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Family Day Care: Howard's next target. Keynote address to the Family Day Care Association of Queensland Conference, Mercure Hotel, Brisbane.



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“Family Day Care - Howard’s next target”

Wayne Swan, Shadow Minister for Family and Community Services, Keynote Address to the Family Day Care Association of Queensland Conference, Mercure Hotel, Brisbane, 28 August 2003

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Thank you for inviting me to speak.

I know that in the midst of the Government’s childcare broadband review, things are anything but secure for Family Day Care services and the thousands of Queensland families who use them.

I am here today to tell you that Family Day Care is the Howard Government’s next target for Budget cuts.

At the heart of the Howard Government program is a determination to take us down the American social policy road where families are exposed to the full force of the market and affordable health, childcare and education are available to only a few.

Like their conservative American counterparts, our Government is fond talking about family and community values but let me tell you the ruthless budget cuts, the clawback of family payments and now the threat to your services are all about pushing the market further into family lives.

They have spent seven years implementing this program by cutting away the essential social infrastructure that defines us as a nation of the fair go.

After year after year of cuts, John Howard’s budget razor gang has hit bone.

This year’s Family and Community Services Budget will cut $664 million from the forward estimates.

And he now has you in his sights.

Using increasing pressure for greater defence spending as a pretext Howard is now going to have a go at the operational funding that supports Family Day Care, childcare for children with disabilities and indigenous childcare services.

The government has initiated the current Broadband review to provide an excuse for cutting $180 million from these essential services.

For Family Day Care that means a $50 million funding cut that will place in jeopardy the 126,000 Australian children who rely on your services.

I want to warn you that only a grassroots campaign from families and Family Day Care providers is going to save that funding.

Only a grassroots revolt will bring a halt to John Howard’s “Project America.”

Look at what has happened over the last couple of months.

Two months ago the Government began sending 30 page review forms to parents of children with disabilities receiving modest Carer Allowances of $87 a fortnight.

The Government has redefined the definition of disability for children and plans to remove payments from 30,000 families.

The response from families was loud and spontaneous.

How could the Government be so mean?

The Government’s response was to re-list six disabilities to its automatic qualification list for Carer Allowance.

This is a token concession that will still see the bulk of families with children suffering Cerebral Palsy, Asperger’s Syndrome, severe chronic asthma and ADHD still lose the payment.

And those with Downs Syndrome and the other five disabilities who were re-listed will be put through the ringer again in two years time.

A month ago aged and disabled pensioners began phoning and writing to Parliamentarians because they were receiving bills ranging from a few hundred dollars to $50,000 from Centrelink.

The Government has a new Budget program to review 43,000 pensioners’ past financial records to search for discrepancies.

It hopes to recoup more than $100 million from the aged and infirm Australians.

These are not welfare fraudsters.

They are people who have dutifully provided Centrelink with a constant diet of pay slips and other paperwork.

They are people trying to do the right thing who are being tripped up in most cases because Centrelink has failed to properly advise them or record their information.

In some cases ten years of error has produced mammoth debts.

One family who contacted my office had been providing Centrelink with payslips on a monthly basis for years. If they had provided them fortnightly they were told they wouldn’t have a debt today - but no one told them that. Now they have a crippling bill to be paid by September.

Senator Vanstone has said that these people should be prepared to sell their homes to pay these bills.

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During the last week we had new figures showing the Government’s family payment system which goes to more than two million families on low and middle incomes remains a cause of large yearly debts for a third of those families.

The Prime Minister and Minister Vanstone have long promised to fix this mess which sees tax returns stripped each year without even a warning phone call but they have sat on their hands.

Why?

Because they are recouping so much money from families it is more lucrative than robbing a bank.

If I had time I could go on and talk about the 650,000 parents battling high effective marginal tax rates, the loss of bulk billing services, the rising cost of education.

The Howard Government’s social policy program is causing hurt.

The further we go down the American road, the greater the insecurity of ordinary Australians, the more people will ask what are we trying to defend?

A few weeks ago the Australian Bureau of Statistics delivered some very alarming verdict on the social and economic policies we have pursued over the last five years.

These figures are the first report card on Howard’s American Project.

They reveal that the incomes of the top 20% have grown seven times faster than the bottom 20% and fifty percent faster than middle-income earners over the last four years.

While the bottom 20% saw their weekly incomes increase by just $3 between 96/97 and 00/01, the top 20% saw their weekly income surge by $109 over the same period.

Middle-income earners saw their weekly incomes rise by $34 over the four years.

The findings were disturbing enough for the usually very cautious ABS to note:

“..the increases in the inequality indicators can be regarded as statistically significant with a higher degree of confidence, further supporting a conclusion of some increase in inequality.” (p11 ABS 6523.0)

John Howard came to power in 1996 promising ordinary Australians a better deal.

He guaranteed us a more relaxed and comfortable Australia - a direct appeal to the Australian people about safeguarding their financial security.

It was a cruel hoax for all bar a few.

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I said what I said before to emphasise to you that there is no bottom line for this Government when it thinks it can save money at the expense of ordinary people.

The Government sees childcare as a market.

It sees employment services as a market too.

And there is a lesson in the current debacle that is the Job Network.

The Government has tried to remove all infrastructure funding from the employment services industry.

All money is supposedly based on outcomes.

And in furtherance of its American model, Job network contracts are thrown up in the air every three years.

And there is no safety net.

So every three years, services shut their doors, staff are displaced and worst of all job seekers are left confused and unsupported.

The latest crisis saw the Minister responsible forced to guarantee yearly funding of $670 million to the remaining providers whether they achieve outcomes or not - just to prevent many of them going to the wall.

You would think given this disaster, the Government would be more circumspect in your area.

Well you cannot under-estimate their ideological extremism.

Even though it is clear that the network of coordination units are integral to the success of Family Day Care services and that in turn Family Day Care is a vital part of the children’s services industry in Australia - the Government is keen to knock them off.

The Government argues that the $180 million allocated to broadband childcare services gives these services an unfair advantage over other forms of care. This is nothing less than a convenient excuse for further budget cuts.

The Government’s support for broadband budget cuts shows it is prepared to risk the care of 126,000 children to further its market agenda.

We have a crisis of unmet demand that has touched every form child care in this country:

• 50,000 people who cannot get sufficient hours in outside school hours services; and • 2,500 people who cannot get into your services.

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The greatest shortage in Family Day Care places is here in Queensland.

It is clear that families are struggling to balance their working lives with their parental responsibilities.

They are using more child care services and they want choice.

Family Day Care is an important option that serves a diverse range of families well.

For these reasons, removing operational support from Family Day Care is short-sighted.

It will not improve access to child care but it will directly threaten the quality and the quantity of care provided in the Family Day Care sector.

Family Day Care is a unique service.

It is a service that brings families’ together, increases cooperation between individuals, community organisations and churches.

Family Day Care relies on, and in turn builds trust between individuals - some call this building social capital.

I like to think of it as one of those areas of endeavour that illustrate the triumph of family and community values over pure market values.

This is important because steadily, the rules of the market economy have encroached on family life.

You often hear people say that the trouble with kids today is that they have no values.

The truth is, they do. But more often than not, they have the values of the market economy. Little wonder that it takes just a few short years for a toddler to unlearn the innocent first rule of play and social interaction: how to share!

Australia’s problem is that the very political conservatives who talk about family values have radical economic policies, which only push the market further into family lives.

The Howard Government’s ruthless cuts to social services, its clawback of more than one billion dollars in family payments, its reshaping of employment services and now its plans for Family Day Care are completely hostile to families and family values.

So despite all the rhetoric, the Howard Government always puts market values ahead of family values.

Childcare will never be exclusively a free market.

There must be a choice that provides a role for the community sector.

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And if we are serious as a nation about addressing disadvantage in our community, Government should have greater ambitions for the industry.

Labor believes that child and Family Day Care services can act as hubs between individual families and other services in their community.

At the last election we backed this vision with a $260 million package of new services for families that would have provided extra resources to existing services.

Services like home visiting services, toy libraries, parenting education and childcare support.

Family Day Care coordination units would have shared in these extra resources and in return carer’s would have been able to help link families to other community supports.

Labor remains committed to this vision for children’s services.

Having a commitment to enhanced services are essential if we are going to close the growing gap - if we are serious about preserving a fair society.

John Howard is trying to hide behind the threat to our physical security to justify his long held American social policy program.

The truth is we must protect both our physical security and our financial security.

And we must put the values of families and community engagement before those of the market.

The Government has deliberately established the current Family Day Care funding review to provide an excuse for abolishing or cutting your funding.

Family Day Care providers and the tens of thousands of families they support should not tolerate one cent being cut from the operational subsidies that ensure children are provided with quality care.

If families stand up and fight on this they will win. If we do not, John Howard will get away with another damaging assault on financial security of families and the Australian fair go.