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Monday, 6 December 2004
Page: 25

Senator JACINTA COLLINS (2:21 PM) —My question is to Senator Patterson, the Minister for Family and Community Services. I refer to the minister's comments over the weekend regarding the need for greater national regulation in child care. Does the government intend to take any action to limit the amount of market share any single child-care provider can obtain, in particular through the merger of already large corporate services? Does the government support the proposed merger between ABC Childcare Centres and Peppercorn, the two largest private and for profit child-care service providers in Australia? What effect does the minister expect such a merger would have on the diversity of child-care provision in Australia, service quality, the affordability and availability of child-care places and the viability of the industry as a whole?

Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women's Issues) —I thank the honourable senator for her question. This is the typical sort of question you expect from Labor—a question about who runs child-care services; not about how they are run, about their quality or about their safety. It is typical of Labor to focus on who runs them. There is a question before the ACCC about the merger. I am not going to discuss that. The merger and competition is not an issue for my portfolio. The ACCC will look at that and investigate whether a merger of those two companies is appropriate. The most important thing from my point of view as minister is to ensure that we have high-quality, safe child-care services. Who runs them is not the most important issue; how they are run is the most important issue.

When I met with the National Childcare Accreditation Council I was concerned that there were some types of child care, particularly outside school hours care, for which about half the states and territories do not have regulated standards. That makes accreditation very difficult for us. It is an issue that should be addressed very quickly. Those states should step up to the plate and bring into place appropriate regulations for those services, as has been done in other states, to ensure that we have high-quality, safe child care. It would facilitate and assist child-care providers who provide child care across the nation, some of which are not-for-profit, to have greater standardisation of standards to enable training and to facilitate and streamline the maintaining of standards. I believe that with cooperation from the states this could be achieved in the long term. But in the short term it is absolutely vital that we have standards for outside school hours care in particular, and in any state that does not have standards for family day care this needs to be addressed.

I remind honourable senators of the enormous increase that we have seen in funding for child care under this government. In their last six years Labor spent $4 billion on child care; in the last six years we have spent over $8 billion on child care—almost double the amount. We have actually increased child-care places by 83 per cent. On 1 January 2005 the child-care tax rebate will come into force—another $1.1 billion being injected into child care. In addition, we have measures for grandparents who are caring for children.

What we need from Labor is a policy—not a policy of some shonky, one day of free child care that the then shadow minister said was just a drop in the ocean, and I agreed with the then shadow minister that it was a drop in the ocean. We need Labor to concentrate on policy, to concentrate on getting right the policies that they took to the last election—which were in many cases hopeless—and to get over this issue of leadership, rather than looking on and saying who or who should not run child care. The most important thing for parents is that we have quality child care. That is the absolute priority for a government—to ensure that we have quality child care, affordable child care and accessible child care.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Taking the minister back to the point at hand: if market dominance is not an issue in relation to the provision of child care, why did you reiterate over the weekend that the government is monitoring the level of market dominance in child care? Given the massive taxpayer financial stream flowing to this industry, particularly through child-care benefits, salary sacrificing and the proposed child-care rebate, does the minister have a view on increasing the market share of the merged group, which is approaching 40 per cent of the Queensland child-care market? Is such a dominant market position desirable in any industry, let alone in child care?

Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women's Issues) —I know that they have the questions written out for them before question time and they just get up and ask their supplementary questions, but I answered this question. I said that the ACCC will investigate in any industry a situation where they believe that market share is a monopoly or is reducing competition. My priority is to ensure that we have quality, safe child care. The issue of competition will be addressed by the ACCC if necessary.