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Wednesday, 24 November 1993
Page: 3593


Senator LEES (Deputy Leader of the Australian Democrats) (6.25 p.m.) —As has been outlined by the previous speakers, the Childcare Rebate Bill 1993 introduces a cash rebate for work related child-care expenses. I will not spend time going over the details—particularly the financial details—of the scheme. The bill is aimed at providing direct financial assistance for child-care costs to those families that are presently not receiving in any way targeted child-care assistance.

  To qualify for the rebate, each parent has to be working, or the single parent has to be working. That means that they have to have recognised work-related commitments. This includes undertaking recognised study or training. It is defined as covering unemployed people who are registered with the CES and those who are receiving a carer's pension or a domiciliary nursing care benefit, as both of these last two commitments are seen as involving full-time work.

  We have some problems with that definition. I will be speaking further on this when Senator Harradine moves some amendments. Families receiving maximum child-care assistance, or what is known as fee relief, will not be eligible for the rebate.

  Child-care providers will be registered with the Health Insurance Commission. The rebate can only be claimed if the expenses are paid to a registered child-care provider. Families will also register with the commission and lodge their claims through local Medicare offices. Contrary to earlier speculation, applicants will not have to provide their tax file numbers to the HIC, although providers will have to satisfy the commission that they have a tax file number before they can be registered.

  I am very pleased that this is the way in which it is being done. At one stage it certainly looked as though this scheme would be another extension of the tax file number. We recall the bombshell dropped in here by Senator Crowley in the autumn sittings when she said that the government was looking at requiring carers to provide their tax file numbers to a Medicare office. As I said at the time, that was completely unacceptable to the Australian Democrats. Looking back now, it seems as though the idea was run up the flagpole to see how far it would go. As it turns out, it did not go very far at all.

  We made it very clear at that time—I know that Senator Newman also expressed concerns—that we would not support a situation where people were forced to give their tax file numbers in order to claim the rebate. The Democrats are pleased to see that another method has been found and that that idea was put in the rubbish bin where it belongs.

  Let me now deal with the scheme itself. The Democrats will be supporting this legislation, although we have some misgivings. For example, we wonder whether the money going into the scheme—which, as has already been said, is around $150 million a year—would not have been much better spent in improving access to child-care services.

  Cost is only one part of the problem for many parents who are looking for child care. There are major problems with access to more flexible types of care, such as emergency or relief care, out of school hours care, child-care options in rural areas, child care for children with special needs and so on. The $150 million would have bought quite a bit of additional care in these areas.

  There is narrowness in the scheme. The rebate will only be available for people who are in employment or who have recognised work-related commitments. As we have said many times before, the Democrats have problems with that. We really need to look at the value of unpaid work and formally recognise unpaid work, most of which is done by women.

  Recognition of the value of unpaid work necessarily involves an acknowledgment of the importance of non-work related child care. From that perspective, this rebate scheme fails to address two critical matters. First, if we do not provide access to child care for carers at home, we are not only refusing to acknowledge their significant economic contribution, we are also denying them an opportunity to fully participate in society.

  Second, the Democrats think that it is time we looked at the idea of payment to carers who are choosing to stay at home and care for young children, whether those carers are men or women. That payment needs to go much further than the home child-care allowance which the government also promised at the last election. It really does need to provide choice; it needs to provide a sufficient level of funding so that there really is an option for those who do wish to stay at home. We have to find mechanisms that really give women the right to choose.

  There is certainly a growing recognition of the tension between employment and family responsibilities. The 1991 OECD paper called Shaping Structural Change: the role of women pointed out:

Most women are now forced to juggle household and family demands with involvement in paid work structures designed to fit male employment patterns. Men miss out on the emotional rewards of the care and development of children because they are similarly constrained by the gender-based division of household and employment responsibilities.

In short, we basically need to make sure that both men and women really can make choices which suit their families, their employment situations, their caring needs, their careers, and, indeed, their personal desires—without incurring serious penalties.

  The challenge before us is to recognise the value of that unpaid work. We have to support those who do choose to spend a period of time at home caring for young children. I really do not see why we cannot meet that challenge. The Democrats urge the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) to look beyond this child-care rebate scheme and beyond his proposed home child-care allowance and to begin to fully explore the issues.

  I turn to the issue of means testing the rebate. This was not an easy decision for us. We spent a long time looking very hard at what exactly this government was doing, particularly considering the economic constraints that we are facing as a nation at the moment. There certainly are two sides to this debate. We looked very carefully at a wide range of concerns expressed to us about the regressive nature of the rebate scheme. But, in the end, we decided to come down on the side of moving child-care out of the welfare basket and into the community responsibility area.

  We had to come down on the side of seeing child-care as a legitimate work related expense and we had to come down on the side of those 230,000 families and 358,000 children who will benefit from this rebate. The premise underpinning this scheme is one of equating child-care with other expenses—genuine expenses—incurred in earning an income. In other words, it is shifting the emphasis of the debate from being one about a women's issue or a welfare issue to one of it being a community issue or an industrial issue. I think that shift in emphasis is very important; it is long overdue.

  It is a shift which says that child-care is no longer the privilege of a few and that it has to be accessible, affordable, of a very high quality, and that it is a basic or essential service and not a welfare service. It is putting child-care on the same basic list of human rights as education and health. In my view, collective acceptance of those basic rights and entitlements is a measure of the maturity and the economic and social good sense of a society.

  The Democrats are strong in their belief that these services should be publicly funded through taxation to ensure that all Australians have access to an adequate standard of education, health and child-care. I found it very interesting to listen to coalition speakers who now want to means test this payment, and to look back at their policy of introducing tax deductibility with absolutely no cap, no limit whatsoever. Surely they have to acknowledge that the scheme we are looking at today is far less regressive than the tax deductibility they are actually planning. Their continuing push for non-means tested, non-capped tax deductibility really undermines their total argument and all their credibility in this debate.

  As I have already indicated, the Democrats will support this legislation. But, because we do have some concerns about the operation of this scheme, I have asked the minister whether she will consider an evaluation of the scheme after the first two years of operation. Such an evaluation will provide us with an analysis of claims made under this scheme and will give us a chance to look at exactly who is able to access the system and who is missing out. Senator Crowley has provided me with a written undertaking to review the scheme at the end of 1995. I thank her for taking our concerns on board and I seek leave to table the letter.

  Leave granted.


Senator LEES —The coalition has completely missed the point, particularly the last coalition speaker. The point is that the child-care cash rebate is not intended to be a welfare payment. It is intended to be a payment which reduces the fundamental inequity which exists between workers with children and workers without children.