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Thursday, 10 February 2011
Page: 478

Senator PRATT (1:21 PM) —This afternoon we are speaking about the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Budget Measures) Bill 2010. This bill represents the Gillard government’s strong commitment to ensuring that Australian families have access to quality early education and child care. This investment will be backed by more than $18 billion over the next four years. We are committing almost $11 billion more over the next four years than the coalition committed in its last four years of government. In other words, Labor’s financial commitment to early education and child care over the next four years is more than double that of the former coalition government.

In particular, the Gillard government is committed to ensuring that parents can afford quality child care—care that they need and that their children deserve. That is why this Labor government raised the childcare rebate to 50 per cent of a parent’s out-of-pocket expenses and increased the maximum for each child in care to $7,500 a year. Under the former government, the rebate was only 30 per cent, and the maximum that a family could receive was less than $4,500 a year. So in 2004, under the former coalition government, the out-of-pocket costs after subsidies for a family with one child in long day care earning just $50,000 a year was in fact 13 per cent of that household’s disposable income. In 2010, under this Gillard government, that proportion had declined to seven per cent. In other words, out-of-pocket costs as a proportion of disposable income for an average family with one child in long day care have almost halved under Labor.

We have also delivered on our promise to pay the childcare rebate quarterly. From 1 July 2011, families can choose to have their rebate paid fortnightly so that they can get assistance with their childcare costs as those costs arise instead of having to wait months for help. Altogether, this government is investing almost $15 billion over the next four years to help more than 800,000 Australian families each year with the cost of their child care. This is occurring through the education care benefit and the childcare rebate.

In the 2010-11 budget, the government made a decision to keep the childcare rebate cap at the level promised during the 2007 election—that is, at $7,500 per year. This means that under Labor the cap is still more than $3,000 a year higher than it was under the coalition, so we know that the vast majority of Australian families will not be affected by the change reflected in this legislation. In fact, only about three per cent of families currently using approved child care are going to be affected. It is estimated that by 2013-14 the average childcare rebate claim will be about $2,300. That is well under the cap of $7,500. In order to reach the cap, most families would need to be placing their child in care for at least 10 hours a day for more than four days a week at average fee levels. But we know that in Australia the average use of child care is much lower, with parents using it for around 2½ days a week. We also know that less than one per cent of families using child care who earn less than $100,000 a year will be impacted by this change in 2010-11.

You can see that this initiative is a sensible, well-targeted savings measure, one that will not affect the vast majority of Australian families using approved care. It is a savings measure which is expected to generate more than $86 million over the next four years. This represents more than $86 million which will help fund the National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Care and which will also help fund the Gillard government’s $59 million investment in budget based funded early childhood services that are mostly located in rural and remote Australia. This national quality framework has been agreed upon in partnership with the states and territories. It will for the first time set a national quality standard for early childhood education and care providers across the country.

The quality reforms are about improving staff-to-child ratios so that each child will get more individual time and attention. The reforms also look to improving staff qualifications so that staff are better able to lead activities that inspire our youngsters and help them learn and develop. The reforms will also introduce a quality ratings system so that parents know about the quality of care on offer and can make informed choices, because parents in this country need peace of mind when they entrust their children to a childcare service. They need to know that their children will be safe, happy and in stimulating environments that will help them develop and learn.

Most childcare centres across Australia do their job well. Unfortunately, however, the latest report of the National Childcare Accreditation Council shows that too many centres are failing to meet basic safety, hygiene, education and wellbeing standards. Australian parents and their children deserve better than this. We can do better and we must do better when it comes to the safety, wellbeing and early learning of our children. That is why the Gillard government is working in partnership with the states and territories to lift the standard of child care across the nation by implementing this national quality framework.

For the coalition, implementing this national quality standard is all too hard. We know that the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Abbott—aka ‘Mr No’—wanted to put this important reform on hold indefinitely. The Gillard government does not believe that stalling is an option. It is not an option when the welfare and development of the youngest children in this nation are at stake. This government has made the tough decisions necessary to make the savings necessary to progress this vital reform. It is about safeguarding the wellbeing and early learning of Australian children.

I am pleased that the savings measures in this bill will also help fund the Gillard government’s $59 million in investment in over 140 budget based funded early childhood services. As I said before, these services are most commonly in rural and regional Australia and they provide care to some of this nation’s most vulnerable children. I know many of the communities in Western Australia that have these centres, and the great work of these places desperately needs more government support. It cannot be a one-size-fits-all investment. Our investment is targeted at supporting these services to provide children with higher quality early learning experiences.

The research has repeatedly demonstrated that high-quality early learning services are particularly important to disadvantaged young children. Such services play a critical role in shaping the future health, development and wellbeing outcomes of these vulnerable children. It is about things like substantially increasing the number of qualified staff in these services to ensure that staff are better equipped to provide high-quality care and, through infrastructure and facility upgrades, ensuring that children will be able to learn and play in a safe and appropriate environment. Importantly, we will also be working with services to improve their governance and administrative capacity, because we know how important these things are. They are the key to providing high-quality care now and in the future.

As a senator for the largest state in our nation, one with a large Indigenous population and with many regional and remote communities, I am very aware of the need to ensure that children in these communities do not miss out on the early learning opportunities available to their city peers. That is what these budget based funded early learning childhood centres are about. I am familiar with many of the communities whose childcare services will be receiving the extra funding as a result of our additional investment in budget based funded early childhood services. These are high-needs communities. They face significant issues related to poverty, isolation and cultural barriers that inhibit families from accessing community based services and activities. They are communities like the Indigenous communities in and around Port Hedland, where the Rose Nowers Early Learning Centre is located. This centre has been in existence for 20 years and is now undergoing a much-needed major redevelopment of its building and backyard. It is increasing the available places for Indigenous children in the Pilbara. It is also providing a new, more stimulating environment for its existing children. It is heavily involved in Child Care Links, a Commonwealth program that enables staff working at the centre to get out to the remoter parts of the Pilbara to offer playgroups and other early learning activities to young children and their families.

These are the kinds of things that we are making possible through this bill. Other centres include the Fitzroy Valley Early Learning Centre at Fitzroy Crossing and the Little Nuggets Early Learning Centre at Halls Creek—again, both childcare providers servicing very remote Indigenous communities. There is an absolutely pressing need to upgrade early childhood education and care services in both communities and to better integrate such services with other family services—things like parenting programs and maternal and child health services. The Shire of Halls Creek is in fact the fastest-growing shire in Western Australia and the region. It also has the youngest population in the state, with over 12 per cent of the Indigenous residents in Halls Creek aged between zero and four years. So the Commonwealth is working with the state government to upgrade the Little Nuggets Early Learning Centre to a children and family centre. That is going to enable a wider range of services to be provided at the centre, including mobile playgroups throughout the region. The Commonwealth will also fund two Indigenous childcare traineeships at Little Nuggets, to help improve the quality of the day care services currently offered at the centre.

A fourth service which will receive extra funding as a result of our additional investment in budget based funded early childhood services is the Saranna JET creche. This is an absolutely amazing service. I have visited it a number of times. This service provides care to the children of women participating in the residential treatment services offered by Cyrenian House to women affected by alcohol and drugs. The primary aim of the Saranna program is family preservation, where serious family dysfunction associated with alcohol or drug abuse has placed mothers and their children at the risk of separation. Saranna aims to address and prevent patterns of family dysfunction by providing therapeutic services to the women concerned, while simultaneously providing quality care to children that preserves and enhances the natural parental role. It is part of an on-site residential family program for these mothers and their children. It really underscores to me the importance of these budget based funded centres in supporting and providing early learning opportunities for vulnerable children in this country. I have been very privileged to visit Saranna, to talk to the team providing childcare and therapeutic services there and to meet some of the very beautiful children. There are not really adequate words for describing the difference that Saranna makes to the mothers and children who find safe haven there and rebuild their lives together.

Our additional investment in budget based funded early learning childhood services is going to help centres like these right across Western Australia. It will help them offer higher quality early learning opportunities, from Albany to Broome, from Kalgoorlie to Carnarvon. It is also going to assist creches at educational institutions, early learning centres in remote Indigenous communities and long day care services in our major regional centres, centres that in Western Australia are growing rapidly as they service the mining boom that is driving our national economy. These services will help our citizens of today learn, earn and contribute to the nation, knowing that their children are well cared for. They will also ensure that our citizens of tomorrow, even the most disadvantaged, have a greater opportunity of leading fulfilling lives in the future.

So you can see that the savings measures embodied in this bill will not affect the vast majority of Australian families, but they will fund essential improvements to the quality of care through the national quality framework, from which 800,000 Australian families will benefit. From this, many more children and parents will benefit into the future as the standards are lifted at our childcare centres right across the nation. The national quality framework reflects the Gillard government’s commitment to what is an ambitious reform agenda that is unapologetically based on improving affordability, access and quality. It is about access, quality and affordability for all early childhood education and care across the country.

What we have before us is also an additional investment in budget based funded early childhood services, and that is an extra commitment to providing assistance for those young children in our nation who are most in need. It is also about making sure that children in rural and regional Australia are not missing out on the critical early learning opportunities available to their peers in our capital cities. These are commitments that I share and I will certainly be keeping a close eye on the impact of these reforms as they are implemented in the years to come. I look forward to talking to the many childcare centres across Western Australia about these reforms. The children of Australia deserve a government that is 100 per cent committed to investing in their early years so that they can get the best opportunities in life. This is a commitment of the Gillard government represented in this bill. I commend the bill to the chamber.