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Tuesday, 5 November 1996
Page: 6547

Mrs MOYLAN (Minister for Family Services)(8.53 p.m.) —by leave—I move:

That the bill be now read a third time.

The coalition has established a strategic direction for child care which is sustainable in the long term, offers greater flexibility to parents and protects the benefits of low and middle income earners while ensuring that high income earners who can afford to make a greater contribution to their child-care costs do so. The opposition's failure to support the key measures in the Child Care Legislation Amendment Bill 1996 reflects Labor's arro gant disregard for mainstream Australia—families who, for the last 13 years, have been struggling to make ends meet—and its lack of concern for ensuring equity and fairness to all.

Labor believes that high income earners should be entitled to the same benefits as low income earners, that subsidies should be paid to community based care centres, irrespective of people's income, and that 220,000 families in private long day care—that is 70 per cent of families in centre based care—should be ignored and receive fewer subsidies than other families. The coalition does not accept this position and I do not believe that the majority of Australian families do either.

The measure contained in the bill eliminates Labor's inequities, treating families who use community based long day care no differently from the majority of families who use private long day care. Labor has taken a conscious decision to support the current flawed system and has run a deliberate and irresponsible scare campaign aimed at frightening parents into believing that they will be worse off because of the government's measures. Nowhere has this been better evident than in the course of this particular debate. I welcome this opportunity to repudiate many of the claims that have been made by the opposition both in this place and within the general community.

Since the budget, the opposition has told families that, because of the removal of operational subsidy from community based long day care, services will close or fees will rise. At one point, the member for Jagajaga (Ms Macklin) was claiming that fees could rise by more than $50 per week. In the course of this debate we have heard a number of case studies from the member for Fremantle (Dr Lawrence) and her colleagues suggesting that all families using community based long day care will have to pay extra amounts. The member for Fremantle even cited one example where costs would go up by over $55 per week.

I would strongly encourage parents to challenge claims that fees will necessarily increase, certainly to that extent, because of the government's budget measures. Families cannot and should not trust the figures being touted by the opposition because every time we hear the opposition speak about these it is a different figure. It has ranged from $15 a week extra to $58 a week and beyond. They cannot be relied upon on those figures. Nor should parents accept claims by centres that they have had to increase fees because of new government policies. I am aware of at least one situation where a child-care centre has written to parents in those terms. It said:

This centre is increasing its fees in January, three months before any changes come into effect, and even though it is a private centre which is not affected by the removal of operational subsidy.

I believe Australian parents must challenge the claims of many of the centres that are threatening to put up fees immediately and blaming this government's budget measures in that respect. Suggestions by the opposition that all families with children in community based long day care centres will face massive fee increases are a gross embellishment of the truth. I want to make the point that 44 per cent of families using private sector care are on maximum child-care assistance, compared with 39 per cent of families in community based long day care. It is inequitable that none of these parents receive the same level of subsidy as the parents using the community based centres. The opposition has not been able to produce a single reason to justify this discrimination.

Throughout the course of the debate on this bill, the opposition has referred to other child-care measures that are not contained in this legislation, but I feel compelled to address those measures because there are gross misrepresentations of fact in some cases. The

opposition has unfairly represented the 50-hour cap that will apply to child-care assistance as a disincentive to work. The member for Namadgi (Ms Ellis) claimed that, if parents work long hours, the Howard government is now saying that they have to pay full costs once child-care goes over 50 hours a week. Nothing could be further from the truth. This initiative places a weekly limit of 50 hours per child on the amount of care attracting child-care assistance, unless families genuinely require that extra care to meet their work related commitments. Families who use more than 50 hours of care for work related reasons, including travel time to and from study or work, training or looking for work, will continue to be able to claim child-care assistance for that care.

The vast majority of families use much less than 50 hours of care per week. The average is only 26 hours. Currently, though, 22,500 families are using less than 50 hours of care but are being charged by their service providers for receiving child-care assistance for more than 50 hours. That means this government is paying out for services that are not being rendered. I do not believe any responsible government can continue to take that course. In fact, only 4,500 families use the hours that they have booked over 50 hours. It is blatantly unfair to expect Australian taxpayers to subsidise care that is being charged to the government but is not being used. In that respect, I wish to table and have included in Hansard a chart which clearly shows the situation in regard to 50 hours.

Leave granted.

The graph read as follows—



Mrs MOYLAN —Opposition members also attacked the government's decision to give parents across service types the choice, from 1 January 1998, to have their child-care benefits paid directly to them or their child-care service. While child-care assistance may currently be paid to providers, like the child-care cash rebate, which is already paid to parents, child-care assistance is not intended to benefit services but to assist parents with the cost of their care. That is what this is all about. It is time we got back to first principles here. I find the suggestion that child-care providers will lose their certainty of funding because of this measure highly offensive. The implication is that families will not use their child-care payments to pay their child-care fees.

The message coming clearly from the Labor Party is that the government should pay services because parents cannot be trusted to pay their bills. Why stop at child care? The logical extension of that argument, of the rationale put up by the member for Fremantle, is that parents should not receive any pay cheques; rather, the government should pay people's bills, because they might spend the money on something else. In other words, as the member for Fremantle said in her opening speech, parents cannot be trusted. I think that is highly offensive.

Parents who receive child-care assistance already must pay the minimum fee plus any gap fee. Child-care assistance is not payable unless the family pays its contribution. Paying benefits to parents clearly acknowledges that families are the intended beneficiaries, not the services.

Much has also been made by the opposition of the Economic Planning Advisory Commission's interim report on child care. Contrary to the opposition's claims, the report is not the government's blueprint. It is an interim report only and it was commissioned by the former Labor government. Someone from the other side said when he was in government:

The report will assist government in planning to meet demand, and it will aid both governments and child-care providers.

These are not my words but those of the former Prime Minister, the Hon. Paul Keating. I am not usually one to agree with the former Prime Minister, but on this occasion I am more than happy to use his words:

The interim and the final EPAC report will assist and aid but they will not determine our thinking and they will not determine the final shape of our policy.

This government is committed to delivering a fair and equitable child-care system and to redressing the deficiencies of that system that we inherited and to making the hard decisions that Labor seemed incapable of taking.

I have to remind the House that, although we have removed the operational subsidy from the community based long day care, $526 million in operational subsidy will be provided over the next four years to support services such as family day care, occasional care, outside school hours care and multi-functional care.

Ms Macklin —But not long day care. Why discriminate against them?

Mrs MOYLAN —Because it is a very different kind of service. We have heard the argument that this government is going to drive women out of the work force, but the fact is that over the next four years this government will commit approximately $5 billion to the provision of children's services. We are committed to giving Australian families, in particular women, better and fairer child care. Our national planning framework will overcome Labor's ad hoc planning system, ensuring that families have better access to appropriate child care where and when it is needed.

I am pleased by the support the entire sector has shown for the government's initiative in that planning framework. This measure contained in the bill removes once and for all the inequities and discrimination that has characterised Labor's child-care system. We have listened to Australian parents. We are committed to delivering a child-care system that is fair and equitable to all Australian families.