Monday, 15 March 2010
Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care) Bill 2010
Debate resumed from 24 February, on motion by Ms Kate Ellis:
That this bill be now read a second time.
I rise to speak on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care) Bill 2010. The bill is not going to be opposed by the opposition, in that it makes some sensible amendments to the childcare payment process. We introduced those changes a little while ago, so the bill is one with technical amendments which should make for a more streamlined process and greater equity in some cases.
The bill allows the payment in arrears of childcare benefit, or CCB, when a childcare service cannot report daily attendance numbers because of circumstances beyond their control—for example, if there is a bushfire or other national disaster meaning the lines are down and that childcare centre cannot send its electronic data in daily. Obviously that is an important amendment.
This bill also simplifies requirements for four-weekly statements of payments to parents. It will also change the suspension of childcare benefit automatically after 10 infringement notices in a 12-month period. In the future this will be discretionary rather than an automatic suspension, depending on the circumstances of the case.
The bill also has within it an extension of the requirement of a 30-day notification of a childcare service ceasing to operate: the requirement will be for 42 days notice when a centre is to cease functioning. The bill also clarifies the authority of the government to recover overadvanced payments paid under the previous quarterly reporting system.
All of these are quite sensible amendments. Let me give you a little more detail. The Child Care Management System, or CCMS, was introduced on 1 July 2009. It replaced the Centrelink-managed childcare operating system, or COS. All childcare benefit approved childcare service providers are now required by law to operate under the CCMS. It brings all approved childcare services online, and they use their CCMS registered software to daily record child enrolment and attendance information. Services report this data to the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations electronically to allow calculation and payment of the childcare benefit fee reductions on behalf of children using the childcare service. Obviously all that is quite simple if you do not have a problem with a natural disaster wiping out your establishment and making it difficult for you to do that daily reporting. This bill addresses that issue.
From the time of transition to the new system, CCB was paid to a childcare provider weekly or fortnightly in arrears based on reports provided through the CCMS. Payment of the childcare benefit in arrears does not provide a buffer for services whose ability to electronically report has been disrupted due to circumstances beyond its control.
The other amendments that I have already given in summary deal with compliance issues. Approved childcare services must provide statements to individual families receiving the childcare benefit fee reductions every four weeks. However, varying start dates for the statement period can vary for the children in the centre’s care. This has caused unintended complexities for the services, more cost to them in administration and some confusion. This will be sorted by more flexibility in when parents have their payments reported.
As well, there is currently within the legislation an automatic outcome where, if there are 10 infringement notices in 12 months for contravening civil penalty provisions relating to record keeping, access to records, requests from the secretary for further information and payback of remittances et cetera, there is automatic suspension of the childcare benefit approval. Other suspension cancellation provisions applying to the CCB approval are discretionary and so, in line with those other approvals being discretionary, this amendment will extend suspension discretion to the secretary for the 10 infringement notices in 12 months. They can then consider the impact of an automatic ceasing of remittances on the families using the service.
If a childcare operator intends to close a service, currently it must notify the secretary at least 30 days before it ceases operations. A lot of families will be significantly impacted if they must find alternative child care, and 30 days to look for new services may sound a lot to some without children in their care but it can be very difficult for many. The ABC situation caused major disruptions, and this notification requirement was seen to be too short in many cases. It will now be extended to 42 days to provide extra time to deal with potential disruption to families. The existing penalty regime will continue to apply in relation to failure to comply with this new 42-day requirement.
Prior to the Child Care Management System services were paid quarterly childcare benefit in advance, and if there was an overpayment that was recovered during the next quarter. Services are now paid CCB weekly, or fortnightly in arrears. The amendments are retrospective to 29 June 2007, and will clarify that the authority to recover overadvanced amounts does in fact exist in law.
Again, I need to state that we are not intending to oppose these changes. We think they make sense. What we are concerned about though is the current state of child care and early childhood education in Australia. We, of course, were supportive of there being a national framework of childcare standards. That has been an important move to make. Unfortunately, when you look at the realities of childcare offerings state-by-state and in the territories, you still see a substantial variety of interpretations of the new national standards. For example, you see the numbers of hours that a child may take in early childhood education—the year before they go to school—still varying across states. You have got the extraordinary circumstance in Queensland now, where Queensland is offering free early childhood education to four-year-olds in the year before they commence schooling—that is quite different to other states.
We have the situation where this government has pronounced loudly and clearly in their campaign that they would offer ‘universal access’ to early childhood education, which is the most extraordinary nonsense statement when you consider what ‘universal’ means if it is not mandated and what ‘access’ means if you come from one of my 52 country towns or some of the smaller towns of my neighbour in Indi. A town may not have a preschool centre, or the centre has recently closed because parents cannot pay the fees. Does that parent automatically get offered access to preschooling in that small country town when the centre has closed? I do not think so. What does ‘universal access’ actually mean in the case of early childhood education?
Then we have the agenda flowing under all of this where the government seems to be hopeful that childcare centres will offer early childhood education within their own centres in the year before the child formally commences their primary schooling. That, again, leads to all sorts of difficulties since different states have different interpretations of what constitutes early childhood education, our childcare centres differ very substantially too and, of course, not all children are in a childcare centre. Some are in long daycare, some children—in fact, very many of young age—are in a system of in-home care, which is paid through the black market with no regulation of that sector and no support for parents using a ‘nanny’ in terms of childcare subsidy, even though their means may be as limited as are the means of another family receiving support through the government for their child attending a different sort of childcare opportunity or centre.
So child care is a mess in Australia under Labor. We have people who are desperate for after-school and holiday care for their children and who cannot find a service or facility in schools or communities that are adequate, affordable and of good quality. We have the not-for-profit sector with all sorts of advantages in terms of their exemption from paying rates, payroll tax, fringe benefits tax reporting and so on. They compete head-on with the for-profit sector in the childcare services industry, and they wonder why there is that extraordinary support of the new service to take over from the ABC with substantial government investment in that new enterprise. I am told there were tenders put in from the for-profit sector for running those ex-ABC services.
There are a whole range of issues that worry parents deeply about access to good child care in this country. When you think that parents pay $100 a day to access our own childcare centre here in Parliament House, it must be that parents who access the service are able to afford that. But in many other parts of the economy families cannot pay $100 a day, and yet if they are paying substantially less then too often those centres are in extreme financial difficulty. So what are we to do in this country? For a start, we have to have consistency on what national standards mean, including what the economic impact of those national standards will be on the viability of centres. If you are talking about reducing the ratio of cared-for children to staff or reducing the size of the childcare service itself—and those vary from state to state—that obviously has significant impacts on the costs of running those centres. If you also mandate or dictate certain qualifications and ratios of staff with qualifications, self-evidently that translates into a different cost in running childcare centres and preschool centres. But there is absolutely no discussion out there in relation to the cost impacts of the new national standards that the sector can tune into or be consulted about, so we have people out there simply wondering, ‘What is going to happen to our children who need care as we go off to work as a two-income family?’
We recently had the paid parental leave difficulties that Labor left us when it described a minimalist program back in May 2009. We have been able to address that with a much better program of paid parental leave put on the table. Families are breathing a sigh of relief about that, but we have not gone on from paid parental leave to discuss the debacle that currently represents child care as a viable sector across Australia. We all know about the two-year waits for access to a childcare centre in some places. We know about families who have delayed having more children or delayed the timing of their next and subsequent children because they cannot access child care. It is a great shame when a government refusing to properly address the needs of a sector impacts on our population growth, the size of families or the age when parents can have families. That is an incredible indictment on our society as a whole.
So we in this country really do need to sit down and analyse what all the options are for families to have their children cared for while they are at work or when they want their children to have additional socialisation outside the family home. It used to be the case in the good old days that there was perhaps a grandparent or some other extended family member who could take on the children and look after them in a satisfactory way. Those days when all women with children had access to a grandparent—a grandmother in particular—or an extended family are long gone due to the mobility of our population but also due to the fact that, too often, grandmothers themselves need to be in paid employment.
We have a serious problem, then, understanding exactly how to provide uniformly high-quality, affordable child care in a range of options across the country. We had an excellent report brought down when we were in government. It came out of an inquiry chaired by the Hon. Bronwyn Bishop, and those recommendations are as alive today as they were when they were tabled. We need to look at those carefully, particularly in relation to options for child care like in-home or nanny care. Labor has gone on telling us that that is an elitist option. I think they should be more familiar with the actual costs of child care in a professional centre or even long day care, comparing the cost when you have several very small children being minded within the home with paying $100 a day per child, or a little less in other places. You soon start to see that a nanny looking after your children is not an elitist option. But it is an option that needs some regulation in order to protect both the workers and those who employ the worker, and that is where the coalition is consulting with families on what they think about those options right now. This morning I spoke to New Zealander members of parliament and looked very carefully at how they managed their system—much better than ours, it would seem.
There is also a serious problem where we have discrepancy around the country. In Victoria, for example, it is not mandated that suspected child abuse be reported by the childcare centre, so we do not even have that protection extended for children who are vulnerable and who, perhaps, need some special protection. It is not required that the childcare professionals report a suspected case of abuse or severe disadvantage. We need a national set of standards which includes issues like that.
We also need to look at the role of grandparents who have the full-time care of their grandchildren. Too often this is the grandmother looking after her daughter’s or son’s children. They are the very poor relations of our current system. They are often not able to access the childcare benefits or other supports that are in the system. They are financially stressed caring for their grandchildren when there is no other alternative, because they are not often reported to Centrelink as the major carers.
This is a serious issue for our society. Those grandmothers may have had to leave paid employment to look after their grandchildren and they then become less likely to be financially independent in their older age. We know that 75 per cent of women now make up the ranks of those on age pensions. Too often these women who are caring for their grandchildren have limited superannuation and savings from their fractured time at work, given the generation they come from or from active discrimination in the workplace when it comes to employing older women.
When we are talking about child care we must consider who is doing the caring and how it deals with the issue of grandparents who are often accessing formal child care but not with the government support that others enjoy and who would meet the means testing if they were registered as the carers. We have to look at the fact that there is too much variation between states and territories, for example in what is an acceptable size of a centre. For example, in some states we are told 75 is the maximum number that may be in a childcare centre and in other states there is no limit at all. How does that make sense?
We have to also look very carefully at the fact that child care is typically designated as women’s work. We have a serious issue about the career options for women working in child care, and for them to have the right status and value in the community to be properly paid. All of that is part of this childcare mix. It is a complex area of work but an area of significant importance for a society as it looks to have its young children, whose parents are both in the workforce, being cared for in an appropriate way.
I have to say that I have been hugely disappointed since taking up these issues with my portfolio responsibilities to find that, while lip-service is paid by the Labor government to things like paid parental leave and the national framework for new childcare and early childhood education standards, when it comes to the practical delivery of better programs in consultation with the states and territories—who have a lot of responsibilities in these areas—and when it comes to considering the real costs and the current funding that is available, Labor has let us down again and again.
The paid parental leave issue is just one of the examples of where something was promised and virtually nothing was delivered. In some states we see a crisis of funding in child care; in others we have some in the sector who are doing quite well. We do not yet know how the replacement for the ABC ownership will go. We certainly wish the new owners well but there is a lot of concern about how they may be able to sustain their financial viability under the new framework requirements and conditions.
I go back to the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care) Bill 2010 and say that we are in support of the amendments that have been put forward. They build on some changes that we made when we were in government and they pick up some unintended consequences and interpretations in the bill. All of those amendments are appropriate in this bill and I commend the bill to the House.
I speak in support of the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care) Bill 2010. The member for Murray talked about child care. It seems that she has had a road to Damascus experience—to use to the expression of the Prime Minister today during question time. I say to the member for Murray, through you, Mr Speaker—
You never know what may be before you in your future. Where was the member for Murray and where was the coalition on a national quality framework for child care? We know, according to the studies, that per capita the coalition were spending something like one-fifth of what our OECD partners were spending on early child care. There was no thought of an education revolution in child care from the coalition while they were in government.
Did they improve the staff-to-child ratios so that each child could get individual care and attention? No. Where were their new qualifications for staff? Nowhere. Did they have a focus on activities and national standards which would help children learn and develop? The answer is no. Was there a rating system so that parents could know about the quality of care on offer and be able to make the best decisions and choices for their children? The answer is no. Where was the discussion on child care in the COAG process during nearly 12 years of coalition tenure on the benches of this side of the House? Nowhere.
The fact is that this legislation is part of the Rudd government’s vision for child care: to make it affordable, accessible and to make sure that the staff-to-child ratios and the qualifications of those who work in the sector are of the highest quality. We want to make sure that when parents choose to put their children in child care they can be confident of the safety of the child, confident that their child will learn and develop, confident that they will socialise and confident that the people there will care for them as their own. We want the parents to be confident that that child can leave child care and go into primary education and beyond after having received the kind of care that is not simply being plonked in front of a TV or sitting there doing nothing. We want to make sure they engage in educative play activities with high-quality staff. We want to make sure that those children have positive learning experiences. The Rudd government is backing up this commitment with an investment of over $16 billion over four years.
I say to those opposite, who may comment on child care, the childcare sector and what we are doing, that amount is more than twice that provided in the last four years of the Howard government. Get that straight: over the next four years the Rudd government will invest over $16 billion, more than twice what was provided under former Prime Minister John Howard’s coalition government in its last four years. That is a massive increase in investment. Sadly, in 1996, after the coalition got in, we saw a neglect of the childcare sector. Inaction, idleness and inertia are what characterised those opposite with respect to early childhood education and the childcare sector. So let us not have those people come into this place and give us lectures, as if the childcare and early childhood sector in this country somehow was perfect under the previous government and somehow has gone to rack and ruin under this government. The truth is we are making up for time lost under the previous government, which sadly was not particularly interested in this sector.
The legislation before this chamber is important because it is part of what we are going to do to improve the sector. Parents in my electorate know that we have increased the assistance to parents through tax cuts and also through childcare benefits, fulfilling our election commitments with respect to the sector. While I am on that, I want to note ABC Learning Centres, as mentioned by the previous speaker. On the previous government’s watch, Eddie Groves and co. were allowed to develop a monopolistic practice and control of the sector, and we have had to fix that up. There have been investments of tens of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ funds to ensure the viability of the sector, to ensure that the sector remained open at various centres across the country. In my electorate of Blair, I saw it. The biggest suburb in the electorate of Blair is Brassall, by a long way. Bush Kidz came in and saved the centre at the Brassall Shopping Centre.
We also know that there are other community based childcare centres, like Cribb Street, which are suffering. Cribb Street is a very old childcare centre, community run by mums and dads. It is declining in numbers because that part of Ipswich is declining as the suburbs on the outside expand. So the childcare sector faces challenges. We have had challenges with Eddie Groves and his like. We have had challenges with the previous government’s inaction and ignorance on the topic. There have been challenges for mums and dads under pressure with respect to meeting the cost of living. The cost of housing went up dreadfully under the previous government, and there are the cost-of-living pressures each and every day.
The legislation before the House proposes six administrative amendments to our family assistance law, improving administrative requirements of childcare services and the overall administration of the childcare benefit, which the Rudd government has seen fit to expand and increase. There are some practical changes which will help in circumstances where childcare centres have fallen into poor running—for example, the notification of cessation of operation of approved childcare services provision. Currently operators are required to provide at least 30 days notice of their intention to cease operating. Thirty days is not a long time for mums and dads who have kids in child care to find alternative places. So the provision which requires operators to provide at least 42 days notice that they cease to operate is a good amendment in this legislation. It gives families greater time to make alternative arrangements that suit their needs and, simply, to find a place for their kids. That is an important amendment.
There are changes with respect to business continuity payments. Under the new childcare management system, services must submit an online report to receive childcare benefit payments on behalf of families, but there is a provision should a service experience a disruption, such as a local emergency. We have seen emergencies across Queensland—and I note the member for Kennedy is here. We have seen floods in the western parts of North Queensland which have been very difficult for residents. South-East Queensland, where my electorate is, has also received a tremendous torrent of rain. We have seen natural disasters across the state of Queensland. In those sorts of circumstances, where services are unable to submit their online report, the legislation allows the Commonwealth to pay those services. In a country like Australia, where there have been bushfires in Victoria and floods in Queensland, this is important. The amendment introduces a business continuity payment so that childcare benefit can be paid to services when they cannot submit their normal online report. That is so they continue to have cash flow in times of need. This is important for business. Anyone that has been in business knows you just have to have cash flow. If you have not got it, you are in trouble.
There are also important changes with respect to the recovery of old advances to approved childcare services. Services, as the member for Murray correctly pointed out, used to be paid their CCB fee reductions every three months in advance. At the end of that quarter they would then acquit the amount they had received against the actual childcare usage. That changed, and it is now paid weekly or fortnightly in arrears. So the amendments confirm the original intent of the Howard government’s legislation and provide for acquittals of advances and recovery of old advance payments.
There are other changes, and the amendment with respect to suspension of approved childcare services approvals is important. That is an amendment which makes discretionary the current mandatory suspension of childcare benefit approvals where a service has received 10 infringement notices in a 12-month period. The discretion to suspend allows the secretary of the department to take into consideration the nature of the infringements and the impact on families using the service. There could be circumstances where a childcare facility makes technical infringements, and some of them can be quite technical. Anyone involved in the aged-care sector knows that, from time to time, that has happened in the aged-care sector, as it has in service provision for families at schools and also in the early childhood sector. In childcare services this can happen, and we want to make sure that any infringements do not impact adversely on families using that service. So, again, the discretion here is important. It gives greater flexibility to the department and to the secretary’s delegates.
There is a change with respect to the obligation on approved childcare services to provide statements. Approved childcare services currently are required to provide statements to families setting out their childcare benefit entitlements and fees on a four-weekly cycle. There are changes here which will allow greater flexibility, and those things are important.
Improvements have been welcomed by the sector. Generally, in my electorate there has been significant approval of what the Rudd government is doing with early child care. I know the member for Murray was critical of the sector and what has happened, particularly in Queensland. But my experience as the federal member has been that the childcare sector in Blair is supportive, generally, of the Rudd government’s commitments.
We have a very strong vision to improve child care. We want to make sure that our childcare sector is as viable as the higher education sector we were debating before. The previous government failed to invest in the tertiary sector, and they failed to invest in our young people with respect to the childcare sector. The many childcare workers that I know were absolutely appalled that one of the major changes they saw in the sector was the previous government’s commitment to AWAs and the imposition of Work Choices. I spoke to many people in the childcare sector during the last election campaign. I know, after having spoken to them, that they were not on high wages. The impact of Work Choices and AWAs in that sector was dreadfully severe. The government’s commitment to eradicate Work Choices, to abolish AWAs, to improve the wages and conditions of the workers in the sector, to give parents greater transparency and access to information, to give greater flexibility to the sector, to give more money to the sector, to invest in our young people and in the sector generally and to fix up the problems caused by the Eddie Groveses of the world is a demonstration of the Rudd government’s true commitment to a strong childcare sector—a strong vision for child care backed up by serious money. I commend the legislation to the House.
The magazine Marie Claire did a major article some years ago about parental leave. As has been brought up already in this House, out of some 30 prominent countries mentioned, the only two countries that did not have provision for parental leave were Australia and the United States. The legislation before the House, the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care) Bill 2010, is very detailed and specific on child care. The debate in this place is constantly about child care. The parental leave issue is tailored for working mums. The childcare issue is about working mums. I pay great tribute to Tempe Harvey and her organisation, Kids First Parent Association, for bringing the issue to the attention of Australians such as me. When the Prime Minister announced his parental leave package, I thought it was a very good step in the right direction. When the Leader of the Opposition announced a much more generous arrangement, I thought that was very good too. I got a nasty broadside from this particular group, amongst other people, and deservedly so. I, like everybody else, was trapped into a paradigm of conventional wisdom that led us to believe that it was all about working mothers. I suppose we constantly run across working mothers in this place, but we do not run across non-working mothers.
It was very interesting to have pointed out to me that most mothers in Australia—albeit by a small margin; it is 51 per cent—with a child below the age of five were stay-at-home mums. They have made a very great sacrifice to give their children full-time mother’s care. I do not wish for my remarks to be construed as a criticism of those mothers who, quite literally, have to work. One night, when I pulled up for a burger at a late-night servo, one working mum said to me: ‘Do you realise how tough it is for people like me? I have a six-year-old child and, if I work here at night, I have to pay someone to look after her. If I had a day job, I would have to pay someone to look after her. If I don’t work then I am on a figure which, really, means it’s not possible for me to stay alive. If I break out and have a few smokes during the week then, of course, someone’s got to go hungry and that someone is me.’ I thought that was a fair sort of call.
Successive governments have done nothing to lean upon the banks in Australia who have said yes to every application for home lending, which has driven the cost of homes straight through the roof. The cost of a house in the eighties was twice the average annual earnings; now it is seven times the average annual earnings. This is much greater than in the United States, where the system simply collapsed. It was six times the average annual earnings there, and now it is down to about three times the average annual earnings. The price of a house in Australia is nothing more than the cost of bad government. I had a station property with a few hundred thousand acres, and the value of it was $4 an acre—in a country where, a stone’s throw from any city, you can buy land at $1,000 an acre and people are paying many hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The issue is very graphically illustrated, and I refer again to Kids First—because I think we will hear a lot more about them as time goes on. They have a little brochure out that talks about an unwaged mum—a stay-at-home mum—getting $5,000 on the birth of a child and then an annual payment of $3,000. So she gets $3,000 a year for having a child. Under the Rudd government plan, she will get $7,000 and an annual payment of $6,000. Under the opposition’s proposed plan, a woman will get $30,000 on the birth of her child and then an annual payment of $6,000. Is it fair that the mother who is working, who is on average weekly earnings, on an income of $60,000 a year, gets $30,000 when she has a baby and the person who is the stay-at-home mum gets $7,000, Mr Acting Speaker? Is this fair?
We are all actors on a fleeting stage, as a famous man once said. Is it fair that one person should get $30,000 for having a baby, and the benefit that flows to another person is a meagre $7,000? It seems to me to be very unfair. To add to that burden of unfairness, the children of the stay-at-home mum do not go to child care. So they are not absorbing taxes—taxes that need to be paid to pay for the childcare facilities which are heavily subsidised, as we are all well aware. They are saving the government a substantial amount of money.
All that is being asked for here is fairness. There is only so much money to go around. What is being said here is that a stay-at-home mum should get an allocation of money and the person who chooses to work, to follow a career pathway, should get the same amount of money. Is one better than the other? Why should one group be discriminated against and the other group be subsidised by the public purse? It seems to me eminently unfair. It also strikes me as a good example of just how out of step we are in this place—and I must start with a criticism of myself, because I had not seen the very discriminatory allocation of funding that is taking place at the present time.
As I have pointed out on many occasions in this place, Australians are a vanishing race. There cannot be a more definitive judgment upon a race of people than if they simply eliminate themselves from the gene pool. We belong to a race of people called Australians who are simply eliminating themselves from the gene pool. When 20 Australians die they are replaced by 17 Australians. I read a major article in the Australian by the leading demographer in Australia at the time, Dr Bob Birrell, a professor at Monash University. In the article he said that the population of Australia in 100 years time would be seven million people. I took off at a hundred miles an hour down to the library because I thought that this had to be wrong—but he seemed like a very eminent person. The librarian who did demography work said, ‘It’s very simple to work out: if 20 Australians are replaced by 17 and then that generation dies off and they are replaced by 13 and that generation dies off and they are replaced by 10, you can do the mathematics yourself, Bob,’ and I did—and yes, that is correct. We will go from the current population down to a population of seven million people—and they will be very, very old people.
So, as a race of people, have we been successful? Have our belief systems dominated over the belief systems of other people on the planet? Where have those belief systems taken us? Where have those valued judgments that we have made in this place taken us? They have taken us to a situation of complete elimination of the human genome—or DNA. That must be the ultimate judgment on whether or not your decisions are right.
We have put this great value upon careers—whether for a man or a woman—and the value judgments that have been made in this place put them as far more important than having some little kid to love or some little kid to love you as a parent. We are here today talking about child care. The difficulty is that we are in this paradigm of child care and we cannot get ourselves out of this paradigm. We cannot think in terms of looking after the women who decide that they need to have a family and they need to bring up that family properly.
I represent farming areas. Unfortunately, within two years of this place deciding almost unanimously to deregulate the dairy industry, there was a farmer committing suicide every four days in Australia. I am afraid that an awful lot of those were in my area, because the sugar industry was also deregulated. The issue really rides higher than that. It is a place where we have a very high suicide rate, both by historical standards and by standards throughout Australia. Each of the people who committed suicide was a man. They were each moderately young. I asked, ‘What are the reasons here?’ People who have made a great study of it at this place asked, ‘How many male schoolteachers do we have?’ This gets back to roles, belief systems and value judgments when we are sitting here talking about child care. ‘How many male teachers do we have in this town at our high schools?’ and I said, ‘None.’ There might actually be one or two, but it is a fair call to say, ‘None.’ He said, ‘How many men do we have working at the banks in this town?’ Out of about 50 or 60 people working at the banks, I said there were none. He said, ‘How many male doctors do we have?’ I said, ‘Fifty-fifty,’ but I was wrong—it was sixty-forty. There are more female doctors now than males.
He said, ‘What exactly is the role of the male in modern society?’ I refer again—it sounds like I read Marie Claire a fair bit—to a quote from the ex-editor of the Women’s Weekly. She said one of the things that she was going to devote the rest of her life to was getting a fair go for her son because men do not really get a fair go in Australian society. There really is no place for men. This bloke added to that. He said, ‘You know, 40 per cent of the children in this town have no father.’ They are brought up with no male role that they can look to. That also means that there is a whole stack of men in this town who have no family and in 72 per cent of cases it is the wife who walks. She walks out and, under child support, the man is condemned to penury for the rest of his life and he will not be able to get married again.
When you add all these things up, you get a viewpoint where it does not really surprise you that we have the highest juvenile male suicide rate in the world. It does not really surprise us. Really, when you analyse it, it would be surprising if we did not have the highest juvenile male suicide rate in the world. So there has to be a reorientation and we have to be jerked out of the paradigm where we think only in terms of careers—people who are very self-centred, who are only thinking about advancing themselves. It is a very sad reflection upon a race of people that we do not love kids enough to have kids and there will be a terrible price to be paid for that decision further down the track. We are biting the bullet now with the cost of aged care, which is increasingly crippling the finances of the government of Australia and the people of Australia.
I think the point that is made by Kids First is a very valid point. The president has an honours degree in law from the university—she is no intellectual lightweight—and she makes a very valid point. I do not condemn anyone else. I will start with my own condemnation because my initial thinking was to praise both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. I think that they are both people who would think the same as me when their attention is drawn to this fact and reconsider the position that they have taken. Mr Acting Speaker, if you think for even a single second about the fate of a young family trying to have their own home and to have kids and about the financial burden which that places upon them, then you can see the very difficult choices which they have to make out there—choices which we impose upon them. I think that most of the difficult choices have been created by the value system coming out of this place. I think it behoves us, in a debate such as this, to reorient our thinking and to go into a paradigm where Australians will be a growing race. I personally have a very great opinion of Australians as a race of people. I think we have an immense amount to be proud of and it is right and proper that there should be more of us and that we should not be a vanishing race.
I thank the honourable member for Kennedy. While I do not want to be pedantic, maybe the honourable member did not hear what I said. What I said was that the Deputy Speaker should be referred to as ‘Deputy Speaker’ and not as ‘Acting Speaker’. He was in full flight and I was reluctant to interrupt again.
I rise today to lend my support to theFamily Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care) Bill 2010, a bill which proposes six administrative amendments. These go to improving the administrative arrangements of childcare services and the overall administration of childcare benefits and to a practical change which will enable the government to respond effectively to childcare closures when they regrettably occur. It is important to recall that the Rudd government was elected on a strong commitment to child care. It is fortunate that the Minister for Housing, Ms Plibersek, is at the table because in the lead-up to the last election she visited my electorate of Werriwa. Young families want a range of different things, including affordable housing, but certainly the provision of child care always ranked very high on the agenda in the south-west of Sydney. That is because the south-west of Sydney is very much a growing area. It is an area with young families and, regrettably, current housing prices do require couples to work pretty hard to afford places. To do that, a number of concessions have to be made and one of them is both parents having to work. That is one of the reasons why the Rudd government has brought in flexible work arrangements. These are things that very much go to our commitment to support young families.
As I said, this bill is about child care. I know how important child care is, and certainly anybody who lives in an outer metropolitan area—particularly in Sydney, but no doubt it is the same in everyone else’s electorate—knows the importance of it. I also know the importance of child care from my own family’s perspective. My daughter and son-in-law, who have three kids, are both working. My daughter is a full-time teacher. I know how, having three kids, they have to arrange child care so that she can maintain her career. I know there is a significant cost impost with that. Some of that cost is no doubt borne by grandmothers, with what they do, which is obviously highly appreciated. But in my daughter’s case, for her to have a career she must be able to go out and access affordable child care in a very competitive environment where most other mums are going through and doing the same thing.
My younger son has a daughter and he, as a builder, is out there building as much as he can under Building the Education Revolution. He is working pretty hard at that, and young Kiarni is fortunately now in our childcare centre in Campbelltown. These are things that are essential for working mums and dads. When our kids were growing up, it was less of a formal arrangement. In our case, my mum was the one who probably took on a lot of the childcare services when Bernadette and I had full-time activities, as we were trying to support mortgages but nevertheless raise a family. The patterns are changing, and as a consequence we as a government know that child care is very important to families. It enables parents to participate confidently in the workforce and it provides their kids with positive learning experiences.
We know from research that it is pretty clear that what children experience in the first five years of their lives sets them on a course for the rest of their lives. It shapes their futures: their health, their learning, their social development and their degree of social interaction. We want to make sure that their future is bright, and that is one of the other reasons why having properly structured child care not only makes sense but is essential. It is no longer just child minding, and that is why the focus on qualified childcare providers and qualified childcare personnel is just so critical in today’s modern environment. It is vital for our kids and it is important to recognise that because of economic constraints, the need to maintain ongoing employment and a number of things we do need to have the opportunity of having appropriately run and resourced childcare centres.
I know that my own electorate provides a number of first-class childcare options that suit many of the needs of growing families across south-western Sydney. It is important for those organisations to know that we appreciate their hard work and we appreciate their work for the industry. That industry is not only looking after our kids here and now but actually paving the way, putting down the foundations, for our kids’ development into the future. I have to say, having a number of grandchildren currently in child care, that that is pretty important to me.
We are also aware that the Commonwealth government provides childcare benefits to users of childcare services, in the form of fee reductions in most cases. To ensure that the delivery of this benefit is properly regulated childcare services have, since 2009, been required to operate using the Child Care Management System. The Child Care Management System is a national childcare system that brings all approved childcare services online to communicate information about the enrolment and attendance of children in their care at that particular service. This data is then provided to the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, which in turn calculates the entitlement of the childcare benefit and pays that specific childcare benefit to the services, who pass it on as reduced fees to the parents and/or carers of children using those services.
The bill, on which I will now talk about in a little bit more detail, relates to the payments to childcare services, the obligation of childcare services and the transition from childcare management systems under the previous arrangements. Firstly, I would like to mention the issue of the business continuity payments. Under the new Child Care Management System the childcare services must submit an online report to receive childcare benefit payments on behalf of families. We understand that services may experience disruption. These can be local emergencies or some form of localised disaster but can be something as minor as—and this tends to happen in those areas which are frustrated about their internet connections at the moment—a disruption to internet usage.
The current legislation does not allow, in the case of those disruptions that prevent the online communication of a report, for the Commonwealth to pay for those services to the provider. This amendment introduces a business continuity payment so that services can continue to be paid childcare benefits when their normal online report cannot be submitted due to circumstances—and this is important to understand—which are beyond their control. They can then continue to have cash flow in their times of need. We must understand that the people running these childcare services are running a business, they do need their cash flow, and it cannot be interrupted simply because of the impossibility from time to time of communicating the online report as required. This goes a large way to remedying that issue.
Prior to the transition to the new Child Care Management System, childcare services used to be paid their childcare benefits every three months in advance. At the end of that quarter they would then go about acquitting the amount that they received against the actual childcare usage. Last year services transitioned to the new Child Care Management System, under which they are now paid weekly or fortnightly in arrears. However, the legislation that introduced the new system omitted to include any specific mechanism for recovery of the overadvanced amount acquitted before the services transitioned to the new Child Care Management System
The childcare services that had their advances acquitted on the following transition to the child Care Management System are required to repay their overadvance. It should be noted that this is an error that occurred in the legislation passed under the Howard government. Nevertheless, this amendment is trying to rectify that issue and it is effectively giving confirmation of the original intent of the previous government’s legislation and provides for acquittal of offences and the recovery of overadvanced amounts. Therefore, the amendments are retrospective to 29 June 2007. That is the date when the original provisions came into effect.
There are also changes to make it clear that the services who received less than their correct entitlements from the last quarterly payments under the old system can be paid the amount they are owed by the Commonwealth. Currently operators of approved childcare services are required to provide at least 30 days notice of an intention to close or transfer their operations. The basis of that is pretty clear. It is to give parents the opportunity to make some alternative arrangements for their children. I know this is probably not seen as a big change, but it is one for parents who are faced with a very competitive environment in seeking childcare services for their children, particularly if that service has been unfortunately terminated or has been transferred. Parents do need time. As opposed to the 30 days under the current provision, this bill requires operators to provide at least 42 days notice that they are intending to cease operations or have made a decision to do so. Not to provide that degree of notice will be a criminal offence involving civil penalty provisions.
Essentially, the reason so much emphasis has been put on this point—as I say, it is an adjustment of another 12 days—is that it is absolutely critical for young families to have alternative childcare services available to them, because otherwise it can mean people lose their jobs. They may not be forcibly sacked but be unable to pursue their paid employment and that could affect their career as a consequence. That is why the issue of closure or transition of business is so important from a family’s perspective and needs to be clarified. Emphasis needs to be made that it is of such importance that there are civil penalties that will apply for failure to comply.
As the minister said in her second reading speech, this amendment will take further steps to protect families from the disruption of the unfortunate incidents where childcare centres cease to operate. Of course, we know the difficulties this may cause for many families and we understand its importance. The necessary amendments will provide greater time for families to make alternative arrangements that best suit their needs.
The current legislation requires an automatic suspension of a childcare service if the service has received 10 infringement notices in a 12-month period. This suspension is mandatory, so it is a trigger for a range of different reasons. If 10 infringement notices have been issued to the one childcare service, that service is automatically suspended. This bill makes that action discretionary; it allows the secretary of the department discretion to take into consideration the nature of the infringement and the impact that the suspension will have on families that use that service, and allows discretion as to the penalty that will be provided. It may not be in the best interests of the continuity of that service—for a range of different reasons—for it to be automatically suspended. It may certainly not be to the benefit of parents using those services. Therefore, this is very appropriate in that it allows the department discretion in terms of suspension as opposed to a mandatory provision.
Finally, approved childcare services are currently required to provide statements to families setting out their Child Care Benefit entitlements and fees on a four-weekly cycle. But the catch in all this, unfortunately, is that the start dates of these statements may differ from child to child and may be the date that a child enters the service. So running a large childcare service could see a significant degree of administrative actions in setting out many, many reports over the period of a four-weekly cycle. We understand that this imposes very significant requirements that cause undue administrative complexity for various services whose primary responsibility is to provide child care. Therefore, these changes will be made to provide greater flexibility and less complexity for services to meet the obligation to provide statements.
Under this amendment, services will be able to nominate the frequency of statements, provided they are issued no less than on a three-monthly basis. All children within that particular service will be included on the same statement. So we are talking about one statement as opposed to a multiplicity of statements based on when a child started at the particular service. I know that these amendments will be improvements and welcomed by the sector, including many of those first-class childcare centres that operate in my electorate who have been unhappy and vocal about their concerns about the four-weekly statement cycle when they have discussed it with me.
In conclusion, the Rudd government was elected, as I stated earlier, with a very strong commitment to child care, and we are backing our commitment with an investment of over $16 billion over four years. We have made this very strong commitment to child care for one very important reason: it is essential for the economic future of this nation. It is also essential in order that all those parents out there can fully participate in their careers. In addition, providing quality child care is most beneficial, as I said earlier, for the future development of the kids of those parents. It provides a very, very solid foundation.
That $16 billion over four years is quite a significant commitment. To underline how significant it is, it is twice the amount provided over the four years of the last Howard government. We have doubled that commitment. Through this bill we are continuing to make practical and welcome steps to support both childcare services and Australian families. There can be no doubt as to what we give priority to in this government, and that is to working families. I therefore commend this bill to the House.
I am pleased to speak in support of the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care) Bill 2010. The Rudd government is committed to building a high-quality, affordable and accessible early childhood education and childcare system. I must go on the record and declare a bit of an interest here in that my one-year-old son is going to child care next month but, leaving aside this potential conflict of interest, I am very proud that over the next four years our government will invest more than $16 billion to support families and childcare services.
Our support measures include: our election commitment increasing the childcare rebate from 30 per cent up to 50 per cent of parents’ out-of-pocket costs; increasing the cap on out-of-pocket expenses to $7,778; a national quality framework for early childhood education and care; as well as initiatives to increase the supply, and upgrade the skills and qualifications of, the early years workforce.
I get around to a lot of centres in my electorate and we all know how very important it is that we have high-quality staff in these places, whether it be at St Brendan’s at Moorooka, at Griffith University childcare centre, at Tarragindi childcare centre or at any of the ABC or C&K centres or the like. It is important that we get this balance right.
Some of the toughest decisions we have to make as parents are about negotiating child care, work and the work/life balance. Certainly, in my 44 years I did not worry about—
Politics has been tough on me! In my 44 years I did not worry about this for the first 40 years. But in the last four years, with a four-year-old son, it was amazing just having to perform that balancing act. For a start we had to work out where we could get into. My partner and I quickly realised that we did not have any choice because the waiting lists were too long. I have an inner city electorate and it was basically impossible to get in anywhere. I have also heard from constituents and friends of a similar age who have delayed having children how difficult it can be to find a place. I am sure my partner, who is hopefully not listening to this because it is a crazy hour right now in Queensland for child care, would say how difficult that mix is—the frantic search and the heartache in trying to find a place that is right.
The Rudd government is proud to be partnering with parents by going halves on childcare costs to ensure parents can return to work in confidence that their children are receiving quality child care in terms of health, learning and social development. Any parent who has a child in care knows that moment of ‘gate guilt’—when you leave the childcare centre and you are at the gate—and would agree that we have to minimise that sense of guilt as much as possible by ensuring that the standards are high. Every time I walk away I wonder what is going on in the childcare centre. Is it tooth and claw or is it organised play? I am sure it is always organised play but every parent has that fear when they walk out the door.
This bill amends a number of acts to improve the administration of childcare services. The amendments relate to the new Child Care Management System and compliance with childcare services obligations. Firstly, the bill introduces business continuity payments to ensure that childcare services who, for reasons beyond their control such as floods, fires or personnel shortages, cannot submit their regular online report continue to receive payments. Under the Child Care Management System, services must submit an online report to receive CCB payments on behalf of families.
However, sometimes circumstances beyond the centre’s control—and it does not even have to be as extreme as a flood or a bushfire; it could be something as simple as a disruption to internet services—could prevent a childcare service from meeting their reporting obligations. The business continuity payment is a sensible amendment to ensure childcare services maintain cash flow during these times. As any business person knows, especially one in small business, cash flow is very important to making sure that a centre is viable.
Secondly, this bill introduces amendments to allow for the recovery of old advances to approved childcare services. In the transition to the new Child Care Management System no provision was made to recover overadvances from the service’s last quarterly payments. Under the old system, services used to be paid CCB fee reductions quarterly, instead of weekly or fortnightly as under the new system. This amendment effectively closes a loophole to allow the government to recover overadvance amounts as originally intended. This bill also ensures that childcare services that received less than their correct entitlement from their last quarterly payment under the old system can receive what they are owed by the Commonwealth.
I will now turn to the amendments in this bill concerning compliance with childcare services obligations. It can cause families a lot of stress and heartache when a childcare provider closes its doors. That is the case everywhere but it is especially the case in rural and regional areas where people might not be able to access alternatives. Changing routines and trying to find a suitable new childcare place is not easy for parents or for children, who obviously become attached to their carers. If my experience was anything to go by, it can also be hard to find a spot in many parts of Australia.
Last year, the Garden City C&K—which is not actually in my electorate but is only about a hundred metres from the border of my electorate—was forced to close after a dramatic rise in their commercial rents. Despite the efforts of dozens of families, as well as me and other people, they were forced to close at reasonably short notice. It caused a lot of heartache and angst in the community.
Operators are currently required to provide at least 30 days notice of their intention to cease operating a service. The bill before the House requires operators to provide at least 42 days notice that they are ceasing to operate. This will provide more time for families to make alternative arrangements.
This bill also amends the mandatory suspension provision. Under the current law, a service is suspended when it receives 10 infringement notices in 12 months. However, this bill will give the secretary of the department discretionary power to weigh up the nature of the infringement and the impact on families before suspending a service—remembering that some of these infringements can be particularly administrative, and if it is away from an urban area it would not be good policy to automatically close a centre. So we are bringing in that discretionary nature.
Finally, this bill will help overcome an unintended administrative burden on childcare services which currently requires services to provide child care benefit entitlements and fee statements to families every four weeks. Instead, under this bill, childcare services will be required to provide regular statements at least every quarter.
This bill delivers practical measures to further improve our vital childcare sector. I thank the Minister for Early Childhood Education, Childcare and Youth and the parliamentary secretary for introducing this bill and for their ongoing commitment to delivering practical changes to support Australian families. The families, children and childcare workers of Moreton are strongly appreciative of their endeavours. I commend the bill to the House.
I thank the members for Murray, Blair, Werriwa and Moreton for their contributions to this debate. The Rudd government is committed to improving the quality of childcare services. The Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care) Bill 2010 introduces business continuity payments to ensure the sustainability of childcare services. These payments will provide a vital cash flow to help maintain services to families when a childcare service cannot meet its usual reporting obligations in times of local emergency. The bill tightens provisions to protect families from the disruption caused by services closing. Services that decide to cease operating will be required to provide at least 42 days notice that they are ceasing to operate rather than the current requirement of at least 30 days. This will give families more time to make alternative arrangements.
The legislation confirms the legislative authority to recover overadvances of child care benefit that were made to some services before they transitioned from a ‘payment in advance’ system to the current ‘payment in arrears’ system. We are making it clear that there is an appropriation power to provide for any payments to services resulting from a service’s final acquittal when transitioning to the Child Care Management System. We are taking steps to streamline the way in which services are required to provide families with information on fees and child care benefit entitlement. Childcare services have welcomed this proposal.
We are also providing for the decision to suspend a service’s child care benefit approval to be discretionary in circumstances where a service has been issued with 10 infringement notices in a 12-month period. We can then consider the impact on families of this action and whether other more appropriate measures can be taken to improve the service’s compliance. The Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care) Bill 2010 will make a practical difference to strengthen the administration of child care and provide a strong foundation for high-quality childcare services for Australian families. I commend the bill to the House.
Question agreed to.