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Monday, 15 June 2009
Page: 6018

Mrs MIRABELLA (6:13 PM) —I have some questions for the Minister for Education. In a ministerial statement on education, employment and workplace relations, on page 24 of the budget paper of 12 May, she announced, regarding phase 2:

The remaining up to 222 early learning and care centres will be considered when the child care market is settled and based on the experience of the priority centres.

There has been a considerable departure from the advice provided previously in this statement and in the fact sheet on the department website that states:

… the remaining up to 222 ELCCs would be established progressively by the end of 2014 and delivered as part of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) National Partnership arrangements.

My questions to the minister are as follows: (1) now that it appears that the commitment has been shelved indefinitely, can you outline exactly what criteria will be used to determine when the childcare market is settled; (2) if an assessment of how the first 38 centres are operating will form part of the decision on whether to proceed with the other 222 centres, does that mean that a decision will not be made until all 38 are operational? Presumably that will be well after 2011 and, therefore, long after the next election. The minister has created an out by saying that the 222 centres are contingent on the experience of the first 38 centres, hasn’t she? But she is not listening. This was not a caveat in Mr Rudd’s much publicised election promise to build 260 new centres to end the dreaded double drop-off, was it? She is still not listening.

Regarding the work done on the government’s paid parental leave to date, did the government pay any external consultants to work on the response to the Productivity Commission’s report which was released with the budget? If yes, who were they and how much were they paid? If not, which department did the policy work and prepared the 29-page booklet, Australia’s paid parental leave scheme which was released on budget night? Of the $2.35 million budgeted for communication and evaluation expenses for the coming financial year, exactly how will that be spent given the scheme will not even be coming into effect until halfway through the following financial year?

According to the FaHCSIA budget statement, it will be this department which administers the program. Has a special group or task force been assembled to manage the introduction of paid parental leave? If so, how many people are currently employed in that capacity and what number is that expected to grow to over the coming years? What role will FaHCSIA play in the implementation of the scheme, given that businesses will be paymasters? Is it expected that Centrelink or another body would administer the scheme? In other words, whom would businesses have to deal with in order to ensure that they received the advance payments so that they could pay their employees?

On what modelling was the costing of the scheme based—was it the Productivity Commission’s or another body’s? On page 9 of the budget night booklet on paid parental leave it clearly states that an estimated 148,000 parents would be eligible for the PPL payments each year and it also says that they will on average be around $2,000 better off under the current arrangements. Taking into account tax payable and changes in family payments et cetera, is that correct? Without even taking into account the cost of administering the scheme, that would mean a net cost of $269 million a year. How does this equate with the claim on page 1 that the scheme would cost a total $721 million over five years, which is an average of $146 million a year. Even taking into account that the scheme will not start until mid-2011 does not that equal at least $1.036 billion not $721 million? While I understand there is a complex mixture of family payments affected, it is quite clear that either the figure of $721 million is incorrect or the claim that families will be better off by an average of $2,000 is incorrect.

Even the government has said that 14 per cent of working families would be worse off under this scheme and will have the option to remain under the current scheme. Isn’t that correct? What are the factors that determine whether a family will be worse off? Part of it is timing, isn’t it? Women who take their paid parental leave in the last 18 weeks of the financial year are likely to lose more in tax and family payments than women who take it at the beginning, especially if they intend to take the full 12-months maternity leave as most women do. What consideration has been given to the impact on maternity services if women time their pregnancies for the beginning of the financial year to maximise their benefit? Has any research been conducted on how our hospital system would cope? Of those 14 per cent of working women who would be worse off taking paid parental leave, exactly how will they determine whether they want to take parental leave or not? How accurately will they be able to determine their entitlement and by what method?

Will the $150,000 threshold be indexed? The $150,000 threshold applies to the primary carer’s income not to the family income—is that correct—could you please confirm? A woman who earns a tidy $140,000 and whose partner is a multimillionaire would be eligible for paid parental leave but a family couple who each earn around $78,000 are not eligible for the baby bonus—is that correct? The fact is that only around 127,000 families in any given year would receive the paid parental leave and the other 154,000 would not receive any additional benefit. So the majority of new mothers would not benefit from this new scheme—is that correct?

I would like to clarify another point. On what modelling was the assumption made that this scheme would result in an increase of average leave taken by women after childbirth by around 10 weeks? Aren’t the objectives of increasing workforce participation between pregnancies and at the same time increasing the length of time spent by women caring for their children when they are very young almost mutually exclusive? Is the message really that only the first 18 weeks are important or that six months, the figure referred to in the government booklet, is the right amount of time? Isn’t it a fact, according to the Productivity Commission’s own report, that at least 83 per cent of Australian women already stay at home with their babies for the first six months? Is the message from the government to these 83 per cent of women that they ought to be heading back to the workforce after just six months? In examining this particular scheme has the government given any consideration to the social capital of those women who do not choose to take time out of the paid workforce for a period? What signal does the government send to women who are often the mainstays of our schools, community groups and sporting clubs that their efforts are important to the nation?