I rise today to make some remarks on the Family Assistance and Other Legislation Amendment (Child Care and Other Measures) Bill 2011. There is no doubt that child care is one of the most important issues for families right across the country, particularly in regional areas such as the one where I live. Too often we see families in regional areas facing difficulties when it comes to getting childcare places for their children, compared to families in city areas. As a mother I have certainly availed myself of childcare services—admittedly a long time ago now as I have two boys who are 18 and 16—and I recognise that it is vitally important that those childcare services are available and operating appropriately and affordably right across the country, particularly, from my perspective, in regional areas.
The primary purpose of the Family Assistance and Other Legislation Amendment (Child Care and Other Measures) Bill 2011 is to provide for the implementation of a new national regulatory system for early childhood education and care prescribed under the new education and care services national law. The bill seeks to amend a couple of acts: the A New Tax System (Family Assistance) Act 1999 and A New Tax System (Family Assistance) (Administration) Act 1999. There are other acts, as I understand it, as well. This bill will allow for greater scope for the recovery of debts from approved childcare operators and clarify when a childcare service has stopped providing care for a child and, thus, when a childcare service or a carer is no longer eligible for childcare benefit. It will allow for instruments made under family assistance law to be part of family assistance law and thus be subject to the internal and external review mechanisms provided for in the FAA Act.
The bill will allow the minister to make guidelines for the release of protected information collected by Centrelink relating to education and care services for the purposes of the new education and care services national law. The coalition has some concerns around the privacy issues contained within that amendment. The understanding is that they will work appropriately but I think it was important that those concerns were raised to ensure that the proper privacy measures were in place so that parents and families could be reassured that it is appropriately delivered.
The bill will also provide greater scope to the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations to refuse approval of childcare services. That is particularly important to ensure that, when a childcare provider is looking to end their service, payments are made to the provider right up until the very last point in time. My understanding is that this bill will address that and allow the department to deal with that early.
In addition, the bill will allow for information which has been collected by Centrelink in relation to the childcare benefit to be shared with state and territory bodies. The privacy issue comes up again there. We need to be entirely sure that that will work appropriately. I understand that the intent is for the shared information to be streamlined. That is a worthy intent as long as those reassurances are given to people out in the community.
In essence, this is fairly complicated language for what is quite a simple intention. The intention of the bill is to improve the effectiveness of the recovery of fee reductions, enrolment advances and business continuity payments paid to improved childcare services. The intent of this bill is supported by the coalition, particularly, when we look at the cost to government. The bill is trying to ensure that payment recovery can be done in a timely manner. It is quite right that the bill intends to address that, given that the cost to government of having payments sitting there for an extended period of time has been significant.
I note that DEEWR officials in the 2010 budget estimates indicated that the debt owing to the Commonwealth was around $70 million, with about 6,000 childcare providers owing a debt to the government.
Those being taxpayers' dollars, I am sure the Australian people would be supportive of a far more timely and efficacious process. I am sure that people would be quite concerned to hear that $70 million is, in essence, being held up in the system because the system is not working as best it could. They would be quite concerned to know that a figure of that amount was being caught up in the bureaucratic process. It is something that needs to be addressed, and is addressed by the government in this bill.
There has been a lot of discussion in this place around a number of childcare measures that the government has introduced lately, but one thing of note has been the government's move to cut the childcare rebate and remove the indexation. While that is not related to this particular bill, there are a number of bills, there is a range of legislation, at the moment in this place within the childcare basket, so it is important that we take child care holistically and do not just pull off piece after piece as we go through bill after bill. When the government moved to remove the indexation and cut the childcare rebate, many families that I talked to were very concerned about the government looking to cut that rebate. Indeed, it seems counterintuitive and quite extraordinary, if they are trying to encourage and assist families in affording child care—particularly when so many families are faced with the rising cost of living at this point in time—for the government to move to cut the childcare rebate.
I note that Senator Bilyk before me touched on a range of areas throughout the childcare system, and it was quite right that she did so. But families in the community, particularly regional communities, are struggling in particular to come to terms with why the government would want to cut the childcare rebate to families. It simply does not make sense. If this Labor government wanted to give families greater access to child care, to lighten their burden, to give them assistance in placing their children into child care, you would think that cutting the rebate would be the last thing they would move to do. Unfortunately, that is what we are seeing from this government.
As I said, it simply does not make sense. Of all the things we could do, within the range of changes we are seeing in the childcare sector, to reduce the rebate, putting added pressure on families across the country—as I say, particularly in regional areas—really does not make sense. I think it is simply a matter of the government not understanding the very real financial pressure that families are under. When you compare families in regional communities—and I know that Senator Moore will understand very well what I am talking about—with many of those in cities, you see that the tyranny of distance, the difficulty of finding appropriate child care and the lack of choice in child care that we often see combine to make it that much tougher, that much more difficult, in regional communities for families trying to access childcare services.
When families across the country look at the reason that the government has moved to cut the childcare rebate, it becomes even more extraordinary to them as they realise that the reason is to put funding towards the national quality framework that Senator Bilyk was talking about earlier. The government has said that $86.3 million will be saved by the changes that it has made. Again as Senator Bilyk said, the first five years of a child's life shapes their whole life; it is a very important part of the child's upbringing and education, and shapes who they will be in the future. But the government are saying to Australian families working very hard to give their children every opportunity that they are going to take $86.3 million from them to put towards the national quality framework.
I am sure Senator Moore will stand up after me and argue how appropriate it is that we reduce the level of the rebate, how important it is that we have that funding go to the national quality framework. I am sure we will then get a good 10 minutes on how good the national quality framework is. But at the end of the day this government should not be cutting the childcare rebate to fund the national quality framework. This government should be able to manage the economy in such a way that they are able to fund that framework without hitting the mums and dads and carers across the country through this childcare rebate.
It becomes even more alarming for families across the country when we realise that the reason that the government has to raid the piggy banks of the children of parents across the country by cutting the childcare rebate is that they simply cannot manage money. Let me discuss with the chamber how obvious that became recently. For the last couple of years, the government has had a borrowing limit of $200 billion. That is right, anybody listening out there in voter land: $200 billion. In the last few weeks, legislation was put through the parliament to raise the level of borrowing to $250 billion. Can I point out that, historically, that type of request of the parliament for increased borrowings has come as a separate piece of legislation. It has gone forward separately and debate and discussion has occurred separately. That requirement from the parliament happens on its own. But this time we saw the government tuck that request of the parliament in with the other appropriations bills, which are normally passed by the parliament so the government can get on with the business of running the country. So there was no opportunity whatsoever for this parliament to deal separately with that piece of legislation that increased the borrowings of this government from $200 billion to $250 billion.
The reason I make that point is that, when families across the country realise that is the state of this nation's finances, they will be doubly annoyed this government is going to the hip pockets of mums and dads and carers across this country by cutting the childcare rebate. That is simply not on. It is no wonder that the parents, families and carers talking to me are saying: 'Why should I take a cut to the rebate for the government to pay for something else when it simply cannot manage the country's budget? It simply cannot do it.' That $250 billion borrowing limit is going to place enormous pressure on the economy. This financial year this government is going to be paying $15 million of interest a day. Families with children in those childcare places have watched this government blow billions of dollars on the pink batts scheme, on the Building the Education Revolution debacle and on the $900 cheques of a few years ago, and that very same government is now coming to them and saying, 'By the way, we're going to cut your childcare rebates.' I do not think that is acceptable. I do not think that is the way to govern. I do not think it is fair for the parents and the carers across this country, who are doing it tough.
Those parents and carers are going to do it even tougher when this government brings in a carbon tax. Heaven help us then. Even though the government has announced that fuel is not going to be subject to a carbon tax, everything else still is. The increased cost of food, electricity, transport—a whole range of products right across the sector—will be passed down to people in their homes. Every time the coalition make comments like that, the government says we are scaremongering. Rubbish! It is a fact. The Prime Minister keeps saying that she is only going to tax the big emitters when she knows full well that those costs will be passed on. The expenses in the budget for all of those families out there with children in child care are going to be worse under a carbon tax.
It will be interesting when we see the detail. The Prime Minister has said there will be no tax on fuel, but let us just watch; let us just look and see. For each service station incurring those increases in their electricity costs, you watch those getting passed on as more cents on the bowsers. What about companies like Shell which transport the fuel? They are obviously a major company. Our understanding is that they are going to have to pay the carbon tax. You watch that cost go onto the bowser of the service station at the corner. There will be a range of things that become clearer over ensuing days once we can have a proper look at this, and those increased costs will affect mums and dads and carers right across the country.
This government is trying to cut the childcare rebate but is going to give a double whammy down the track with increased costs through a carbon tax. No matter what this Prime Minister says, I simply do not see how you can believe her. This is the Prime Minister that said we were not going to have a carbon tax. Now apparently we are not going to have a tax on the carbon from some fuel. How can you believe her anymore? Her credibility has gone. Those families who have their children in child care or are looking to have their children in child care want this government to have policies in place to support them. They want this Labor government to have policies in place that have some vision for this country, that have some vision for those children in child care. The government keeps talking about their futures being bright. Their futures will not be bright if this government saddles the parents and carers of those children in those childcare places with a carbon tax. It is going to be a nightmare for them.
When he introduced the legislation the Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth said—and, interestingly, Senator Bilyk made similar comments; I am sure she has been listening well and truly to her minister:
We are doing this because we know from years of international research that the first five years of a child’s life shapes their future—their health, learning and social development—and we want to make sure that future is bright.
That does not stop at five. We want our young people's futures to be bright, whether they are one, whether they are five or whether they are 18 and trying to get to university, and if this government truly believes that it wants a bright future for young people it would have made independent youth allowance fair for regional students long before now. This government says on the one hand that it wants the future of our children to be bright and on the other hand consigns thousands of students living in inner regional areas to unfair treatment because they cannot access independent youth allowance in the same way that those students living in regional areas which are not classed as inner regional can. That is simply appalling.
The Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations, Senator Chris Evans, will say, 'We're going to make some changes; we've just had the review done.' The government will not be making any changes until next year. These thousands of regional students who are currently being treated unfairly have no choice but to continue being treated unfairly at least until next year—and who knows until when? The minister has already said that any changes have to be within the current budget context. That means no more money. It is no surprise that there is no more money because the government now has a $250 billion borrowing level and it has billions of dollars of debt. No wonder there has been no money to make things fair for those students when there should be. Those in the government should hang their heads in shame that they have let those students in the inner regional areas continue to be treated unfairly. Those students deserve just as much support as the young children in the one-to-five age bracket.
The coalition is supportive of the intent of this bill. It does make sense to streamline the process. It does make sense to make claiming back of finances easier. It certainly does represent a good step forward in ensuring that the process can be as streamlined as possible for the benefit of the government and those families and services that are the recipients.
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