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Monday, 15 March 2010
Page: 2451

Mr NEUMANN (5:41 PM) —I speak in support of the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care) Bill 2010. The member for Murray talked about child care. It seems that she has had a road to Damascus experience—to use to the expression of the Prime Minister today during question time. I say to the member for Murray, through you, Mr Speaker—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. Peter Slipper)—I am only the Deputy Speaker, regrettably.

Mr NEUMANN —You never know what may be before you in your future. Where was the member for Murray and where was the coalition on a national quality framework for child care? We know, according to the studies, that per capita the coalition were spending something like one-fifth of what our OECD partners were spending on early child care. There was no thought of an education revolution in child care from the coalition while they were in government.

Did they improve the staff-to-child ratios so that each child could get individual care and attention? No. Where were their new qualifications for staff? Nowhere. Did they have a focus on activities and national standards which would help children learn and develop? The answer is no. Was there a rating system so that parents could know about the quality of care on offer and be able to make the best decisions and choices for their children? The answer is no. Where was the discussion on child care in the COAG process during nearly 12 years of coalition tenure on the benches of this side of the House? Nowhere.

The fact is that this legislation is part of the Rudd government’s vision for child care: to make it affordable, accessible and to make sure that the staff-to-child ratios and the qualifications of those who work in the sector are of the highest quality. We want to make sure that when parents choose to put their children in child care they can be confident of the safety of the child, confident that their child will learn and develop, confident that they will socialise and confident that the people there will care for them as their own. We want the parents to be confident that that child can leave child care and go into primary education and beyond after having received the kind of care that is not simply being plonked in front of a TV or sitting there doing nothing. We want to make sure they engage in educative play activities with high-quality staff. We want to make sure that those children have positive learning experiences. The Rudd government is backing up this commitment with an investment of over $16 billion over four years.

I say to those opposite, who may comment on child care, the childcare sector and what we are doing, that amount is more than twice that provided in the last four years of the Howard government. Get that straight: over the next four years the Rudd government will invest over $16 billion, more than twice what was provided under former Prime Minister John Howard’s coalition government in its last four years. That is a massive increase in investment. Sadly, in 1996, after the coalition got in, we saw a neglect of the childcare sector. Inaction, idleness and inertia are what characterised those opposite with respect to early childhood education and the childcare sector. So let us not have those people come into this place and give us lectures, as if the childcare and early childhood sector in this country somehow was perfect under the previous government and somehow has gone to rack and ruin under this government. The truth is we are making up for time lost under the previous government, which sadly was not particularly interested in this sector.

The legislation before this chamber is important because it is part of what we are going to do to improve the sector. Parents in my electorate know that we have increased the assistance to parents through tax cuts and also through childcare benefits, fulfilling our election commitments with respect to the sector. While I am on that, I want to note ABC Learning Centres, as mentioned by the previous speaker. On the previous government’s watch, Eddie Groves and co. were allowed to develop a monopolistic practice and control of the sector, and we have had to fix that up. There have been investments of tens of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ funds to ensure the viability of the sector, to ensure that the sector remained open at various centres across the country. In my electorate of Blair, I saw it. The biggest suburb in the electorate of Blair is Brassall, by a long way. Bush Kidz came in and saved the centre at the Brassall Shopping Centre.

We also know that there are other community based childcare centres, like Cribb Street, which are suffering. Cribb Street is a very old childcare centre, community run by mums and dads. It is declining in numbers because that part of Ipswich is declining as the suburbs on the outside expand. So the childcare sector faces challenges. We have had challenges with Eddie Groves and his like. We have had challenges with the previous government’s inaction and ignorance on the topic. There have been challenges for mums and dads under pressure with respect to meeting the cost of living. The cost of housing went up dreadfully under the previous government, and there are the cost-of-living pressures each and every day.

The legislation before the House proposes six administrative amendments to our family assistance law, improving administrative requirements of childcare services and the overall administration of the childcare benefit, which the Rudd government has seen fit to expand and increase. There are some practical changes which will help in circumstances where childcare centres have fallen into poor running—for example, the notification of cessation of operation of approved childcare services provision. Currently operators are required to provide at least 30 days notice of their intention to cease operating. Thirty days is not a long time for mums and dads who have kids in child care to find alternative places. So the provision which requires operators to provide at least 42 days notice that they cease to operate is a good amendment in this legislation. It gives families greater time to make alternative arrangements that suit their needs and, simply, to find a place for their kids. That is an important amendment.

There are changes with respect to business continuity payments. Under the new childcare management system, services must submit an online report to receive childcare benefit payments on behalf of families, but there is a provision should a service experience a disruption, such as a local emergency. We have seen emergencies across Queensland—and I note the member for Kennedy is here. We have seen floods in the western parts of North Queensland which have been very difficult for residents. South-East Queensland, where my electorate is, has also received a tremendous torrent of rain. We have seen natural disasters across the state of Queensland. In those sorts of circumstances, where services are unable to submit their online report, the legislation allows the Commonwealth to pay those services. In a country like Australia, where there have been bushfires in Victoria and floods in Queensland, this is important. The amendment introduces a business continuity payment so that childcare benefit can be paid to services when they cannot submit their normal online report. That is so they continue to have cash flow in times of need. This is important for business. Anyone that has been in business knows you just have to have cash flow. If you have not got it, you are in trouble.

There are also important changes with respect to the recovery of old advances to approved childcare services. Services, as the member for Murray correctly pointed out, used to be paid their CCB fee reductions every three months in advance. At the end of that quarter they would then acquit the amount they had received against the actual childcare usage. That changed, and it is now paid weekly or fortnightly in arrears. So the amendments confirm the original intent of the Howard government’s legislation and provide for acquittals of advances and recovery of old advance payments.

There are other changes, and the amendment with respect to suspension of approved childcare services approvals is important. That is an amendment which makes discretionary the current mandatory suspension of childcare benefit approvals where a service has received 10 infringement notices in a 12-month period. The discretion to suspend allows the secretary of the department to take into consideration the nature of the infringements and the impact on families using the service. There could be circumstances where a childcare facility makes technical infringements, and some of them can be quite technical. Anyone involved in the aged-care sector knows that, from time to time, that has happened in the aged-care sector, as it has in service provision for families at schools and also in the early childhood sector. In childcare services this can happen, and we want to make sure that any infringements do not impact adversely on families using that service. So, again, the discretion here is important. It gives greater flexibility to the department and to the secretary’s delegates.

There is a change with respect to the obligation on approved childcare services to provide statements. Approved childcare services currently are required to provide statements to families setting out their childcare benefit entitlements and fees on a four-weekly cycle. There are changes here which will allow greater flexibility, and those things are important.

Improvements have been welcomed by the sector. Generally, in my electorate there has been significant approval of what the Rudd government is doing with early child care. I know the member for Murray was critical of the sector and what has happened, particularly in Queensland. But my experience as the federal member has been that the childcare sector in Blair is supportive, generally, of the Rudd government’s commitments.

We have a very strong vision to improve child care. We want to make sure that our childcare sector is as viable as the higher education sector we were debating before. The previous government failed to invest in the tertiary sector, and they failed to invest in our young people with respect to the childcare sector. The many childcare workers that I know were absolutely appalled that one of the major changes they saw in the sector was the previous government’s commitment to AWAs and the imposition of Work Choices. I spoke to many people in the childcare sector during the last election campaign. I know, after having spoken to them, that they were not on high wages. The impact of Work Choices and AWAs in that sector was dreadfully severe. The government’s commitment to eradicate Work Choices, to abolish AWAs, to improve the wages and conditions of the workers in the sector, to give parents greater transparency and access to information, to give greater flexibility to the sector, to give more money to the sector, to invest in our young people and in the sector generally and to fix up the problems caused by the Eddie Groveses of the world is a demonstration of the Rudd government’s true commitment to a strong childcare sector—a strong vision for child care backed up by serious money. I commend the legislation to the House.