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Thursday, 28 November 1985
Page: 2510

Senator SHORT(8.30) —As Senator Peter Baume said in leading the debate for the Opposition on the Child Care Amendment Bill, the Opposition will not be opposing it. At the same time it is expressing, through its amendment, considerable concern about the Government's proposals. That concern stems from a very real worry about what is going to happen to the quality of child care in this country as a result of the changes that will be occasioned if this Bill is passed. The changes and their likely effect on the quality of child care in this country sit very oddly with the remarks made by the Minister for Community Services, Senator Grimes, in his second reading speech when he said that the changes that have been made fit within the basic principles that reflected the need to maintain standards and a quality of child care and to maintain affordable child care, particularly for moderate and low income earners. He said: `We are not prepared to surrender these fundamental principles'. I would submit that on both counts the Minister, and through him the Government, has abjectly surrendered those fundamental principles.

I am concerned about the Bill for various reasons, which I will go into in detail in a moment. But I do want to stress at the outset my concern as to why this Bill has been brought in and debated with such haste.

Senator Coates —Haste!

Senator SHORT —Haste in terms of the detail of the Bill, yes. Why has there apparently been little or no consultation with many of those groups and organisations in the community-if I am wrong about this I would welcome Senator Grimes's comments to the contrary-which are expert in this area; for example, the Association of Early Childhood Educators and the Institute of Early Childhood Studies? According to the Municipal Association of Victoria there has been little or no consultation with it, and I ask why. I would like the Minister's comments on that, especially as it concerns a State in which 60 per cent of the child care centres are operated and sponsored by local government. A wide range of concerns have been voiced to me from both city and country based municipal areas of Victoria that operate or are contemplating operating child care centres. I am worried about the apparent lack of consultation and the haste in terms of some of the detail. I ask why the changes are to have effect from 1 April 1986. For example, why not make it 1 July, particularly as the changed arrangements mean the amount of money involved is something like $2.1m--

Senator Coates —It was going to be January.

Senator SHORT —It is now to be April. The 1985-86 saving is said to be $2.6m, less about $0.4m in terms of establishment costs. So we are talking about a saving of $2.1m in the 1985-86 Budget. Due to the apparent confusion within the community, particularly in Victoria, I ask the Minister to explain why it is necessary to bring in this legislation without the consultation that so many people, particularly by those in my own State, feel is necessary. That consultation is said to be necessary because there is obviously a great deal of confusion about what is involved in the proposition and the effect on families in particular income ranges and the effect on particular child care centres. I think consultation is essential in this case because there are obviously deep differences in understanding what the simple facts and figures are. I think the Government owes it to those who are confused to try to explain it much more than it has.

I will come back to the question of the cost to families in particular income ranges. I understand that there is considerable disagreement in Victoria with the Minister's figure of $85 per child per week as the cost of operating a child care centre. I think that was the figure the Minister gave in his second reading speech. I am advised that a detailed study by the Victorian Office of Child Care earlier this year put that figure at $109 per child per week. If there is that sort of difference, I think there is an obligation on the Government and on the Minister to explain it. If we have such a difference in figures we are never likely to get a set of proposals which will find acceptance. I am not asserting which set of figures is right and which is wrong, but because the difference does exist I think that is reason enough for the proposal, if it is not to be deferred, at least to be better explained.

As I said earlier, the same applies when we look at the costs to families. As I understand the Minister's proposal, lower income families will pay only an additional $2 per week. That figure has been very hotly disputed, certainly in Victoria. I would like to hear a better explanation for that figure and, in fact, for the totality of the figures because, quite frankly, I do not think the Minister's arithmetic adds up correctly. It has been put to me that that ignores the fact that in the transition year at least child care centres can impose an additional $5 levy, which, as I understand it, will be imposed anyway to keep them going, and which, with the $2 increase, would in fact make the total increase $7. In that case the present cost of $10 per week for lower income families would be increased to $17 per week; namely a 70 per cent increase. I do not know whether I am right but that is the advice that has been given to me. I would welcome an explanation of it. If in fact there is to be a 70 per cent increase for low income families, that would be a very significant increase indeed. Many people at the lower end of the income scale would be severely affected during that transition year, and after that they would still suffer because many centres, particularly in my State, would be forced to put off trained and qualified staff if they were to keep their doors open. I appreciate that the reason why that could happen in Victoria-again this is my advice-is that the Victorian Government's regulations in terms of the standard of care required at child care centres is perhaps minimal at best and there is a loophole in Victoria that enables unqualified staff to be employed when the cost squeeze goes on. Again, if that is a misunderstanding on my part and Victoria's part, I would appreciate being corrected. If I am correct, I would like to know what the Federal Government has done about discussing this issue with Victoria because the implications are obviously very considerable. The combined effect of the reduction in funding and the consequential reduction, in Victoria's case, in the requirements for government funded centres to employ qualified staff would turn the clock back many years on child care services in Australia and have a major effect in many areas. I think it is also a telling commentary on this Government's absolutely weird priorities.

Surely any nation has a responsibility to its children. In this respect in recent years we have become a much more enlightened nation. But now this Hawke Labor Government appears to be about to set back many of those advances, and in the process cause severe hurt to those lower income families whose interests it so blatantly and so falsely purports to represent. This is a government which cuts back on essential child care while at the same time spends vast amounts in other areas of a dubious economic or social nature. Senator Peter Baume mentioned some of them earlier this evening in his remarks, and also Senator Haines in hers. There are other examples that one could add. For example, I refer to the $200m or thereabouts being spent on the bicentennial.

Here we are talking about something that will put the quality of child care in this country at considerable risk at a cost of $10m a year. Senator Baume mentioned the figures in comparison with expenditure on universities and Senator Haines with that on the America's Cup and on horse breeding, rather than on children.

Quite frankly this Government has its spending priorities quite wrong. Senator Grimes will be aware that under no circumstances would I criticise the Government for seeking overall expenditure restraint. That is something that I have advocated ever since I have been in this chamber. But, for heaven's sake, let the Government get its priorities right. Its priorities are wrong if it is to cut back in the area of child care services, and particularly the quality of those services, while at the same time letting other less essential spending programs mushroom.

The other criticism I have of this Bill-

Senator Haines —You'll vote against it. I know you are going to vote against it.

Senator SHORT —I thank the honourable senator. The other criticism I have of this Bill is that it appears to have been cooked up in a vacuum. Quite obviously, it is in no way part of a cohesive policy towards the family. It takes no account of the impact on families and offers no offsets to families. The Hawke Government's approach to families in Australia is nothing short of disgraceful. The Australian Labor Party has never recognised the role of the family as the basic unit in Austalian society. At best it has ignored the family not only in an economic sense but also in a social sense. In fact what it has done has been to bludgeon the family, particularly middle income families, with taxes, charges, interest rates and a whole barrage of other impositions that have put a squeeze of an unprecedented magnitude on the living standards of middle Australian families. Middle Australia is haemorrhaging with the policies of this Government. That haemorrhaging will cease only when the coalition parties are returned at the next election.

The approach of the Liberal and National parties towards the family and towards child care is diametrically different from that of Labor. We believe that the family unit must be encouraged and nurtured and that, if family life is diminished, so is our nation. For this reason the Liberal and National parties' approach towards the family has been not only supportive but also consistant and cohesive. In particular, it has looked at areas such as child care in association with other factors that make up the total standard of living and pressures on families. For example, we have looked at child care in association with our taxation system. We are the only party with a policy of income splitting for single income two parent families. Thus, if a wife chooses to stay at home and to bring up children, that family is not penalised relative to a two income family in the amount of tax paid, as is the case at present.

A policy which we have had for some considerable time now is that of the child care rebate.

Senator Coates —At what cost?

Senator SHORT —Senator Coates asks what is the cost of those two packages. The cost is not insignificant. But, if one believes that the family is the vital unit of our society, not just in an economic sense but also in a social sense, one orders one's priorities so as to cater for what needs to be done. It is all a question of priority. I say again that, with respect to the family, the prioritied of this Government are completely on their head.

Those are the ways in which we should be going as a nation in the formulation of our family policies-not with the ad hoc, mishmash, incoherent and incohesive approach of the Hawke Labor Government. Mismanagement has now become the hallmark of this Government. The Child Care Amendment Bill is just another and very sorry example of this fact. I say again to the Government: `Why the haste? Why the lack of consultation? Is it too late to consult with those groups which are expert in this area and which quite abviously are very concerened about what you are proposing? Is it too late to consult with these groups?' Why force deterioration in the quality of child care services by virtually forcing centres by stealth to employ less qualified staff, by denying proper employment opportunities to those now training and by putting in jeopardy the jobs of those qualified staff now in employment-all for what has now come to be a very limited reduction in government expenditure and a reduction that could much more easily have been catered for by minimal changes in the priority spendings of this Government in other areas.

It is not very often that I agree with the Age newspaper, but I do very much agree with its editorial of yesterday. I conclude my remarks by quoting from the latter part of that edititorial which states:

. . . we fail to see why the Government is in such a hurry to get its legislation on the books. Senator Grimes says that most families using the centres will pay only $2 a week more under this scheme, and that the 15,600 families who will pay up to $25 a week more will be families well able to afford it. However, the figures are disputed by child-care organisations, as is Senator Grimes's claim that there will be no reduction in the quality of child care. In such a climate of disagreement, the Government would be well advised to defer its legislation and to consult further with child-care representatives. Only in this way will their deep-felt concerns be allayed.

That is the conclusion of the editorial. I can only endorse those remarks. There are very deeply held and deeply felt concerns in the community about what the Government is doing with these proposals. I believe that those concerns deserve much better explanation and much better treatment than has been accorded to them by this Government.