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Tuesday, 5 November 1996
Page: 6533

Mr O'CONNOR(5.53 p.m.) —I oppose the measures in the Child Care Legislation Amendment Bill 1996 that will abolish the operational subsidy for community based long day care centres in my electorate of Corio. There are eight community based child-care centres operated by the City of Greater Geelong and parents who use those facilities will have their child-care costs dramatically increased as a result of John Howard's budget.

The coalition made a very explicit promise to the people of Australia before the election. The promise was contained in a letter written to the Australian Early Childhood Association by the then shadow minister for employment, training and family services, David Kemp. Dr Kemp had this to say:

The coalition policy also states our continuing support for the community based long day care sector and we regard the operational subsidy as one of the key supports of that sector.

And listen to this, Mr Deputy Speaker:

The coalition has no plans whatever to change the operational subsidy.

Yet here we are barely seven months after the Liberal and National parties won government and they are violating a key promise to many working families and putting affordable, quality child care out of their reach. It is not the only promise they have broken. In aged care, health care, education and jobs, this government—barely seven months in office—has one of the most appalling records of any postwar government.

In removing the operational subsidy from community based child-care centres, the Howard government has taken a further step towards the Americanisation of child care—a system regarded as one of the worst in the world because of its high costs, poor standards, low wages and unequal access. The members of the coalition have no appreciation of the high quality of child care provided by community based long day care centres. These centres provide more places for children with special needs and provide extended opening hours for working parents. They are staffed by a highly dedicated and qualified staff and cater for small babies as well as older children. It is these centres that will be hit by increased costs with the removal of this operational subsidy.

I recently visited several community based long day care centres in my electorate to assess first-hand the potential impact of these changes on the working parents who use those centres. At the Corio Day Care Centre, a dedicated staff of 12 people cater for 60 children coming from 100 families, most of whom are working parents. In allocating access at the centre, priority is given to children of working parents and families with special needs and, of course, single parents studying to improve their economic situation and future opportunities.

Fees at these centres have recently increased due to the local council's competitive tendering process. The removal of the Commonwealth's operating subsidy will mean the centre will lose $65,000 in income out of a total operating budget of $488,000. Given that cutting costs further is not an option for the centre, as the centre is already trying to cope with constraints on its funding from local government sources, the only alternative it will have will be to increase fees to parents.

A similar situation occurs at the Rosewall Child Care Centre, which I also visited recently. This small centre caters for 25 children at a time, is used by around 40 families and is staffed by four extremely dedicated people. The removal of the operational subsidy will simply mean that the centre's fees will have to increase, to the disadvantage of those working families and single parents who currently use it.

But the bad news doesn't end there. From April next year, a means test will apply to the child-care centre rebate, leading to further effective cost increases for working families. Add in further normal cost increases that flow from local government sources and I can quite believe the figures presented to this House earlier in this debate by the member for Fremantle, Dr Lawrence, who in quoting the financial effects on her constituents provided estimates of fee increases of between 40 and 50 per cent for a single parent with two children in full-time care. These measures represent a half a billion dollar grab from working families, and the government ought to be ashamed of it and condemned for it.

I recently had a very distressed mother contact me about the impact of increased fees on her own family situation. She has four children, three of school age who require specialised medical attention for physical problems. That constitutes quite a financial drain on the family budget and requires considerable transportation to receive the required medical and educational attention. She relies heavily on community day care facilities to assist in the minding of her four-year-old while she and her husband seek out the required medical attention for their other children. She has informed me that she faces fee rises of $38 per week, and the family simply cannot afford it.

The point I wish to make in this debate is that, when you strip the rhetoric of this budget away and examine the financial impact and direction of many of these government proposals, it is clear that the intent of John Howard's family taxation package, combined with these child-care measures, is to simply drive some of the working women out of the work force back into the home. That is despite the fact that there are women who must, of necessity, work to supplement the inadequate wages received by males in the household.

Australian society over the past three decades has changed dramatically, and so has the role of women in that society. The increased participation of women in the work force has been driven in some cases by the increases in educational opportunities for women, which has legitimately raised their own personal expectations of taking fuller advantages of expanded life choices. For many other women, sheer economic necessity has propelled them to enter the work force to put food on the table, to pay off the home mortgage, and to educate their children.

Some key statistics bear out the degree to which women currently participate in the work force. The ABS family national summary of 1996 showed that, in 1985, 45.5 per cent of couples with dependants were both employed. By 1995 this had grown to 57 per cent. Between 1980 and 1995, the labour force participation rate for females increased by nine per cent, from 44.8 to 53.8 per cent. Of course, there are those in the community who bemoan these developments, who seek to deny women the opportunity to work, and who seek to turn the clock back. I am afraid the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) is one of those.

I was intrigued to read some very interesting material recently outlining the economic benefits to enterprises of people returning to the work force or, conversely, the cost to enterprises when they lost experienced employees. The Council for Equal Opportunity in Employment has estimated labour turnover costs at between 50 and 130 per cent of the past incumbent's salary. In the car industry in 1990 it was estimated it cost $850 per car for each unwanted staff turnover in a 4,000 person factory. I mention this point because there are many women employed in the car industry in my electorate. In the finance sector it was estimated that losing an employee with eight years experience cost $80,000. I mention these examples because there are many in our community who would deny the efficiency gains and the overall economic benefits to enterprises and the nation of an expanded work force with high levels of female participation.

In conclusion, let me point out the reality of what these child-care fee increases mean in community based long day care centres. It will mean that many working parents will simply drop out of employment. The important tasks performed by these centres in monitoring children at risk will itself be at risk. The quiet community setting where parents can talk with professionals about their children and get good advice may in the long term be closed off to those parents. For single mothers who do not have family or neighbourhood support, these fee increases will put even one day's care to give these deserving mothers a break from their children out of the reach of many of those single mothers. The simple question will be asked by many women from low income families, `What is the point of me going to work?' and they will simply drop out of the work force.

This legislation represents yet another appalling breach of John Howard's pre-election commitments. He has clearly demonstrated that he is a Prime Minister not to be trusted.