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Tuesday, 19 November 2013
Page: 661

Ms LEY (FarrerAssistant Minister for Education) (15:26): I am pleased to be able to address this matter of public importance in the parliament today on child care, an area that matters very much to every single member, whether they be on the government, the opposition or the cross benches. There are many aspects about what we are doing with our Productivity Commission inquiry that are not political at all. Deputy Speaker Scott, if you as a dedicated rural and regional member have studied the terms of reference we recently released, you would have seen that every possible concern that could be raised by anyone in the sector about a range of issues—whether that be, as the shadow minister picked up on, educators' wages, flexible and affordable care or special benefits for vulnerable children—is captured by our terms of reference because we are completely serious about doing this properly.

I appreciate the shadow minister's various rhetorical flourishes. She did issue a release. I think the first paragraph encapsulates the slightly ridiculous nature of what is going on around this matter of public importance debate today. The first paragraph of her release of a few days ago states:

The Abbott Government must guarantee that no family will be worse off as a result of the Terms of Reference for a Productivity Commission review …

I can actually guarantee that no family will be worse off as a result of the terms of reference of a Productivity Commission review. I think that underscores the point. What we are doing is releasing the terms of reference. We are not releasing the final outcome. We are not releasing policy, which we will do at the end of this process. We have given the Productivity Commission until October 2014—which is quite a short period of time given the breadth of work that they have to undertake, but I know they will do a good job—to come back with some recommendations. I remind the shadow minister and her colleagues that this is where we are at. We are at the beginning of a long process. It would be a bit bizarre if there was a secret agenda to means test various rebates and to cut various support for families and we constructed an entire Productivity Commission review with terms of reference that I consulted on for six to eight months. If we constructed this whole exercise just as a smokescreen to do the things that the opposition have accused us of, it would be quite ridiculous.

As the Treasurer reminded us in question time today, the Labor Party often gets the numbers wrong. I want to remind the shadow minister of the numbers she spoke about when she was minister. On the back of major changes and reforms that the then minister introduced into the sector, the minister for child care, the member for Adelaide, in July 2011 told us in relation to the cost impact on parents as a result of these changes:

What we've seen is that the average increase will be some 57 cents per week this year and that will rise to $8.67 per week in 2014-15.

So 57c a week is where we are supposed to be right now.

Ms Kate Ellis: That's not true.

Ms LEY: Shadow Minister, I appreciate you continuing to interrupt—I did not interrupt your contribution—and it worries me not if you continue to interrupt, but I can show you the direct quote in which you said costs would rise by 57c a week. I highlight this not to embarrass the shadow minister for saying something that was quite patently ridiculous at the time and is becoming ever more so—she is already out by a factor of 10,000, I think—but to make the point that if she cared about the cost to families, then she would not have sat on her hands as the minister in this place for as long as she did. She was minister for three to six years and she did absolutely nothing about the fact that costs were going up 44 per cent for families; she would have ignored the constant calls that came to her, and to members of the then government backbench, saying: 'We can't afford child care. It's at a price we can't pay in the area that we want for the hours that our working lives determine.' That never seemed to get through; that message never got through to the Labor Party.

As the shadow minister at the table has just said, 'We've tripled this, we've doubled that, we've got this many dollars, we've got this many children', but it is always about the big picture numbers; it is never about the absolute impact on families. It is never about the fact that families simply were not being served well by the system. Every time I travelled around the country, which I did as the shadow minister, I visited hundreds of childcare centres and held hundreds of focus groups with connected families. The member for Riverina understood exactly what the concerns were in the rural city of Wagga Wagga. They were similar to my rural city of Albury, similar to the far west of New South Wales—my colleague the member for Parkes is contributing to the debate, but the member for Tamworth has talked to me about the issues in his area.

We have picked up on that and we have responded to it, and that is what this Productivity Commission inquiry is all about. The reason it is important is if you are a government and you seek to serve the interests of the Australian people, then you must care about the impact on families of accessible, affordable and available child care—or the lack of it. Every time I went to a meeting and I met with a family—usually it was a woman who would stand up and say, 'Look, I can't do the job that I'm trained for, work the hours that I want to work in the place that I need to work because I can't find the right child care.' This leads directly to underparticipation in the economy.

When we talk about the Productivity Commission, we very much recognise the productivity aspect to this. It is about participation in the economy and about the need for us to harness the talents, the incentives, the ingenuity of every single working Australian. It was remarkable how many times I heard the same stories in those meetings, although I also had them emailed to me and letters sent to me. The typical example was somebody who was trained as an accountant but was working as a bookkeeper, or a woman who might have trained as a lawyer and was doing some paralegal work part time. They knew, if they had to be at the doorstep of the childcare centre at 6 pm to pick up their child, they could not guarantee that in the job that they might previously have done that they could make it in time. As we know, those childcare centres shut the doors and you get a big fat fine for being late. You do not want to be late; you do not want to be late for them and you do not want to be late for your child. You want to be confident when you go to work that your child is being nurtured in a safe, secure environment, that there is a high quality of education and that the people the government funds and supports for the service are doing the best possible job.

That leads me to the educators in the sector, because it would not be right to not mention the hard work of the educators who work in child care. The Labor Party often accuses me of not caring about a relatively vulnerable low-paid workforce. We talked about United Voice during question time, after the member for Lalor tried to present the case that United Voice was making about union recruitment in the Early Years Quality Fund as a sound one, when in fact it is not. But the point that I make about educators is the union United Voice approached me—it would be almost two years ago now—and said, 'We need to do something about the wages of the early childhood workforce'. I said: 'I understand completely. I understand how tough it is, and how long the hours are. We've got the body established; we've got the Fair Work Commission.' The then Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, had created, with billions of dollars of public money, the Fair Work Commission in order to do exactly that. I asked: why not take the case to the Fair Work Commission? But instead, the union United Voice chose another approach, a political approach, and I will have more to say about that later.

The fact is that the equal remuneration order that was recently lodged with the Fair Work Commission could have been lodged months ago and could therefore have supported not a two-year temporary increase in wages for just a few, but a long-term sustainable wage increase in the sector if that indeed is what the independent umpire, the Fair Work Commission, finally determines. I must make that point, because I will not accept the accusations of the opposition that we are not interested in the wages of the early childhood workforce.

I want to end with this: the policy settings of today are so different from a generation ago. I have three children; they are 21, 23 and 25; they were in all of these different forms of child care 15 to 20 years ago. I have observed how the working world has changed, how the interaction between what you do in the workplace and what you do in the home is so different. You cannot knock off at five o'clock, pick up the children, go home, cook dinner and put your feet up in front of the TV because everything merges together. There are some good aspects about the way that work and family merge, I am not denying that—we should run work friendly workplaces and allow our staff to slip out and watch their children play sport and so on—but the fact is the childcare policy settings do belong to a generation ago. What we want to do with this Productivity Commission inquiry is make sure we design a system that works for the future, that looks after families and that recognises their needs. And, just back to the subject of the MPI, we in the government are not about making it harder for families or making it more costly for families; what we are driven by is making it easier for families.