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Tuesday, 23 November 2010
Page: 3472


Dr LEIGH (5:29 PM) —Child care underpins this government’s participation agenda and quality child care is critical for Australian parents. Emily Murray, who is a volunteer in my office, has done some back-of-the-envelope sums to work out the share of Australian workers whose participation in the labour market is underpinned by having access to child care. Her estimate is that there are 305,825 parents who can enter the labour force as a result of formal child care. In other words, our participation rate is 2.7 percentage points higher than it would be if parents did not have access to quality child care.

Quality child care is also critical for children themselves. Through high-quality child care children learn social skills—learning to interact with their peers—and cognitive skills: from counting to reading to shape recognition. Economists—and I was one before I entered the parliament—have increasingly developed a research interest in early childhood. Nobel laureate James Heckman is chief among those who are exploring this area. Increasingly the research in this field is uncovering the fact that, particularly for the most disadvantaged, high-quality child care can be a great leveller, it can be a great secret to breaking the intergenerational poverty cycle. I spoke a little about this in the adjournment debate on 18 November.

Child care provides greater choice to Australian families and, put simply, it makes for happier parents. When I drop off my two little boys at the Acton Early Childhood Centre at the Australian National University on the way to the parliament, I am certainly pleased to be leaving them in the hands of carers that I know will give them an interesting, engaging and stimulating experience all the way through the day.

I spoke in the 90-second statements by members yesterday on the ACT Children’s Services Awards—awards which recognise the terrific work done by early childhood workers across the ACT. This work is backed up by an investment of more than $17 billion over the next four years—some $10 billion more than the amount provided in the last four years of the former coalition government. The Labor government has delivered on our commitment to increase the childcare rebate from 30 per cent to 50 per cent of parents’ out-of-pocket expenses and we have increased the maximum from each child in care to $7,500 a year. Under the former coalition government the rebate was 30 per cent and the maximum was less than $4,500.

The comments from those opposite today reflect the fact that Labor governments always face higher standards, and we have met those. We are happy to meet those higher standards but we would also like a little more honesty from those opposite—to have those opposite willing to walk in here and say ‘Well, you’ve done an awful lot, you’ve really raised the bar here and frankly you are providing more support to Australian working families than we ever did in our time in office.’

In 2004 the out-of-pocket costs after subsidies for a family with one child in long day care and earning $55,000 a year was 13 per cent of their disposable income. In 2010, out-of-pocket childcare costs had declined to just seven per cent. Labor has also delivered on our promise to pay the childcare rebate quarterly so parents do not have do wait until the end of the year to receive crucial assistance. And watch this space for further reforms.

The direct effects of the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Budget Measures) Bill 2010 have been covered by previous speakers. It will do two key things. It will reduce the childcare rebate annual cap to $7,500 per child per year from July 2010, where indexation had previously taken that cap to $7,778 per child per year; and it will pause indexation from the maximum CCR rate for four years, that is, until 30 June 2014. Why are we doing this? We are doing this in order to save $86.3 million over four years. This money will help fund the government’s $273.7 million investment in early childhood education and child care. That money will help invest, for example, in the $82 million implementation of the National Quality Framework, also referred to as the National Quality Standard for early childhood education and care providers, currently being prepared for introduction in January 2012.

In her second reading speech, the Minister for Employment, Participation and Childcare and the Minister for the Status of Women pointed out that the National Quality Framework is necessary because the National Childcare Accreditation Council reports that many childcare centres are failing to meet basic safety, hygiene, education and wellbeing standards. The minister pointed out that, of the 1,129 centres that received an accreditation decision during the first six months of 2010, 30 per cent failed to ensure that toileting and nappy changing procedures were consistent with advice from the recognised health authorities; 26 per cent failed to ensure that a child’s learning was documented and used in a planning program; 34 per cent failed to ensure that staff members supported each child’s needs for rest, sleep, comfort and sun protection; and 32 per cent failed to ensure that potentially dangerous products, plants and objects were inaccessible to children.

The member for Murray referred to this as bullying. Far from bullying, Labor’s quality childcare agenda is ensuring that in the small minority of centres where there are problems—a few hundred centres in the case of the evidence I have just cited—the government has a quality framework that is able to ensure that Australian parents can drop their kids off in the morning without the fear of the sorts of problems that the National Childcare Accreditation Council has documented. Labor believe that we can do better and we must do better when it comes to the safety, wellbeing and early learning of Australian children. So we are working in partnership with state and territory governments to implement this National Quality Framework in order to lift the standard of child care right across Australia. The National Quality Standard is going to improve staff to child ratios so every child gets more care and more attention.

The new system will raise staff qualifications to ensure that they are better able to lead activities that help children to learn and to develop. It is going to introduce a quality rating system for all childcare services so that parents know the quality of care on offer and can make more informed choices. It will reduce the red-tape related to services so that providers only have to deal with one regulator. That means that the providers can spend less time on paperwork and more time with the kids in their care. From my own experience at my sons’ childcare centre, that extra time is crucial. When the director is able to move out among children, get to know them and assist the other carers rather than being in his or her office they can make a real difference to the care of children. That is how this red tape reduction will assist Australian families.

In her second reading speech, the minister said:

The 800,000 Australian families who place their children in care each week deserve to know that they are safe and in a happy and stimulating learning environment.

The minister pointed out that the National Quality Framework will increase educator to child ratios. It will introduce educator requirements and the terrific rating system. That is going to ensure that childcare services only need to deal with the one regulator.

Labor’s childcare reforms go on. We will provide $59.4 million to improve the quality of the 142 budget base funded early childhood services in rural and remote Australia. We will provide $1.9 million to support new regulatory measures for ongoing stability in the childcare market in the wake of the ABC Learning crisis. That includes developing measures that would require large childcare providers who enter the market to prove their financial viability.

In finishing, I would like to point out that 97 per cent of parents are not eligible for the full rate of childcare rebate. Their ability to pay any varying costs of child care is not increased by the measures in this bill. But what the measures in this bill will do for all parents who use child care is give them that sense of confidence and that sense of certainty that every childcare centre in Australia will be a great childcare centre. They will know that, wherever they drop their children off in the morning, those children will be safe, happy and learn new skills. They will know that their children will come home at the end of the day engaged, interested in learning, more curious and more interested in the world. That is what great child care can do. Through Labor’s quality childcare reforms, which are the heart of this legislation, we are going to ensure that every childcare centre in Australia will be a quality one.