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Monday, 1 December 2008
Page: 11983

Mrs MIRABELLA (9:40 PM) —I rise tonight to detail several of the issues that remain unanswered by the Rudd government following the collapse of ABC Learning in late October. At the outset, I want to commend the receivers for last week delivering what the government could not—that is, peace of mind for around 70 per cent of families attending ABC Centres. Having named those 656 ABC Learning centres that will remain open in 2009, the receiver has helped provide certainty for those families as the busy Christmas-New Year period approaches.

However, there are tonight many thousands of families—including our hardworking defence personnel—who do not know what the fate of their ABC Learning centre will be. Their centre is one of the 386 centres that have been named as ‘subject to further operational review’, which means these families face a further wait and may indeed have to scramble for care when the government guarantee runs out at the end of this month. The government has even refused to outline what plans it has in respect of centres with whom the Department of Defence has a contract—all of which are on the doubtful list.

I know that the Deputy Prime Minister has a superportfolio, but this is a very concerning issue for many Australian families and they deserve a minister who is focused on their concerns. If the job is too big for her, she should give it to someone who cares to pay more attention to it. I have to say, I am more than a little dismayed at the hands-off approach that the Deputy Prime Minister has taken on the issue, which is only outdone by the disappearing act of the Parliamentary Secretary for Early Education and Childcare, who has been completely AWOL. The fact is that the Deputy Prime Minister promised back in September that the government was hard at work on a contingency plan for the industry in the event of ABC’s collapse. But two months and a whole industry in upheaval later, we are yet to see anything that resembles a long-term plan. Either there was never a plan or it is a state secret.

Having met with many industry representatives from both the not-for-profit and private childcare sectors over the past few months, I know there is a growing sense of frustration with the government’s response to this crisis. There is an increasing suspicion that, rather than seizing the opportunity to create meaningful reform in the childcare sector, the government is going to leave ABC Learning to the receivers and put reform in the too-hard basket. It is hard to believe that the government is genuinely looking to the future on this issue when it has failed to even provide the most basic data needed to plan for the future.

The most common frustration I have found within the industry is that getting reliable, accurate data on demand hot spots or areas of oversupply is near impossible. We have the absurd situation where the government now has both a hotline and a website—both of which provide advice to parents on local availability—but we have no big picture on vacancy rates nationwide. It is a telling indictment of the Rudd government that the last reporting of national childcare vacancies was on 19 April 2007 by former families minister, Mal Brough. That report showed between 113,000 and 139,000 vacancies each weekday across all forms of child care.

In planning for the future of the childcare industry, we have to start with the basics. Reliable data on supply and demand is vital. All childcare centres are required to report their vacancies to the government each week. So the big question is: why haven’t the figures been released over the past few months? The minister is telling the industry to make expressions-of-interest applications on ABC Learning centres, but there is no clear picture on supply and demand in any region. We have the strange situation revealed by the union today where some of the 385 ABC Learning centres that could possibly close next year have 100 per cent occupancy rates. Conversely, there are many council-run centres that have thousands on their waiting lists while many nearby operators are reporting huge vacancies. It turns out that many of the people on these lists already have child care but would prefer to move to a particular centre. On top of all of this, we have the government pledging to build 260 new childcare centres around the country but refusing to say on what basis they determined the need to build a particular centre.

It really beggars belief that the government are spending $114 million over the next four years to build 30 new childcare centres when we have over 300 centres that are currently operating now facing closure. The minister ought to fully review Labor’s election promise to build 260 new centres. If it does not work in the new childcare climate, why pursue such an expensive, ideologically driven policy? If they have information on the data where hot spots do require government assistance to build centres, they should reveal this information immediately. As a bottom line starting basis, they have to come clean and reveal data on childcare vacancies across the nation. In opposition, the ALP made all sorts of claims about childcare shortages and called on the government to release vacancy—(Time expired)