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Wednesday, 24 November 1993
Page: 3595

Senator CROWLEY (Minister for Family Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women) (6.36 p.m.) —in reply—I thank honourable senators for their contributions. I think most of the points that needed to be made have been made very well in this debate by my colleague Senator Chris Evans and, most recently, by Senator Lees in her contribution. I have to say that Senator Minchin's contribution is, at best, confused and, at worst, betrays a clear understanding that he does not know what his own party policy is—not only what it is, but what it has been.

  I will make some points in response to the contributions of those opposite. I note that one of the opposition senators—I think it was Senator Minchin—said that this is a promise made and a promise kept. Senator Patterson suggested that we do not keep any promises that we have made. I would have thought that the opposition might at least find enough grace in its system to acknowledge that we have made a promise and kept it—and it is a very important one.

  It is particularly interesting and important to note the opposition's contribution about whether or not to means test this rebate. Those who listened to Senator Minchin would have to say that he sounds very confused on this matter. As Senator Lees spelt out very well, means testing the rebate is completely contrary to previous policy of the opposition. Not only was it not going to provide a rebate but, before that, it was going to provide a non-means tested tax deduction, which is particularly regressive. I would suggest that Senator Minchin might repair to his own party policy over the past few years and look at that.

  When women are finally provided with a rebate that recognises the cost of child care as a legitimate expense in earning an income, what does the opposition want to do? It wants to means test it. I have never heard those opposite come in here and propose to means test lawyers' libraries. I have never heard them come in here and propose to means test doctors' refrigerators. I have never heard them talk about means testing any of these rebates or tax deductions.

  Women have been fighting for this recognition for many years and—as the opposition policy intermittently has recognised—the first time this is provided to women the opposition want to means test it. The opposition is taking an extraordinary stand which is particularly anti-women, especially when those opposite say that they are in sympathy with women. This clearly shows that they are not. It is entirely consistent with the opposition's view on all other tax matters.

  If we look at the amount of tax dollars that are forgone through tax deductions—around about $5 billion against all of those expenses legitimately claimed under the present tax laws by all sorts of people in the earning of their income—there is not a word of objection from the opposition about that. But the minute women get access to a vital tax rebate in an area that has been absolutely critical for them—one for which the opposition has argued—the opposition wants to means test it. The opposition is sending women voters a very contradictory message.

  I also want to reinforce the view of the government that by recognising child care through this rebate it moves it from being seen as a welfare payment to a recognition as a major economic issue and part of labour market considerations. It is the first time that we have been able to recognise child care as a legitimate cost of earning income. I do not understand at all the inconsistency and illogicality of the opposition's policy on this.

  I will make a few comments about the privacy matter. Opposition senators seem to suggest that I and this government have no concerns about privacy. That is completely contrary to the facts. I am particularly concerned about privacy. I am not going to run in this place all the arguments that I have used in other places, particularly in discussions about this legislation. I have very serious concerns about privacy and I have had them since the earliest stage.

  I think it is important and interesting to note that those concerns are well met by the Democrats who have always been consistent on this matter and by the opposition which washes a bit hot and cold. We have a system that balances privacy and accountability considerations. As honourable senators have said, this is a large amount of money and it would be quite improper for me or the government to disregard the requirement for fair and proper accountability. At the same time, the government is particularly concerned that the privacy considerations also be taken into consideration. I believe the outcome that the government has provided is the best balance between those two considerations.

  A person's tax file number will not in any way be provided to the Health Insurance Commission. The Health Insurance Commission will not be able to record it, note it or in any way take account of it. The only thing the Health Insurance Commission will do is pass the names and dates of birth of the people who have registered as providers of child care to the tax office so that the tax office can confirm that those people do have tax file numbers as they claim on their reports.

  I think the matter of privacy ought to be laid to rest. It is a matter of major concern. The government has taken that into account and I have been very concerned to take it into account. I believe the government has struck a very good balance in terms of the outcome.

  The opposition trawled in the red herring of accreditation. Senator Minchin got quite carried away in his speech and suggested that in the end the government would be providing the cash rebate only to accredited centres. Senator Minchin is particularly mischievous to say that. This legislation spells out quite clearly that the cash rebate will apply to formal and informal child care. That is what the legislation says and that is the government's intention.

  We recognise that while we have a large supply of child-care places it is still well short of the demand. Many people are using informal care because they are unable to find a place in a formal child-care centre. There are also many people who chose informal child care. In recognition of the reasons that people choose informal care, the government has made it quite clear that this legislation covers the informal care area. Senator Minchin is wrong and mischievous in proposing that this will change that or that we are not serious about it.

  Accreditation and quality are matters of considerable concern to this government. Despite the absolutely ridiculous campaign being waged against accreditation, the government's commitment to quality is absolutely clear. I am very concerned to make sure that parents using child care are assured that their children will have care provided in quality child-care centres. I am also aware that when people apply to have their children enter a child-care centre they are not completely able to assess the quality of care provided and they do not necessarily meet all the child-care providers. They cannot be fully aware of all the things that will happen in a child-care centre. Even if they do make a very large effort to find out about the child-care centre—and I think many parents do—honourable senators should realise that they may not be able to satisfy themselves on all counts. In the informal area when parents make arrangements for their own children, they are very well placed to ensure that they are satisfied with the quality of care they are arranging.

  For the record, I note that Senator Patterson suggested that 60 per cent of child-care centres are private and all of those oppose accreditation. Those figures—like everything else the opposition is saying about accreditation—are quite incorrect. About 60 per cent of child-care places are private and a very large section of that private child-care area strongly supports the accreditation process. Those figures are way off as usual.

  Senator Chris Evans spelt out very well the way the cash rebate will be given on top of the fee relief for child-care assistance. This means that there has been considerable progress in this area. Our assistance to make child care affordable is very much targeted to people on low incomes. The cash rebate will be available to some parents receiving full fee relief if their fees are above the cut-off level. In other words, if there is an amount that the parents have to pay they may receive a cash rebate. A modest amount of cash rebate would be available to those parents. Some parents on full fee relief may be able to have a small amount of the cash rebate to contribute towards those fees that are above the capped level.

  If one examines the figures—and I think Senator Evans has done it, so I will not do it again—it is quite clear that the maximum payment for one child using child care with no fee relief is $28.20. The sliding scale of perhaps less than a full cash rebate or even full cash rebate plus the assistance of fee relief means that there is considerable progress in the way we are assisting families with the question of affordability.

  The opposition seems very confused in what it thinks about informal care. On the one hand, in the accreditation debate, the opposition was arguing that we are forcing people into informal care. In this debate it is arguing the importance of informal care. I think members of the opposition are not clear whether it is good or bad or which way they want to use it. I think that is another example of their confusion in this whole area.

  Senator Minchin got a bit carried away and trawled across the old red herring of children reared in institutional care being ruined and how harmful it is. Yet he is a member of a party that has exactly the same policy apart from the means test. I do not quite understand what Senator Minchin is really trying to argue. However, I think this is a very good example of a confused opposition mind. Is Senator Minchin for or against child care? It is not at all clear to any of us listening what he actually stands for.

  I am very aware of what the women of Australia are saying. The government actually spent a very long time extensively consulting the women of Australia. They have put three points very high on their political agenda. The things they want the government to consider are child care, violence against women and women's health. The government has delivered in all of those areas. I can assure the opposition that in the child-care area it is in response to the concern in the community, particularly of women, that our child-care policies have been designed. The government's policies very much recognise the importance of choice for women. It is not fair to say, as Senator Minchin said, that the government has no regard at all for families at home.

  Another promise made and kept and also forgotten by Senator Patterson and honourable senators opposite is the home child-care allowance. It will be introduced towards the end of September next year. While I can accept Senator Lees's point that one would like it to be larger, one has to recognise the important breakthrough in getting the dependent spouse rebate cashed out to the spouse at home. It recognises the importance of looking after children at home and it also provides a continuing income to the spouse who is providing that care. Certainly, one could argue about the amount, but I think the important point being made in that home child-care allowance is the recognition of the importance of women in the home.

  One also needs to recognise the payment of family allowance. There is also considerable funding under the child-care vote for occasional care. That is particularly designed to assist women at home who are not in the work force or defined as seeking work. We have also dramatically increased the money to play groups. In all of those ways we recognise the importance of women at home and the care that they provide.

  We also recognise that the old war between women at home and women in the workplace is tired and destructive. It fails to recognise what women are telling government, telling me, that most adult women, particularly those who have children, expect to spend some time of their adult lives in and out of the work force. Our policies recognise that. They recognise and support women in making that choice.

  Senator Minchin also said that we should be castigated for introducing a policy that assists millionaires. He then spent a lot of time saying how ridiculous it was to design a system that allowed people to collect the rebate every two weeks. I suggest that Senator Minchin has really got a muddled brain. One of the reasons why we do not allow the rebate to be collected only at the end of the year is that only people on higher incomes can afford that. Cashing out the rebate this way clearly recognises the needs of families, particularly women on lower incomes. They are not able to wait for the whole year to draw a rebate. They appreciate that this policy gives them the ability to collect that money every two weeks. It is particularly obvious. I can not understand why Senator Minchin failed to appreciate that.

   Senator Lees was particularly concerned on behalf of the Democrats that there be an evaluation of the scheme after two years. As Senator Lees has noted in her comments, I think that is a very acceptable proposition. The government, of course, would be evaluating the program from the day it started. It is a proper and usual procedure in government that there be close evaluation and monitoring.

  I also appreciate the point made by Senator Lees that a stepping back, if you like, from the ongoing process of monitoring to an evaluation after two years will allow us to take a look at the aggregated figures to see patterns emerging of who has had access, who has had use and maybe who has been missing out. I am very happy to support that request from Senator Lees. I think it is thoughtful and considered. I believe that it will add to the value and the impact of this legislation.

  Question resolved in the affirmative.

  Bill read a second time.