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Monday, 15 March 2010
Page: 2447

Dr STONE (5:21 PM) —I rise to speak on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care) Bill 2010. The bill is not going to be opposed by the opposition, in that it makes some sensible amendments to the childcare payment process. We introduced those changes a little while ago, so the bill is one with technical amendments which should make for a more streamlined process and greater equity in some cases.

The bill allows the payment in arrears of childcare benefit, or CCB, when a childcare service cannot report daily attendance numbers because of circumstances beyond their control—for example, if there is a bushfire or other national disaster meaning the lines are down and that childcare centre cannot send its electronic data in daily. Obviously that is an important amendment.

This bill also simplifies requirements for four-weekly statements of payments to parents. It will also change the suspension of childcare benefit automatically after 10 infringement notices in a 12-month period. In the future this will be discretionary rather than an automatic suspension, depending on the circumstances of the case.

The bill also has within it an extension of the requirement of a 30-day notification of a childcare service ceasing to operate: the requirement will be for 42 days notice when a centre is to cease functioning. The bill also clarifies the authority of the government to recover overadvanced payments paid under the previous quarterly reporting system.

All of these are quite sensible amendments. Let me give you a little more detail. The Child Care Management System, or CCMS, was introduced on 1 July 2009. It replaced the Centrelink-managed childcare operating system, or COS. All childcare benefit approved childcare service providers are now required by law to operate under the CCMS. It brings all approved childcare services online, and they use their CCMS registered software to daily record child enrolment and attendance information. Services report this data to the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations electronically to allow calculation and payment of the childcare benefit fee reductions on behalf of children using the childcare service. Obviously all that is quite simple if you do not have a problem with a natural disaster wiping out your establishment and making it difficult for you to do that daily reporting. This bill addresses that issue.

From the time of transition to the new system, CCB was paid to a childcare provider weekly or fortnightly in arrears based on reports provided through the CCMS. Payment of the childcare benefit in arrears does not provide a buffer for services whose ability to electronically report has been disrupted due to circumstances beyond its control.

The other amendments that I have already given in summary deal with compliance issues. Approved childcare services must provide statements to individual families receiving the childcare benefit fee reductions every four weeks. However, varying start dates for the statement period can vary for the children in the centre’s care. This has caused unintended complexities for the services, more cost to them in administration and some confusion. This will be sorted by more flexibility in when parents have their payments reported.

As well, there is currently within the legislation an automatic outcome where, if there are 10 infringement notices in 12 months for contravening civil penalty provisions relating to record keeping, access to records, requests from the secretary for further information and payback of remittances et cetera, there is automatic suspension of the childcare benefit approval. Other suspension cancellation provisions applying to the CCB approval are discretionary and so, in line with those other approvals being discretionary, this amendment will extend suspension discretion to the secretary for the 10 infringement notices in 12 months. They can then consider the impact of an automatic ceasing of remittances on the families using the service.

If a childcare operator intends to close a service, currently it must notify the secretary at least 30 days before it ceases operations. A lot of families will be significantly impacted if they must find alternative child care, and 30 days to look for new services may sound a lot to some without children in their care but it can be very difficult for many. The ABC situation caused major disruptions, and this notification requirement was seen to be too short in many cases. It will now be extended to 42 days to provide extra time to deal with potential disruption to families. The existing penalty regime will continue to apply in relation to failure to comply with this new 42-day requirement.

Prior to the Child Care Management System, services were paid quarterly childcare benefit in advance, and if there was an overpayment it was recovered during the next quarter. Services are now paid CCB weekly, or fortnightly in arrears. The amendments are retrospective to 29 June 2007, and will clarify that the authority to recover overadvanced amounts does in fact exist in law.

Again, I need to state that we are not intending to oppose these changes. We think they make sense. What we are concerned about though is the current state of child care and early childhood education in Australia. We, of course, were supportive of there being a national framework of childcare and early childhood education standards. That has been an important move to make. Unfortunately, when you look at the realities of childcare offerings state-by-state and in the territories, you still see a substantial variety of interpretations of the new national standards. For example, you see the numbers of hours that a child may take in early childhood education—the year before they go to school—still varying across states. You have got the extraordinary circumstance in Queensland now, where Queensland is offering free early childhood education to four-year-olds in the year before they commence schooling—that is quite different to other states.

We have the situation where this government has pronounced loudly and clearly in their campaign that they would offer ‘universal access’ to early childhood education, which is the most extraordinary nonsense statement when you consider what ‘universal’ means if it is not mandated and what ‘access’ means if you come from one of my 52 country towns or some of the smaller towns of my neighbour in Indi. A town may not have a preschool centre, or the centre has recently closed because parents cannot pay the fees. Does that parent automatically get offered access to preschooling in that small country town when the centre has closed? I do not think so. What does ‘universal access’ actually mean in the case of early childhood education?

Then we have the agenda flowing under all of this where the government seems to be hopeful that childcare centres will offer early childhood education within their own centres in the year before the child formally commences their primary schooling. That, again, leads to all sorts of difficulties since different states have different interpretations of what constitutes early childhood education, our childcare centres differ very substantially too and, of course, not all children are in a childcare centre. Some are in long daycare, some children—in fact, very many of young age—are in a system of in-home care, which is paid through the black market with no regulation of that sector and no support for parents using a ‘nanny’ in terms of childcare subsidy, even though their means may be as limited as are the means of another family receiving support through the government for their child attending a different sort of childcare opportunity or centre.

So child care is a mess in Australia under Labor. We have people who are desperate for after-school and holiday care for their children and who cannot find a service or facility in schools or communities that are adequate, affordable and of good quality. We have the not-for-profit sector with all sorts of advantages in terms of their exemption from paying rates, payroll tax, fringe benefits tax reporting and so on. They compete head-on with the for-profit sector in the childcare services industry, and they wonder why there is that extraordinary support of the new service to take over from the ABC with substantial government investment in that new enterprise. I am told there were tenders put in from the for-profit sector for running those ex-ABC services.

There are a whole range of issues that worry parents deeply about access to good child care in this country. When you think that parents pay $100 a day to access our own childcare centre here in Parliament House, it must be that parents who access the service are able to afford that. But in many other parts of the economy families cannot pay $100 a day, and yet if they are paying substantially less then too often those centres are in extreme financial difficulty. So what are we to do in this country? For a start, we have to have consistency on what national standards mean, including what the economic impact of those national standards will be on the viability of centres. If you are talking about reducing the ratio of cared-for children to staff or reducing the size of the childcare service itself—and those vary from state to state—that obviously has significant impacts on the costs of running those centres. If you also mandate or dictate certain qualifications and ratios of staff with qualifications, self-evidently that translates into a different cost in running childcare centres and preschool centres. But there is absolutely no discussion out there in relation to the cost impacts of the new national standards that the sector can tune into or be consulted about, so we have people out there simply wondering, ‘What is going to happen to our children who need care as we go off to work as a two-income family?’

We recently had the paid parental leave difficulties that Labor left us when it described a minimalist program back in May 2009. We have been able to address that with a much better program of paid parental leave put on the table. Families are breathing a sigh of relief about that, but we have not gone on from paid parental leave to discuss the debacle that currently represents child care as a viable sector across Australia. We all know about the two-year waits for access to a childcare centre in some places. We know about families who have delayed having more children or delayed the timing of their next and subsequent children because they cannot access child care. It is a great shame when a government refusing to properly address the needs of a sector impacts on our population growth, the size of families or the age when parents can have families. That is an incredible indictment on our society as a whole.

So we in this country really do need to sit down and analyse what all the options are for families to have their children cared for while they are at work or when they want their children to have additional socialisation outside the family home. It used to be the case in the good old days that there was perhaps a grandparent or some other extended family member who could take on the children and look after them in a satisfactory way. Those days when all women with children had access to a grandparent—a grandmother in particular—or an extended family are long gone due to the mobility of our population but also due to the fact that, too often, grandmothers themselves need to be in paid employment.

We have a serious problem, then, understanding exactly how to provide uniformly high-quality, affordable child care in a range of options across the country. We had an excellent report brought down when we were in government. It came out of an inquiry chaired by the Hon. Bronwyn Bishop, and those recommendations are as alive today as they were when they were tabled. We need to look at those carefully, particularly in relation to options for child care like in-home or nanny care. Labor has gone on telling us that that is an elitist option. I think they should be more familiar with the actual costs of child care in a professional centre or even long day care, comparing the cost when you have several very small children being minded within the home with paying $100 a day per child, or a little less in other places. You soon start to see that a nanny looking after your children is not an elitist option. But it is an option that needs some regulation in order to protect both the workers and those who employ the worker, and that is where the coalition is consulting with families on what they think about those options right now. This morning I spoke to New Zealander members of parliament and looked very carefully at how they managed their system—much better than ours, it would seem.

There is also a serious problem where we have discrepancy around the country. In Victoria, for example, it is not mandated that suspected child abuse be reported by the childcare centre, so we do not even have that protection extended for children who are vulnerable and who, perhaps, need some special protection. It is not required that the childcare professionals report a suspected case of abuse or severe disadvantage. We need a national set of standards which includes issues like that.

We also need to look at the role of grandparents who have the full-time care of their grandchildren. Too often this is the grandmother looking after her daughter’s or son’s children. They are the very poor relations of our current system. They are often not able to access the childcare benefits or other supports that are in the system. They are financially stressed caring for their grandchildren when there is no other alternative, because they are not often reported to Centrelink as the major carers.

This is a serious issue for our society. Those grandmothers may have had to leave paid employment to look after their grandchildren and they then become less likely to be financially independent in their older age. We know that 75 per cent of women now make up the ranks of those on age pensions. Too often these women who are caring for their grandchildren have limited superannuation and savings from their fractured time at work, given the generation they come from or from active discrimination in the workplace when it comes to employing older women.

When we are talking about child care we must consider who is doing the caring and the issue of grandparents who are often accessing formal child care but not with the government support that others enjoy and who would meet the means testing if they were registered as the carers. We have to look at the fact that there is too much variation between states and territories, for example in what is an acceptable size of a centre. For example, in some states we are told 75 is the maximum number that may be in a childcare centre and in other states there is no limit at all. How does that make sense?

We have to also look very carefully at the fact that child care is typically designated as women’s work. We have a serious issue about the career options for women working in child care, and for them to have the right status and value in the community to be properly paid. All of that is part of this childcare mix. It is a complex area of work but an area of significant importance for a society as it looks to have its young children, whose parents are both in the workforce, being cared for in an appropriate way.

I have to say that I have been hugely disappointed since taking up these issues with my portfolio responsibilities to find that, while lip-service is paid by the Labor government to things like paid parental leave and the national framework for new childcare and early childhood education standards, when it comes to the practical delivery of better programs in consultation with the states and territories—who have a lot of responsibilities in these areas—and when it comes to considering the real costs and the current funding that is available, Labor has let us down again and again.

The paid parental leave issue is just one of the examples of where something was promised and virtually nothing was delivered. In some states we see a crisis of funding in child care; in others we have some in the sector who are doing quite well. We do not yet know how the replacement for the ABC ownership will go. We certainly wish the new owners well but there is a lot of concern about how they may be able to sustain their financial viability under the new framework requirements and conditions.

I go back to the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care) Bill 2010 and say that we are in support of the amendments that have been put forward. They build on some changes that we made when we were in government and they pick up some unintended consequences and interpretations in the bill. All of those amendments are appropriate in this bill and I commend the bill to the House.