Monday, 23 November 2015
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
Answers to Questions
That the Senate take note of the answers given by ministers to questions without notice asked by Opposition senators today
We heard an extraordinary answer today from the Minister for Education and Training, Senator Birmingham, who came to this chamber and said in question time that not only is The Australian newspaper wrong—something I find hard to believe—but also that the Australian Childcare Alliance is wrong and that the Community Child Care Association is also wrong. Here is a minister who will have to come back at some point soon and, I suspect, eat his own words on this matter.
Let us be clear on what the government's position is, because some people may not have followed this as closely as others. There was a story in The Australian today that the government plans to force childcare centres to bill by the hour. The minister's response appears to be: 'We're not forcing anybody to do anything. We're going to put in place an incentive structure to encourage them to do that.' How they encourage them to do that and how onerous those encouragements are is yet to be seen, and hopefully we will be seeing shortly. But the simple fact is that the minister is looking at fundamentally changing, fundamentally reforming and fundamentally tearing apart child care and how these childcare centres operate. That is why the Australian Childcare Alliance has come out and said quite strongly that if they charge by the hour there will be a higher cost. There will be a higher cost because there will be a cross-subsidisation that will be taking place, and that is why we have had the Community Child Care Association say that a move to short-session billing would make child care less affordable for all families and exclude those who could not afford the increase completely and would potentially lead to the closure of some services in some areas.
The concern here is that prices are going to rise if these reforms are undertaken. The concern is that those who have existing places may lose some of those places, that some childcare centres may be forced to close and that some of those people who are most vulnerable, who struggle as it is to find spaces in child care, are not going to find them. These are real concerns and, frankly, a glib approach dismissing some of the key experts in this area I do not believe is an appropriate approach from this government.
We anticipate that in coming weeks—and we have been waiting a while now—we are going to see some of the details of the proposal that is going to be put forward by this government. It is being eagerly awaited by the entire sector, but I am worried and concerned when looking at the rhetoric that has been said today and at what has been said so far by the minister: that there is no disadvantage test to be applied. I think that, frankly, if there were a proper no-disadvantage test to make sure that no childcare centre is disadvantaged, to make sure that no individual child with an existing space is disadvantaged and that, finally, no potential future child is disadvantaged from these reforms, it would go a long way to providing reassurance to the industry and also to families out there that they are not going to suffer as a result of these proposed reforms.
There are some other key issues that need to be explored as part of this debate. One is the changes proposed to reduce access to early-childhood education from 24 hours a week to 12 hours a week and what that is going to do not only to access but also to some of the hardest working but lowest paid workers in Australia. The fact is that the minister so far has never been able to guarantee that moving to hourly charging will not disadvantage the educators or lead to the casualisation of the educator workforce. There are big issues here. This is an important area of public policy. There is a big debate that needs to be had here; and, frankly, a glib approach to what is a fundamental area of policy is not what this nation needs and not what this Senate should accept.
In responding to the question asked by Senator McAllister of the minister, Senator Payne, I must put on my hat from previous days as chief executive officer of the bushfires board of Western Australia because I do have a level of familiarity with surfactants or suppressants. In fact, what Ms Alison Clifton said in Senate estimates was correct: it is not possible to remove the elements of that suppressant without disrupting the base at RAAF Williamtown. The reason simply is that most of that material would be either adjacent to or, indeed, possibly under the main runways or some of the buildings. The minister's response was that the residual contamination or contaminant does not break down. That is correct; it does not. It remains in an inert fashion when it is dry. It is only when it is rehydrated that the issue becomes a problem. The minister eloquently responded in her comment that the run-off of water from the base is under management. That is when the suppressant can be contained and removed. It is the case that, whilst that particular product is there, stable, not breaking down and dry, it is not at risk.
I now go with a great degree of pleasure to the commentary of Senator Dastyari in his questions of Minister Birmingham. It reminded me of his incompetence when he was the secretary of the New South Wales Labor Party and he spent all of the resources of the Labor Party in New South Wales at that time to keep Mr Craig Thomson in parliament in the other place, spending the funds on his legal costs to the extent, if I recall—and Senator Bernardi will correct me if I am wrong—that he actually had to borrow from another union to pay the wages and salaries of those in his own office.
Where Senator Dastyari went wrong—even in his quote of The Australian newspaper—is making comments like 'the child care alliance, if it became compulsory' or 'if parties were forced to change to charge by the hour'. Senator Birmingham made it very clear in this place that there is absolutely no compulsion on anybody to move towards compulsory charging by the hour. Whoever it was that Senator Dastyari quoted from, assuring us that it would be the end of the world as we know it and it would be an inevitable increase in costs, must surely be from the same school of economics as Senator Dastyari himself. The minister said there is no compulsion at all for the providers of childcare services to change. But how flexible it will be—in fact, how nimble it will be—for those providers in different areas. I speak particularly of rural areas of Australia, in which you know I have a very keen interest. That is the opportunity to offer a service for four-to-six hours a day rather than someone being charged for eight-to-10 hours a day. Let us just imagine how improved a service that will be to families.
Senator Birmingham was kind enough to tell us about the $40 billion being spent in the sector and an additional $3.5 billion to make the whole system more affordable, to use his words, more flexible and simpler—to move from three different systems down to one simplified childcare subsidy.
In the few minutes left to me I cannot avoid the opportunity to respond to Senator Carr's question of Senator Birmingham. It is absolutely wonderful that in doing so he pointed out the absolute failure of the VET FEE-HELP system as it was introduced by the Labor government. I was actually chair of the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee at the time. Deputy President, I think you may have been chair of the legislation committee. I vividly recall warning the then Labor government of all of the problems that Senator Birmingham is now being forced to solve. Senator Carr's question was, 'Well, you've been in for two years; why haven't you solved them?' How many years did it take the Howard-Costello government to solve the problems of Hawke and Keating? Now he is asking if in only two years we have solved the problems of the then Labor government. Senator Birmingham answered why the ACCC is involved. I thank Senator Carr for the opportunity.
I too rise to take note of answers given by Senator Birmingham to Labor's questions on early childhood education and care. It is very evident from the answers that Senator Birmingham gave today that those opposite know nothing about the early childhood sector in Australia. Not once did I hear the word 'quality'. Not once did I hear about the significant benefits that the early childhood sector provides to young Australians. Not once did I hear about the academic or science based evidence out there that good-quality early childhood services enable children to get a head start in life, really follow through, get familiar with what school is about and increase their brain development. Not once did I hear that. We heard about business models and we heard about markets, but we did not hear about quality.
Those opposite have never accepted the amazing reforms that Labor made, which go to quality, ratios and well-trained educators. What did those opposite do when they were first in government? They took away the package that Labor had put together to increase the wages of early childhood educators. What is happening—and it has got worse under those opposite—is that 30 educators leave the early childhood sector every week because they cannot afford to stay. Those opposite now want to casualise the early childhood industry. Where are the educators going to come from? They cannot afford to stay there now on full-time wages; heaven knows how they will be able to stay in the industry if they earn for two or three hours a day. Those opposite are kidding themselves. Where is this sea of educators coming from? Are we going to import more foreign workers—is that the answer to their question? Is that how they are going do it—by dumbing down the early childhood sector and not promoting Australian jobs? Make no mistake, what we heard today from Senator Birmingham was all about flexibility. Even Gwynn Bridge from the Australian Childcare Alliance, mates of those opposite, is criticising them. Even she is saying that this model is not going to work.
I saw one of the responses on The Australian's feed today. Someone had said, 'The fee is $110 a day, so that will make child care $10 an hour.' What a ludicrous suggestion—to think that you can provide quality care, quality education and quality educators for $10 an hour. It will not get cheaper. You will have to load up a casualised rate because you have to provide good-quality educators across the whole day, and even though they are low paid they are still a significant cost to an operator. We did not hear anything about the word 'quality' today.
I put the minister on notice after his answer to the first question. He answered two supplementary questions where he could have quickly thought, 'I didn't mention quality.' No—he continued to talk about market opportunity and business opportunity. This is about children, from very young babies up to the age of six. It completely goes over the heads of those opposite. This notion, to casualise early childhood care in this country, will be a backward step. All of those good-quality reforms and all of the work that Labor did on ensuring proper ratios will go out of the window. When the biggest private for-profit operator in the country says, 'This is not going to work,' they should sit up and listen. The ACA was one of the organisations that continued to oppose the quality reforms Labor put in place, and now it is opposing the casualisation of the sector. Who is calling for one or two hours of care a week? Nobody that I have heard. The government has made the activity test so hard for parents at home that they will not be able to use it either.
The fact is that there are already not enough early childhood services out there now, and the government are proposing to create some kind of new business model, devoid of quality and devoid of quality educators, to casualise an industry that is already in trouble. They say that it is going to reduce costs. What absolute nonsense! The Turnbull government are completely out of touch with quality early childhood education and care.
It gives me no pleasure to follow on from Senator Lines, but I do have to respond to what is a manufactured scare campaign by Senator Lines and her ilk on the other side of the chamber. I would make this point: when a senator walks into this chamber and does not have a hook to hang their hat on, they make stuff up. We have seen the race button pushed today by Senator Lines in a grubby display of xenophobia, in which she said that we are going to import foreign childcare workers, in an attempt to whip up some hysteria about something that has not even occurred yet. Of course, those on the other side have a sudden, new-found appreciation for the reporting of The Australian, which, when they were in government, they denoted as the hate media. They used to mock anyone who quoted from it. That shows you just how shallow and removed from reality they have become.
I would rather turn my attention to the important factual matters attached to protecting the long-term safeguards for the black-throated finch habitat and to preserving the ornamental snake and the yakka skink and making sure that they are in a protected area. That is what this government has done in going through the approval for the Adani coalmine in Queensland, a matter which has been widely approved of, agreed to and celebrated by the people of Queensland, including the Labor minister for mines, Anthony Lynham. In going through the approval process for that coalmine, there was the protection of 31,000 hectares of habitat that is important to the black-throated finch. On the other side, they may not think the black-throated finch is important, but I do. Similarly, I think the ornamental snake is absolutely important. One of the environmental processes that had to be met was that there was strong habitat protections for the ornamental snake. One hundred and thirty five hectares of habitat has been protected for that snake. I congratulate this government for taking into account not only the importance of coalmining for the Australian people, our export industry and the coalmining workers but also the environmental protections for the ornamental snake.
Similarly, it would be remiss of me not to mention the protections for the yakka skink, with which you would be familiar, Mr Deputy President. The yakka skink is important to protect for many reasons but there is 5,600 hectares of protected area for the yakka skink. These are important, because we have taken conservation advice. It just goes to show that we can walk and chew gum at the same time, unlike those on the other side of the chamber. We have put in place a circumstance where we have a large coalmine that has comprehensively guaranteed work, exports, employment and the economy while also putting in place these strong environmental protections.
I think that is an outstanding win-win. But what do we hear from the other side? Do we hear any praise at all for this government? Of course not—because that would be too bipartisan and it would mean we are working cooperatively to get positive outcomes for Australia. It is not just the fact that they do not care about the black throated finch or the ornamental snake. I have not heard one of them talk about the ornamental snake in my whole time here—or the yakka skink for that matter. Where are they when the yakka skink comes up? They are silent. It is a disgrace! They want to whinge, carp and whine but they will not stand up for our native habitat—and that is an environmental embarrassment for the Labor Party. Although they are not prepared to stand up for those who cannot speak for themselves, they are willing to manufacture scare campaigns to alarm people in important industries in this country. I say to those on the other side: reject the politics of fear, reject the vile xenophobic reactions that some of you will seek to play on, and look at the positives for both sides of the equation. We have got to balance our environment with the economy and balance work with flexibility. These are the challenges for the new millennium. (Time expired)
I am almost lost for words! I rise to take note of all answers to questions from Labor senators but I want to focus my remarks on the answers provided by Minister Payne in response to my questions about the Williamtown RAAF base and the pollution issue facing residents there. Minister Payne, in a rather shocking shutdown of her colleague in the other place the member for Paterson, said that the metaphors he used about 'a leaky boat' were not metaphors that she would use. I have bad news for the minister: the member for Paterson appears to be a master of the metaphor. The article in the Newcastle Herald from which the first metaphor was drawn is worth a look. It includes this gem:
If you were a petrol station leaking oils and pollutants from your site, the EPA would be all over you like a … kid in a candy shop.
That, of course, speaks to the lack of action on this issue. He went on to say—and here we go with another metaphor:
The state government and federal government need to work better in their arrangements so the left hand knows what the right hand is doing.
He is a master of the metaphor, and it would be funny if it were not actually such a serious issue. Since 4 September this year, residents around Williamtown RAAF base have been told to avoid drinking bore water. They have been told not to eat fish from that place and not to eat the eggs produced by the chickens in their backyards. That is a pretty frightening prospect for residents. I think everyone in this place understands that, when something like this happens, we need to approach it seriously and methodically. It is not something that ought to be the subject of scare campaigns and we ought not to make residents unnecessarily fearful. But it is the case that residents in this local area up in the Hunter are demanding clear answers from the Department of Defence, from the minister and from the New South Wales EPA.
In the last week we have seen news reports suggesting that there is a disturbing lack of clarity for residents about the proposed pathway to deal with what is emerging as a very serious problem in this area. The state member for Port Stephens, Kate Washington, has said that there is an ongoing disconnect between state agencies and Defence and a disconnect between Defence and the community. The community does not know what is happening. They are waiting for more information. They feel that information is being withheld from them—and, on all the evidence, it seems that it is. They are desperate to know whether they are safe in their own situation. They also desperate to know what will become of their livelihoods. Since September the state government has suspended oyster harvesting and fishing. On 27 October the state government announced there would be an additional closure of at least another eight months. There are families in that region who are absolutely dependent on fishing and oyster harvesting for the weekly incomes.
Finally, after a very long wait, a package has been announced to support people in that area. A local fisherman, Jason Hewitt, has been quoted as saying that a lot of people will go under by the end of the eight-month ban if this is all they can offer. We are talking about a regional community faced with a most serious pollution question that has existential consequences for them. Unfortunately, we are not seeing a coordinated response between the minister, her departmental staff at estimates hearings and the minister's New South Wales state government counterparts.
Fortunately, residents in this area can rely on the Labor MPs who are constantly raising these issues. My friend in the other place the member for Newcastle has made representations on behalf of local residents. She has sought briefings from the minister. She has convened community meetings in the Williamtown area. She has participated in the elected representatives reference group. She is working with colleagues in this place to ask the right questions to get the information for local residents so that they can have the information that they need to make plans for their families' financial security and health.
Question agreed to.