Senator SIEWERT (Western Australia) (9.43 pm)—I rise to speak on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Budget Measures) Bill 2010 and the government’s decision on budget night to freeze the indexation of the childcare rebate for four years at the 2008-09 level of $7,500, affecting tens of thousands of Australian families. Following the collapse of the corporate giant ABC learning, we were faced with the opportunity to dramatically reform the way in which child care is delivered in Australia to ensure that no profit-driven company will ever have the opportunity again to control 25 per cent of the market share in Australia.
Early childhood education and care must be seen as part of the lifelong learning that starts at birth. As parents, we want to give our kids the best quality of care so that we can go out to work and pay our mortgages. It should not be viewed or treated as a profit-driven industry open to manipulation by corporations and the stock market. Rather, it should be seen and supported as the essential service it is.
The three core principles of quality, affordability and accessibility must underpin the basis of early childhood education and care in this country, where the education of Australia’s youngest children is at the forefront of any reform. So when the government committed to the implementation of the National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Care, which the Greens support, we needed to see a dramatic increase in the funding injected into what is an essential service. We know that increasing the standard of care and reducing the child-to-staff ratio is going to cost money. Of course we want fully qualified childcare workers looking after our children and we want this to occur in an environment that promotes and encourages the development of our youngest Australians. At the moment, we, both parents and the government, spend a considerable amount on child care around the country, yet there is no link to the quality of care. You may pay $100 for long day care for your child, you may pay $80 or you may pay $50—that is before the childcare tax rebate—but there is no link between the money that is going to the carer and the quality of the care that you are getting, because the quality standards and the benchmarking are different across different states. There is no real link between the money that goes in and the type of service you get. I think it is something the government seriously needs to consider. The Greens want to see nationally consistent early childhood education and care standards that are actually linked to the quality care cost drivers of highly qualified staff, low carer-to-child ratios of at least one to three for children up to two years old and one to four for children older than two years and smaller groups. The current funding mechanisms do not facilitate a link between quality standards and the funding received.
While the government has outlined some positive steps in achieving a nationally consistent quality framework, we know that this is going to cost money and we do not want to see parents around the country footing the bill for the government’s reform agenda. Of course we want to see greater investment in early childhood education in this country; it is an area of government policy that has been undervalued for far too long. My son is about to turn 21 and I remember saying the same things when he was in child care all those years ago. Things do not seem to have changed very much. We do not believe that the best way to achieve this outcome is through rolling back the support that is provided and by requiring parents who are already struggling to pay more. While the government supports parents through the childcare rebate and benefit, it has little to do with the planning and oversight of responsibilities for child care.
The current funding mechanisms do not facilitate a link between quality standards and the funding received. The government should be taking charge and delivering the necessary policy outcomes for good quality, accessible and affordable child care that puts the care of children and the needs of parents and workers above lining the pockets of shareholders. Evidence suggests that the daily fees of long day care have increased with the introduction and expansion of the rebate. This has not proved to be a cost-effective model for parents, nor has it improved the quality of care. A change from the current funding mechanism to one that could fund the service directly would give the federal government more bang for its buck. As we commit funding to schools and universities in this way, child care deserves the same level of attention and commitment, given the role it plays in the education of our youngest children.
Following the collapse of the corporate giant ABC Learning at the end of 2008, the Greens successfully established a Senate committee inquiry into the provision of child care in Australia. This inquiry presented us with an opportunity to have a good look at how child care is delivered in this country, particularly as we have seen it transformed from a service that some people use to a service that almost all working parents use in some form these days. In the course of the inquiry, the committee heard evidence from various organisations calling for the matter of childcare funding to be referred to the Productivity Commission to determine the most effective way of funding the essential service of early childhood education and care. The National Foundation of Australian Women reinforced this view. It argued:
... there is a paucity of information around to really calculate what some of the other alternatives should be, and this is one of the reasons why we are very strongly supporting the proposition that a reference to the Productivity Commission to do a great deal of the economic number crunching could be a very useful input to the debate about what future policy should be.
It is clear that referring the matter of early childhood education funding to the Productivity Commission would help us determine the most effective way of funding this essential service. Quality benchmarks and affordability for parents must be linked to the government funding received. In order to implement these quality benchmarks and affordability, there needs to be a significant increase in and long-term investment of funding into early childhood education and care. So when the government announced on budget night their intention to freeze indexation of the childcare rebate for four years at the 2008-09 level of $75,500 you can imagine our concern of the undeniable effect this would have on tens of thousands of Australian families.