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Monday, 23 November 2009
Page: 8640


Senator HANSON-YOUNG (9:26 PM) —I rise this evening to add my comments about the report tabled by the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee about the provision of child care. It was some 12 months ago that I moved that this issue be referred to a committee. It has been a long inquiry. When the inquiry was first referred to the committee, John Carter, the former secretary of the committee, said, ‘I can’t remember the last time we looked into child care.’ I guess that said it all from the word go. We needed to have a good look at the childcare sector in Australia, because over the last decade or more it has changed significantly. It has gone from being a service that some people use to being a service that almost all working parents use in some form these days. With the growth of demand comes the growth in expectations of quality, of cost and of who foots the bill. There is also the opportunity for the sector to be manipulated by what was referred to various times during the committee as the ‘Kentucky Fried Kids’ approach to delivering child care.

This inquiry came out of the collapse of ABC Learning. Twelve months ago this chamber faced some decisions that needed to be made. It was an example of government needing to step in and support what was essentially a service that had been run for quite a while as almost a luxury, a market based industry—as if parents could choose if they needed to send their children to child care and which childcare centre. When we look at the facts about the needs parents have when they send their children to child care or put their child into the care of a provider, where they choose—there are many complexities that go into making those decisions. When ABC Learning collapsed, it left over 100,000 families in the lurch. People did not know what they were going to do. Over 11,000 centres closed or were in limbo. People did not know if they were going to be able to send their kids to child care that week, next month or the next year. This meant turbulence for those individual families—let alone the staff of those centres. Everything was up in the air. We did not know what kind of stability they were going to be given.

I saw this as an opportunity for us to have a really good rethink about the way we deliver child care in Australia. The collapse of the corporate giant ABC Learning has presented us with opportunities to reform child care across the country. I would argue that, perhaps, some of those opportunities needed to be taken sooner by the government. We needed to see a number of the centres that were resold under the ABC2 Group prioritised to non-profit, community based childcare providers. I am concerned that the remaining 700-odd centres that are in receivership will simply go to another ABC look-alike. Those are opportunities that I believe we have missed in the last 12 months, but, having said that, there are still some great reforms that could be happening and which we can take the opportunity to pursue.

I think the majority report of the committee outlines a number of those—really important things that the government should grab hold of and run with. Being quite passionate about this issue, I put in my own additional comments and the Greens have included eight additional recommendations to the majority report dealing with a few more of the complexities of how we view child care and how we use the mechanisms available to government to link quality issues with funding.

At the moment, we—both parents and the government—spend a considerable amount on child care around the country, yet there is no link to the quality of care. You may pay $100 a day for long day care for your child; you may pay $80; you may pay $50—this is before the childcare tax rebate—but there is no link between the money that is going to that place and the quality of care that you are getting because the quality standards and the benchmarks are different across the different states. There is no real link between the money that goes in and the type of service you get back. I think it is something that the government seriously needs to consider. I know that the majority report recommends a little bit of a rethink of the mechanisms currently used to fund child care in order to drive some good quality outcomes.

We know we need to address the ratio issue. Children from birth to the age of two years should be looked after by a carer who is looking after one to three kids. That is what the experts tell us. That is going to give us the best quality care and the best quality educational outcomes. For those children over two years, it should be one to four. These are significant reforms that, if they were made across the country, would deliver good quality educational outcomes for our youngest Australians and good quality care, but they are things that governments need to be brave about and take forward.

How do we do it? We need to fund it. We need a better investment and an increased investment from the federal government, but we also need to ensure that we link that funding with the delivery of good quality outcomes. Therefore, we need to have a look at how we set those funding levers so that we deliver those policy outcomes. It is no good just saying, ‘Here are our quality standards—okay, COAG, you tick off and sign all these things’ if we are not going to set the levers right to deliver them. So we need to do that. Addressing the ratios issue is one part of the solution.

The other thing that struck me as the inquiry travelled around the country and we heard various submissions from people was the lack of qualified staff looking after kids around the country. Do not get me wrong; there are some amazing people working in child care—people who are passionate about it, know their stuff and have been in the field for years—but there are no guarantees that, if you put your child into a childcare centre, the person who is looking after them on a day-to-day basis is actually qualified. I think most parents would assume that, if you pay $50 to $100 per day to get your child looked after in child care, the person looking after your kid is qualified. You would assume that that is the case. Unfortunately, it is not. We need to tackle the issue of qualified staff in centres and ensure that we can support providers to deliver the best quality care by ensuring that they can give training and support to their childcare workers.

We simply do not value kids enough and that is one of the problems. If we were valuing children—our youngest children and most vulnerable kids—then we would be investing significantly in early childhood education and care and ensuring we are delivering those good quality outcomes. We need to start valuing kids more. We need to ensure that they are looked after properly, that they have the best facilities, based on developmental outcomes, and that the staff looking after them are qualified. To do that, we need to be valuing those childcare workers. It is a hard job looking after kids and we do not value it enough, so we obviously need to see an increase in wages and better conditions for childcare workers.

The last issue that I want to address in the remaining one minute and 42 seconds that I have is the corporatisation of child care. I referred earlier to the Kentucky Fried Kids approach to delivering child care. The ABC-McDonald’s style of child care simply does not work. We know that it does not deliver the best outcomes. It is pretty difficult to make a profit from child care and to do it you have to cut back or skimp on something. What gets skimped on? It is quality. It is how much time and interaction the kid has with their carer, the types of activities that are provided and the qualifications of staff looking after them. The corporatised style delivery of child care—an essential service—just does not work. The collapse of ABC Learning has proven that.

We need to seriously question whether providers of early childhood education and care should be allowed to float themselves on the share market and have making a profit as their primary objective. We do not accept it in the school sector. Parents would be outraged if the school sector was run for profit. Parents expect that we—as the government, as the parliament and as the state—have a special investment in education. We need to see nothing less for the education of our youngest children.

We cannot continue to go down a Kentucky Fried Kids approach to child care. We need a rethink. Here is the opportunity. I hope the government takes the committee report seriously and adopts the recommendations. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.