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Tuesday, 19 November 2013
Page: 658

Ms KATE ELLIS (Adelaide) (15:16): This government have already shown that they are not the government that they said they would be when comes to Australia's childcare system. Less than six months ago when we raised concerns that the now government's Productivity Commission inquiry would just be a forerunner to mass cuts and means-testing of childcare assistance, those opposite cried innocent and went out of their way to ease concerns that the Australian public might have and so the Australian public saw promises like this one:

Libs promise not to means-test child care rebate.

That is a pretty black-and-white statement right there, a very clear statement to the Australian people, a statement that was made over and over again by a number of different members who now sit on the government benches. Yet surprise, surprise, time and time again over the last few days the assistant minister has refused to repeat this promise. Now why would that be?

Before the election, those opposite were lining up to assure the public that they would not cut or means-test the childcare rebate. Has anybody heard the government promise not to means-test the childcare rebate since the election? Has anyone heard the government even guaranteeing not to cut the childcare assistance that families are currently relying on. No, all we hear from this government are tricky weasel words. Just months ago the Liberals were happy for the Australian public to be promised that the Liberals would not means-test the childcare rebate, but now they are absolutely not happy to repeat those words. Prior to the election, the assistant minister who now sits at the table stated that they had no intention of making any changes to childcare payments. That is what they told the Australian people.

But that was then. Now they have a very, very different story. In fact this week we have heard the very same assistant minister say that every dollar is up for review and even go as far as to say that, yes, the rebate is on the table. This is not who they said they would be.

Colleagues may wonder what has brought on such a quick and drastic change in the words that we are hearing from the very same assistant minister. There is one clear reason and it is the one that every Australian family is right to be concerned about, and that is when this government released the terms of reference for their Productivity Commission it contained only one definitive point. There is only one very clear promise in these terms of reference about what they will do. They will not deliver any more money for child care. Slipped in at the end of their terms of reference, the government has directed that in the future for any recommendation for Australian government policy settings the commission will only consider options which fit within the existing and current funding parameters.

We all know, it is pretty simple maths, that the only way you can fund new programs without additional money is to cut existing assistance, and the minister at the table absolutely knows that too. Without any extra money these promises looking at things like funding nannies, funding au pairs, increasing the hours of operation, or any other shiny hope that this government seeks to put out to tempt the Australian people with, is only possible if it comes at the expense of the support that low- and middle-income Australians absolutely rely upon currently. They deserve to know. They were not told before the election but we are demanding that they are told now which families will have their childcare assistance cut and by how much it will be cut. They have already told us one thing just six months ago and the complete opposite now, but it is right that they are upfront with the Australian people who absolutely rely on this assistance from government to help balance their work and family and to help pay their childcare bills. They deserve to know.

But we know that when it comes to childcare policy, every promise that this assistant minister makes, every project that she says she is considering and every proposal that she suggests comes with a very clear flipside, and that is a cut. Any new project which she suggests will only be funded by cutting an existing program, and these cuts will have to be deep because they are looking at the whole range of new areas and new promises they are putting out there for the Australian people. What are they going to cut—the childcare benefit, the childcare rebate? We do not know, but this parliament deserves answers to those questions. As an article by Rachel Browne and Daniella Miletic in today's Sydney Morning Herald points out, no matter what your view on different types of care is, so long as this review is locked in to one limited bucket of money, all this review can possibly do is pit family against family and divide the sector.

But of course this is not actually the only negative impact that this government will have on the sector. We have seen a surge in childcare use since the Labor government increased affordability assistance and increased the childcare rebate from 30 per cent, where it sat under the previous Liberal government, to 50 per cent under us and when we increased the cap from $4,354, as it sat under the Liberal government, up to $7½ thousand under us. What is interesting is that this had an incredibly dramatic the impact on demand for child care and it saw a surge of new families flock to the system. In fact so many families were then flocking to the system looking for places that we now have a massive 1.3 million Australian children in care per year.

But we also saw a remarkable growth in the number of centres. Under the Labor government there was a 35.9 per cent increase in the number of long day care services, yet we know that, despite this huge growth, there are many Australian families who are still on waiting lists and who are still struggling to find a place.

The Assistant Minister for Education had a little bit to say about this too before the election. Before the election the government said one thing, yet once again they have very strangely entirely changed their tune. Before the election the assistant minister argued that policy uncertainty deterred investment in much-needed child care services. You need to have policy certainty if you are going to increase the number of places available and help parents on waiting lists, so how might this government go about delivering that? What they have done is said that every single dollar in the child care system is currently up for review. What sort of impact does the government think that that is going to have on waiting lists? How many investors does this government think are going to seek approval and invest their funds into new child care centres and places when they have absolutely zero guarantee of how much government funding they will get at the end of this review? I would like to hear an answer to that question because I fear that too many Australian families will be placed on increasing waiting lists because the government have not thought that through at all.

We heard in question time today that there are now many examples of areas where the government have been prepared to say one thing about child care before the election but have since changed their tune. On the Thursday night before the election, just a couple of days before election day, the coalition released their child care policy on their website. That policy includes the very solemn commitment, which I will quote word for word:

… the Coalition will honour funds contracted from the EYQF…

That is pretty simple, pretty straightforward, pretty black and white. But when asked today whether the government will honour funds contracted from the Early Years Quality Fund the minister was not prepared to say that they will. In fact, we know that this $300 million commitment to ensure that more early childhood workers across Australia receive higher wages is something that this government have already broken and walked away from.

If the government care so much about what the Productivity Commission says about child care, I suggest they look at the most recent report that the Productivity Commission did into child care, which points out that, unless you increase wages for the workforce, you will not have the workforce available to be able to meet demand for child care. If the government value the Productivity Commission's views on child care so much and if they are already breaking their election commitment, exactly how do they plan on meeting that and increasing wages for those passionate staff members who day in and day out look after our children and are being trusted with Australia's future?

We need to be very clear. This government have misled every Australian family. They have not been the government that they said they would be. They were incredibly clear in saying 'Libs promise not to means-test childcare rebate'. They were incredibly clear in saying, 'We will honour funds contracted from the Early Years Quality Fund.' Minister, it is week 2 of parliament. Just how many election commitments are you racing to break before we get to Christmas time? When it comes to the child care sector the Australian public deserve better. We have worked long and hard to increase quality, to increase affordability and to increase the sector. We cannot afford to have this assistant minister, who is so clearly out of her depth, throw it all away.