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Monday, 6 December 2004
Page: 42

Senator LUNDY (3:30 PM) —I too would like to speak to Senator Patterson's answers to questions without notice. I will focus on child care, but I would just like to make a few comments with respect to aged care. How extraordinary it is that the Howard government attempt to rewrite history. They have been plagued with problems and poor handling of the aged care portfolio since 1996, and many of the responses that Senator Chapman and others have spoken about have come on the back of some of the worst controversies that we have ever witnessed with respect to aged care and the appalling standards that were allowed to develop under the Howard government. The globally embarrassing state of aged care in this country has forced this government to act. We have a lot to say about the nature of their activity, but let it not stand on the record that the Howard government have looked after aged care with any degree of proactivity or compassion. What activity has taken place has arisen from being forced into action by the appalling state of affairs.

I have to say that it is much the same for child care. We have a situation in Australia where in long day care the waiting lists are longer than ever. I remember when my first child was born in the early nineties there was an issue with waiting lists. The then Labor government worked extremely hard to try to create more places, with the focus on creating more subsidised places in child care. However, now that the waiting lists have come back, the Howard government have not bothered to pay any policy attention to the real issue of the number of places in long day care; they choose instead to put out frivolous arguments about the need to monitor the quality of all different types of child care around the country. That is always an issue, and it has been Labor in opposition that have argued for quality assurance in child care under the Howard government and the Howard government's neglect.

I find it really offensive that this government is using the issue that Senator Patterson has raised, which has got a bit of media coverage, as a complete red herring in child care to deflect attention from the real issues of neglect in child care: the availability of places, the affordability of places and, indeed, the appalling state of affairs of the incapacity of child care professionals to earn a decent living. They are the three issues that Labor certainly focused on in our policy, not least because of our support of the wage case for child-care professionals but also because of our support for providing an increase in places. That is what parents want. That is what families want. They do not want to go to the local child-care centre and find that they will not be able to get their baby in until their baby is 2½ and in middle room, where there are greater ratios and availability of places. That is not the issue that the Howard government are paying any attention to.

The other thing that I find offensive about the answers given today by the minister in the chamber is that she shows no regard for the growing monopolisation of private child care in this country. It is true to say that there is a range of operators. There are private and public operators and, in a healthy market, that is a good thing. But when you have two of the largest private centre corporations, in this case, proposing to merge in the way that they are, you would expect the government to have a point of view. I would expect that a responsible government would at least express their concern about the possible implications of the merger. These centres are indeed extremely profitable. Because they are profitable, you would expect parents to pay more than they would otherwise be reasonably required to, particularly with the government providing the subsidy in the way that they are—an uncapped subsidy of taxpayers' money to the very centres that are now making record profits. It is no wonder an economic opportunity is being extracted in the child-care market with the way the policies in child care are being run by the Howard government.

It is very disappointing to see the Howard government take such an aggressive attitude towards child care. In the meantime, it is Australian families and Australian parents that are continuing to struggle with the lack of attention to early childhood education, to the availability and affordability of long day care places and, in particular, as I said, to the disgraceful situation where child-care professionals are continuing to be underpaid for the immense amount of important work that they do. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.