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Tuesday, 11 September 2012
Page: 10224

Ms LEY (Farrer) (17:17): I find it a real affront to Australian families that the Minister for Early Childhood and Childcare stands in this place and praises this government's efforts on child care. It does give an insight into just how out of touch this minister is with the struggles faced by ordinary Australian families. Australian families truly are doing it tough. This government has burdened them with higher electricity prices, rising grocery costs, rising private health insurance and, yes, rising childcare costs. The reality is that the cost of child care keeps spiralling upwards. Childcare fees have jumped 17 per cent in the last two years. The government has slashed the childcare rebate from $8,179 to $7,500 and ceased indexation, making parents even worse off. Many families say that child care is their biggest expense after their rent or mortgage.

These are the statistics that we should be focusing on today. According to ABS data, 110,000 Australian parents say they cannot access employment as they cannot find suitable or affordable child care. Many women are being prevented from re-entering the workforce, which is having a major impact on not only their future career progression but also their superannuation balance. Recent research by Suncorp indicated that women were retiring with up to $50,000 less in superannuation than men.

I have done more than 30 childcare roundtables recently—I have done more than consult via the Mamamia blog, impressive though I think that blog is—and I can assure the minister that affordability is front and centre with the parents that I have met. There are parents having to make the heartbreaking decision to leave the workforce because their wages do not cover the cost of child care. There are others who are forced into using backyard care. Those opposite are turning a blind eye. The National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Care was meant to see a higher standard of care for all children, but those outside the childcare system face a very different reality.

Now, the coalition do support the objectives of the national quality framework. We believe, we accept, that smaller teacher-to-child ratios lead to better-quality care for children. I like the efforts to professionalise the workforce in the early years learning framework, although I do have concerns about the quality of some certificate III level qualifications—but they are probably best saved for another day. The issue I do have with the national quality framework is the additional workload it creates for providers. The additional administrative burden is significant, and providers are bearing the cost. These costs, regrettably, are being passed on to families in most instances.

I would just like to touch on the figures that the minister presented today. Regrettably, according to her office, the figures that the minister for child care referred to are not yet public. However, when I compare today's quoted figure of 1.3 million children in child care over the year with the figure presented just last month in the August 2012 edition of the Office of Early Childhood Education and Child Care update, I find it says there were only 992,520 children in approved care over the year. These are the key findings for the September quarter of 2011. So I am not sure where the extra 300,000 children or childcare places have come from.

I also raise with the minister the fact that, as I understand it, if a child is in before-school care, they take up one place. If they also attend after-school care, they take up another place. If that same child is enrolled in vacation care, they take up a third place. This begs the question: why does the minister's department, DEEWR, persist in counting these places again and again, as if each represents one child, when in fact the same child in care is counting for three places? I understand the department has been briefed on the concerns about dubious figures from outside-school-hours care groups; I am not sure if the department has filled the minister in.

I understand, too, that at the recent DEEWR stakeholder meeting an increased utilisation rate of nine per cent was provided by the department . I do the sums here and based on this I get an increase of 100,000—nowhere near 300,000. Therefore, I remain sceptical as to the veracity of the statistics the minister has provided to the House today. I want to make the point that the number of places in care does not translate to available, affordable care and stays silent on the issues of the stress that families are under in affording child care to day.

Accuracy of the numbers aside, we are still seeing a very large number of Australian families using child care—of course we are. It is absolutely critical that we have the best system possible. We need a system which supports all families to take advantage of the economic opportunities of employment. Our police, firefighters, nurses and paramedics should be able to work shift work safe in the knowledge that their children are in the best hands, should they require child care.

I note the minister's suggestion to local councils that they need to ease their planning restrictions for childcare centres. Really it is quite pathetic for this minister to tell local government to sort out their planning issues if this is all the minister can do in response to the childcare crisis. It demonstrates the lack of leadership and understanding of the sector which is so characteristic of this government.

I am quite bemused by this whole ministerial statement. The minister has come into the House; she has released some dodgy stats from her department's annual report, which she will not yet release publicly; and, she said she is writing to local councils to ask them to facilitate child-friendly communities. I guess rhetorically that is not a bad thing to say but it is not describing actions of a determined policy-led government in looking for ways to sort out the mess that is in front of the minister in childcare policy.

There is no major philosophical divide on this issue between the government and the coalition. As I said, the coalition accent is the national quality framework, it supports the early years learning framework and it recognises the need to professionalise the industry. But the coalition recognises something that the government does not—that is, if all these changes ultimately lead to the cost of care that parents cannot afford, the perverse effects will be bad for society, be particularly bad for families and, most importantly, be bad for children. That is the point.

I accept that the minister wants to make a song and dance about the statistics. I would prefer to have further clarification of where they have come from and I also would make the point that they have been counted before the effects of the national quality framework really bite, which will happen in 2014 and in fact is beginning to happen already. You cannot consult with the childcare sector and not get the message. I have done 30 roundtables in the last six months in every single community around the country. I cannot understand why the minister has not received the message that members of the opposition have received.

As I said, we are not talking about a difference of philosophy in the area of child care; we are talking about the cost of child care for parents. The coalition recognises that the policy settings of 15 years ago will not apply to the next 15 years. We have a very sensible approach to ask the Productivity Commission to examine those settings, to have a look at the entire world of female participation in the workforce—usually it is female—and at the cost and availability of child care. The government does not support that Productivity Commission inquiry. It will be one of the first things we do when we are elected to government. We make an undertaking to the families of Australia that we will get this right for them. And a minister who wanders in here with a few statistics from an annual report and a couple of initiatives for local council, as if they cannot work out their own planning issues themselves, is, unfortunately, not honouring the commitment this government should be making.