BILLS;Family Assistance and Other Legislation Amendment (Child Care and Other Measures) Bill 2011;Second Reading – 04 Jul 2011

I rise to speak on the Family Assistance and Other Legislation Amendment (Child Care and Other Measures) Bill 2011. Since 2008 the Australian government has introduced a range of new measures to ensure the financial viability of childcare providers, including strengthening approvals processes and requiring additional notification of closures of centres. This bill makes a number of administrative amendments to allow the government to strengthen debt recovery provisions, compliance and administration of the childcare benefit.

The legislative changes in this bill which amend the Family Assistance Administration Act and other acts of parliament will improve accountability within the childcare sector. As someone who has worked for over a decade in the childcare sector, I understand how important this is to care and learning outcomes for children. During the collapse of ABC Learning in 2008, the childcare centre in Margate—a town, close to my electorate office, where I spent much of my childhood—was facing the threat of closure. I was really impressed by the fighting spirit of that community as they vowed to do all they could to keep that service open.

The receivers of ABC Learning chose not to close the Margate childcare centre immediately but could only guarantee that it would stay open till June 2009. The childcare centre was bought by Tasmanian group Stepping Stones, which subsidises the running costs of many of its regional childcare centres through its city based services. Hundreds of other centres were saved because the Australian government provided $34 million in assistance to keep them open. The government’s decisive action meant that 90 per cent of these centres continue to operate for Australian families today and, indeed, the Margate childcare centre is still working to this day. Being 20 minutes south of Hobart, that is very important for people in the region. One of my staff members utilises that centre for her children and I know how important it is for her.

Affordable, accessible child care is vital to parents and caregivers in small towns like Margate. However, what I think this story also highlights is the importance of integrity in the childcare market because we all know the dramatic effect that early childhood education has on the future of our children. This bill will improve the accountability of the childcare market and protect the market from unscrupulous operators. For instance, it will allow the Australian government to offset and recover payments owed by one service from other services operated by the same operator. This will ensure that operators that run up debts to the Common­wealth in one service can be held accountable for their actions. If an operator exits the market after accumulating debts to the Commonwealth, they will be stopped from re-entering the market under a restructured company with similar but not identical directors.

The bill will also allow payments made to childcare services to be offset against subsequent payments. In other words, where the recalculation of a childcare benefit fee results in a reduction of the amount payable but the higher amount has already been paid, the debt owing to the Commonwealth can be recovered from future payments.

If a service notifies the department of an intention to cease operation, the secretary will have the discretion to cease making enrolment advance payments to the service. The powers of the secretary to refuse approval of a childcare service will be clarified and broadened. The secretary will be allowed to refuse any applicant that does not meet the conditions for approval. This will provide stronger powers to ensure that applicants are fit and proper people to operate childcare services and will improve the standard of the childcare industry. The bill will also ensure that the conditions for initial approval and continued approval are aligned.

The bill will clarify the provisions concerning eligibility for childcare benefit if a child is absent from a childcare service. The minister will be authorised to specify, by legislative instrument, the circumstances under which the service will be taken to have permanently ceased providing care to a child who is absent. Also, the bill will amend protected information provisions to allow the Commonwealth to share information about childcare services with state and territory regulatory authorities. The sharing of information between authorities supports the National Quality Framework agreed to by COAG.

The Australian government has invested $273.7 million in the National Quality Framework. The framework will improve educator to child ratios so that each child gets more individual time and attention. It will also introduce educator qualification requirements so educators are better able to lead activities that inspire children and help them learn and develop. Early childhood learning is vital to a child’s development and these two initiatives under the framework will ensure that children attending child care will get a quality learning experience. The National Quality Framework will also include a new ratings system so parents will know the quality of care on offer and can make informed choices. This is very important because not all forms of child care suit all parents. There need to be different types of services available so that parents can choose one that best suits them and their child’s needs.

Finally, the framework will reduce the regulatory burden. Services will only have to deal with one regulator. This is particularly important in reducing the overheads of operators, especially those operating in more than one state or territory. The information-sharing provisions will also benefit services as they will not have to provide the same information to more than one body. Reducing the regulatory burden on childcare operators will allow them the opportunity to focus more resources on care itself, and this is obviously a great outcome for our children.

I am a member of the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee and was on the committee at the time of the inquiry into the provision of child care. It was a most interesting inquiry to be involved in. We heard evidence from a large number of people, including childcare providers and parents, and visited a number of childcare services to see the effects of the collapse of the ABC Learning centres. As we know, that left many thousands of families stranded, as they were not sure whether they had care or not, so the Labor government jumped in and put that money in to make sure that child care was not compromised. I am not sure that other parties, if they had been in government, would have done it that way. I know that, having worked in the industry for over a decade and still having many contacts within the industry, it was greatly appreciated that we did it that way.

I was on the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Reference Committee in November 2009 when it handed down its report from the inquiry into the provision of child care. The committee’s recommendation 8 was for:

… the establishment of a new statutory body, widely representative of the sector, for the purposes of advising the Minister on childcare policy and its implementation, with powers to oversee a uniform regulatory regime operating across states and territories.

The national quality framework is broadly in line with that recommendation.

I am sure you would agree that quality, affordable and accessible child care is important for parents and other caregivers, but it is especially important for the children. We know from years of international research that the first five years of a child’s life shapes their future. I am sure everybody in this place has heard the old adage: give me a child until they are five and I will give you the adult for life. Their health, learning and social development are so important in those first critical years and we want to make sure that their future is bright. That is why the Australian government is committed to improving access to quality, affordable child care.

Overall, we are investing $20 billion in funding for early childhood education and child care over the next four years—almost $12.8 billion more than was provided in the last four years of the former coalition government. We are investing $16.4 billion to help hundreds of thousands of Australian families annually with the cost of child care, and that includes $9.2 billion to help reduce the cost of child care through the childcare benefit. It also includes $7.2 billion to assist working families with the cost of child care through the childcare rebate. We raised the childcare rebate to 50 per cent of parents’ out-of-pocket expenses and increased the maximum for each child in care to $7,500 per year. This compares to the previous government, where the rebate was at 30 per cent and the maximum was only $4,354. That has made a huge difference to a number of working families. A number of working families have told me that it has made a huge difference to them and that it has allowed one parent to be a bit more flexible in their work arrangements, which is obviously important.

We also promised to pay the childcare rebate quarterly and delivered on that promise. However, we do understand that families need to budget weekly or fort­nightly. That is why, from July 2011, parents are able to receive the rebate no later than fortnightly, giving them access to this important assistance when their fees are due. This is another area that has made a huge difference for families. Since 2004, out-of-pocket costs for families earning $75,000 a year have reduced from 13 per cent of their disposable income to only seven per cent. In addition to the assistance given to families to pay for the expenses of child care, the Gillard Labor government has enhanced the information available on local childcare services. The MyChild website provides a searchable database of 13,500 childcare centres. It includes information about the types of services available in local areas and the vacancy and fee information of those services. This is really important information for parents who are looking for child care. It means they do not have to run around to all the different services to find out.

We have invested $126 million through the 2008-09 budget over four years to train and retain a high-quality early education and childcare workforce. Having worked in the childcare industry for over a decade, let me say that they are a group of very dedicated people. That is my personal opinion, of course. Probably the key issues that brought me to politics were the working rights and conditions of childcare workers and the way society views childcare workers. The more we can give them quality training the more likely they will be more recognised in society for the valuable work they do. After all, parents leave their most valuable possessions with these people, no matter what type of service they work in, and they should be suitably recompensed. That is an argument for another day. It is one I have had for 25-plus years. As people in this place know, it is not something I have given up on yet.

Other government childcare initiatives have included the Home Interaction Program for Parents and Youngsters, which has been delivered in 50 disadvantaged communities, and Budget Based Funding payments that provide care to some of Australia’s most vulnerable children. Of course, as I have mentioned, there is the new national quality framework of which this bill is a key feature.

Announced in the 2011-12 budget were new requirements for teenage parents to actively participate in developing their skills from the birth of their child until their child turns six. These new measures will com­mence from 1 January 2012 and will apply to teenage parents on Parenting Payment in 10 disadvantaged communities. Supporting these measures, the government will cover close to 100 per cent of a teenage parent’s childcare costs while they are studying or training through the Jobs, Education and Training—or JET—Child Care Fee Assistance scheme. Because being a parent is tough for anyone, but especially for a young parent, and often they are single parents, we will expand the successful Communities for Children services to provide teen parents and their children with new playgroups, parenting education classes, mentoring support and early learning programs.

As I have said, the Gillard Labor government has put an enormous amount of money into child care. It is unfortunate that the previous government did not see fit to treat child care at the level that it deserves to be treated. We have had some catching up to do. There was the collapse of the ABC Learning Centres as well, which, as I men­tioned, caused quite a lot of stress for the families involved and meant that the government had to find some extra money to help keep those centres going.

Overall, I am very impressed with what we have been able to do. We are always working to improve child care and I know that the Gillard Labor government considers child care to be part of early education. I am very pleased about that because, as I said, the first few years of a child’s life, when they are quite often in a childcare service of one sort of another—some for a short period of time and some for longer periods of time—is the critical time for their development. This time shapes the future. The young children of today are the future for all of us. The best care that we can give them and the better and more affordable the child care we give them the better it will be for the nation as a whole.

This government has shown that it is very serious about child care and the broad range of issues around child care. We are making record investments in childcare assistance—quality, training and workforce retention. This bill before the Senate will improve accountability within the childcare industry as well.

As I said, I still have a lot of contact with people within the childcare industry—predominantly in Tasmania, but certainly in other states as well. I have spoken to a number of them about this bill and they all see it positively; I have not had anyone from the childcare industry tell me anything negative about it. So I urge all senators to support it and to help make the future better for Australia by making sure that we get things right within the childcare industry.