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Tuesday, 25 June 2013
Page: 6907

Ms LEY (Farrer) (13:02): I am pleased to speak today on the Early Years Quality Fund Special Account Bill 2013, which, from the beginning, has been something of a sham. Even in the government's own explanatory memorandum, they claim that this fund will provide $300 million over two years to all long day care services which are approved for child care benefit. Regrettably, this is not true, as the fund will only provide pay increases to between 27 and 40 per cent of the sector, leaving more than 60 per cent behind.

We have not even got an accurate number of workers in this sector, with estimates between 62,000 and 78,000. So the minister talking about 40 per cent of the sector is just not true. We do not know how much increased income those who are lucky enough to receive money under this fund would get, despite the union United Voice publishing a handy table for their members, citing figures they have pulled out from goodness knows where. The minister has put the responsibility for determining that actual amount in the hands of a seven-member advisory committee, which has recently been appointed.

So we are starting well behind the eight ball on this piece of legislation. About the only accurate figure the government has been able to provide is the amount of money they are appropriating for it—$300 million, in an environment where every single extra dollar borrowed is a burden on the next generation.

I am the first to admit that those who work in early child care and childhood learning are poorly paid. I have visited hundreds of centres and met thousands of staff and their young charges, and I know that they are doing it tough. They work long hours and they have such an important role to play in helping shape the futures of our next generation, and they do deserve to be fairly recompensed.

I say to the government, in a pre-emptive strike, that this is not about the opposition not believing that those on low pay should be better rewarded; those on low pay everywhere deserve to be better rewarded. Unfortunately, the system does not allow for them to be as lucky as this particular group of workers, where the government has done a deal—some have described it as a dirty, dodgy deal—with the union about increasing that union's membership. It is also a cruel hoax because it is giving false hope to a group of the most vulnerable workers in this country.

There are existing processes for making fair and lasting wage claims. In this instance, the correct process would be, and still could be, to lodge a claim with the Fair Work Commission, seeing responsibility for this decision rest with an independent umpire. The Fair Work Commission is the Prime Minister's own creation, a proud record—as the government talks it up—of having an independent quasi-judicial body tasked with implementing the modern award system and, in so doing, being equitable across every single wage category. But this completely usurps that process. It should be said, too, that it is not the role of government to write blank cheques. Given the diabolical mess that this government has put us in financially, we should be tightening our belts across the board instead of giving in to 'union mates'.

What we need to do is approach this issue in a manner that will see a fair and equitable outcome for all who work in the sector. Had United Voice lodged a claim with Fair Work Australia, as the commission was called two years ago, they would have had a decision by now and I am certain that all in the industry would be taking home more than they currently are. Instead, they did not do the hard yards; they did not do the hard work. They cosied up to their mates in this government and produced this half-baked deal which gives false hope to a group of the most vulnerable workers in this country.

In my travels to childcare centres around Australia I spend a lot of time chatting with the mainly young women on the floor. The absolute majority are doing this job because they adore the children. They love watching them learn and helping them grow. They view this as a vocation. It is not about the money. It is something many of them feel they were born to do, so we are lucky to have them. We know they work for low wages and we want to support them, but we do not want to cheat them, we do not want to hoax them and we do not want to give them the false hope that this piece of legislation and this scheme are doing.

The requirements of the national quality framework deserve a mention here. Whenever I speak to childcare educators and ask whether the job is what they expected it to be, nine times out of 10 I get the answer: 'Well, yes, except for the paperwork. I never thought I'd have to spend my days ticking checklists and writing minireports that parents don't seem to want to read when I know that what I want to do and what I am gifted to do is to sit on the floor educating and caring for the children.'

Both the House of Representatives and the Senate inquiries were bombarded with submissions on the Early Years Quality Fund Special Account Bill that we are debating now, yet there were many voices that were unable to be heard as the government allowed only one week in their haste to push this through the parliament. Many submissions arrived after the deadline, but there is a common theme with the majority of the submissions, and that is inequity. Instead of distributing this fund fairly across the sector, resulting in a pay rise of around $40 a person per week, the government has agreed to just provide increases to a small portion of the workforce. It absolutely appals me that a Labor government could be supporting a measure that will clearly disadvantage and disenfranchise more than 60 per cent of this workforce. Not only has this funding been confined to long day care workers but it will reach well under half of them—not occasional care workers, not family day care workers, not in-home care workers; just long day care workers.

What sort of message does this send to those who will miss out? In the words of the Childcare Association of Western Australia, it is likely to make them feel undervalued and could actually lead to a higher staff turnover. Even if it were 40 per cent of the workforce—and, honestly, estimates are saying it will be a lot less—this is one small subgroup of the entire workforce in child care. But it happens neatly to dovetail with a section that this government is clearly aiming this legislation at, and that is union members. In spite of the minister's small and humble insistences that, no, you do not have to be a union member in order to get this particular increase to your pay, the overwhelming view in the world out there is that you do, because union delegates are visiting childcare centres—of course, they have right of entry provisions beefed up under this government—and saying to the workforce there: 'Join the union and you'll get the pay rise—you will be one of the lucky ones.' It should be everyone's individual decision whether to join a union, and, as I have often said, I have belonged to three unions and have nothing against unions. I have a lot against this union's particular campaign in this area, because it is not true. The minister, instead of stating categorically and making it absolutely clear—this is not the minister at the table; this is the minister for early childhood—that you do not have to be a member of this union to get the pay rise, simply updated the frequently asked questions on the department's website. He was hiding behind the department, unable to clearly state to a vulnerable group of workers that they are being misled by this union and fleeced of their $500 membership fees—that is a lot of money for somebody on low wages. They have joined up to the union and they now have an expectation that they will get this pay rise, and the union's campaign—well known as 'Big Steps' across this country—has falsely given them that expectation.

If you look at the Big Steps Facebook page—and I encourage everyone interested in this area to do exactly that—you will see the comments made by the workforce, including such things as, 'I can now go on holiday,' 'I can now afford to buy a car,' 'I can now afford to get married,' and, 'I am going to get this pay rise.' The irresponsibility of the government in breaking the hearts of vulnerable workers by turning around and saying, 'Well, maybe not—and, by the way, it has nothing to do with the $500 membership fee that you just handed out to United Voice,' after allowing this campaign to run rampant across the childcare centres of this country, deserves extreme condemnation.

As the Australian Childcare Alliance has pointed out in its submission, there is a very real danger of other centres being forced to raise their costs to match the centres that would receive the funding in order to address a government-generated inequity. Regrettably for the families of Australia who have already seen an increase in the cost of child care—to the tune of about 26 per cent since Julie Gillard became Prime Minister—the cost may well increase quite a bit more as the result of this abysmal policy decision. Understandably, the sector is also aggrieved by the requirement to enter into an enterprise bargaining agreement in order to be able to access the funds. Currently, only marginally more than 20 per cent of the sector uses EBAs, and for many smaller centres these are a costly investment, can take months to negotiate and cost thousands of dollars.

We have seen sizeable protests outside the childcare minister's Adelaide office. There would have been protests outside of Minister Garrett's office, but he is tucked away on the eighth floor of a very poorly signed building, so it is hard to actually find him. Both ministers with responsibilities in this area appear deaf to the pleas not only of childcare operators but also of the many workers in the industry who also do not think it is fair that only a proportion of their number get rewarded more highly for doing the same job.

Another area that I believe deserves attention today—I have highlighted it and I do want to highlight it some more—is the role played by the union United Voice. Their behaviour in this campaign has been nothing short of outrageous. We have seen a United Voice member post a photograph of a childcare peak organisation's president on their Facebook page, mocking them. We have had centres being phoned or visited by United Voice officials and being informed that, unless a minimum of 60 per cent of the workforce signs up, they will not be able to secure the pay rise. I guess that 60 per cent figure that they are quoting comes from the fact that, to have a EBA, you have to have 60 per cent of the workforce sign up, but it has nothing to do with this.

Young workers have been told that, if they do not join the union and give $500 of their annual wages to union dues, their colleagues will not get the pay rise—and they must not let down their colleagues; they would be letting their friends down. I know of a centre where the United Voice representative told them that, without union involvement, they were not even allowed to enter into an enterprise bargaining agreement. Some centres have been told that they need to enter into memorandums of understanding with the union, committing to:

Provide access to at least one paid/ compulsory staff meeting so United Voice can explain the EYQF, the funding process and the importance of union membership as part of a long term solution … [and]

Provide ongoing ease of access between United Voice and our centre staff (lunch rooms, staff meetings, or being released from the floor by another staff member).

Despite a letter being sent from the department's David De Silva to Louise Tarrant in early April that noted their transgressions and referred them to a document that clearly states that union membership is not a prerequisite for being eligible for this fund, they have persisted. That is where I am critical of the ministers in this area—for essentially hiding behind departmental letters and frequently asked questions on websites. The letter, by the way, is very lightly worded and I suspect that there was quite a bit of red ink applied to the draft from the minister's office. But the fact is that the union knew—and knows—that the information it is peddling is untrue. What is even more disgusting is that this is the union that is supposed to represent the interests of low-paid workers but it is more than happy to lie to them in order to secure more memberships.

We have a government that has failed to heed the cries of industry and that is intent on racing through this legislation without even enabling the opportunity for consideration of the guidelines by those of us in this place. Yet again we see a complete and utter lack of transparency. So who knows what inclusions will be in play? How do we know, for example, that the panel will not insist on union membership? I refer to the seven-member advisory panel that is appointed to draft the guidelines to oversee the fund. So immediately you would think, 'The guidelines haven't even been drafted yet, so how do we know what they'll be?' Well, the minister says they have got to cover various things in a few areas in a press release. But, no, the actual guidelines have not been drafted. And the seven-member panel does not include the Australian Childcare Alliance, which represents 70 per cent of centres. It does not have a seat at the table.

The seven-member panel also includes those who would actually be applying for funding for their centres. There is a bit of an inconsistency there. There could be a conflict of interest. They are good people. I am sure they will manage the conflict appropriately and professionally, but we are talking about the optics here: guidelines that have not been written, rules that have not been released and a minister who is saying on the one hand that this is how the system will work but on the other getting his departmental officials to say, 'You'll just have to wait and see the guidelines.' Who knows? Maybe the guidelines will say you do have to be a union member. I am sure they won't, because it would be absolutely reprehensible for them to.

If you are in the sector and you are considering applying for this funding and you have to write an EBA and you feel compelled and caught up in this because your workforce is saying, 'Will we be getting the extra money and how much will it be and when will it arrive in our pay packets?' and so on, then you are taking steps now to add hugely to your costs. You might be a small business; you might be a community centre with a hard-working volunteer board. The money has got to come from somewhere no matter which model you use. You will be working hard to fund the costs of an EBA. It is not something you can knock up at home when you are doing all your other work for your childcare centre. You have to pay an industrial lawyer and it is expensive. You do not even know, when you lodge the EBA, what the guidelines will be. You do not even know if you might meet those guidelines. You do know, however, that you will incur significant costs just to begin the process.

The panel will have responsibility for monitoring the fund over its two-year lifespan. It only lasts two years. It is apparently the case that one would write into the EBA that the wages will go up for two years and then go down. But we know that wages do not go down and expectations are built in. That is part of the reason why wages stay where they are. This raises further questions. If the panel deems a centre to be in breach of the guidelines somewhere through that two-year period, what action can be taken? Say, for example, a centre were to raise their fees, would the panel or the department have authority to cease their funding immediately? What would this mean for the workforce? If the two organisations represented on the panel are recipients of the fund, who will have oversight for them?

At the very least we really should delay debate on this bill until we have had an opportunity to review the guidelines. Why weren't the guidelines included in the explanatory memorandum at least so we can consider the impact of this selective fund on the sector as a whole? It is treating the sector with disdain and disrespect. As I said, the guidelines are incomplete and some of the minister's statements have not, to my mind, actually logically made sense and they have not given the assurances that they should to those who have skin in the game, who apply for the funds but ultimately will be paying the workforce in their centres.

One of the things that was mooted when this was announced does get referred to in the explanatory memorandum. It is not clear but it goes a bit like this: in order to access this fund you cannot as a centre be putting up your fees to your parents. It is meant to give parents assurance that fees will not rise beyond a certain level. Obviously fees are going to rise. They are going to rise in accordance with the National Quality Framework, the reducing ratios and the increased qualifications that staff members need to have. That is recognised widely. I think even the union itself has said fees are going up 11 per cent. So we know that fees are going up. But will this mean that, as a centre, you have to give someone from the department access to your statements and your books to determine whether your fee increases are reasonable or not? Will they be asking questions about your return on equity? Will they be interviewing your banks? Will they be monitoring how you run your business and saying, 'You shouldn't be putting fees up and if you did this, you wouldn't,' and so on? It is just not clear. If you apply for this money, you are inviting that sort of examination of your business practices, which I have not heard of and which is totally unreasonable.

Let us revert to the heart of the matter just for a moment. I appreciate we are talking about the likelihood of childcare workers and I understand for some listening that our opposition to this bill sounds like we might be kicking them. We are not opposing this bill because we do not believe they deserve a pay rise; we are opposing this bill because it is poorly designed and grossly inequitable. Those in the government, so anxious to appease members of the union and avoid the spat that would clearly arise if they had not given in on this occasion, will push this bill through, I am sure, with no regard to what is right and what is fair. Because, you know, the ugly underbelly to all of this is what happens to those union fees that are paid to United Voice. What happens to those $500 commitments from some of the most vulnerable, poorly paid workers in this country? They go straight back to the Labor Party to fund the election campaign, and that is a disgrace.

We on this side of the chamber cannot support a bill that will throw the childcare sector into turmoil and create massive division between workers who are always collegiate, who always share information and who belong to a special group that understands the special work they do but which is now being divided by sentiments such as: 'Well, I'm getting the pay rise. My centre's getting the pay rise, is yours? Well, you'd better come and work for us.' I was told today about an educator who resigned from her small centre, saying to her employer: 'It's not that I don't like working here—of course, everyone loves it here—but I've been told that if I move to this larger centre I'll get the pay rise. It's already sorted; I's is already locked in.' I am not going to name names here because that is not necessary, but I do want to assure people that I can give them that information. I can say that anyone who is assuring their workforce that they will get this pay rise deserves the strongest condemnation because we have not had the guidelines yet and we know that the fund can only cover a small proportion of the workforce.

We cannot support this bill. We do not believe in the division that it is creating in the sector. Australian families cannot afford to pay any more for child care. They have already seen increases of almost 26 per cent since Julia Gillard became Prime Minister. While we are all speculating about what might happen in the future, I do not think any Labor leader will act to decrease the cost of child care in this country any time soon.

I do want to assure those listening and the centres—whether they be community or private, small or large, corporate or family, in the country or in the suburbs—that we in the coalition understand how hard you work every day, whether you are running the centre and on the floor yourself or whether you are struggling to find the right people that you know you need in your centre to nurture the young people on the floor. We know how tough you are doing it and we also know how families struggle to fund the cost of child care. We have a plan that will stop the cost of child care soaring to levels which basically make it unaffordable and which mean that children exit into backyard arrangements, which are not good for them and not good for quality in this country.

We know the red-tape burden. It is no good for the minister and the government to say that this is all supposed to reduce red tape. Maybe it was supposed to, but it has not. When I see a childcare centre, I ask, 'How much time are you now allocating to compliance and how much time do you think you will do so once you have implemented these new arrangements?' We have seen that ratchet up. We have seen one whole job perhaps out of a staff of seven just dedicated to being in the office doing the paperwork. It is not good enough. We in the coalition believe, and we know, that we can act to reduce the red tape in centres. We also want to engage very cooperatively with everyone in this space to make sure that the costs do not rise at the rate they have and, therefore, put child care out of the reach of working families. I look forward to support for the coalition's position from the crossbenchers and I urge them to really seriously consider the divisive nature of this piece of legislation and to support the coalition's condemnation of it.