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Monday, 1 December 2003
Page: 23338

Ms GEORGE (4:45 PM) —I take this opportunity to grieve about this government's inaction on the work and family agenda. We hear a lot of rhetoric from this government but we see no substantial action where people desperately need it, on major issues like the introduction of paid maternity leave and meeting the growing demand for child-care places, especially in family day care and outside school hours care programs. We have heard a lot of talk but have seen no delivery of the services required to help the majority of Australian families balance their work and family commitments. The situation for many families is becoming critical. Social provision by this government has not kept pace with workplace, labour market or economic changes. There has been an absolute revolution in women's work force participation but far too little by way of government initiatives to assist.

I want to refer to a couple of statistics to highlight those changes. Back in the fifties, the employment rate for women was about 29 per cent. At the beginning of this new century, it is 62 per cent. Forty-five per cent of women with children under five have jobs, and the old model of the nuclear family—with the dad out in the work force and the mum being a full-time carer for dependants—is now the minority. It is not the typical family relationship any longer. In the overwhelming majority of families the mother works at least on a part-time basis, and in many cases on a full-time basis. What we know from data is that mothers tend to return to paid employment, on average, when their child is two years of age.

So we have had these profound changes. We have had a lot of talk from the Prime Minister, saying this is a real `barbecue stopper', but when the crunch is on there is no delivery of the outcomes that are required. The only initiative that came forward as part of this government's family policy was the introduction of a baby bonus. We said at the time that it was better than nothing but it was a deeply flawed proposal and, in our judgment, the money could be far better spent helping families and helping mothers. We know the baby bonus is incredibly regressive. Of the women in my electorate, the overwhelming majority earn less than $25,000 a year, so they would get the minimum entitlement of $500 a year. But if you are at the top end of the income scale—and I would be hard-pressed to find one mum in my electorate earning more than $52,666 a year; only about seven per cent of women in Australia earn above that—you get the magnanimous full amount of $2,500.

It is an incredibly regressive measure and it is providing the least to the families in the greatest need. It is incredibly biased against mums who want to return to work. As we know, many are forced through economic necessity to return to work within 12 months of the baby's birth. It now seems the average time to return to work is when the child is two years old. What worries me is that the baby bonus appears to be this government's preferred solution to the issue of assisting families at the birth of a child, and certainly a preferred alternative to the introduction of paid maternity leave, which is desperately needed in our country. The baby bonus has already failed to provide financial support when it is most needed. It appears that the average payment is only about $680 per year, or less than $2 per day, and yet the government wants to pretend to families that it is really serious about providing financial assistance and a supportive environment. It is estimated that a minuscule number of mums, if any, would qualify for the full benefit of $12,500, which is what they get if they are out of the paid work force for a period of five years.

So why doesn't the government do something about paid maternity leave, which is a measure that would benefit so many more women? It is an ILO convention. We have the dubious distinction of being one of only two OECD nations that have not introduced it. The costings are more than reasonable for its introduction. NATSEM estimated that the first year would cost $213 million—a lot less than the baby bonus, which is not providing the outcomes that families desperately want. I know why the government has not introduced it: because the government cannot get its act together. The Prime Minister says:

Any idea that we are opposed in principle to paid maternity leave is wrong.

He should tell that to Senator Minchin, who describes it as `middle-class welfare', or to the Minister for Health and Ageing, who proclaimed that paid maternity leave would be introduced `over the government's dead body'. Here is the government talking up the need to redress the imbalances between work and family life to make it easier for families, and yet the government does not have even one consistent line on the issue of paid maternity leave.

That confusion in the government's ranks also extends to the issue of unmet demand for child-care places. Again, we have the minister rightly acknowledging that there is a crisis in unmet demand, which we have been telling him about for several years, but the Treasurer the following day shot the minister down in no uncertain terms by saying, `Yes, a lot of ministers come to me with brilliant ideas, but you cannot fund everybody's great ideas.' I hope the minister wins out on this issue, because the issue of access to and affordability of child care is a major problem in all electorates, including my electorate of Throsby. The unmet demand has been estimated conservatively, on a national basis, to be a shortfall of about 26,000 places in family day care and 28,000 places in the outside school hours care program. That estimate was done by planning committees under the auspices of the government, and I dare say it is a severe underestimation.

I want to take this opportunity in the grievance debate to draw the minister's attention to some problems in my electorate, which I have sent correspondence about. The big issue we are facing is the critical lack of places for children aged under three years. A small sample in my electorate shows that Barrack Heights Children's Centre has 60 children aged under three years on a waiting list. The Wallaroo centre at Shellharbour has a waiting list of about 50 children. With mums going back to work, on average, when the child turns two years of age, you can imagine the desperation of many low-income families that are in need of that financial assistance but are unable to find a child-care place.

In my electorate there is an obvious lack of planning and a mismatch of demand and places. I have demographic change occurring, with numbers of young families moving in because they are priced out of the Sydney property market. What do we find where the growth is occurring? The infrastructure of community services and child-care places is not there. Worse than that, I now have private providers competing with established community services in some areas of my electorate that are well serviced, while other suburbs that are booming demographically have no provision at all.

I have also drawn the minister's attention to what I think is a scandalous situation where child-care centres that open up for profit get a licence and part of the licence agreement is that they take young children aged under two or three years but, a couple of years down the track, when they realise it is more costly to provide the kind of care that you need for the under-threes, they suddenly tell the families, `Sorry, from now on we cannot take any child under three.' That has placed a number of families in my electorate in a terrible position.

I have an estimated shortfall, just in the Wollongong local government area, of 455 outside of school hours care places. As I said, I have written to the minister and I am waiting for his reply, because I think that, for too long, the government has been out there beating the drum on the need to balance work and family life, but it falls remarkably short when it comes to actually translating those words into dealing with real issues facing real families.