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Tuesday, 23 November 2010
Page: 3491

Mr STEPHEN JONES (6:46 PM) —I rise to support the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Budget Measures) Bill 2010. It is an important bill and it forms part of our plan to assist working families as they cope with the costs and vicissitudes of modern family life. It goes hand in hand with the assistance that we are giving to working families through the education tax rebate, the doubling of the funding that the Labor government has given over the last three years to child care and early childhood education, the introduction of fair and reasonable workplace relations laws for the families with children who are occupying childcare centres and the workers in those childcare centres, and of course keeping unemployment low through the worst financial crisis to hit this nation in the last 100 years.

Whilst I am dealing with the issue of cost pressures, I might respond to some of the observations made just now by the member for Aston. Interest rates are still lower today than they were when Labor came to office in 2007, and we are the only country in the OECD to have unemployment below five per cent. Most other comparable countries are dealing with unemployment in excess of 10 per cent. If you want to talk about cost pressures on working families, the best thing you can do to alleviate cost pressures on working families is ensure that people have a job.

Child care is an industry that is changing, and so too must the Commonwealth government’s approach to child care change to ensure that we meet the new demands of the industry and ensure that it is appropriately regulated. The sector is growing at a rate of around 250 new centres per annum. There are around 4,750 long day care centres in Australia. Around 75 per cent of these are privately owned, 22 per cent are community owned and around three per cent are in the government sector, run predominantly by local governments. Around 800,000 families and 870,000 children are using approved childcare centres each week in Australia. This is an increase of over eight per cent since 2005.

It is important that we ensure that we continue to meet the costs and address the issues associated with families who have their children in child care and who are in need of child care to assist them in their daily working lives. I make the observation that the out-of-pocket costs for families have fallen across all income levels. Indeed, families earning $55,000 a year spent around 13 per cent of their disposable income on child care in 2004. This figure fell to seven per cent in 2009. Clearly more work needs to be done, but we are heading in the right direction.

The measures within this bill will generate an additional $86.3 million in savings that are going to be specifically redirected to support the government’s quest to increase the quality of child care and early childhood education in Australia. I make the important point that, as we bring in new social innovations and new policies to support working families, we need to do that in a broader fiscal context to ensure that all of our policies are properly costed and affordable. It is one of the things that distinguishes our approach to these matters from that of members opposite. Members opposite went into the last election with a $10 billion black hole of unfunded promises, whereas each and every one of our promises has to be offset by savings and has to fall within our strict fiscal rules.

The Gillard Labor government’s $273.7 million investment in the national quality framework, which has been endorsed by COAG, will improve educator to child ratios so that each child gets more individual time and individual attention—a proposition which is very difficult to disagree with. It will introduce educator qualification requirements so that educators are better able to lead activities that inspire youngsters and help them to learn and develop. It will develop a new rating system so that parents know the quality of care on offer and can make informed choices. It will also reduce regulation burdens so that services only have to deal with one regulator. This is particularly important for national operators operating across numerous state and territory jurisdictions. This measure will also help to fund our $59.4 million investment in improving the quality of the 142 budget based funded early childhood services which are located in rural and remote Australia and provide care to some of Australia’s most vulnerable children. We are doing this because the government believes that each of 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 Australian government is committed to providing Australian families with access to affordable, accessible and quality early education and child care. This commitment is backed by an investment of more than $18.2 billion over the next four years. That is almost $11 billion more than was provided in the last four years of the former coalition government. Overall, we are investing $14.9 billion to help 800,000 Australian families annually with the cost of child care through the childcare benefit and childcare rebate. We have delivered on our commitment to increase the childcare rebate from 30 to 50 per cent of parents’ out-of-pocket expenses and to increase the maximum for each child in care to $17,500 a year. Under the former coalition government, the rebate was only 30 per cent of out-of-pocket expenses and the maximum cap was less than $4,500 per annum. So it really is quite galling to hear the complaints of members opposite that the Labor government is not doing enough to support working families and their childcare needs. The rebate under the former coalition government was only 30 per cent and the cap was less than $4,500 per annum. So we have moved that a long way in our four years in government.

We have also delivered on our promise to pay the childcare rebate quarterly—a significant improvement for working families in meeting their household budgets so that parents do not have to wait until the end of the year to receive crucial assistance. To further help families manage their weekly childcare costs, for the first time parents will be able to access their childcare rebate more regularly, and we hope that by July 2011 we will be able to introduce fortnightly payments of the childcare rebate.

The Gillard government has a very clear record of supporting Australian families to manage their budgets, particularly when it comes to the costs associated with early childhood education and with child care. We know that parents support these measures. Research conducted earlier this year by the union representing childcare workers, the LHMU, showed that over 90 per cent of parents support childcare reform and over 84 per cent of those parents would support a small increase in fees if it led to better education, better care and a higher quality service for their children.

When it comes to improving the affordability of child care, the record of the Gillard Labor government stands head and shoulders above those opposite. We are getting the balance right between quality and affordability. That is because we know that cost is only one part of the equation when it comes to decisions about child care. Parents also need the peace of mind that when they are dropping off their children at care they will be in a safe, happy and stimulating environment. Indeed, it is in our national interest to ensure that working families with very young children can participate in the economy knowing that, as they drop their kids at the childcare centre on their way to work, their children will be cared for to the highest possible standard.

Mr Tehan interjecting

Mr STEPHEN JONES —The member opposite mocks at this, but I am proud to be part of a government that is working in partnership with state and territory governments to implement a national quality framework that will lift the standard of child care across Australia. We believe in continuous improvement in this area. We believe that government has a role. We believe that we should not just leave it to the market to rip because we have seen the disastrous consequences of that with the recent collapse of ABC Learning.

Through the national quality framework we will improve staff-child ratios so that every child gets more individual care and attention. We will raise staff qualifications to ensure that staff are better able to lead activities that help children learn and develop and we will assist the workers in these childcare centres to acquire those qualifications and support them through that process. We will introduce a quality rating system for all childcare services so that parents know the quality of care on offer and can make informed choices. This, I can say through personal experience, is an important issue because most parents, and I am a parent with children in child care, have got so much going on in their working lives that they do not have the ability to do a detailed audit of all the childcare services available in their area and it will be of great assistance to know that an accredited childcare provider will meet a national standard and will be, at the very least, complying with a quality rating system for all equivalent childcare services.

We will in the same process reduce red tape related to services, particularly by having a single national provider so that providers only have to deal with one regulator—they can spend less time on paperwork and more time with the kids in their care. There is no doubt that parents see quality child care as an important issue and are willing to pay a small amount more to get the best start in life for their children. We have been upfront with families and the sector about these moderate cost changes and we have made sure that the changes will be introduced over a number of years so that the cost increases will be gradual. Hopefully, as the economy recovers, as we fully expect it will due to the work of this Labor government in partnership with workers and businesses throughout Australia, we will be able to ensure in the years ahead that any increases in costs will be offset by increases in wages.

We have undertaken this important reform because we know that the research tells us that the early years shape the future happiness, the future health and the future wellbeing of our children. It is therefore disappointing that the Leader of the Opposition wanted to put the national quality standard on hold indefinitely. Indeed, when you read and study what the standard is about, it is hard to believe that any reasonable-minded Australian could disagree with what is being proposed. Federal Labor believe that we can and must do more when it comes to the safety, wellbeing and early learning of our children. That is what parents expect of us and, through our quality reforms, that is exactly what we will deliver.

On this side of the House, we are readying our economy for the challenges of the future. We are ensuring that our children are ready for that future. That includes providing Australian families with access to affordable, accessible, quality early education and child care. We are also building on the National Broadband Network, dealing with pricing carbon and tackling climate change and all the other costs that have been alluded to in the course of this debate to ensure that the working families that we represent have a decent shake at getting ahead in the years ahead. I commend the bill to the House and thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to speak on this important matter.