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Tuesday, 23 November 2010
Page: 3479

Ms BIRD (5:54 PM) —I rise this afternoon to speak on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Budget Measures) Bill 2010, which amends the Family Assistance Act 1999. It returns the childcare rebate annual cap to $7,500 per child per year and suspends annual indexation for four years until 30 June 2014. It should be indicated that the bill will generate over $6.3 million to be directly reinvested in the National Quality Framework, allowing higher quality care to be provided in our childcare system. I will come back in later comments to the importance of quality care.

These reforms will allow for better staff-to-child ratios, hence allowing children to get more individual care and attention; a boost to staff qualification requirements, allowing childcare workers the opportunity to better lead activities that help kids learn and develop to their full potential; and high-quality care from which 800,000 families will benefit. Although nationally the impact of the bill will be fairly minimal, I indicate that in my electorate of Cunningham the median average income is under $100,000 a year and many of these families will benefit from the reforms proposed in child care. I should also indicate it will also help fund our $59.4 million investment in improving the quality of 142 budget based funded early childhood services, predominantly located in rural and remote Australia, that provide care to some of the most vulnerable children in our community.

As the previous speaker, the member for Gippsland, indicated, the importance of reforming the childcare area is particularly important for those of us who come from regional areas. I notice my colleague the Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs is at the table, with whom I have just finished a meeting with a delegation of great people from the city of Geelong talking about regional development in their area as well. There are many synergies between the two. I just want to acknowledge that for many of us in regional areas, as the former speaker said, the provision of quality child care is particularly important for the future of our young people. That is exactly part of what this bill sits within: a reform agenda of this government to provide better quality child care at more affordable rates.

The important point that needs to be acknowledged in the impact of the bill, because it is a budget bill, is that the vast majority of Australian families will not be affected by the changes that are proposed. My understanding is that about three per cent of families who currently use child care will be affected by these measures and many more will be supported by the redirection of funds into the quality program. In order to reach the cap, most families would need to place their child in care for 10 hours a day for more than four days a week at average fee levels. That is the group we are talking about. In fact, if you look at the average cost of the use of child care across Australia, the vast majority of people are much lower than that—most parents are around 2½ days per week. So less than one per cent of families who use child care will be impacted by the proposed changes in this budget bill.

It is important, therefore, to acknowledge that part of the government’s commitment that has been ongoing since the election of 2007 has been to provide better affordability for families in child care. We want them to have affordable, accessible and quality early education and child care. The reason that we are committed to that is we well understand that the foundations that young people get through childcare activities in a variety of formats before they commence school is particularly important. There is a role for government in ensuring the quality of the delivery of that care, and the focus on the reforms in this area has been particularly important to me as a former educator.

The commitment is backed by an investment of more than $18.2 billion over the next four years. As the former speaker—I thought quite generously—acknowledged from the other side of the House, it was an area where there had not been enough done by the previous Howard governments. This $18.2 billion is almost $11 billion more than was provided in the last four years of the coalition government, so this is a significant commitment to this important area. Overall, we are investing $14.9 billion to help 800,000 Australian families annually with the cost of child care. This is through the childcare benefit and the childcare rebate.

We have delivered on our commitment to increase the child care rebate from 30 to 50 per cent of parents’ out of pocket expenses. That is a particularly important measure that has been put in place to assist families cope with the cost of living. We have increased the maximum for each child in care to $7,500 a year. Under the coalition government the rebate was 30 per cent and the maximum cap was less than $4,500. In 2004, the out-of-pocket costs after subsidies for a family earning $55,000 a year with one child in long-day care was 13 per cent of their disposable income. For that same family now, in 2010, the proportion has declined to seven per cent of their income. That is an important commitment to assisting families cope with the cost of living, but we are also committed to ensuring that they have confidence and a reasonable expectation that child care is also of quality and will be preparing their children for their future in school.

We have also delivered on our promise to pay the childcare rebate quarterly, so parents will not have to wait until the end of the year. I well remember as an opposition member people being particularly frustrated by the whole process of having to pay out and then wait until the end of the financial year to get that money back. To further help families manage childcare costs, for the first time parents will be able to choose to access their childcare rebate payments fortnightly. When it comes to improving the affordability of child care, our record stands solid. We have provided important support to assist families to manage their costs of living.

This bill proposes not only an affordable program for child care but also a quality program. As a former teacher I am passionate about the fact that, particularly for young people who might come from quite disadvantaged households, the provision of quality child care is very important in good transitions to school and provides a much greater chance of success in a child’s schooling. Parents need peace of mind that the place they drop their child at for child care is safe, happy and stimulating. That is fundamentally what quality comes down to. It sounds simple but they are really important concepts for people who leave their children in child care. Although many childcare centres across Australia are doing well in these areas, the National Childcare Accreditation Council’s latest report did show, sadly, that too many childcare centres were failing to meet those basic safety, hygiene, educational and wellbeing standards. The report showed that, of the 1,129 centres that received an accreditation decision between 1 January and 30 June, 30 per cent failed to ensure that toiletting and nappy changing procedures were consistent with the advice from recognised health authorities; 26 per cent failed to ensure each 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.

We believe that we can and must do better against these quality standards for our child care. This is why the government has been working in partnership with state and territory governments to implement a national quality framework. The intention of that framework is to lift the standard of care across Australia. The national quality standards are intended to improve staff to child ratios, so every child gets more individual care and attention, which is very important at those early developmental ages; to raise staff qualifications, in order to ensure staff are better able to lead activities that help children learn and develop; to introduce a quality rating system for all childcare services, to provide information that is meaningful to parents so that they know the quality of care on offer and they can make informed decisions—this government has a great track record on providing good quality information to parents, and the My School website is a good example of that; and to reduce red tape related to services, so providers only have to deal with one regulator and can spend less time on paperwork and more time on the kids in their care. The issue of red tape and the whole process of filling out forms and reporting has been regularly raised with me over my years as a member, so if we could get a national framework that allowed reporting to a single regulator that would ease the pressure on the providers themselves.

We must do better when it comes to the safety, wellbeing and early learning of our children. That is what the whole childcare reforms framework is about. Parents expect nothing less of us and providing national leadership to ensure those quality reforms are delivered is one of our most serious duties.

The child care budget measures bill 2010 directly addresses the childcare rebate and provides savings which can be redirected to the quality agenda of the national quality framework, and it supports the imperative I have talked about—providing affordable, accessible and quality child care. In an economic context we already have ample evidence that, if we want to increase productivity and participation, we need to ensure that all children get a quality education and that all young people go on to undertake vocational education and training or university studies which set them up for the future. The foundation block for so much of that are those early years of life and how young people transition into kindergarten and into starters school. It can be a make or break period and if child care is being provided it is very difficult to argue, on a social or an economic basis, that the government does not have a responsibility to ensure a quality framework around that child care. For those reasons this budget bill sits within an important government reform agenda. It certainly has my support and it should be supported by the House.