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Thursday, 3 February 1994
Page: 316

Senator BOSWELL (Leader of the National Party of Australia) (11.34 a.m.) —Mr Acting Deputy President, the government has shown great ineptitude in the handling of this issue of child-care accreditation. At first it provoked outrage over the guidelines, but that is not the argument today. Criticism was levelled at their intrusiveness and so-called political correctness not only from the National and Liberal parties but from clergy, parents and child-care centres, and from former Labor finance minister Peter Walsh. Mr Walsh described the handbook as 120-odd pages of platitudes, internal contradictions, nonsense and worse.

  Let us concede that, from Senator Chamarette's and the Democrats' point of view, the accreditation is something that they desperately want. Let us concede that and move into the area of cost. As we dig deeper into the whole affair, however, there are emerging very serious defects in the proposed administration of the accreditation scheme which can be considered quite independently of one shade of political correctness—the Greens, the Democrats, the National Party or the Liberal Party.

  Firstly, the cost of the scheme: 88c a week per child, says Senator Crowley. The South Australian Child Care Association says that its centres will have to put on two extra staff just to cope with the paperwork. There is $16 a week per child straight off. But the minister sticks to her guns and says 88c a week.

  The Queensland Child Care Association commissioned accountants to do the costing and they came up with an additional cost of $16, despite recent Queensland regulations implementing similar guidelines which have already bumped up their cost by around $30 a week. Eighty-eight cents a week, says the minister, backed up by a seven-week pilot study of 1.4 per cent of the centres' populations. The consultants, Pitcher and Partners, themselves acknowledge that the conclusions which can be drawn from the survey are limited by the relatively small sample. Further, four extreme cases which incurred significant unpaid hours were excluded from the final average costs estimate, with no rational explanation supplied other than the comment that they were difficult to understand.

  The New South Wales Child Care Association also commissioned independent costings and found that its costs would rise from $40 to $69 a week per child, depending on the centre. `No', says the minister, `I am right and you are wrong. It is 88c a week'. We have pleaded with the minister, Senator Crowley, to appoint an independent arbitrator to work through the different costings and arrive at some common ground to make the thing work. I and the industry have suggested a number of times to the minister that she appoint a credible accountant such as Coopers and Lybrand to decide whether she is right or the child associations are right. Someone has got to be wrong. On the one hand, there are the minister's costings and, on the other hand, there are the four costings done by independent auditors saying that she is wrong. So we need a referee in the middle to decide.

  The Victorian Association of Child Care Centres commissioned yet another cost study and came up with a cost increase of $35 a child per week to implement the accreditation scheme. At 88c a week, the minister is still hanging on like grim death to her flimsy costings.

  The Western Australian association has also expressed its concern over the cost of implementing the accreditation scheme, particularly in the area of staffing. The minister still sticks to her 88c a week. Eighty-eight cents is the cost of about six minutes worth of labour.

  The minister says that it is going to take only six minutes extra per week per child to make intimate diary notes of each child's behaviour and measure against an individually drawn-up program, to attend a variety of parent and staff meetings at overtime rates, and to attend, and be replaced while attending, additional in-service training—six minutes worth of staff time to complete paperwork for 52 principals. Then there is the translation and printing of numerous policy documents to be revised regularly.

  In some states the continuous care requirement of only one or two staff to look after the same child will necessitate alternative rosters and putting on more staff. Nevertheless, the minister says, `We are not concerned with staffing. That is a matter for the state'. She has said that to me numerous times in this place. What will the minister say to the states when they see their regulations and legislation being trampled upon by yet more Commonwealth interference? Where the essence of these guidelines goes to good quality child care, the states already have them covered.

  The minister is trying to place an umbrella over every aspect of child care. Not only that, she wants someone else to pay for it—the states, local government, the employees. I point out to Senator Chamarette and Senator Lees, who are obviously interested in the community organisations, that the non-profit organisations will have to pay for it. In fact, everyone will have to pay for it except the minister's department, because that would really blow her budget right out.

  The number of families in long day care receiving child-care assistance rose to 160,000 by the end of 1992-93, according to the department's annual report. In the end, of course, it is the parents who will be asked to pay the money and, eventually, it really will be the children who will have to pay. That is, 160,000 Australian families are going to be up for more in child-care costs. I bet the minister has not even consulted the Minister for Finance (Mr Beazley) over the likelihood of boosting fee relief by $30 per week per child; someone is going to have to pay for it.

  I thought this government was about creating more affordable and accessible child care. Commonwealth partnership arrangements with state, territory and local government, the private sector, employer and community groups are expected to result in 300,000 child-care places by 1996-1997. It may be possible to do that at 88c a week, but at $30 a week there is no chance. Will the minister be asking her state, local government, private and community partners to pay these extra costs? Have they agreed to absorb extra costs or will they be passed on to parents? Someone has to pay. The minister will be responsible for slamming the door on women who want to, or need to, enter the workplace.

  This accreditation scheme threatens the government's estimate of child-care places and undermines the ability of women to re-enter the work force as it lowers affordability and accessibility of child care. The minister will be responsible for the rich getting child care and the poor getting nowhere. This accreditation scheme is the minister's own sandwich shop. Private child-care operators will have to work unpaid while the ALP sinks money into the scheme just to keep it going. In the end, are the sandwiches any better? Will the quality of child care be improved under such a scheme, or will it sink under the weight of detailed paperwork, and concern with the hole rather than the doughnut?

  Regarding the nature of the program itself, it will not succeed while there is such a disparity between the government's and the industry's cost expectations. The child-care associations are only too happy to have their costings open to scrutiny; to sit down with an independent arbitrator and work them through. If the minister is at all interested in her scheme getting off the ground, surely this is the only sensible way. It will settle what is expected of care centres before the tonne of rules and regulations is turned into law. I am also confident that all participants in the provision of child-care services—the state, local government, employer groups and community groups, such as the Sydney Rescue Work Society—would like to see exactly what they are being committed to.

  Then we come to the very important area of security of information. The National Childcare Accreditation Council is charged with administering the scheme. That will have access to incredibly detailed and sensitive information on children, parents, staff and the operation of the child-care centres. The government has said in the past how committed it is to ensuring privacy and security of information. How did it let this one slide past? There is probably no other group in Australia that holds such a diversity of sensitive information, yet there are no supporting secrecy provisions, no obligations or procedures to follow, cradle to the grave.

  This government wants to have information on 160,000 children in long day care centres from how often their nappies are changed, whether they have been abused or neglected, how much their parents earn, what the family situation is, disciplinary methods, what words they can say, what toys they can play with and so on. There are also records of staff interaction with parents. Then there are the commercial records of the child-care centres, all open to the NCAC, and all items of income and expenditure.

  We must legislate for those tempted to ignore the sensitivity of the information they have access to. What will the NCAC do with all this information? Does it then pass it on to the education system so that it follows a child throughout its life? Some ill-informed comment at a preschool might form an incorrect attitude in teachers at a later stage. The point is that no-one knows what happens to this information, how much is stored and for how long, how it is to be stored and how it is to be collected. There are no privacy obligations or regulations.

  It is an intolerable situation which must not be allowed to happen. The Law Reform Commission identified this lack of protection in its October 1993 report on child-care legislation—or the lack of it, as it turns out. It has specified reference to the need for the NCAC to be bound by specific privacy provisions, yet the minister has carried on regardless. Whether the government tends to introduce such legislation later on is not for this Senate to ponder on or make any judgment about. We do that when we see the legislation. We must review legislation as it is laid out before us, not hypothesise about what might or might not be legislated at some future date. We are not Nostradamus.

  What we see before us today does not protect in any way the rights of Australians to be confident about the security of information that is passed on to a body like the NCAC. Our citizens' rights must be protected and secured before any such scheme comes into place. Each centre that registers with the NCAC must be confident that the NCAC is bound by privacy provisions. I know that this is a matter that the Democrats are concerned about. It has always been a major plank in their platform that privacy is very important.

  When asked a question by Senator Newman about the lack of privacy provisions, the minister said:

. . . this matter was brought to my attention in an article in the Australian about the Australian Privacy Foundation's concerns.

This is an astonishing statement which reveals the minister's incredible naivety about her portfolio and legislative standards. Her statement reveals that she had never, before the article appeared in the Australian, read the Australian Law Reform Commission's discussion paper on child care, specifically commissioned to propose wide-ranging legislative reform in her own portfolio.

  The public was expected to comment by 31 January this year. It seems that the minister is not required to comment until an issue is raised by the Australian. The Law Reform Commission paper goes to great length to describe the need for greater protection of privacy. Yet the minister was ignorant, until this week, of its appraisal and recommendations.

  This is all the more astonishing because in a letter dated 10 December 1993 to the chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances the minister refers to concerns held by the Law Reform Commission on the need for access to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. This letter was incorporated into Hansard on 15 December. I call on the minister to explain why she was aware of some of the Law Reform Commission's concerns and not others. How could the minister have remained in ignorance of such an important matter as privacy and protection of the very sensitive data which the NCAC will have access to?

  Thirdly, there is the question of external review of decisions which significantly affect a child-care centre in its progress towards accreditation. This process is wide open to victimisation and harassment of individual care centres. Because of the open-ended nature of many of the guidelines, a centre might be following them but then, if a review or a moderator or someone at the NCAC bears the centre a grudge—and there are many grudges held by the NCAC members at present, particularly towards the private sector—that person could easily find something wrong with the centre or grade it lower at will, or perhaps give it only 12 months until the next review rather than three years. The centre has no redress outside the NCAC.

  This process can go on and the centre can be named in parliament twice without the centre being able to appeal or defend itself. By the time the minister makes the decision to cross the centre off the list, which is appealable under certain instances, it is too late for the centre, which could have been driven out of business or into bankruptcy by then anyway.

  The Law Reform Commission made a number of recommendations regarding the need for external review. The minister went only part of the way when forced to amend the regulations as recommended by the Regulations and Ordinances Committee. But the minister did not go too far out of the way to accommodate what the Law Reform Commission identified as necessary to bring the legislation up to scratch in this area.

  It is difficult to understand why the minister is rushing through this inferior legislation. If she is going to do something, she should do it well. The Senate is in no position to depend on a minister's assurance that she will fix it up at a later date when she says that it will be all right on the night.

  Perhaps the minister should be subject to an accreditation system, too—one that includes daily diarising of her progress to a development plan, lots of in-service training and a 12-month review period. In light of the minister's inability to read a Law Reform Commission document integral to her own portfolio, I would suggest that she would find it difficult to get accreditation herself.

  These child-care guidelines are riddled with a pox of impudence: impudent to impose such a costly regime on already financially overburdened Australian families; impudent to offer so little chance to appeal the decision of a non-government agency; and the height of impudence to attempt to gain the Senate's support without first putting in place privacy provisions to protect sensitive information given to the NCAC.

  This is a matter of principle for the Democrats. They will have to ask themselves whether they will stand up for their strongly held views that they pushed on privacy and that they fought for on the Australia card. Will they stand up for low-income mothers, the less affluent sector who would be unable to meet the extra cost for their child care? Will they use their balance of power to have an independent arbitrator to investigate the cost differences between the minister's 88c a week and the independent costings of the child-care associations? This is what Senator Kernot and Senator Lees will be judged on—how they used their balance of power in the Senate; whether they will make available to the Senate an independent judgment; or whether they will just blithely accept the minister's word.

  It is a big challenge to Senator Lees. I know of her concern for privacy. I just ask her to do the right thing and hope that she will make the decision that these guidelines be knocked out until a private investigation or a Senate committee calls for its own independent auditor to look at the costs and discern where the differences are, and also wait until the privacy matter has been legislated for.