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Tuesday, 11 November 2008
Page: 43

Senator BOYCE (4:37 PM) —I would also like to thank Senator Hanson-Young for bringing this issue up and giving us the opportunity to explore some of the very serious problems that there are at the moment. Senator Arbib commented that Senator Bernardi had not provided the solution. Last time I looked, Senator Arbib was the one sitting on the government benches. It is the government who should be looking for a solution. Also, Senator Arbib tells us that there is a plan. Well, we have asked; Senator Hanson-Young has asked; questions have been asked in the House of Representatives, over and over: what is the government doing about this? We do not know what the plan is unless we hear about the plan. What we currently have is, basically, a completely incoherent approach to the entire issue.

We had Minister Evans in the Senate today carefully setting out a timescale that had been developed—allegedly developed, I should say—by the government. Firstly, we heard that in September a task force had been established. He neglected to mention that that was set up after ABC Learning said to the government, ‘Hey, we’re in very big trouble; you’d better do something to help us or the industry is going to fall in a heap.’ He then went on to tell us what happened on 2 November and 6 November. He even mentioned that today there was a meeting of the national peak groups. You would have thought, from the way Minister Evans phrased it, that this was part of a coherent and sensible response to developing a quick and urgent solution to the problem. The only problem, of course, was that, at the same time that Minister Evans was saying this in the Senate, the Minister for Education and Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Ms Gillard, was happily pointing out in her particularly erudite fashion to the House of Representatives that this was just a routine, regular meeting with the ordinary childcare groups who came to see the minister and the parliamentary secretary regularly and normally. She even said that she ‘expected’ that the issue of ABC Learning Centres would be discussed at the meeting. She did not say she was definite it would be. She did not say, ‘Absolutely; it’s going to be our No. 1 priority.’ She said she ‘expected’ the issue would come up at a regular meeting—quite a different version of events from the coherent plan that Senator Evans would have had us believe they were going to make.

I would like to move on to just how decisive all this is looking at the moment. We are getting very used to this now: what is the word of the week from the Rudd Labor government? They used to work on ‘working families’ but—

Senator Arbib —Still do.

Senator BOYCE —Well, no; we have not heard very much at all about working families from the Rudd Labor government—because they know there are going to be fewer of them. But the word of the week at the moment is ‘decisive’; everything is very ‘decisive’. And the Minister for Education and Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Ms Gillard, in fact commented that the government had acted ‘quickly’ and ‘decisively’ to ensure that parents could rely on ABC centres—until 31 December. That is what they can rely on: until 31 December.

The thing that the Rudd government and Ms Gillard—and the completely-absent-from-this-debate Ms McKew—appear to have overlooked is that children grow up quickly and decisively too. When the new school year starts, in less than three months time, a large number of ABC’s clients, up to 20,000 of them, will be moving on. They will not be requiring full-time child care any longer because they will be attending school. Many of their parents, in the normal course of things, would no doubt have booked in the next crop of children. In normal circumstances, this would not be an issue. The next group of children would be coming through to fill those places.

Senator Brandis —Cohort.

Senator BOYCE —Cohort—good; thank you, Senator Brandis.

Senator Bilyk —A crop of children.

Senator BOYCE —A crop of children—yes, why not? But those children would be coming in; we would have those places, and more, filled. But what parent in their right mind right now is booking their child into an ABC Learning centre if they have a skerrick of an alternative? Because you do not know whether, come February next year, April next year or some other time, that childcare place is going to be there. You do not know how much time you or your partner might have to take off work because the childcare place has simply disappeared.

So what is happening is that these parents are looking for other sources of child care. Most of them are searching desperately now for something that at least they can guarantee will be there when they need it in February next year. So what we do absolutely need is some decisive action from this government, and that is not expressions of interest or a plan that we are going to hear about two weeks before Christmas. It is now that we need the urgency summit organised, so that there is a long-term solution, because 400 unprofitable centres are going to look like child’s play as parents vote with their feet on what they think about the decisiveness of this government and enrol their children as far as possible anywhere else. If you are trying to run a business, as every ABC Learning centre is, it is unreasonable not to have any idea of what your market for next year is going to be, less than three months out, because the government cannot quite manage to organise themselves a meeting to discuss this issue properly.