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Thursday, 12 September 1996
Page: 3430

Senator CROWLEY(4.28 p.m.) —I am glad they sent you down, Senator Troeth. You have got a quieter voice, so you are probably less provocative. The point is that you went to the electorate promising absolutely no change to the operational subsidy. You promised absolutely no means testing on the child-care cash rebate and you promised to retain the child-care accreditation system. You have done none of these things: you have broken every one of those promises. Feeble complaints about the budget and those sorts of things simply will not do, particularly as Senator Troeth has just pointed out that, in the child-care area, the government will be expending more money, not less.

What you have done is to rearrange it in a way that is going to be very disadvantaging for families. You did it by finally coming clean on what you really mean in this area. You have not introduced a budget that restores, in covert ways, Fightback; you have actually introduced John Howard's initial proposals when he was the previous leader in Towards the future. There were four column inches on child care in that document; that is all. You did not know about it then and your policies were `All women should be at home; we will abolish child care and that will make the world and the families of Australia much happier.'

Since Mr Howard was last leader, the world has changed. Even he has recognised that he could not go to the electorate this time around saying what he really means about child care. The world has caught him up. It ran over him, but his intentions are still there under the changes. The most important thing that Mr Howard did in the run-up to this budget was to promise no change to operational subsidy. He promised no means test on child-care cash rebate. He promised no change to the accreditation system. They are distinctive and deliberate untruths which have been perpetrated on the people of this country. The noises coming from the child-care industry mean that all those people in child care know and understand that the Howard government got elected by broken promises. It told terrible untruths to the people, particularly about child care.

The very first thing they have done is to remove the operational subsidy from the long day care centres, and they have done much worse than that. Let me find the quote from a letter from Dr David Kemp on 28 February 1996. He was still trying to convince people that he was serious about child care. He said:

The coalition has no plans whatever to change the operational subsidy.

He also spoke of:

. . . our continuing support for the community based long day care sector. We regard the operational subsidy as one of the key supports of that sector.

I remind you again of his line:

The coalition has no plans whatever to change the operational subsidy.

They had hardly crossed the threshold of government before they were removing it. They thought they could remove it from family day care and they thought they could remove it from outside school hours care until they discovered that, if you had no operational subsidy in those two areas, you would have no family day care and you would have no outside school hours care. They are slow learners.

Even they realised that you could not pull down family day care. Of course, although hours and hours were wasted by family day care families and providers in defending this absolutely outrageous proposal, in the end they did what we knew they would have to do: retain it. Their attack on the community based sector is overt, blatant and disgraceful. `We believe in the community based sector,' says Dr Kemp, but they have hacked away the operational subsidy and they have removed any further growth strategy. Five and a half thousand community based long day care places and employer sponsored community based places will not now be built. They say, `Leave it to the private sector,' which has been growing and filling the gaps very quickly.

The next thing they say is that we did not have much planning but they are going to have a national planning program. The only part of child care that was properly planned was the community based sector, on needs areas across the country delivering community based child care very fairly to low income areas, to rural areas, to regional and remote areas, to all the places that were difficult. The only part not planned was the private sector. What on earth do they think is now going to make the private sector become more thoughtful and planned than it has been to this point? Indeed, as I understood Senator Troeth, she was suggesting that community based sectors that might have some trouble need not worry because, after all, if they cannot be financially viable, then, no doubt, the private sector will take those places over and continue the provision of child care.

Families in this country have said for a long time that they like and support community based child care. It has been the standard set-up. It certainly established levels of quality care and provision of longer hours, of more baby places, of care for children with disability, of regional and remote area provision and provision in low socioeconomic areas. All of those were provided by the community based sector—not the private sector—on a needs based delivery. This government has done away with the growth strategy; that is, 5,500 community based places will not now be built. It has taken away their operational subsidies and, while the equity of that may be arguable against the private sector places, they are not comparable deliveries of child care. They do not have the same population of children and they do not cover the same areas.

It may be one thing to say, `We will remove the operational subsidy,' but please do not say that this is not going to affect costs of child care. By any estimates, it will be something like $14 to $20 unless the child-care centres cut services or quality. There is no doubt that that will have to happen. The government said it would not means test the child-care cash rebate. It could not wait to get into government to do that, but it has done it in a picky, mean kind of way so that it appears it has only half done it and so that they have not really been seen to do it. Yes, they have. They have broken another promise. `We will not remove operational subsidy. We will not means test the child-care cash rebate'—two broken promises.

They believe in the accreditation system. Having fought in this place in every possible, disgraceful and disgusting way to oppose it, they now say they are going to keep it. If you believe that, you believe anything. They have told dreadful porkies. They have said that they believe in child care and grudgingly they have had to admit it is here to stay. They have done their best, certainly, to break their promises and to attack the public sector delivery of child care in long day care centres. They could not do it in family day care; there are too many families to cut that public sector provision of services out.

I note the Senator Troeth wants to wish the farm based child-care program in Albury-Wodonga well. I am very pleased to say that that is one of the innovative things we were able to achieve. I am pleased that the opposition is now talking about innovation in child care. That means they are deliberately continuing the Labor policies, and well done. You should. It was a good policy and will continue to be a good policy. Senator Troeth hopes Albury-Wodonga will continue. There is only one reason it will not: you will stop it. It is an excellent program. It follows the research done by the people in Albury-Wodonga for farm based child care. It has the flexibility needed to meet the needs of those families in rural and remote areas. Make every effort to keep it. Don't worry whether it will survive, because, from here on in, when it does not survive it will be yet another thing that you will be responsible for.

Senator Troeth wanted to suggest there will not be too much change in the cost of child care and that the fees will not rise. Of course they will. They will rise in the community based sector because of the cuts in the operational subsidy, but they will also rise because of the reduction in the taper of family income for assessment of eligibility for child-care assistance. Senator Troeth says it will only be a teensy-weensy bit extra cost for families in the middle income bracket, or below $70,000. It will be much more for families at the top end of the scale and a considerable number of families will lose any child-care assistance or part child-care assistance at all.

But for families in the middle range, I do not believe the government is fully aware of the impact of its changes. First, they have frozen the amount for a place at $115 per week for the next two years, into 1998—no extra payment for any of the child-care places. Secondly, they have reduced the taper for family income assessment. Thirdly, they have done away with the $30 child disability allowance for the second and subsequent children. All of these impact very significantly on the costs of fees and charges that centres will have to set for families to have to pay.

This notion that you get some of your tax assistance through the family tax package may seem good, but that dollar has completely gone because of the dramatic increase in the costs of child care. I say to Senator Patterson that, yes, they will go up, and you know they will go up. You are going to come in here shortly and tell us why. But please don't say they won't. Of course, they will.

Senator Patterson —I am already in here.

Senator CROWLEY —I am glad you are here.

Senator Patterson —You implied I was not here and I am already in here.

Senator CROWLEY —No, I didn't. I made a small mistake. Don't worry. You can tell us about it. You have dramatically increased the impact on families of the costs of child care. You have reduced the growth, cut away the operational subsidy and fixed the fees for two years. You have done away with the child disability allowance and reduced the taper. All of those are very significant differences. As I have heard it said, the government, and government senators, seem unaware of the impact of these factors altogether.

One of the things we have had to deal with in this place is the impact of a number of women coming into parliament on the Liberal benches. This is supposed to be a great thing for the women of Australia. As a person who has campaigned for years for more women in parliament, I do not have any dispute about more women in parliament. But these Liberal women have joined the Liberal men to make life very hard for Australian women.

Senator Patterson —Rubbish!

Senator CROWLEY —Yes, you have. You are the women who have come in and seen these dramatic changes. You have not actually improved choices at all for families. You have restricted their choices. That is what you have done. Everything you asked them to believe on 1 March was not true. You broke your promises. Clearly, child care is not a core issue or a core promise for this Howard government. It is a pretty marginal issue. They want women out of the work force and back at home, enjoying their little tax assistance. That is what the Liberal government wants. Women and families of Australia are quite clear that they are not going to be fooled by that.

If you offer with one hand `x' amount of dollars and then take 2, 3 and 4 times `x' with the other, families are not going to be fooled by that. Their tax payments are already eaten up by the increased costs of child care. But they are also eaten up by the increased costs of dental care for the older people in their family. They are also dramatically eaten up by the rising costs of health. They are going to be eaten up by the costs of pharmaceuticals. Every time you go to the pharmacist or the chemist, that is going to whack away your tax increase in one go. So families of Australia will know very quickly, as they live through the next year or so, exactly what you have done for them. You have restricted choice.

Your whole choice for this country depends on the economy somehow getting going. Somebody on the other side said the other day that small business is the engine room for jobs; suddenly, everybody in small business will start providing jobs; suddenly, everybody will be working and this will improve the lot of families. There is no doubt that the minister for giving out the number of unemployed is preparing to duck and twist rather than give us a number of how many unemployed people there are in this country and how your policies will not make the slightest difference to the number of unemployed people.

Those unemployed people will not be enjoying the tax benefits. They will have to pay more for any child care which they can access. They will have to pay more for their pharmaceuticals. They will have to pay more for any elderly relative in their family who needs dental care. They are some of the costs. If anybody should want to study or try to go to university, their costs will be further eroded. If they were previously enjoying some assistance through job assistance programs such as skillshare or jobstart, they will not get that anymore, either. So it is very tough on Australian families out there.

I have said it before and I will say it again: this is a classic Tory Thatcher budget which has abandoned the unemployed. If you do that, you are certainly not assisting the families of Australia. To use these changes in child care to suggest that you are assisting families with more choice is a matter of tortured and convoluted language for those opposite.

Having opposed all the initiatives of the previous government, you then adopted the whole lot in the lead-up to the election. Once you were across the barrier, you changed your mind and did what you really believed—means tested the cash rebate, did away with the operational subsidy and you have already cut the money for the accreditation system that ensures quality care in all the child-care centres. You were true to form once you won the election. You were very untrue to form in the lead-up to it. It will not take the community too long to find it out. You have done away with the industry council in child care—a council that I established to try to make sure that this very significant growth area was working as one, with the old divisions between the community based and the private sectors removed.

It is interesting to find now that the majority of private child-care centres want the quality accreditation system to continue and want it to be tied to the eligibility for child-care assistance. They do not want to see the proposals that you are allowing to happen.

They also know, as I do from various polls that we have done in the past, that over 60 per cent of Australian families do not want to have access to the child-care money paid directly to them. They do not want that. They want it to go to the child-care centre so that it is one huge area that will not be of any worry to them. Senator Troeth says that you could reduce the paperwork and worry for people applying for child-care assistance. We considerably streamlined it. I will be interested to see if your proposals to amalgamate these payments will further streamline it. If it does, I will support that.

While you are streamlining on one hand, you are giving people more bills, more payment and more paperwork on the other by giving them the child-care dollars in their own bank accounts, if that is what they choose. That is more paperwork for them. So you cannot say that this is going to be streamlining it for families. You had better get clear what you are really on about in child care here.

It is a grudging admission that child care will continue. You used to accuse the Labor government of allowing families to double dip, for example, but you have done the same. You are going to pay tax payments to families when a family member stays at home and you are going to allow those same families to have access to occasional care with the child-care costs now very significantly increased by the changes you have proposed under this government.

The interesting thing is that you have actually introduced a 50-hour limitation on child care. Now, Senator Patterson, you are not going to say this out loud, but we all know what that is. It is called 12 hours by another name. You opposed the 12 hours. You are now actually introducing a de facto 12 hours by another name.

One of the other problems you had to deal with—and certainly one Minister Moylan had to deal with—was that by opposing the 12 hours in this place you took $140 million off the bottom line. When anybody over the other side stands up and says, `You'll wreck the country if you don't deliver our budget,' we can just say, `Well you wouldn't deliver ours. You wouldn't deliver the savings that were proposed last time with the 12 hours.' It was $140 million. You had to find it this time and you have done it by calling it 50 hours. The centres are having a lot of trouble dealing with the consequences of that to their costs, to their fee structures and to their charges.

It is a very big whammy that you have given families here. You have dramatically increased the cost of child care, particularly in the community based sector by removing the operational subsidy, but you have also reduced the taper for eligibility for child-care assistance payments on family income. You have taken away the $30 disallowance for second and subsequent children. You have frozen the amount of money that child-care assistance is calculated against.

So for those very poor families, for families in the lower socioeconomic area, for the families that you claim to have assisted or will assist, you have just whacked them round the head with dramatic increased child-care costs. I hope that when you senators over there actually have a look at what your policies mean, particularly for the battling families and the low income families that you claim now to represent, you might want to rethink and modify your own government proposals in this area. They are unconscionably harsh. They are particularly harsh for families at that lower income end. You cannot say to families, `You'll be much better off if we give you $4 or $20,' and then give them $25 or $30 increased child-care costs. That is what you have done.

You have also made a great claim in the past that families with one parent at home should also have access to child care. We utterly agree. We established that policy. We think it is a very reasonable thing indeed, but we certainly wanted to make sure that they could afford it. We also wanted to make sure that as many families as possible would have access to those child-care places.

Senator O'Chee —They ought to prescribe this for insomniacs.

Senator CROWLEY —I am glad to note that you are awake, so it is clearly not working.

Senator O'Chee —It is close to working.

Senator CROWLEY —In that case, I would like to think that at least some benefit might come from the hard facts of your policies. Again, I remind you, there is no forward growth strategy; there is a cutback in growth strategy in the community based sector. This is going to enormously distort the contribution of long day care centres. Long day care in the community based sector, as I said, in the past has been the standard setter for quality. It is very depressing that you should be restricting that growth, indeed ceasing it altogether.

You have also called for a national planning strategy, but I remind you again that the only part of child care that has been planned has been the public sector. The private child-care centres have grown like topsy. There are gross oversupplies in areas like south-east Queensland and north-east New South Wales. There is absolutely no indication that those child-care centres in the private sector have any better capacity to make decisions that will allow better distribution.

I am very shocked to discover that one of the private providers of child care from Queensland has recently come into the state of South Australia, had an appointment with the state education minister and has approval to now go and talk to school councils about the sale of school land—that is, state government school land. If the council decides that the land can be sold, the child-care people will buy the land, half the money of the land's value will stay with the school and, on the corner of the school, a private child-care centre will be built.

I find this is a totally extraordinary proposal. So bad is it in South Australia that, in one area where the private as well as the community based child-care centres around a school heard that this was happening, they actually attended the meeting of the parents and the school council and protested rigorously against the school going this way because there is already sufficient child-care places within cooee or very close to that school. Another child-care centre built on the school grounds would have been an oversupply and would have put all the child-care centres in that region in jeopardy of becoming financially unviable.

It is an appalling process. It is a process that takes the land from the citizens of South Australia. It is a process that restricts any comprehensive planning for the provision of child care by the private sector, contrary to what Senator Troeth and the government senators and members have been saying.

I really believe that if you are going to have some kind of national planning strategy for the private sector, you must arrive at it very soon because, clearly, the financial advisers who are urging people to get into private child care are not giving them any more advice other than saying, `It's a good investment; get into it now.' There is already an enormous supply in south-east Queensland and north-east New South Wales. They are in difficulty now. Some of those private centres have to face the fact that they have invested very poorly and they may have to sell out and move on. That is not what is best for child care.

The private sector would do very well to take up the option that we gave them when we were in government—to have a look at the high need area of planning that was used to provide the community based sector and start providing their child care along the lines of the planning model that was there for the public sector. It was delivering child care fairly and appropriately in every area of Australian society, particularly in rural and remote areas. Those are the sorts of places that the private sector has been very slow and loath to go.

If you are going to come up with some kind of planning, please do it quickly because, quite clearly, the private sector, which has not made too much use of what we provided for them in the past, does not seem to have learnt too much to this point. That is a tragedy. As you are now relying on the private sector to deliver the long day care child-care places, I would like to know—and will certainly be asking you at estimates next week—what provision do you have for any kind of equity of access for families when they are reliant on private child-care centres only.

I actually think that it is very important that we have the opportunity today to talk about the government's proposed changes in child care. They are, to reiterate, a complete litany of broken promises. They said, `We will not change operational subsidy. We will not change the quality and accreditation program and we will not means test the child-care cash rebate.' Once in government they did all of those. But they have done much more and much worse.

Not only have they stopped the forward growth of community based places—over 5,500 now lost to the people of Australia—but also they have also clearly made it impossible for centres not to raise their fees. Costs for families using child care will rise very significantly and that will disadvantage poorer families, middle of the range families and, in particular, families where perhaps one parent is at home and not working.

The child-care arrangements by themselves will cut out all the benefits of the government's changes of payments to families. When you add that to their attack on education, the increased costs for education, the increased costs of pharmaceuticals and the increased costs for nursing home or home and community care assistants for elderly, frail, aged or disabled members of the family, we see that this is a government that is not delivering for families. This is a government that is very harshly increasing the costs for families much along the lines of the user-pays principle. It is called, `We will give it to families'—some—`and let them try to meet the costs.' The amount that is being given to families through tax benefits will go nowhere near enough towards assisting families with all of these services. It is very anti-family and, in particular, in the child care area, it is particularly anti-choice.

The changes that you have proposed will not increase flexibility. The 50 hours means, for example, that a lot of the centres that have been open up to 12 hours so as to assist families who have lots of travel time on top of their eight or 10-hour working day will not have the assistance with the child-care costs at either end of a long travel day unless they go to the bother of making application for exception. Will the individuals do it or will centres do it? Then there is all that paperwork and no guarantee that they will get any assistance.

This is a policy that has dramatically increased costs of child care. It has done nothing to make the provision of child care fairer or wider. It has done nothing to guarantee assistance to the pockets of those people currently denied child care, particularly rural and remote areas and areas of disadvantage. It certainly has not done anything to see a much closer amalgamation between pre-school, kindergarten and child-care services.

I urge senators opposite to read through the recently released report from the Senate References Committee on Employment, Education and Training entitled Childhood matters: report on the inquiry into early childhood education because it does address ways in which some of these problems can be met.

Finally, the last item that does bear making comment about, but only to breathe another depressed sign, is that following the routing of Treasurer Costello at the Premiers Conference, there is actually much less money now going to the states. The states, who have to pick up such a lot of pre-school education, will continue to do what Mr Kennett has already polished to an art form—slip the Victorian government out and cost shift on to the Commonwealth through child care, particularly the establishment of private child care. At a time when the fees are already expensive, these fees will only get higher. The amalgamation between pre-school and child care will be at an extra cost and a further disadvantage for people in all states and territories, particularly in Victoria, where we have already seen the harsh evidence of that.

Senator Evans is absolutely right in bringing forward this motion because it does do damage and enormously increases the costs to Australian families. What looks to be a good thing on the one hand will turn out to be a series of extra charges and very harsh for Australian families. (Time expired)