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Tuesday, 23 November 2010
Ms KATE ELLIS (Minister for Employment Participation and Childcare and Minister for the Status of Women) (7:45 PM) —in reply—I take this opportunity to thank all of the members for their contributions in the debate on this important Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Budget Measures) Bill 2010 and also for the manner in which they have been conducted. A wide range of diverse issues have come up during this debate and I would like to take the opportunity to address a few of them and to set the record straight. The first thing I make absolutely clear is that ours is a government that recognises the importance of affordable child care. This is something that we do not just come into the parliament to talk about but that we have acted conclusively on. In fact, it is really interesting that some members of the opposition were coming in here and comparing this bill to the situation that existed under the Howard government as if they had something to be proud about. Whilst this bill is capping the childcare rebate level at $7,500, those who opposed capping it at $7,500 here tonight were quite happy under the Howard government to see that level set at just $4,354. The increase when we came to government was substantial. The amount of $3,146 a year or some 72 per cent is over and above what parents could claim each year under the coalition government and is the result of our increasing the level at which the CCR is capped but also increasing the childcare rebate from 30 to 50 per cent of parental out-of-pocket expenses. We have done more than just talk about affordability. We can measure the impact that these measures we have put in place have had on the Australian childcare market. From ABS statistics, it is clear that in 2004 the out-of-pocket cost 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, this proportion of their disposable income has declined to seven per cent.
To make very clear to the House and all of those who have raised issues about the importance of affordable child care, I restate for the record that this government recognises how important it is that child care be affordable and that this is a government that has acted to ensure that the level of affordability is increased. We are spending over double what the previous Howard government was spending on affordability. We have put our money where our mouth is in that regard.
We also recognise that, whilst it is important that child care be affordable, it is important that Australian child care has quality. The bill that we are debating tonight will facilitate further government investment in our critical reforms to lift the quality of child care right across Australia. This is in response to the clear evidence that it is the early years which can shape a child’s life—they are absolutely critical. In fact, a child’s experience in their first five years shapes their future outcomes for life. Both domestic and international research show that one of the most effective measures of increasing educational attainment, social attainment and health outcomes throughout the life of a person is to make sure that we are investing in those critical early years.
We also know that, with the evolving nature of Australia’s workforce and with the caring arrangements of families, more and more often those early experiences are happening in our childcare centres, so it is important that they have quality. Despite all this research, National Childcare Accreditation Council data has revealed that many childcare centres are failing to meet basic safety, hygiene, educational and wellbeing standards. Thirty per cent of childcare centres receiving accreditation decisions in the first half of this year failed to ensure that toileting and nappy-changing procedures were consistent with advice from recognised health authorities. Thirty-two per cent had failed to ensure that potentially dangerous products, plants and objects were inaccessible to children.
I know from regular visits to our early childhood centres across Australia that they are filled with a remarkable workforce. They are filled with people who are amazing in their hard work, their passion and their dedication. But I also know from discussions with those workers that many of them would love to be able to give more individual attention to the children in their care and would love it if they could ensure that they were getting valuable results out of each and every one of those interactions. Our government believes that each of the 800,000 Australian families that places their children in care each week deserves to know and be confident when they drop their child off in the morning that they will be safe and will be well looked after throughout the day. We believe that we can and must do better when it comes to ensuring that the safety, wellbeing and early learning of our children come first. This bill will mean that the government can invest more money in these important reforms, which we think is incredibly important.
This bill will also allow the government to provide an extra $59 million to improve the quality of our budget based funded childcare services. Our budget based funded childcare services are, as the name suggests, funded directly by government. This is because they are not deemed to be viable to operate otherwise. In other words, they are in communities with a level of disadvantage such that they would not be able to operate on normal market principles or they might be in an area that was so remote that these children would otherwise not be able to access early childhood education.
These services are predominantly located in rural and regional Australia and they do provide care to some of our nation’s most vulnerable children. Sadly, it is the children from low-socioeconomic backgrounds who are most likely to miss out on these essential early learning opportunities, the very children who we know could actually benefit the most from those very experiences. So this $59 million investment will better support services to provide these children with high-quality early learning in an effort to improve their future health, their future development and their future wellbeing outcomes. Through the infrastructure and facility upgrades that this government will deliver, children will be able to learn and play in a safer and more appropriate environment in these particular communities.
I would like to take a moment to touch on the contribution of the opposition in tonight’s debate but it is really rather difficult to know where to begin. The fact is that it has been rather difficult to identify exactly what the reason for the opposition’s position on this bill is. When our government first started our extensive consultations on the national quality reform agenda, the then coalition spokesperson, the member for Indi, complained. Her response was that we were spending too much time out communicating and consulting with parents and that the government was treating parents with contempt for holding additional consultations with them. Of course, the member for Indi then backflipped on that and criticised the government for overconsulting and today the member for Farrer has criticised the government for not consulting enough on these quality reforms, so those opposite might want a bit of consistency. Whether they want more consultations or whether they think the government has been wasting time by overly consulting is not clear from the discussion we have had tonight or over recent months.
Indeed, when it comes to whether or not they support the quality agenda has been brought into question tonight. At least during the election campaign the Leader of the Opposition and the then coalition spokesperson, the member for Murray, claimed to be supportive of the government’s quality reforms. The member for Murray described it all on ABC radio as ‘the new quality framework which we, the coalition, totally support’. ‘Totally support’ before the election but after the election they come in here and argue against the very measures which would put it all in place! Today the member for Farrer has decided that it is no longer the case that the opposition are supporting the quality reform agenda, and she is rapidly backing away from the commitment. But perhaps if we want to note the height of hypocrisy of the backflips and the inconsistencies of those opposite, it is best demonstrated, however, by the fact that the coalition have not just flip-flopped on particular aspects of the quality agenda but have flip-flopped on this particular bill. Whilst people might have come in here, one after the other, to argue against this tonight, I note many of these very same coalition members, prior to the last election, supported this. When this very same bill was first introduced into the parliament the coalition supported the measure. It passed this very chamber this very year with the support of those opposite.
I know that the shadow minister, who is sitting opposite, has also assisted us with a particularly original contribution to the childcare debate tonight. I think that she might actually be the first member of the opposition to come in here and claim that there is no link between quality child care and staff qualifications, that there is no link between quality child care and the ratio of staff to children. If you ask any academic or if you look at any study to see what increases the quality of early childhood care, the first two answers will be these. As for the first thing, the quality increases if you have greater attention. If you have a low staff to child ratio that means that children are getting more individual care and attention to detail, and if you have more staff to ensure a safe environment and build a relationship with those children, that increases quality. The other thing which clearly increases quality is if you increase the qualifications of those staff members, so if you make sure that they are trained in every way to get the absolute most out of those individual children. Given that particular contribution to the debate, I would like to humbly suggest that the shadow minister opposite might want to review her notes. In particular, she might want to review her criticism that the national quality agenda is actually not our issue at all and that it apparently is a state licensing issue to have a look at the accreditation details. That is true in one regard, except that the whole idea of these groundbreaking COAG reforms is that we will replace state licensing with a national benchmark.
Those opposite have also argued that this has been a cash grab or that it has been increasing our coffers. On this point I think we need to be very clear. We heard a lot about this during this debate and we heard a lot about it during the election campaign. I know in my local community I had opponents putting out flyers about the ‘fact’ that we were about to slash funding to child care. So let us be very clear about the fact that this government has more than doubled our financial contribution to early childhood education. That is something that we are incredibly proud of. Let us also be clear about the fact that this bill is designed to make sure that funding is available for those early childhood centres who need it the most and to ensure that we lift the quality of all of those centres right around the nation. So I think we do need to talk about what the effect of this bill actually is, because this is not about a single cent going into savings measures; this is about making sure that the funding is allocated to where it is needed the most.
The measure that we are debating tonight will return the childcare rebate annual cap to $7,500 per child per year and it will pause indexation of the annual cap for four years until 30 June 2014. This will generate $86.3 million that will be directly reinvested to support the government’s quest to increase the quality of child care and early education in Australia. It will also help to fund the government’s $59.4 million investment in improving the quality of the more than 140 budget based funded early childhood services, predominantly located in rural and remote Australia, that are providing care to some of our most vulnerable children. This adjustment to the childcare rebate will not affect the vast majority of Australian families who use approved child care. The average childcare rebate last year was less than $2,000. What we are talking about tonight is ensuring that a cap of $7,500 is set. In the current financial year we know that the vast majority of families, some 97 per cent, will not be affected in the slightest by this change. Importantly, this change will support the government’s important investment to lift the quality of child care right across Australia.
I want to acknowledge the contribution from the member for Melbourne, who put forward the case that the Greens have been arguing for more regular payments, particularly fortnightly payments, and flagged that they may be raising this in the Senate. We are proud that it was one of our election commitments to ensure that families receive their payments more regularly. We committed to fortnightly payments after, of course, earlier moving from yearly payments to quarterly payments. So I would like to support the member for Melbourne in that regard, and the Australian Greens in long arguing that particular position.
Our government recognises the importance of the early years. We are committed to assisting parents. We are committed to giving Australian children the very best start in life. We believe that our record is clear when it comes to delivering for child care and quality early learning experiences in Australia, and I commend the bill to the House. (Time expired)
That the motion (Ms Kate Ellis’s) be agreed to.