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Thursday, 21 June 2007
Page: 197

Senator ALLISON (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (6:55 PM) —I seek leave to incorporate my speech on the Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs Legislation Amendment (Child Care and Other 2007 Budget Measures) Bill 2007 second reading debate.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

There is an urgent need to solve the many persistent problems that plague child care and early childhood education in Australia.

Sadly the Government’s budget measures, while they might be nice election year gimmicks, are not long term solutions.

The budget does give belated recognition to the problem that many families have with childcare costs—although the Government’s response is woefully inadequate.

But the Government’s overall approach to early childhood education and care is still a mess—a mess the Government seems content to leave to the market place.

Where were the Government’s solutions to the lack of places, particularly for the under two’s?

There were no measures to deal with the child-care hot spots—the mal-distribution of child care services.

The Government’s own figures from the Child Care Access Hotline showed that up to 140 000 child care places sit vacant around Australia every day—or at least every week day.

At the same time the figures showed that there were 35 areas that had no vacancies at all.

Where was the solution to the lack of flexibility of many services? Or to the unsuitability of the places they are offering?

And what about problems with staffing and quality of care?

The Government’s approach to child care is always focused on increasing women’s participation in the workforce.

The aim is always about families using child care so that mothers of young children can get back into the workforce.

And that is certainly an issue. Given that there are many highly educated women not in the workforce because of caring responsibilities, helping those women into the workforce—if they are ready and willing to do that—would benefit the economy.

Our participation rate for women is very low by international standards. We are ranked 23rd out of all OECD countries behind New Zealand, the UK, Canada and the US.

Access Economics report to the HOR Balancing Work and Family inquiry last year stated very clearly that if we do not get more women to take up paid jobs—particularly full-time jobs—Australia will fall short of the long term economic outcomes identified in the 2002 Intergenerational report.

And we are not making much progress on this. Participation by women aged 20-54, particularly for the younger women, has reached a plateau.

The Government’s response to the intergenerational report was to encourage women to have more babies—at the same time they tried to encourage mothers to stay at home with their children.

That’s why we saw the baby bonus and Family Tax Benefit (B) squarely aimed at stay-at-home mums.

Many women—an indeed men—want to stay home with their children especially when they are small, so measures to support this choice are desirable.

But some women want to return to the paid workforce—whether in a full-time or part-time capacity.

And for some of these women, lack of child care, high costs of child care and working hours that make it too difficult to provide care for their families keeps them out of the workforce,.

And the Government has done little to help these mothers.

For all this Government’s talk about increasing choice, the reality is that the Government has done little to help those mums who make the choice to return to the paid workforce.

Of course mothers—and it is mainly mothers we are taking about—should not have to take up paid employment if that is not what they want.

But for those who do want to go back to work, we should be making it easier.

That is why the Democrats are on record countless times extolling the virtues of a national paid maternity leave scheme provided by government, not as an impost on business.

It is why we have argued for enshrining the right to family friendly work practices in legislation—practices like

  • the right to part-time work in their own job at equal pay and responsibility and
  • the right to request flexible work hours and have that reasonably considered , and
  • the right to paid family leave to care for sick children or parents.

All of which are really important for parents who want to meet their family responsibilities

None of these are unreasonable and are in line with what is offered in other countries—countries which are doing much better than Australia is when it comes to women’s participation in the workforce.

In fact the Government’s workchoices legislation is likely to make it more difficult for many women.

We are unlikely to see any moves towards certainty of hours being included in work contracts—something that is especially important for mothers with childcare arrangements to manage.

And of course the loss of overtime rates for working excess hours means that in those families where the dads were working long hours not only to put food on the table but also so that their partners could be full-time parents if they wanted, those families may not have that choice anymore. The mums will need to go back to work so that the family income doesn’t drop.

That might increase women’s participation but it’s not increasing families choices about how they manage their caring responsibilities.

To come back to the measures in this Bill, the increase in the childcare benefit is welcome—assuming that child care operators don’t simply increase their fees to gobble up this on-off 10% election year largesse.

But a subsidy rise of $2 a day won’t make much difference to families spending $70 or $100 a day on childcare.

And if we remember that childcare costs have been going up by 12% each year for the last four years, it doesn’t go far to make child care more affordable.

Independent analysis from the ANZ Bank undertaken for the Taskforce on Care Costs shows that childcare affordability has declined by 50 per cent in the last five years.

This one-off 10% increase simply takes people back to where they were a year ago. It doesn’t address long term issues of affordability.

And this doesn’t do anything to help out with access to places for under two year olds. The Government has continually ignored calls for higher subsidies for under twos.

The Government is determined to pursue a privatised, profit driven child care system and yet it is doing nothing to encourage services to provide care for the youngest children. Higher staff to child ratios make it more expensive for centres to provide the service and eats into their profit margins, so they simply don’t do it.

A targeted increase in the Child Care Benefit for that age group may have gone some way to delivering better access to care for babies and toddlers.

The Government needs to face up to the many failures of the system it is encouraging.

The Bill also deals—at least to some degree—with one of the absurdities of the child care tax rebate.

Once this bill goes through parents can at least look forward to receiving the money more quickly.

Currently, the childcare tax rebate is delivered as a tax offset. This legislation will change that arrangement and convert the rebate to a direct payment to families, eliminating the costly delays in the current system.

The Democrats and many others argued when the rebate was first announced that making people wait for the benefit would not help most families.

The Government is finally seeing some sense on this, although parents will still have to wait up to 12 months.

Yes that’s half the time they had to wait previously but it’s still an annual lump paid after the fact. It won’t help families pay their weekly childcare bills.

And of course the change coming into effect in July means that parents will get a double payment.

A cynic might question the Government’s sudden enthusiasm for changing the system so that people get two payments in an election year.

And of course it is worth noting that despite the Government’s frequent reference to up to $8000 most families won’t get anything like that. The average payment so far has been about $813—even doubled that’s only $1600.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of this Government’s response to child care has been its continuing failure to pay any more than lip service to the issue of quality when it comes to early childhood education and care.

The Government refuses to take seriously the issue of improving early learning and development for our children.

Yes access and affordability are important issues.

But families are also understandably concerned about whether their children will be receiving quality care—an experience that will be good for them—that will help them grow and thrive and develop.

That is what they want when they send their children off to school. Why should they expect less because their children are not school aged?

Parents want a centre with a clean and friendly environment with adequate resources, where children will be able to develop a relationship with their carer and be exposed to appropriate activities that will help them develop and learn.

But the Howard Government is ignoring this in its quasi voucher system for child care.

It is encouraging to see that at least there is now talk about providing preschool for all 4 year olds. It should be a national shame that 100, 000 Australian 4 year olds still miss out on pre-school.

But we also need to be talking about quality education and care for younger children.

We need to be talking about age-appropriate learning and development programmes provided by qualified staff for children up to 4 years old.

This means real reform of child care and it means real vision.

Of course this means tackling some issues the Government doesn’t want to know about—like improving staff-to-child ratios.

A ratio of 1 staff member to 5 babies aged up to two years is not good enough. What happens to those other 4 children if the carer is feeding or changing one of the babies?

And while we’re at it we need a plan to deal with the lack of qualified and experienced staff.

We should not be hearing stories about childcare centres using work experience students and work-for-the dole helpers to help out with children.

We need to be moving towards a system where all child care workers have at least two-year equivalent post-secondary qualifications in early childhood development.

The National Children’s Services Workforce Study in 2006 found:

Overall, there is a projected net shortfall of 7,320 staff by 2013. Long day care has an estimated shortfall of 6,490 staff by 2013, outside school hours/vacation care are projected to have a shortfall of 1,011 staff, and occasional care services have a projected shortfall of 894 staff.

The government needs to act now. It needs to develop a workforce strategy that takes into account improved staff-to-child ratios, improves training and improves the supply of staff in the short and long term.

Encouraging people into childcare and keeping them of course means we also need to improve pay and conditions. Without this we will continue to see high staff turnover which means that the relationships between carers and children will be disrupted and the children will suffer.

Children are society’s responsibility and dollars invested on care for young children are far more effective than dollars spent at any other time in a person’s life.

The OECD Starting Strong report last year put Australia second-last of the 14 countries it looked at when it comes to spending on early childhood education and care services.

Yes the Government does spend millions on child care but it is doing little to make sure that money is an investment in our children and not just more money for share holder profits.

The third measure in this Bill is not related to child care but is also worthy of comment.

This Bill lets full-time students between the ages of 16 and 25 who are ex-carer allowance recipients continue to have access to a health care card while they remain full- students..

Easing the financial burden on students is always welcome and the Democrats welcome this measure.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.