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Thursday, 12 September 1996
Page: 3448

Senator WOODLEY(6.05 p.m.) —I was in the chamber to listen to the speech of Senator Troeth and I caught a little of the speech of Senator Patterson on the television. I do not know how much I heard of Senator Abetz's speech—he has been going on for quite a while—but I did catch quite a bit of it, I think. I need to say to the coalition that you are really making these speeches in the wrong place. Somehow or other, you should be out there trying to sell what you are saying to us in here because either the people outside this place are not hearing you or they simply do not believe you. Hundreds of centres and peak bodies and thousands of parents are contacting us.

Senator Abetz —Thousands.

Senator WOODLEY —Yes. My fax machine was smoking.

Senator Abetz —And your fax machine was smoking.

Senator WOODLEY —Was smoking, Senator Abetz. What I am going to do in a moment is read you as many of those letters and faxes as I can. The problem is that nobody in the community believes you.

Senator Mackay —The Liberal Party don't believe him either.

Senator WOODLEY —I don't think they do. Anyway, I do not have to deal with that; that is his problem. There are people not only coming to my office but, as I said, also jamming up my fax machine sending submissions. All of them are saying that this government has betrayed them in terms of child care. I want to say one thing that I believe everyone in this chamber would agree with; that is, families are important. I would also add that any other statement about families beyond this is bound to open up vigorous debate. This is especially so when governments try to define what a family should look like. Mind you, they do not have to do that in words. They do not necessarily have to legislate a definition.

Ideological views about family can be promoted by shifting government assistance through budgets. The Democrats would argue that the coalition has determined its preferred family in measures it has taken in the 1996 budget. The Democrats believe that governments ought not to do that. They ought not to try to define nor confine families in this way. Surely, the role of government in regard to Australian families ought to be to set a framework within which all of our families, whatever shape they might take, will be encouraged to reach their full potential. A very important part of that framework is what governments do with child care.   For that reason, the Democrats are concerned about the negative impact which many of the government's proposed changes to child care will have on families. There is little doubt that many of these changes—the abolition of operational subsidies to community based centres, the 50-hour cap on child-care assistance per child per week, the abolition of the additional income allowed for additional dependent children and the two-year freeze on child-care assistance and the child-care cash rebate—will impact significantly on the cost and accessibility of child care for many families.

The Democrats recognise the tremendous pressure many families face in juggling work and family commitments. We recognise that for many families the financial benefit of working now only just outweighs the cost of child care. The Democrats are now deeply concerned that any significant increase in the cost of child care will force at least some parents to take their children out of formal care altogether.   This will leave many families with two choices. One is that one parent will have to give up work to care for the children full-time; or they will have to look for alternative, less formal, and therefore also less regulated, forms of child care—backyard child care, if you like. We do not believe that forcing parents out of the work force or forcing parents to place their children in forms of child care which are not subject to quality control is an acceptable or desirable choice.

So much for the government's pledge to make things better for families through the new family tax initiative. Many families will now need this new payment just to meet the increased cost of child care, the increased cost of medicines, the probable increase in the cost of going to the doctor, the increased cost of going to the dentist, increased higher education repayments, the increased cost of nursing home expenses, and the increased cost of home and community care services.

The Democrats are still considering what their response to many of these changes will be. But I can give you this guarantee: in determining our position, we believe it is very important to take time to listen to those who are going to be most affected by these changes. The Democrats have been consulting widely with parents, child-care providers and peak bodies. I can assure you that our final position on the child- care budget will be very much in line with our long-held commitment to quality, affordable and accessible child care.

We believe that all parents should have a real choice when it comes to combining work and family responsibilities. We believe all families should have a real choice about the type of care they want for their children. We support a mixture of family day care and community based, work based and private child-care centres as the most practical and equitable way of providing the range of services required. Because of that, we do not believe that ideologically driven definitions of what an acceptable family should be, dressed up as changes in a budget, are acceptable either to us or to the majority of Australian families.

Let me turn to the faxes which seem to amuse the government so much. It seems as though they are prepared to laugh at the agony of people as they struggle to understand their future. Let me read a few excerpts from some of the correspondence I have received on these issues. I believe this will give senators an insight into what Australian families understand they are facing. This person says:

I searched a long time for child care that would ensure that my son & daughter would thrive and be loved and cared for and would allow me to return to the workforce and my chosen career with some peace of mind. I found that at a community based centre, which created a happy, safe & secure environment, had highly trained staff, an excellent developmental program and most of all, one where the staff became part of an "extended" family for us, because of the care they provided for my children. . . Our children are a precious resource in our community and I resent the fact that their care is being treated like a saleable commodity and financial bargaining point—all in the interests of PRO-FAMILY CUTS.

I presume they mean tax cuts. The person continues:

If family is so important then surely its time to stand up for the rights of families and support them in providing affordable and quality child care.

Another person—again, someone whom the coalition seems to want to dismiss by laughing at the fact that they have contacted my office—says this:

My four year old daughter attends a community day care centre in the Northern suburbs of Perth. . . The impact this Budget cut will have on me personally is that I may have to reconsider whether or not to remain in the workforce . . . My husband is not on a high salary. We have a mortgage, a car loan and very little disposable income once our bills have been paid. However, we want to continue to pay our way and work towards financial security for the future.

Another person—again, someone whom the coalition apparently would dismiss by their laughter—wrote to me as follows:

We wish to express our dissatisfaction with the new guidelines laid down in the 1996 Budget. With the new fees in force, we will have no option other than to reconsider the viability of a second income and therefore will have to reconsider day care altogether as trying to squeeze a further $50 or so a week in addition to our fees will be near to impossible.

Another parent wrote:

I am a single parent and if the fees are increased I will have to take my child out of the centre. I will have to stop studying which will be really disappointing as I want to create a better future for my child.

Finally, another parent wrote:

The cuts to community long day care centres will result in the closure of community based centres as parents will be hard hit by the ensuing fee increases. At the centre that my 3 year old son attends, I have been told to expect increases in the vicinity of $26.00 per week. As a full time student, I will not be able to absorb these costs and, as a result, will have to withdraw my son from the centre.

While there are some positives for families in the budget, let me acknowledge that, for many other families the pain will outweigh the gain. This is despite the claim that the budget is fair because all are supposed to share the pain. Let me point out that it is quite obvious that the equal treatment of unequals leads to gross injustice. In this budget, the rich have been slapped with a feather while the poor have been bashed with a mallet.

I believe that this government is engaged in the most radical experiment in social engineering this country has seen in a generation. It seems to be almost a kind of religious crusade. I abhor what is being done to families. I, as do the Democrats, support very strongly this motion.

   Question put:

   That the motion (Senator Chris Evans's ) be agreed to.