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Monday, 27 September 1999
Page: 10541

Ms HOARE (3:54 PM) —I commend the member for Forde, Kay Elson, for putting forward this private member's motion regarding the care of children. I know that the honourable member has a long and abiding interest in the welfare of children. I also congratulate my colleague the member for Rankin on his private member's motion which the House just dealt with—again regarding children and their nurturing and development. Earlier this year, I also raised the matter of the times of sitting hours and the adverse effects it can have on members' health and their families. I remind members that the member for Rankin supported and seconded my motion on that occasion. The issue of family responsibilities and caring for children is no longer an issue only for women. It is an issue for all of us and particularly for those of us with young children.

I sometimes become frustrated when I receive correspondence and questionnaires from PhD students and others studying women in politics. I realise that there are many barriers in the way of men and women becoming involved in politics and being elected to a full-time position of representation. One is how we balance our electorate and family responsibilities. There are many occasions when I worry about my children. I worry about my husband Reg's responsibilities and become concerned that I am not around for my children as much as other parents are. However, I know that these moments do not belong solely to working mums or politician mums. I know that my male colleagues have similar worries. It is a concern for all of us with young children. It is also a concern for those who are planning parenting in the future.

As politicians become younger and come from more diverse backgrounds, there will be many family questions which will face us—the same issues which face many of our constituents in their working lives. It is pleasing that members take this time to reflect on families and the valuable contributions made by individual members of families. But it is a national disgrace that parliamentarians and the electorate must rely on the time allotted in this place for private members business for debate and discussion of such important issues as family responsibilities.

At the outset, I wish to say that I support the tone of this motion. It is an acknowledgment of the financial sacrifices made by parents when one of them is caring for their child or children full time. It formally recognises the invaluable contribution made by these parents, carers and guardians to the social infrastructure of family and friends. My situation, I am thankful to say, is one of choice. I have two beautiful children, Naomi who is 11 and Bobby who is nine years old. I also have a wonderful partner, Reg, who provides the full-time care for our children. We made this choice as a family quite a few years ago. We were able to make the choice because of our personal situation. Prior to this particular decision, though, we had made the choice when the children were born that we would both continue our full-time careers. Both Naomi and Bobby participated in long day care programs until well after their formal schooling had commenced.

This was the time when I was first starting out in my public sector career. We as a family were very well supported in our decision by the assistance offered to working families by the previous Labor government—I am referring to the late 1980s and early 1990s. As workers, Reg and I had the protection of our unions and our awards, which allowed for family responsibilities. We also had the assistance from the government which reduced our child-care costs and thus allowed us to be able to make these decisions affecting our family situation. We were afforded a real and proper choice, without having any options or avenues or choices eliminated due to financial considerations.

The fulfilment of our family responsibilities must involve realistic and affordable choice. When we are taking these decisions—and none of us take them lightly—we dwell on many considerations—personal, financial and professional. We accept well-meaning advice from governments, friends and other family members, but in the end it must be our choice and the direction that we as parents want to go as a family. The choices themselves are many. Do we or do we not have children? Do we have them now or do we have them later? Do we give up work or careers to care full time for children? Who gives up—mum or dad—or do we share the full-time care? Do we both continue our work and careers and have some of the care of our children provided by someone else? Will that carer be a family member or a professional? Will it be long-term, short-term, long day or short day care? Will it be provided in another person's home, our own home or a more structured setting such as a centre or a preschool?

As I have indicated, I support the tone of this private member's motion, but I must take issue with some of the more specific areas the motion deals with. For example, part (3) of the motion calls on the House to note the social pressure on many of today's women with young children to remain in the work force. I must really question what the honourable member has asserted here today. If it means that too many friends, colleagues or acquaintances condemn her for the decision she has taken, then I must protest. I am a proud pro-choice member of parliament. As long as the decision to remain working, or not to remain working, after the birth of children has been made after consideration of the real choices on offer, then I applaud those parents and guardians who take such a decision. I also applaud them if they are male. If the male or female parent chooses to stay at home and care full time for a child or children, then that is great. However, it must have been a real choice. I am afraid that choice has been diminished. There are fewer avenues for directions for families to take these days than there were when Reg and I first made our decision about child-care arrangements.

Our children are our most valuable resource. Governments must be prepared and willing to invest in the children who will be providing the future leadership of our country. These investments include education, social support infrastructures, and child-care and child support arrangements.

Just one of the many radical social reforms which was embarked upon by the Whitlam government in the early 1970s was that of providing Commonwealth funding for child-care arrangements. The Child Care Act 1972 provided funding for non-profit organisations to operate centre based day care facilities for the children of working and sick parents. In 1974, child-care assistance was extended to all children—not just the poor—and was also extended to include preschools.

The next Labor government under Bob Hawke saw a further major extension of Commonwealth provided funding for child care, which allowed for over 6,000 extra places to be established under the system. The 1980s also saw the standardisation of fee relief for children in centre based child-care centres. It was due to this child-care assistance that Reg and I were able to make the choice of child care for Naomi and Bobby.

Throughout the 1980s and in the early l990s, Commonwealth assistance under Labor governments continued to grow and expand. The type of assistance and the methods by which it was provided, either via fee relief based on income or subsidies to centres, allowed more flexibility in the choice of child-care arrangements. It is also relevant and prudent to note that it was during this period that this new Parliament House was completed with no physical allowance made for child-care facilities. It is a building which houses around 3,500 people—a number which is greatly expanded when parliament is sitting.

The coalition government following its election in 1996 was to be congratulated for the introduction of the family tax initiative. The introduction of this initiative, if it had been coupled with the maintenance of existing child-care assistance, would have allowed for even greater flexibility and choices for families. However, what this government saw fit to do was to give with one hand and take away with the other. While the Treasurer and the Prime Minister were espousing their family generous policies, they were ripping away the very planks which have underpinned Australia's child-care industry for the past 20-odd years.

In the first three budgets delivered by Treasurer Costello over $937 million was slashed from child-care funding. This withdrawal of funds for child care has resulted in parents being denied the choice they have had over the past 20 years, and there have been substantial indications that there have been corresponding increases in child-care fees at long day care centres across the country. It is important to note that, as demand for child care declines, many people, particularly women, are being forced from the work force so that they can care for their children. These are not choice based decisions; they are decisions based purely on financial considerations. Many women are being kept from either maintaining their jobs or entering the work force. This adds to the more than 293,000 women who wanted to work at the time of the cuts but could not look for work because they could not find adequate child care. (Time expired)