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Thursday, 10 May 2012
Page: 4534

Mr RANDALL (Canning) (12:19): I am pleased also to speak on the Paid Parental Leave and Other Legislation Amendment (Dad and Partner Pay and Other Measures) Bill 2012—a very florid title for an interesting bill. The government introduced this bill, which will amend the Paid Parental Leave Act 2010, to extend the scheme to certain working fathers and partners to receive two weeks of 'dads and partner pay' at the rate of the national minimum wage, which is currently $590 a week before tax. This leave is in addition to the current 18 weeks of Paid Parental Leave available to eligible persons. The dad and partner pay leave would be implemented from 1 January 2013. It also amends the Fair Work Act 2009 to clarify unpaid parental leave arrangements in the event of a stillbirth or infant death, to enable early commencement of unpaid parental leave and enable employees who are on unpaid parental leave to perform permissible paid work for short periods—in other words, what are loosely called 'keeping in touch' days.

The coalition supports the bill. Yet we would like to see an amendment, which has been made by the shadow minister, so that employers have an opt-in option of acting as the government's pay clerk for Paid Parental Leave payments. The undue red tape—and I will address the member for Corangamite's comments in a moment—does put further and unnecessary burdens on small business. It should be Centrelink's Family Assistance Office that is the default administrator for making Paid Parental Leave payments to eligible employees.

It was only in September last year that I made a constituency statement on this very issue. The red tape burden was affecting employers significantly, and the example I used was the Mandurah Retirement Village. Its CEO, Mr Don Pember, told me that the Labor government's way of handling the payments was 'significantly affecting his business'. The retirement village now has to perform extra administrative work through the 'the double handling of payments by both Centrelink and the employer'. The member for Corangamite said, 'It is very manageable and very small.' It might be very manageable and very small but it is extra and, depending on how many people you have to deal with, it is extra work which should be done by the agency rather than the business.

You cannot have it both ways. Through this House this week came the School Kids Bonus from the budget. One of the justifications for having it paid in the way that it is going to be paid, and without any compliance, was that it was all too hard to keep the receipts and it was all too hard to administer from a parent's point of view, making it difficult for people to claim for it. That was one of the reasons that they had to do what they did in terms of handing it out in bulk rather than people applying for it, versus this measure, which requires businesses to involve themselves in a fair bit of red tape. You cannot have it both ways—compliance is not a problem for one set of payments and compliance is a problem for another set of payments—so let's just get real.

It is worth pointing out that the coalition's paid parental leave plan is much better and fairer. At just 18 weeks, Labor's scheme is too short and does not maintain the income of the majority of Australian mothers. Furthermore, Labor's scheme does not provide superannuation. Starting a family is expensive, and I recognise the financial stress that young families face. The coalition's paid parental leave scheme will provide mothers with 26 weeks of paid parental leave at full replacement wage—up to a maximum salary of $150,000 per annum—or the federal minimum wage, whichever is greater. This will bring Australia in line with paid parental leave practices in other countries, such as Germany, Singapore, Mexico—believe it or not—and Switzerland, to name just a few. No other country derives their rate of payment from the national minimum wage, as Labor does.

The coalition's plan will include superannuation payments at the mandatory rate of nine per cent, as it is at the moment. The coalition's paid parental leave scheme will allow two weeks of the 26 weeks to be dedicated paternity leave for fathers, paid at the father’s replacement wage—up to a maximum of $150,000 per annum—or the federal minimum wage, whichever is greater, plus superannuation. This leave can be taken concurrently to the mother's leave to enable fathers and mothers to spend time together with their new child.

Currently, 26 per cent of previously employed Australian women return to work within six months of giving birth, often against their own preference. They do this because they need an income to contribute to cope with the rising costs of living—and, dare I say it, for such things as mortgages. When they do return to the workforce, they are often disproportionately employed in low-paying, casual positions. For many women, access to affordable and flexible child care impacts on their decision to resume work and on the capacity in which they resume. Unfortunately, Labor have a poor record of supporting families in this way. For example, last year Labor cut the childcare rebate from $8,179 to $7,500 and then froze indexation of the rebate. This added about $300 in additional childcare costs per year per child for these families. Labor also broke their promise to build 260 childcare and early childhood education centres on school sites and community land. Instead, they have built only 38 to date.

In my electorate of Canning, there are about 1,600 families with dependent children. In addition, more than 1,300 males and more than 1,900 females in my electorate provide unpaid child care. I am pleased to see that our leader, Tony Abbott, has committed a future coalition government to undertake a Productivity Commission review into child care, so that we can actually get some real figures rather than a political imperative. Improving access and affordability in child care is very much part of our positive plan to improve workforce participation and to strengthen the economy.

In relation to childcare affordability, a new survey, as reported in the Australian on 5 May this year, shows that 88 per cent of families believe the rising costs of child care will force them to reduce the amount they spend on child care. Many will turn to families for support while others will drop out of paid work. Currently up to 70,000 Australian women cannot access employment as they cannot find suitable child care. Others say that they will just delay having children. The number of parents who say that they will delay having more children because of the increased costs of child care has doubled to 70 per cent in just the last two years. Two years ago only 35 per cent said they would delay having children. I therefore state that this government is not that concerned about supporting families in this area, particularly when you see how it has reduced childcare payments.

Under the Labor government's reforms, childcare centres are forced to decrease their ratio of babies to carers from various state-mandated levels to four to one. The cost of Labor's changes will not be felt until 2016, when childcare centres will have to hire one staff member for every five children aged 25 months to 35 months, and one carer for every 11 children aged three to school age.

What was most alarming about this survey was that one-third of parents said that they would place their children into unregulated childcare arrangements if these fees continued to rise. That is pretty scary. Putting your dear children into unregulated care arrangements is thwart with, dare I say, unintended consequences. The extra care the Gillard government is supposed to provide under its reforms to the industry will actually force more children into unregulated care. The rising costs will see that this is just a matter of course. Already parents are paying up to $50 more per week because of the mandated staff ratio changes. Roughly, the current costs of long-day care at a childcare centre, which many full-time working parents use, can be around $55 to $135 a day—and that is after the childcare benefit and the childcare rebate have been factored in.

We just heard the member for Corangamite again—and I hope he is in touch with his electorate, because he has a pretty wafer-thin margin—criticise the 'nanny option' of the Leader of the Opposition. It is actually quite a visionary option because it gives choice. It gives families the choice of keeping their child in their own home. An old fossil like me used that arrangement many years ago. We were keen to have our children cared for at home. When they are cared for in your own home, you do not have to put them in a car to travel to a childcare centre; you do not have all the problems quite often at childcare centres, with the swathe of sickness conditions—mumps, measles or colds—going through these childcare centres; their food is cooked at home and they are fed at home; and they are in an environment that they are familiar with. It is a choice that a lot of people would like to be able to make and have some assistance for. So we are the party of choice in health and education and we are going to be the party of choice when it comes to child care. It is actually quite a hit with families because having your own child cared for in your own home has a whole of upsides to it. In the Productivity Commission review that a coalition government would undertake, we would look at the individual circumstances that affect childcare arrangements. We know that the one-size-fits-all approach to child care does not work. Obviously, Australia needs a childcare system that offers the choice and flexibility that I have just alluded to.

When our children were young, we did not have any subsidies. We did not have the option. My wife needed to return to work early because we had a huge amount of pressure paying the mortgage and I was on a school teacher's salary. It was pretty tough trying to find somebody who we could employ to come into our home, but it was by far the better option. I visit many childcare centres in my electorate and most of them do a fantastic job, but we have heard a number of stories of some operators not necessarily abiding by their obligations. Parents then have to remove their children. I had a similar case with my daughter. We had taken her to a childcare centre and wondered why she was crying every day when we picked her up. We realised that she was very unhappy there due to do some of the care arrangements that were in place. We immediately found her a better option and, as parents, we felt really terrible at having done that to a child, knowing that they could not articulate the reason they were so unhappy. So this choice is something that is going to be very attractive to a whole range of people because it may well fit into their circumstances.

We need to look at a whole lot of other factors—for example, families who live in remote or regional areas. If you live in a remote or regional area, it may be very hard to get the care that you get in a larger town or a city. How about the shiftworkers or the single parent shiftworkers who need help for care? I will give you an example. At Perth airport at the moment they are putting in place child care. Fly-in fly-out workers need occasional child care at the airport because it is a central location for them. This flexibility needs to be understood by the government; the coalition have certainly understood it because Tony Abbott has factored it into his nanny option. Not everybody is traditional. Not everybody has the same working hours or has the support of an extended family. Many of us have been very lucky to have our parents—the great grandparents of Australia—fitting in to help when some emergency or some awkward situation comes up, to give care when you cannot get it at a childcare centre or anywhere else.

There are increasing calls for occasional, limited hours and family day care options. At present there are times, like public holidays, where families are being charged for child care when the child is not even there. The parents who have to pay on these occasions obviously feel aggrieved, but you can understand the childcare centre charging parents as they have ongoing costs. But the fact that the child is not there and parents are still getting hit with a fee is a bone of contention.

In Western Australia there have been reports that mining families will welcome the coalition arrangement because of the two-week on two-week off, the fly-out, the midnights—all those sorts of unusual circumstances. So, yes, we support these recommendations. We have made amendments. I want to put on record that choice and flexibility in child care is something that we would like to see factored into this bill and, given the opportunity in government, we will be doing it ourselves.