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Tuesday, 21 May 1985
Page: 2210

Senator COATES —Has the Minister for Community Services seen reports that the Tasmanian Government is considering closing up to 31 small kindergarten centres and sacking up to 50 teaching staff as a result of the decision about Commonwealth block grants to the States for pre-schools? Can the Minister clarify the position regarding the effects of the cessation of the block grants? Are the Tasmanian Government's predictions of inevitable wholesale reductions in pre-school programs justified?

Senator GRIMES —Yes, I have seen reports and, indeed, I saw Mr Beswick, I think it was, on television making the claims and assertions that Senator Coates pointed out. I can say initially only that if Mr Beswick and his Government decide to do such a thing it would not, I suggest, be because of any cuts by this Government; it would be because they saw those kindergartens and pre-schools, in their view, as having a low priority.

Senator Watson —Why are they not treated the same as New South Wales?

Senator GRIMES —I am sorry that the honourable senator does not read the telegrams or statements by Mr Walker. Pre-school funds were provided by Federal governments as far back as 1974. Initially they were provided as capital funds to build pre-schools. Recurrent costs were also provided at that time. For established pre-schools the Commonwealth agreed to meet the differences between State contributions and award salaries provided the States maintained their level of funding. From January 1976 the previous Government reduced those funds and, in 1977, they were reduced to just over $30m. Funding has stayed at that level since then.

Pre-schools are accepted as being the responsibility of the State governments. Many State governments, including the Tasmanian Government, have incorporated most of those pre-schools into the education system. Pre-school funds have been eroded by inflation year after year and there has been a general recognition that they are State responsibility. Commonwealth governments, both conservative and Labor, have more and more funded child care centres, family day care, occasional care and a multiplicity of other sorts of care. During the time that the pre-school block grant has diminished in value we have heard very little from Mr Beswick or the Tasmanian Government because, at the time the funds were reduced, there was a conservative government.

During the time that the pre-school block grants have been dropping in value there have been considerable increases in other, untied, funds from the Commonwealth Government to the States which can be used by the States. According to the Commonwealth Grants Commission report Tasmania has been more than compensated over the years by extra grants which are available for the Tasmanian Government to use. At the moment that Government is spending something like seven times as much as the Commonwealth contribution on pre-schools. To suggest that because it will lose $1m it will have no other sources, either from Commonwealth funds or from its capacity to raise funds itself, to keep these small pre-school kindergartens going and to keep people in jobs is absolutely ludicrous.

The problem with Mr Beswick, Mr Gray and his colleagues is that they scream restraint. They call on the Federal Government to cut funds but whenever those cuts affect them they try to blame the Commonwealth. They take it out on small groups in rural areas in the north-east of Tasmania in order to try to boost their votes in those areas. It will not work. If Mr Beswick and his colleagues close those pre-schools it will be because they do not see the priority in that area and do not see that those pre-schools are valuable. I see that they are valuable and I am sure that the parents who send their kids there see them as being valuable. If the Tasmanian Government is not willing to take part in the economic restraint being exercised at the moment that is its choice. I remind honourable senators that over the years when the pre-school funds were being eroded by inflation we heard not one word from Senator Walters, Senator Watson, Mr Gray or Mr Beswick. They are indulging in a party political stunt. They know it and the people know it.