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Tuesday, 11 November 2008
Page: 42

Senator ARBIB (4:32 PM) —I thank Senator Hanson-Young for raising this important and serious issue today. I know the senator has a strong interest in this area, being the Greens childcare spokesperson. I also know she is a proud mother of a young daughter. So thank you for raising this issue today.

I have to say that Senator Hanson-Young’s speech is in stark contrast to the ill-informed and petty contributions that we have seen from Senator Payne and Senator Bernardi on behalf of a political party that has a lot to answer for in terms of the collapse of ABC Learning and the handing over of the childcare sector lock, stock and barrel to the free market. After hearing Senator Bernardi especially talking about the great worth of the free market and the private sector, I could only have come to one conclusion in terms of ABC Learning. He did not have any solutions; he did not put forward a case of how we could actually salvage this company; he said pretty much to ‘leave it to the free market’. If we left ABC Learning to the free market at the moment, something like 400 childcare centres would close. That is the plan of Senator Bernardi. That is the plan of the Leader of the Opposition, the member for Wentworth—’Leave it to the free market.’ But more about that later.

Child care and childhood development are areas of which the Rudd government is extremely proud. We understand that parents and workers in this industry would be extremely concerned at the moment and very anxious about the situation concerning ABC Learning. Our priority has been and will continue to be to ensure working families can access child care for their kids when and where they need it, because we know how important child care is—not just child care but quality child care.

The Rudd government was elected with a comprehensive childcare plan, not just for the centres but also in terms of improving the professional standards in child care. This year the government expects to pay $1.9 billion in childcare benefit payments to childcare providers so they can reduce their fees to families. In addition, in the May budget the government increased the childcare tax rebate from 30 to 50 per cent and improved the frequency of payments. At the last election the Rudd government promised to establish up to 260 new childcare centres, and that is something we are working on around the clock. We have also seen the great work that the parliamentary secretary, Maxine McKew, has been doing in the sector. I find it abhorrent that those on the other side would be attacking the parliamentary secretary, who has been doing some fantastic work in the sector. If you want to see the work she has been doing, go to the new website we have set up— It is absolutely fantastic in terms of the work that this government has been doing in the childcare area. I urge those senators across from me to take a look at it.

In terms of ABC Learning, this is a complex and large-scale problem. Just to put it into a bit of perspective, ABC Learning has a 25 per cent share of the long day care childcare market. There are 1,040 ABC Learning childcare centres, of which around 40 per cent are currently unprofitable. There are approximately 120,000 children attending these centres. ABC Learning Centres employs more than 16,000 people. It is a huge, huge task. The government has been acting with great urgency. On 6 November ABC Learning Centres announced it would enter into voluntary administration. The government established a special task force to work with the receivers and the banks throughout the process. On 7 November the government announced it would provide $22 million in conditional funding to ensure that the ABC Learning childcare centres remain open and provide care to the end of December. The $22 million represents the possible cost of supporting the continued operation of the unprofitable ABC centres for up to two months.

Senators Bernardi and Payne, when you listen to them, think that is the end of the process—that it is just $22 million and after 31 December there is no plan forward. That is entirely untrue. During the period, the government and the DEEWR task force are undertaking a thorough review of ABC Learning’s operations. It is envisaged that by mid-December the government will be in a position to make a further announcement about the future of ABC Learning—that is, after working with the receivers and the banks to try and find a way forward. If you think there is some magic solution, what is it? Please— (Time expired)