours care for school aged kids. The families in Lalor work hard, often for modest wages, and, as such, these families also value the current childcare assistance provided by government.

There are only five electorates across Australia that have more than 10,000 families utilising child care. Lalor is one of them. Indeed, almost 10½ thousand families in Lalor use formal child care and around 9½ thousand of those receive some form of childcare benefit. The impact of the changes to childcare funding in this bill on our community will be huge.

Families in Lalor may have taken the time to read the coalition's election policy document, titled The coalition's policy for better child care and early learning September 2013. You will note from the date that it was a policy that was taken to the election last year. While it was lacking any real forward direction, it did provide some comfort for families. I would like to remind families of some of its key points. I quote from that document:

Our approach will ease the financial burden placed on child care centres and families, without compromising the standard of care that must be provided.

They went further:

The Coalition understands that many families are struggling to find high quality child care that is flexible and affordable enough to meet their needs.

They quoted ABS data and said that it:

… shows that child care costs to parents have increased by 27 per cent over the past three years.

The coalition said that it was:

… concerned that parents all over the country are reassessing whether they can afford good quality childcare, or the number of days … per week they use.

Another quote says:

We understand that there is a direct relationship between affordable child care and the amount of hours parents—especially women—can work.

I think it is fair to suggest that there is a theme coming from those extracts—that the document developed a theme around the issue of costs of child care. I think it could be said that this policy document that the now government took to the election raised expectations in the community that the cost of child care was something they were concerned about. Some may have even thought that this document implied that they would offer a solution.

As actions speak louder than words, what is it that the government have done to support the working families across Australia to meet the costs of child care? Not much. I would go further and say they are actively making it more difficult for families. Let us look at what they have actually done. They have stripped away almost $1 billion from early education and care. They have taken $400 million from out-of-school-hours care and $157 million from family day care. The support for parents to study and go back to work is gone. Programs to increase childcare places have been slashed. Funding has been taken from the Indigenous child and family centres and $300 million set aside to support low-paid early childhood educators has been cut.

What will they do? The measure that this bill seeks to implement, according to the education department, will leave over 500,000 families worse off through the changes to the childcare benefit alone. This bill will cut modest, targeted and means-tested childcare support from families earning as little as $42,000 a year. Most worrying, however, is that this measure is being introduced with minimal analysis of the impact. Who will these measures hurt and how much extra will families have to pay? The truth is, we do not know; the work has not been done.

It is also worrying that it is being done on the back of the $157 million dollar cuts to family day care that I mentioned earlier. This measure alone is causing enormous angst in our community. A local newspaper reports that family day carers have warned they will be forced to close if a $500 administrative levy touted by local council in response to cuts in the federal budget for family day care is imposed. I can tell you what the impact of that will be if it eventuates in Lalor. Already oversubscribed childcare centres would be swamped with new enrolees. Why is this being rushed through this week, when the government has a current Productivity Commission inquiry into child care and early childhood learning? What will that inquiry find? What action will this government take when those findings are released? Based on current form, more cuts would be my suggestion.

This initiative is yet another example of this government's broken promises and twisted priorities. Why introduce such a measure, such a hurtful cut? And why do it while stubbornly insisting on retaining the deeply unpopular and unfair paid parental leave scheme?

We know this government is very keen to provide assistance to allow for nannies and au-pairs to be brought into the childcare rebate system. But these are options not utilised by many in our community. Indeed, very few families across Australia can afford them. Whilst doing this, the government sees fit to remove the very support that assists low- and middle-income families and supports women to remain productive in the workforce.

I feel a little like a telemarketer tonight—or like the member for Wentworth on one of his question time rants—because there is more. Whilst this bill introduces measures to reduce childcare benefit payments, there are still more government measures to come. I suspect the government does not fully understand the impact of those changes either. The Jobs Education and Training Child Care Fee Assistance program assists parents to return to the workforce. There are over 550 families in Lalor benefiting from this program. There is a similar number of families in my colleagues' electorates, like Watson, Blaxland and Rankin, and in some coalition electorates like Dobell, where 550 families have benefited. But I do not think the Prime Minister, in Warringah, understands. There are only 90 in Wentworth and there are only 60 in North Sydney that are probably not aware of the benefits of this program. Only 70 in Higgins have benefited. The benefits of the JET programs would hardly hit the radar of those on the front bench opposite.

It may also surprise some that out-of-school hours care accounts for approximately 55 per cent of childcare services. This government has cut $450 million from this program. This is money that assists out-of-school hours programs to be established. In an electorate like Lalor where we have new schools opening every year with huge numbers of new students joining our schools throughout the year, this funding is vital. It allows new services to open, for hours to be extended and for homework support to be offered. All of this is now at risk. Labor worked hard to increase access to out-of-school hours care. Over 100,000 more families now utilise this care across Australia, because of Labor. That is all at risk.

Another cruel budget cut is the accessibility fund, a fund designed to assist local councils to increase childcare provision by expanding centres, freeing up vacant land for centres to be built and to allow for centres to be incorporated into TAFEs and schools. Those opposite would have limited understanding of the impact of this measure. Lalor has 123 childcare centres serving 10,500 families; Warringah has 128 centres serving 7,000 families. Do the maths. It is easy to see from these figures where there is pressure for the new childcare centres and the electorates most in need. It is not the electorates currently held by those in cabinet.

For the government to introduce this bill, I naively—like many others—assumed there must have been support. So I looked to some major stakeholders. I found no support. There was no support from Early Childhood Australia. There was no support from Family Day Care Australia. There was no support from the Early Learning Association Australia nor from the Australian child care coalition. There was none even—as the member for Shortland outlined—from the Australian Industry Group. All oppose the measures.

Labor has a proud history of supporting families in the early childhood years. Labor increased the childcare rebate from 30 per cent to 50 per cent. Labor made changes to have the rebate paid fortnightly. It introduced the quality standard frames. It improved the staff-child ratios. It established the Australian Children's Education and Care Quality Authority. It introduced the quality rating system. It provided for 15 hours a week for universal access to kindergarten. Labor did these things because Labor understands that it is not just about cost, it is also about quality. Labor understands both the pressures on families and the way support can assist. We understand that women want to remain connected in the workforce. We know both the value of women's participation in the workforce and the impact on productivity and on the economy of providing incentives to work.

A study by the Grattan Institute in 2012 showed that if Australia could match the level of workforce participation achieved in Canada, it would result in our economy being possibly $35 billion better off. How did Canada achieve this result? It invested in childcare rebates. It did not come cheap. The cost of the rebates went from $300 million in 1997 to $2.2 billion in 2012, but the return was a $35 billion boost to the economy. This current government does not seem to understand that sometimes you have to spend money to make money. Labor understands that you need to invest in our children to grow our future and our economy.

There are 10,500 families in Lalor that utilise child care, and almost one million across Australia will be impacted. The sector does not support the measures. It knows both the value of an active, engaged workforce and the impact of childcare support to achieve this. There is a current Productivity Commission inquiry into child care. For some reason, the government is keen to rush these measures through without support, with the huge impact not yet appropriately measured and with the Productivity Commission report coming. It makes no sense.

I would finish with a few observations about this bill. This bill encapsulates all that is wrong with this government's budget and with all that is wrong with this government's logic and rhetoric. The implications of this bill for families across the country show us clearly that, contrary to the Treasurer's words, the age of entitlement is not over. Entitlement is very clearly enshrined for some Australians in the policy to give millionaires $50,000 and paid parental leave for the first six months of their child's life. No, Deputy Speaker, with this bill we see clearly that for working mothers and fathers who utilise child care in this country and for countless other Australians being hurt by this government's budget measures, it is the age of fairness that is over.

8:44 pm

Photo of Sharman StoneSharman Stone (Murray, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise to speak to this bill that amends A New Tax System (Family Assistance) Act 1999 to continue to maintain the childcare rebate limit at $7,500 for three income years, starting from 1 July 2014 and maintain the childcare benefit income thresholds at the amounts applicable as at 30 June 2014 for three income years, starting from July 2014.

As a result of these amendments, to quote from the explanatory memorandum:

      So the suggestion of the member for Lalor, who should have known better but I guess she was just using 'polispeak', that this is a withdrawal of childcare support from the nation's families is just not the case.

      But it was even more stunning when the member for Lalor dismissed out of hand, for example, that we are seriously looking at the needs of all types of child care. This is because child care has to be flexible. It has to suit the needs of country and farming women, women in business, families in a metropolitan area, families with babies, families with toddlers and families with after-school care needs. It has to be a flexible, affordable and accessible program of child care across the country.

      I was stunned to hear the member for Lalor, who has an educational background, I am told, say, 'In-home care, for example, is just what rich people want to use and is highly unaffordable.' In fact, in-home care is often the care of choice for families with newborns and very young children who they know should be kept away from perhaps an infectious environment with lots of other children in their earliest years, especially their first 12 months of life. Also women who are shift workers who cannot get child care because they are nursing at night or policewomen working at night might need in-home care support. Why shouldn't we examine that as one of the alternatives available? We need to look at its regulation and the qualifications of men or women who might choose to offer that in-home care, but to condemn it on a philosophical basis as something for the rich—and I think they want to evoke the concept of a nanny on an umbrella or something—is just outrageous and shows you how out of touch the opposition is.

      I am becoming increasingly disappointed with the opposition's women who lay into paid parental leave, particularly what is being offered by our coalition, given that their scheme refused to allow superannuation for women. How outrageous that women should be expected to leave the workforce for the period that they nurture their newborns and not receive superannuation payments. That is extraordinary. That is breathtaking because it condemns a lot of those women in older age to being dependent on welfare when if they had had continuous superannuation through paid parental leave they could have been independent, even if they divorced or were, sadly, widowed. This is what we are getting from the opposition's women. It is quite extraordinary.

      Then in this area of child care and paid parental leave we are being condemned because we are having an inquiry that looks at the needs of Australians in child care and morphing into early childhood education which can happen in centres that have children from the age of newborns through to the year before they start school. Of course we should have an inquiry, because we inherited from Labor a one-size-fits-all approach.

      We were all aghast, particularly in Victoria, when Labor came up with this nonsensical idea without any academic research, journal articles or overseas international comparison behind it that every child should have 15 hours of early childhood education in every childcare centre across the country or perhaps not be eligible for support. The problem with saying that you have to have 15 hours is that in all our of rural and regional childcare centres you could not continue to have one qualified early childhood educator managing one centre. It was two shifts of children—two lots of children doing 10 hours each. That was 20 hours all up, plus preparation time. That worked in rural and regional communities in Victoria—two 10-hour early childhood education programs for two lots of children. But Labor's model, brought in without consultation with rural and regional Australia in particular, said you had to have 15 hours. As I say, there was no research behind that decision. It meant that right across my part of Victoria in particular we had a sacking of early childhood educators because they were required to have an additional person employed. You could not have one woman—it is usually a woman in early childhood education—doing 30 hours, plus preparation, in one centre with two lots of children. So they destroyed the framework for early childhood education in Victoria with the stroke of a pen. They called it a 'national quality framework'.

      I used to work in the Institute of Early Childhood as a lecturer in early childhood education for about seven years, so I am familiar with what other countries offer and what they have found to be efficacious when it comes to early childhood education. Nowhere has anyone said nine hours, 10 hours, 12 hours or 15 hours is the magic number. It depends very much on the circumstances in each part of the world and on how accessible the place is to parents when it is 15 hours versus, say, 10 hours. But we had this decree across the country that one size fits all. I am over this one-size-fits-all philosophy that came out of Labor during their six years which forgot that there are communities beyond tram tracks and beyond where buses stop. We do not have public sector transport in my electorate, and so if a family cannot drive a child to a session of early childhood education or child care then quite often that mother cannot get salaried employment off her property or farm or out of her house. I do not think it is right or fair to ignore the special needs of rural and regional families.

      I will never forget going to a wheat belt small town quite a distance from Kalgoorlie, but that was the nearest town centre. They had been hit by Labor's latest pronouncement that occasional child care had to go and that they could not possibly accept occasional child care any longer across Australia because, after all, wasn't occasional child care sort of part-time child care and how could they possibly continue to fund that? Apparently it was not as sustainable economically and financially as full-time, full-blown metropolitan child care. The point about this little wheat belt town in the back-of-beyond, near Kalgoorlie, was that they were farm families who needed part-time, occasional care in the midst of harvest, when the women and men were out from dawn till dusk. The alternative for them was to put their toddlers in grain bins to keep them safe They could not access occasional child care because the federal government had said they would not fund it any longer. In that small community I had the then member, Wilson Tuckey, with me. The women explained that they did not have enough children to have a full-time, 100 per cent functioning, five-days-a-week childcare centre. But their need for child care were overwhelming. Their children's lives were in danger if they were left out on the wheat properties during their peak harvest period, or perhaps when they had to go to an appointment with a doctor or take an elderly relative to an appointment with a specialist. They needed occasional child care, but Labor abolished it. They said you can keep going, but we are not going to fund you. But those families could not afford the funding without the government rebate.

      We are completely above that sort of one-stop-shop thinking. We know about rural and regional Australia because the members from the Liberal and National parties represent rural and regional Australia. We know that in-home care is as important for some families, and as affordable for some families, as paying $110 or $120 per day for a child in a professional centre away from the home. We know about that.

      We also know that it is not a luxury and that women who seek child care are not wicked people who choose to leave their house and play golf. We get that insinuation when we have the member for Lalor saying, 'How dare we pay millionaire women paid parental leave of $50,000.' How dare the member for Lalor pretend that there are millionaire women out there who are somehow going to rip off the system. She should know that our paid parental leave scheme is going to give a replacement salary to a women earning up to $100,000—not a million dollars, thank you member for Lalor. She has every right to be paid at her full salary, just as men have the same right if they are taking workplace related leave. I find it extraordinary that we have statements like that made in a debate like this that deliberately imply we have such a thing as a millionaire woman taking paid parental leave, who would then probably have the cheek to want in-home care for her child. That is the insinuation. This is class based rubbish that you would have thought would have been relegated to the history books. But, no, it is trotted out by the opposition again and again in this place. I find that very disappointing and appalling.

      I wish our Labor women members of parliament would tune in to their families and visit some of the women who have newborns and toddlers and would like very much to have the New Zealand option, where they even have a special visa category for women who come in as holidaymakers, but who pass through special regulations and checks, and become au pair type in-home carers. What a brilliant scheme. We are going to keep our minds open about all of those prospects and opportunities, because we understand that for some families in-home care is the answer, while occasional or part-time care is required for families who do not have a full-time need or are lucky enough to have a mother or mother-in-law nearby who can take up some of the child caring for them, but they still need some child care beyond the family.

      We have to understand that Australians are a very mixed brood with all sorts of different needs. We certainly do understand that quality child care is the key to all of this. You do not get quality by dictating to the workforce that if they do not get qualifications immediately, with a small fund—and they will only have access to that fund if they join a union—they will not be able to be child care managers. That is what we had under the previous government. We had a relationship identified where you had to be part of the union to access part of the Labor government's funding, which in turn could be used to qualify your child carers to teach the new magic 15 hours of child education a week.

      This is an extraordinary time in our Australian history. We have attacks on women and families coming from Labor, and particularly from Labor women. I think early generations of Labor women would be quite amazed about these attacks. We have attacks on paid parental leave, at their replacement salary, being a right for women. We have attacks on paid parental leave, because it is not being offered for a miserable three months but for six months, which the World Health Organization understands is the minimum time for breast feeding to be established and maintained. That is what our paid parental leave scheme gives women access to—six months on a replacement wage, or the minimum wage, whichever is the greater.

      How can someone across the aisle in the opposition rant and rave and say that is about millionaires. I find that breathtaking. I say, shame on you. We know, tragically, that fewer than two per cent of women in Australia earn over $100,000. You over there are suggesting that a woman can be paid a replacement salary and superannuation—as she is if she is currently in the public service, or if she works for the ABC as a journo, or the police force, or the defence force, or for a bank, or in the insurance industry—but, no, we are not supposed to allow that for other women in the workforce. The blue-collar workers, the contractors, the women who work on farms and the women who are casual or seasonal workers are not meant to be treated as eligible for superannuation and they are not regarded as needing six months to recover from child birth, to nurture their newborn and to establish breast feeding. All of that is not meant to be for them because those opposite think there is a political point to be scored. Child care is beyond politics.

      The bill before us is brilliant because it establishes appropriate support and funding for families who need it. I commend the bill to the House and I say to the opposition, particularly the women: shame on you for letting our side down—our side being women who need our special understanding in law making in this place.

      Debate adjourned.