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Wednesday, 9 February 2011
Page: 213

Senator POLLEY (12:34 PM) —I rise to make some remarks in relation to the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Budget Measures) Bill 2010. At the beginning of a new year it is a shame that Senator Nash is still as confused as she was last year and is still using the same old lines that she used last year. With her attack on the Prime Minister about her lack of vision for the future, which was totally unfounded, I think the Australian people have actually seen the vision of the Leader of the Opposition. They certainly have not been silent in coming to my office and bringing to my attention their view about the Leader of the Opposition, his vision and his lack of commitment to the people that have been suffering in Queensland. So I think the priorities are very different and they certainly are different on this side.

But I do not want to be distracted from talking about a very important bill. Let us be very clear. This is a very important topic and I do acknowledge that the Labor government appreciates the importance of quality child care and education in this country and of supporting Australian families. We intend to provide Australian families with access to affordable, accessible and quality early education and child care. The Labor government has committed $18.2 billion over the next four years to achieve this. That is about $11 billion more than the Howard government spent in these critical areas over the last four years of its government. Senator Nash did not reflect on that, I note. Eight hundred thousand Australian families have benefited from the government’s funding, from its 2007 commitments to assist with covering 50 per cent of out-of-pocket expenses for child care. That compares with the Howard government’s covering of only 30 per cent of those out-of-pocket expenses. As an example, in 2004 the out-of-pocket expenses after subsidies for a family with one child in long day care, and earning $55,000 a year, were 13 per cent of disposable income. In 2010, this proportion had declined to seven per cent. That is a significant change, approaching a 50 per cent reduction in the out-of-pocket expenses.

When I speak about child care, I speak about it from a long time ago when my children were in child care and family day care, but now, in more recent times, my beautiful grandchildren are in occasional care and one has spent a significant amount of time in child care. As well as that, I have a daughter who worked in the industry. So I speak with some knowledge on this important area.

In addition to the childcare rebates, $8.4 billion is provided to low- and middle-income earners in childcare benefits. Unlike the Howard government, who forced parents to wait until the end of each financial year to recover their rebates—after it had no doubt pocketed the interest from that—we have already moved to pay benefits quarterly, and from 1 July 2011 parents will be able to choose to receive their childcare rebates fortnightly. That is when the costs are incurred. Parents will not have to bear that cost for 12 months, with the associated stress that comes with that. This is a benefit for all Australian families. The childcare rebate has risen to a maximum of $7,500 per year or more than $145 per week. The maximum under the previous coalition government was $4,354, which is a difference of $3,146 per year or more than $60 a week—in other words, 72 per cent less than is now available.

The message should be starting to become very clear: child care and early childcare education is something that this government is taking very seriously. Adequate funding is only part of the picture. Parents need to have peace of mind that their children are safe, happy and in a simulating environment. There are numerous international studies that confirm the link: if you invest early in high-quality education and child care, children have better outcomes at school and in the rest of their lives. International studies include the Perry Preschool Project, a longitudinal study which commenced in 1962. For many years we have seen evidence that confirms these links. Another example is the Chicago child-parent centres study, which shows significant benefits:

… the effects of the Child-Parent Center and Expansion (CPC) Program on scholastic development up to age 14 were reported for a large sample of economically disadvantaged children … participation in extended childhood intervention to second and third grade yielded significantly better school performance than participation ending in kindergarten, and … longer-term effects of the program were largely explained by cognitive-advantage and family-support factors …

In England the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education, EPPE, project investigated the effects of preschool education and care on children’s development for children aged three to seven years. Three thousand children were tracked between 1997 and 2004. A sample of home based children, who had no or minimal preschool experience, was recruited to the study at entry to school for comparison with the preschool group. Again, the study confirmed the enormous benefit of early childhood intervention. These benefits have also been identified with disabled children—the earlier the intervention, the better the outcome is likely to be. It is not just international studies that show us this. Australians such as Fiona Stanley and Alison Elliott have been telling us that the early years shape the future happiness, future health and future wellbeing of children.

Many childcare centres across Australia are doing well. However, the National Childcare Accreditation Council’s latest report shows that, sadly, too many childcare centres are failing to meet basic safety, hygiene, educational and wellbeing standards. The report shows us that, of the 1,129 centres that received an accreditation decision between 1 January and 30 June, 30 per cent failed to ensure that toileting and nappy-changing procedures were consistent with advice from recognised health authorities; 26 per cent failed to ensure each child’s learning was documented and used in a planning program; 34 per cent failed to ensure that staff members supported each child’s needs for rest, sleep, comfort and sun protection; and 32 per cent failed to ensure that potentially dangerous products, plants and objects were inaccessible to children. This must be improved, and the Labor government, the Gillard government, is determined to do this. We are going to lift the standard of child care across Australia.

In conjunction with the state and territory governments through the National Quality Standard, we will improve staff-child ratios so that every child gets more individual care and attention; raise staff qualifications to ensure staff are better able to lead activities that help children learn and develop; introduce a quality ratings system for all childcare services so that parents know the quality of care on offer and can make more informed choices; and reduce red tape related to services so that providers only have to deal with one regulator and can spend less time on paperwork and more time with the kids in their care. This essential work will be achieved by pausing the indexation of the childcare rebate. The cap of $7,500 will remain in place until 30 June 2014. Remember the Howard government’s cap of $4,353. Today, a family earning $80,000 per year with a child in full-time care will receive $2,239 more in childcare rebates than under the previous government. This will provide $86.3 million that will be directly re-invested in lifting the quality of care for our children.

In the 2010-2011 budget we announced $273.7 million to support the introduction of the National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Care. In particular, $59.4 million will be invested in 142 budget based, funded early childhood services predominately located in rural and remote Australia, which will provide care for some of our most vulnerable children. I am sure Senator Nash will make note of that. This budget provision means that less than three per cent of families will be affected by the deferral of indexation and less than one per cent, in fact 0.67 per cent, of families whose income is less than $100,000 will be affected. For this level of childcare rebate to be reached, families would need to have their child accessing care for at least 10 hours per day at the average cost levels. The average childcare rebate is estimated to be $2,300 per year, well below the $7,500.

The Australian Early Development Index suggests that 23.5 per cent of all Australian children are vulnerable in at least one of the domains assessed by this index. The index looks at issues such as physical health and wellbeing, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive skills—

Debate interrupted.