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Monday, 31 October 2011
Page: 12237

Mr BANDT (Melbourne) (20:30): The Victorian childcare sector, including 128 Neighbourhood houses, has been appalled by the political stand-off over the investment of less than $2 million into occasional child care in Victoria. When the federal government did not renew its $12 million national contribution to occasional child care, some states picked up the shortfall. However, the six-month-old coalition government in Victorian pulled out of its $700,000 contribution, promising to reinstate this funding only if the federal government followed suit. This unnecessary brinkmanship has had a profound effect on vulnerable families, with the cessation of the Take A Break program, the closure of occasional childcare places at some centres and the imminent closure of more in 2012. Some of these are in the electorate of Melbourne, with others in remote rural communities.

The state government has argued that childcare funding is not their responsibility. There would be some merit in this position were it not the case that funding for community based programs at Neighbourhood houses is the domain of state government. Occasional child care is provided by 128 Neighbourhood houses in Victoria and these providers have a reasonable expectation that their state government will fund them to provide programs which support and develop their communities. At this point, I would like to congratulate the Association of Neighbourhood houses and Learning Centres, in particular Angela Savage, for their tireless work on this issue on behalf of houses in their communities.

Last week, Minister Ellis announced a small increase in federal funding for occasional child care, demonstrating that the Commonwealth government does indeed have a role in funding occasional child care. However, while the 250 extra occasional childcare places announced for Victoria are welcome, they barely register for the centres wondering how to fund the places they had funding for until this year—places that would have accommodated around 10,000 children. One centre in my electorate of Melbourne, operating at a public housing estate with despairingly high unemployment figures, would alone require 30 of the new 250 places to support its occasional childcare program. Unless this centre and many like it receive funding, they will have to cut their service.

I hope that the minister is listening to this because circumstances particular to the electorate of Melbourne are being overlooked in the decisions being made by the federal government at the moment. My electorate of Melbourne has more public housing than any other electorate in the country. We are home to many people who have come here under various refugee and migration streams. They are usually not skilled migrants. There are more single mothers in Melbourne than in many other electorates in the country. We have these public housing tower blocks which house thousands of people in the middle of affluent suburbs. When you look at the suburb-by-suburb analysis, yes, the area looks wealthy. But we have pockets of thousands and thousands of people who are in distress and doing it tough. They are using the occasional child care at these Neighbourhood houses to help get themselves out of poverty and to help begin integrating into the Australian employment market. They go to many of the Neighbourhood houses which I visit. They are studying for their certificate II or III in child care, they are perhaps doing a catering course and they are perhaps learning English. The Take A Break program and occasional care funding has been absolutely essential in saving these people from becoming more and more isolated.

The effects on these people, which are not showing up in the government analysis of vulnerable areas, are going to be huge. We know that there is extensive research to support the need for funded occasional child care. The Brotherhood of St Laurence has demonstrated it, the Australian Institute of Family Studies has demonstrated it and the original Henry review demonstrated it. We know that Australia has, relative to OECD standards, low rates of employment of lone mothers and high rates of joblessness for mothers with dependent children. We know that one of the greatest barriers to workforce training and participation for vulnerable women is the scarcity of high-quality accessible and affordable child care.

It is exactly these people who are, in my experience in the electorate of Melbourne—and I think you will find it in many other places as well—being hardest hit by this dispute over a very small amount of money which would make an enormous difference to some of the most vulnerable people in this country. These are some of the people whom—and I know the government agrees—we want to encourage into employment participation. A needs analysis of demand for occasional child care can be difficult, given the vulnerability and often invisibility of potential users. It is difficult to assess how many occasional childcare places require funding, but it is many more than 250. We are with the federal government that occasional child care must be of a high standard and that standards of occasional child care should be set as part of the national quality framework. But, in the meantime, all of the research and all of the experience of providers confirms that federal funding for occasional child care is required and that community based providers such as neighbourhood houses and rural centres should be supported by state governments to ensure families can access affordable and high-quality occasional child care. The federal government should step up to the plate as well.

Debate adjourned.