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Wednesday, 15 June 2011
Page: 6062

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (10:08): I rise to speak in relation to the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Financial Viability) Bill 2011. I will begin my contribution by referring specifically to the second reading speech by the Minister for Employment Participation and Childcare and Minister for the Status of Women. There were plenty of rhetorical flourishes in that speech as the minister tried to muster what I regard as quite a broad defence of the government's appalling record in regional child care. I quote from that speech to set the scene for my comments today. The minister said:

The Australian government recognises that child care is an essential enabler of workforce participation, most particularly for Australian women.

At a time when employers are crying out for workers then it is essential that we are supporting parents who want to return to work to be able to participate confidently.

Parents need to have trust that when they drop their child off in the morning that their child is in quality child care.

Importantly, they also need to know that when they drop their child off at care, someone will be there to meet them each and every day.

This is in the context of the collapse of the ABC Learning Centres, but the message is consistent with the minister's comments in the Women's Budget Statement from earlier this year. I quote again:

Childcare is essential in enabling parents who are primary care givers, often women, to enter and remain in the workforce.

As I have said before in this place, this government is very good at making these grand statements, but when it comes to actually delivering on the ground in regional areas it has been a complete failure.

I refer the House specifically to some recent activity in the Victorian state parliament, where there was quite a bit of excitement about the Take a Break occasional care program. For those not familiar with the Take a Break program, the Executive Officer of the Association of Neighbourhood Houses and Learning Centres, Angela Savage, describes Take a Break as follows:

The Take a Break (TAB) occasional child care program provided respite for parents and guardians of children aged from 0-6 years, enabling them to participate in a range of activities including recreational classes, activities, shopping, social events and voluntary community activities.

Two hundred and twenty community organisations received government funding through the TAB program, over 120 of which are Neighbourhood Houses and Learning Centres. This funding contributes towards the organisation's child care operating costs, such as salaries, on costs and consumable items. At least 142 childcare workers stand to lose their jobs if the services close.

It goes on to say:

Long day care is not an appropriate or affordable option for all families. Occasional care often provides the only opportunity for these children to socialise and for families to have time out.

The TAB program makes occasional care more affordable for the families who need it. This includes those on low incomes, culturally and linguistically diverse communities, grandparent carers, and parents of children with a disability.

TAB funding is critical to the continued provision of affordable occasional childcare for communities serviced by Neighbourhood Houses, particularly those in rural and regional areas.

The legislation before the House is all about the financial viability of childcare services and providing oversight so that there are no nasty surprises. In her own words, the minister said that it would never happen again. She said that following the catastrophic collapse of ABC Learning, the Australian government committed to strengthen stability of the childcare industry so that parents could be confident that their care arrangements will be there to support them when they need it.

Quite frankly, that is just not the case in regional areas like Gippsland, and it is not the experience of the occasional childcare providers who have had their funding stripped away by this Gillard Labor government. I do not know why anyone is surprised that this government has stripped away funding from the Take a Break program. After all, it has already withdrawn its funding and its promises to build 260 childcare centres, and the people in Yarram in my community are still waiting for the $1.5 million that the Labor candidate promised during the 2007 federal election. Nonetheless, it is worth tracking the reactions to the withdrawal of the funding from the Take a Break program and the action in the Victorian parliament that I mentioned earlier. I have here some copies of Hansard from the Victorian parliament in which the member for Narre Warren South is absolutely outraged. She says:

Our local occasional child-care providers are valued by our local families. They are available for local mums and dads who may need their kids to be cared for while they do the shopping, attend appointments or return to study. These services also provide children with the opportunity to socialise and interact with other children.

She goes on to say:

The Premier just does not know how hard it is for ordinary families to access affordable child care.

That is the Labor member for Narre Warren South in Victoria.

Then we have the Labor member for Yan Yean, who has whipped herself into a frenzy. She thundered in the Victorian parliament:

The action I seek is for the minister to reverse her decision to defund the Take a Break occasional child-care program. Scrapping this important child-care program is one of the massive budget cuts across the education sector.

The member for Yan Yean was directing her anger at the Victorian state minister. Perhaps she should have been directing it to this place, where the federal minister is the one responsible for cutting $12.6 million out of the program. The member for Yan Yean went on to say:

This means that in the district I represent and nearby, occasional child-care services at Eltham, Montmorency, Diamond Creek, Panton Hill, Warrandyte and Greensborough are now at risk … The Premier claims he is supporting families, but at the same time he is making it harder to access occasional child care.

I have a news flash for the member for Yan Yean. It was the federal government, under the Gillard Labor Party, that took 70 per cent of funding away from the Take a Break program in the first place.

But the facts do not get in the way of a story when it comes to the new Labor member for Bendigo West either. This is what she had to say about the Take a Break program:

Six months is all it has taken for the conservatives to reveal their true colours and the fact that, despite their spruiking of false promises, they have never had and will never have the community or families as their no. 1 priority. Worse still, these three centres are not alone, because at least 31 rural towns and regional centres stand to lose their only child-care providers as a result of this government's budget cuts to community-based occasional child care.

The member goes on:

In Maldon the neighbourhood centre's occasional child-care program runs for 3 hours a week and provides paid employment for three staff, and it is the only child care offered in Maldon. In Maldon there is no other choice. There is no family day care or after-school-care program. There are 21 occasional child-care places at Maldon's neighbourhood house. That means 21 families will be affected by these cuts, including single parents, young mums and dads needing a break, parents attending classes or work, and children from Tarrengower Prison. This service will not survive these funding cuts and the program will cease to run. With community sector workers already the lowest paid in the state, what a blow it would be for the staff of these centres to now face unemployment because of this government's heartless decision to cease funding for this program. So much for a caring budget!

These are Labor state members expressing their outrage at the Victorian state government, which was only ever responsible for 30 per cent of the Take a Break funding program. The federal government was the one that withdrew 70 per cent of the funding.

The member for Bendigo West and her colleagues need to understand the bulk of this money was stripped away from regional communities by the Labor Party, by her colleagues here in this place. Her own federal colleague, the member for Bendigo, has meekly sat here in this parliament and done nothing to help Maldon, or any of the other 31 rural towns she expresses so much concern for, retain their Take a Break funding. The member for Bendigo West should really direct her anger at her colleague, the member for Bendigo. The member for Bendigo has done exactly what he has been told—he has turned up to vote when he has been told, he has shut up when he has been told and he has not done a thing to protect the families of Maldon or anywhere else from the cuts to the Take a Break program.

I am pleased that the minister is here today to hear me express some of the concerns coming from the Gippsland community in relation to the Take a Break program. We are talking about communities, Minister, where it is the only source of child care available to these desperate families, and this government has decided to withdraw its funding and leave it to the state government. Now we have state members of parliament in Victoria expressing their outrage. They are so angry, Minister. I wonder if they are contacting you and expressing their concern to you directly. I wonder if they have actually bothered to get on the phone and raise it with their local Labor federal members of parliament, who are the ones responsible for the withdrawal of 70 per cent of funding for this program. The good people of Bendigo and other parts of regional Victoria certainly deserve better representation in this place than their members, who are just doing what they are told on such an important issue for regional families.

I happen to believe that the Victorian government should make a contribution to the Take a Break program. They should continue to make their contribution of 30 per cent, but the federal government should restore the 70 per cent of funding that it ripped away from regional families last year. I am proud to say that the coalition made that commitment during last year's federal election campaign and it remains our policy today. To save a miserable $12.6 million over four years this Labor government withdrew its support for a childcare program which responded directly to local needs. What this government does not seem to understand is that one size does not fit all. In small regional communities you do need to have local solutions to local problems, you do need to have the flexibility of the funding program, and this was a program that worked, and the minister should be supporting it.

The feedback I am receiving from my electorate is a case in point. It is not just me standing up here complaining, Minister, I have families right across my electorate who want this program to continue. They need both levels of government to work together to deliver it for them. Recently I had the great pleasure of visiting the Paynesville Community Centre, which the East Gippsland Shire Council has just redeveloped. It is now a brand new and terrific centre. Minister, you would enjoy a visit to it to see what has been achieved in the Paynesville community. I visited the brand new childcare centre with three lovely mums and their six children who showed me around. The problem is that the centre is about to become redundant because there is no funding to continue the occasional childcare program after December this year. The manager of the Paynesville Neighbourhood House, Karen Fleischer, wrote to me after the visit and said:

If the service ceases to exist at least thirty families will be affected. Support for these families is limited at the best of times with little, if any, extended family, no public transport, and generally limited means of income.

Occasional Child Care benefits not only the children but equally the parents who either attend work or study commitments or are able to simply take a break or pursue other activities such as sport & recreation, work, study, attend appointments etc. The result is a win-win for the family and community as a whole.

Karen went on to say:

If this vital service ceases to operate due to lack of funding, children will be placed at further risk than already exists. Increasing the fee structure sufficiently is not an option due to the small population of this rural town and due to many children coming from low income families. We also believe such an increase would in fact eliminate the children most in need.

…   …   …

To sum up this situation, it is the community, families (especially working families), employers and people undertaking studies or attending medical appointments that will be affected by the funding cutback and I am sure that there will be an out cry from the public at large.

I have also received correspondence from a more remote part of my electorate where the big providers, which the minister is so worried about in this legislation, will never establish a service. It will simply not be commercially viable for any of those big providers to establish a service in these areas. But we did have a service, at least partially funded by the federal government, until last year. Families are desperate in the area of Swifts Creek, for example, to keep their service associated with the local community centre. I received a letter from Charlie Schroeder at Cassilis that said:

It would seem that the federal Labor government has abandoned responsibility for children and in particular young families with children in the more isolated areas. Certainly the Swifts Creek/Omeo region of Victoria.

…   …   …

I wonder if the person/people who decided to cut the Occasional Childcare funding considered the hardship the tyranny of distance loads onto young families.

…   …   …

Children, especially in rural areas where there is greater distance between neighbours benefits from childcare by:

allowing them to associate, interact and socialise with other children

permitting them access to different stimuli, toys and activities

teaching them good life skills, learning to deal with adults other than their parents and children of various ages other than siblings.

Charlie Schroeder's letter continues and makes a very good case, so I forwarded his letter to the minister for her consideration. I also have a letter from Bev Kibble of Swifts Creek who wrote:

How can the Government propose major training programs for single mothers to fit them for employment and in the current budget remove any means of support for the same people to have their children cared for?

There are also young Mums who may have inclinations of post natal depression who can have considerable relief to know that even for a few hours one morning a week they can have a break to go to the shops or just have some personal space.

I have sent all these letters to the minister so she will be able to get copies in her office. The final letter is from Mal and Kath Smith also from Swifts Creek in relation to the withdrawal of occasional childcare funding which said:

The effect this will have on our family and others like ours is devastating. This funding has ensured that at least some form of regular childcare is available to our families in this isolated and remote township of Swifts Creek.

…   …   …

Our family does not have other options for childcare on the days currently being offered by the Swifts Creek Community Centre within the area.

Losing regular childcare will mean that one of us has to give up our jobs, our career and our security.

With both of us working the second income enables us to pay bills and mortgages and still enjoy sport and recreational activities with our children. Two incomes decreases our stress from financial pressures and reduces our reliability on other government services.

Our children have benefited from this outstanding childcare service and are exposed to different environments, adults, and children, which has aided in developing their ability to integrate with the world outside this isolated community.

…   …   …

We believe that both Federal and State Governments need to commit to funding remote communities for childcare services, as childcare here must be run as not-for-profit. Profit based childcare is just not viable given population and socio-economics.

I sincerely do appreciate the minister being in this place while I read out those very compelling accounts from people in my electorate in relation to the Take a Break occasional childcare program and the need for continued funding. Now I understand that the government believes that we need to move towards all licensed premises but in the Victorian example the neighbourhood houses were meeting all of the criteria and the neighbourhood houses themselves had taken enormous steps in providing a professional and accredited childcare service. In many regional areas, and I note that the member for Corangamite is in the House this morning, we will have small towns which simply have no option at all for parents as to occasional childcare services. Mr Deputy Speaker, even if you look past the broken promises and the empty rhetoric from those opposite in terms of plans to build 260 childcare centres and to provide $1.5 million for Yarram in my electorate, there is one last insult to rural and regional Australian families in this debate in the House today. It is going to cost $1.9 million for the minister to introduce a watchdog to look over the shoulder of the large childcare providers to make sure that, in her words, 'this never happens again'. That $1.9 million would fund all of the Take a Break programs in Victoria and families in my electorate would be able to enjoy a small sample of one of the basic services that their city friends take for granted. Instead of more nanny state legislation, why won't the minister reinstate the funding for the Take a Break program and live up to some of this government's empty rhetoric?