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Monday, 23 November 2015
Page: 8623


Senator DASTYARI (New South Wales) (15:19): I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by ministers to questions without notice asked by Opposition senators today.

We heard an extraordinary answer today from the Minister for Education and Training, Senator Birmingham, who came to this chamber and said in question time that not only is The Australian newspaper wrong—something I find hard to believe—but also that the Australian Childcare Alliance is wrong and that the Community Child Care Association is also wrong. Here is a minister who will have to come back at some point soon and, I suspect, eat his own words on this matter.

Let us be clear on what the government's position is, because some people may not have followed this as closely as others. There was a story in The Australian today that the government plans to force childcare centres to bill by the hour. The minister's response appears to be: 'We're not forcing anybody to do anything. We're going to put in place an incentive structure to encourage them to do that.' How they encourage them to do that and how onerous those encouragements are is yet to be seen, and hopefully we will be seeing shortly. But the simple fact is that the minister is looking at fundamentally changing, fundamentally reforming and fundamentally tearing apart child care and how these childcare centres operate. That is why the Australian Childcare Alliance has come out and said quite strongly that if they charge by the hour there will be a higher cost. There will be a higher cost because there will be a cross-subsidisation that will be taking place, and that is why we have had the Community Child Care Association say that a move to short-session billing would make child care less affordable for all families and exclude those who could not afford the increase completely and would potentially lead to the closure of some services in some areas.

The concern here is that prices are going to rise if these reforms are undertaken. The concern is that those who have existing places may lose some of those places, that some childcare centres may be forced to close and that some of those people who are most vulnerable, who struggle as it is to find spaces in child care, are not going to find them. These are real concerns and, frankly, a glib approach dismissing some of the key experts in this area I do not believe is an appropriate approach from this government.

We anticipate that in coming weeks—and we have been waiting a while now—we are going to see some of the details of the proposal that is going to be put forward by this government. It is being eagerly awaited by the entire sector, but I am worried and concerned when looking at the rhetoric that has been said today, and at what has been said so far by the minister, that there is no disadvantage test to be applied. I think that, frankly, if there were a proper no-disadvantage test to make sure that no childcare centre is disadvantaged, to make sure that no individual child with an existing space is disadvantaged and that, finally, no potential future child is disadvantaged from these reforms, it would go a long way to providing reassurance to the industry and also to families out there that they are not going to suffer as a result of these proposed reforms.

There are some other key issues that need to be explored as part of this debate. One is the changes proposed to reduce access to early-childhood education from 24 hours a week to 12 hours a week and what that is going to do not only to access but also to some of the hardest working but lowest paid workers in Australia. The fact is that the minister so far has never been able to guarantee that moving to hourly charging will not disadvantage the educators or lead to the casualisation of the educator workforce. There are big issues here. This is an important area of public policy. There is a big debate that needs to be had here; and, frankly, a glib approach to what is a fundamental area of policy is not what this nation needs and not what this Senate should accept.