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Wednesday, 1 June 2011
Page: 5519

Ms O'NEILL (Robertson) (12:40): I rise to speak in support of the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Financial Viability) Bill 2011. I do strongly support this bill because I believe it is essential that our childcare sector is stable and that it provides quality, affordable childcare. As a mother of three children, and having the pleasure of also having a career and wanting to work, I do not know how my family would have functioned if my children had been of the age that they required early childhood care if, at the time of the collapse of ABC Learning, my family had been caught up in that. There are a lot of pressures on families these days, and excellent childcare is a critical part of how a healthy family functions. The instability that was caused by the collapse of ABC is something that cannot be allowed to happen again, and it is for this reason that this bill is before the House today.

The collapse of the ABC childcare provider in 2008 absolutely had a detrimental impact on parents, children, childcare workers and indeed the Commonwealth. The collapse of the ABC Learning business was completely unanticipated, and that is a vital part of why this bill is being put before the House today. The fact was that it put at risk the provision of child care for over 120,000 children in more than 1,000 centres right across the nation. The word 'insolvency' is one that people do not want to ever hear. They certainly do not want to hear it with regard to the care of their children in a childcare setting, for which parents have some reasonable expectation that there will be longevity of service and that there will be stability in addition to high-quality delivery.

As the minister said in her second reading speech, over 100,000 families were affected by the collapse of ABC Learning. Let us not underestimate what that means in terms of the flow-on effect into local communities. This is 100,000 families who, overnight, were completely left with a total lack of certainty about whether or not they might be able to access the child care or long day services that they needed in the next 24, 48 or 72 hours. That uncertainty undoubtedly had an impact on unsettling families and parents. But families and kids are very tight units, and I daresay that the flow-on would certainly have been felt by all of those little preschoolers as well as they soaked up the concerns that their parents would have had at that time. Thankfully, this government responded very quickly and decisively and ensured that 90 per cent of these centres continued to operate for Australian families today.

These issues were certainly pertinent in my electorate of Robertson due to the importance of child care for families where parents commute to work daily or move around the coast for local work daily. For these families and families right across the nation, child care is a necessity, and uncertainty about its provision can have incredibly detrimental short-term and long-term impacts. This legislation is designed to ensure that we actually learn from that experience. My father-in-law had a great saying, 'Had the experience, keep the receipt', and this legislation is a response to that practical wisdom. It is designed to provide for the assessment and monitoring of the financial viability of large long day care centre operators of approved childcare services. As stated in the explanatory memorandum to this bill, this is in the context of the approval and continued approval of such services for the purposes of the family assistance law. This bill also enables the secretary of the department to carry out an independent audit of operators where there are concerns about their financial viability. This is about shining light into a place that obviously was quite dark at the time that the ABC centres collapsed. The provisions of this bill will prevent history from repeating itself and provide for much-needed stability and certainty in the childcare sector. Child care and long day care should not be a means of profiteering from families nor should it be a sector subject to abject speculation and unsustainable risk taking, and that is what we have seen in the past. We need to construct a regulatory framework that dissuades people who would employ such dangerous business practices from entering into this field ever again. And we need to make sure that Australian families are certain about the continuity and quality of care that they will receive in their local communities.

These are indeed the circumstances that resulted in the collapse of ABC Learning, a large public company that controlled what proved to be an unsustainable share of the childcare market. It was those opposite who allowed this situation to occur and allowed the childcare market to be dominated by a company that engaged in these unsavoury practices. The additional powers given to the secretary of the department through this bill will provide for a critical early warning system, which will ensure that childcare and long day care providers are accountable for their financial decisions. The Australian government had very little warning when this happened last time. It had very little warning about the financial circumstances when ABC Learning collapsed. For this reason, the department and its secretary clearly needed greater powers to ensure that governments are better warned of issues confronting the childcare and long day care sector.

I understand that long day care and child care are predominantly privately run in Australia, and I understand the desire to ensure that childcare operators are not burdened unnecessarily with red tape. Despite this, and I think with the assent of those operators who have an ethic of care for the great work that they do in our community, the government need to ensure that the people who do the right thing are supported by good practices. We need to do our best to prevent a situation like the ABC Learning demise happening again. It caused far too much stress for families, far too much stress for children and far too much stress for those great childcare workers who are so important in helping our young children grow, socialise and get used to participating in a great democracy—and the sandpit is where we start to practice that.

The first means through which this legislation will provide for greater accountability is the additional powers granted to the secretary of the department to request detailed information about large long day care providers. This information is to be used to assess their financial viability on an ongoing basis and the information will only need to be provided by these large long day care providers. That means that smaller, family-run childcare centres and long day care providers will not be required to comply. I think that that really does counteract some of the points made by the member opposite who spoke just before me regarding onerous compliance. We need to be clear about the capacity for small operators to continue to do what they do without incredible oversight.

The large long day care providers who are defined under the bill as:

... a person who operates, or proposes to operate, 25 or more approved centre based long day care services at any time during the financial year; or

... 2 or more persons who, between them, operate, or propose to operate, 25 or more approved centre based long day care services during the financial year—

subject to certain ownership criteria. Parents and families often rely on these large long day care providers because of their ability to provide a quality and stable childcare service. This quality and stability, however, is contingent upon these providers actually being financially stable and viable.

The collapse of a long day care provider with 24 or more centres is not something small or insignificant. Twenty-five centres reach out into communities right across the nation. Any sort of future collapse of some such structure is likely to have an incredible impact on the availability of care for children and families. The flow-on effects of that for workplace participation, security, family budgeting and mortgage payments should not be underestimated either. This is a critical part of the social and economic infrastructure of our country upon which we have come to depend. It needs to be carefully organised. It needs to be carefully audited. It needs to be carefully managed. This is what this bill will achieve.

Representing a suburban electorate with a large commuter population, I am committed to ensuring that everything is done to enable all the people in my area to access every opportunity to participate in our society and to provide the opportunity for those who have children to participate, confident in the knowledge that their children will be in a centre that will be open when they show up the next morning.

This bill will also allow the commissioning of an independent audit of large long day care providers where there are concerns about the provider's financial viability. It will enable an audit team, accompanied by an authorised officer, to enter premises and to carry out an audit on the financial viability of a long day care centre. This is an important audit that can be triggered in response to concerns raised.

It is imperative that this government ensures that child care and long day care is accessible, affordable and of sufficient quality. It is also absolutely important that the government act to ensure that these centres remain open. This action is absolutely needed because the ABC Learning insolvency shows that there are potentially significant risks to the continuity of care and we need to address those risks by changing the practices that allowed such an awful situation to arise. We need to have the capacity to identify risks of insolvency. This legislation allows for that.

We need to provide women in particular with greater capacity. Women are so often charged with the responsibility for organising and managing child care. I have to confess that, despite the wonderful participation of my own husband and very many men in the children's upbringing these days, I did meet many more mothers dropping children off before we went to school than I did fathers. I think this is an issue for women: the decision to participate in our economy. It is wonderful that we have unemployment down to 4.9 per cent. It is an opportunity for women who might never have thought that they would participate to come back after having their children, decide that they want to give their talents and capacities to the workplace, and participate with confidence that the child care that they establish will still be there when they show up ready to drop their child off before work. For all these reasons I commend this bill to the House.