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Monday, 21 May 2012
Page: 4855

Ms O'DWYER (Higgins) (22:00): It was a delight to be in the chamber to hear of the member for La Trobe's great interest in education issues. As a former resident of La Trobe, in the town of Emerald, I would commend to her the importance of contacting the Minister for Education, Employment and Workplace Relations to ask him to guarantee funding for independent schools, because so far there is no guarantee of the indexation of that funding and so many schools are facing an uncertain future.

Tonight I am here to talk about child care. I have stood in this place before and highlighted the fact that the government-mandated changes to child care as part of the National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Care is an exercise in increased regulation, increased cost and ultimately diminished choice for parents. The new national quality framework commenced as of 1 January this year and applies to long day care, family day care, kindergartens and after-school care. In the time available tonight, I will focus on child care in particular.

At the time that the government decided to further regulate the childcare industry, the Minister for Early Childhood and Child Care, the member for Adelaide, Kate Ellis, told Ian Henschke on ABC Radio:

This decision wasn't taken lightly and we undertook extensive independent modelling as to the cost and we've been upfront about that.

She went on to say:

… there would be an increase as a result of these measures but we think that that increase is affordable… What we've seen is that the average increase will be some 57 cents per week this year (2011) and that will rise to $8.67 per week in 2014-15.

But, like so much of the talk from this government, it is important to look through the spin and examine the substance.

Even before the changes were brought into effect, the Australian Childcare Alliance modelling found that three-quarters of all childcare centres would be forced to increase their fees as a result of the government's changes. It found that 25 per cent of them would need to increase their fees by between $30 and $50 a week. These findings were supported by a Productivity Commission report that concluded that the framework would increase out-of-pocket fees for long-day-care services by $50 per week.

In my own electorate of Higgins one of my councils, the Glen Eira council, has told me that it has had to increase its fees for its childcare centres from $91 a day to $116 a day. This is significantly higher than the 57c that the minister claimed it would cost parents. The huge discrepancy between the government's projected increase and the actual cost for parents can be put down to one of two things: either (1) the incompetence of the minister or (2) an intentional attempt by the minister to obfuscate the truth and mislead the public—you be the judge. Whatever the reason, what is clear is that parents will pay so much more.

Over the weekend the government finally admitted that childcare costs are escalating and that this increased cost is hitting families. The Minister for Trade and Industry did a rare thing for the Labor side of politics: he told the truth. He said in the Fairfax press today, 'Be assured this government is aware of the cost of child care in contributing to cost-of-living pressures.' In so saying he acknowledged that the government's new scheme has significantly increased the cost of child care and that this is hurting the hip pocket of ordinary Australian families.

So what is the government's response to increased childcare costs—costs that are entirely of their own creation? Is it to reflect on the increased regulation that they are imposing on childcare operators? No. Do they intend to cut red tape and unnecessary regulation and allow childcare operators to become more efficient? No. Do they intend to increase competition to allow market mechanisms to force the price down? No. We read today that the government's response is to intervene even further to regulate the cost of child care. We learn today that they plan to set the minimum and maximum fees that can be charged, to make all childcare centres cost the same, no matter what their offering—a typical Labor one-size-fits-all approach that will do nothing to encourage innovation such as specialist learning programs with specialist teachers in such things as music or language; innovations such as hiring senior and experienced staff; and innovations such as decreasing the staff-to-child ratio even further for those parents who want even more direct contact. We all know what happens when one-size-fits-all approaches are taken, when prices are mandated, when innovation is stifled. That is when services and ultimately choice for parents disappear. But most problematic of all for parents is: how does the government intend to fund this new regulated price? They intend to fund this by taking money out of the pockets of families and giving it directly to childcare centres. It intends to rip money away from parents, which will reduce choice and flexibility.

Conversely, the coalition have solutions. We understand that child care is an economic issue. It goes to the heart of how we can increase productivity and how we can increase participation. We have a plan for government. We will reintroduce the indexation of the childcare rebate, benefiting families with up to $300 per year. We will reinstate occasional care funding to increase flexibility and choice. Most importantly of all, we will commission a Productivity Commission report into how to better provide childcare services.(Time expired)