darren.chester.mp@aph.gov.au 1300 131 785
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November 23, 2010

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (5.39 pm) — I rise to speak on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Budget Measures) Bill 2010. In doing so, I want to highlight my community’s concerns with the increased cost of living and this government’s failure to deliver on the promises that it made in relation to child care. I note that the previous speaker was seeking credit for achievements made by the Rudd and Gillard governments. That is all very well, but you also have to own up to some of your faults and some of your mistakes. I will dwell on those in a few moments time, particularly in relation to the pre-election promise made in 2007 to deliver 260 childcare centres in schools when only 38 have been built.

The budget measures contained in this bill will result in an additional cost to an estimated 20,700 Australian families. But over the next few years it is also anticipated that the number of families affected will increase as a result of the cost of child care rising further through the national quality agenda, which will inevitably increase the overheads for childcare centres. Some industry groups are predicting cost increases of up to $22 per day as a result of the National Quality Framework. There is no doubt that these costs will be passed on to parents. The coalition is opposed to the removal of indexation for the childcare rebate and the reduction in the cap for the current rebate.

Despite the claims to the contrary, the government has a poor record when it comes to child care. The minister tried to gloss over things in her second reading speech but the Australian public will not be fooled. This is a government that has been very long on spin and promises and very short on delivery when it comes to child care. I refer to the example of the promise to build 260 childcare centres on school grounds. Tomorrow the government reaches its three-year anniversary. You would think that over three years the government would be well on its way to building these childcare facilities. After three years, you would think that perhaps the government might even be halfway through. Not a chance.

I would like to refer to a media report that was in the Australian in April this year. At that time, the government announced that it had decided to ditch this policy. It was the Rudd government at the time—this was before the knifing of Kevin. The report read, ‘The Rudd government has quietly dumped its election pledge to end the double drop off by parents by building 260 childcare centres on school grounds.’ At the time, the childcare minister, Kate Ellis, said that it would cause disruption for parents and unsettle the childcare industry after the collapse of the childcare giant ABC Learning. She also announced that the government would finish building the 38 childcare centres that had been started. Talk about getting elected under false pretences. That was a cornerstone of the Rudd government’s election in 2007. Those 260 centres were promised. You have to wonder whether the 38 that had been started have been finished yet.

I raise this broken promise because it goes to the core issue of trust in this government. You cannot trust a government that will not deliver on its promises— and particularly one that does not deliver on promises made to families and promises that were such an important part of the then opposition’s platform at the 2007 election. The people in my community of Yarram in my electorate would not need any reminder of this fact. I have told the House in the past about the plans by the Yarram community to build a childcare service. The fact is that the service is lacking at the moment and is desperately needed so that professionals can be attracted to the community.

When the announcement was made by Minister Ellis in April this year that the government was abandoning its plans, she acknowledged that there were circumstances in which families faced challenges finding child care that met their particular requirements. She said that she would continue to keep a watching brief on the childcare market and childcare vacancies and take action if required. A week later in another press statement she said that all Australian families deserved high quality, affordable and accessible childcare services, no matter where they lived. She said that a separate funding program would help them achieve that.

We have a minister who said that all Australians deserve access to high quality child care and we have a town—Yarram in my electorate—that needs childcare services. But nothing has happened except another example of a broken promise. The broken promise that I am specifically referring to this time dates back to the 2007 federal election and the Labor candidate at the time, a lady by the name of Jane Rowe. The context of this is that the coalition candidate at the election, my predecessor, Peter McGauran, provided a guarantee of $1 million to build a childcare centre in Yarram if the coalition won the election. The bold headline of the Yarram Standard News of 31 October 2007 read, ‘Labor backs childcare centre’. Not to be outdone by the Liberal Party, Ms Rowe had announced that the Labor Party would provide in the vicinity of $1.5 million for a childcare complex. So one-upmanship was obviously heavily in play. To me and the people of Yarram that was a fair indication that, no matter what happened in the election of 2007, childcare services would be accommodated in the town. If it was a coalition government, Peter McGauran had his heart set on delivering a $1 million facility; if it was a Labor government, the Labor candidate had promised $1.5 million.

The story from the Yarram Standard News says, in part:

Ms Rowe has pledged a child care centre would be incorporated into a broader community centre, rather than built as a stand alone complex.

“If we can get together and build a multi-function centre, rather than putting in a child care centre and having two facilities to maintain, we would provide one centre that will cater for the lot,” she said.

“There is no doubt there is a need for child care all over the place but I don’t think that a one-off centre would suit Yarram. I think there needs to be a more comprehensive service that goes beyond child care,” she said.

That must have been the problem in the first term of the Rudd government—the community was after a childcare centre and Ms Rowe, as your candidate, was after much more than a childcare centre. That clearly was a problem.

That problem does not exist any more, because the Yarram community has now agreed that they would like a children’s services hub. Obviously, they would like the government to honour its promise—the $1.5 million promised by Ms Rowe on 31 October, 2007— and to deliver on it. As I referred to earlier, however, 260 childcare centres were promised in the previous term of this government but only 38, it is claimed, have been built.

I recently met with representatives from the local community along with the council and state MP Peter Ryan. There is a genuine community commitment to this project. The proposal, as it now stands, is for a
Yarram community centre, which is right along the lines of the children’s hub promised by the Labor Party in 2007. So, quite frankly, there is nothing stopping the government; there is nothing stopping the minister from doing more than keep a watching brief and actually coming down to the Yarram community. I extend an open invitation to the minister to come to the Yarram community and meet with this community group and work with us on delivering the promise that was made to this community several years ago.

The Yarram community centre, if it is built, will enable people from within Yarram district to access a range of children’s services that have not been previously made available in that community. It would be fair for those opposite to ask us what we, under my predecessor Peter McGauran, did in our term in government and that is a fair criticism. I think it is fair to say, ‘You had 12 years in that position; what did you do for the Yarram community?’ I think that is only reasonable in these circumstances. But, given that there had been a clear commitment from both sides, the people of the Yarram district had every reason to believe that, whichever party formed government in 2007, some action would be taken. Three years later, we are still waiting for action. I implore the minister to do more than just keep a watching brief and to come to Yarram and work with my community to ensure that the Yarram district community does receive the type of service that it deserves and the type of service that the minister herself has constantly referred to:

All Australian families deserve high-quality, affordable and accessible child care services …

Currently, there are no childcare services in Yarram and I urge the minister to work with this community in the weeks and months ahead.

The issues surrounding the government’s budget measures and this childcare bill before us extend beyond just one community in my electorate. I have also met with residents in Omeo who have very similar concerns about their inability to secure funding for childcare services. I also listened very closely to the contribution to the House of the member for Murray, because she has had similar experiences with some of the more rural and remote parts of her electorate. It is very difficult, under the current rules, regulations and funding models, to secure services for some of the smaller communities in regional Australia.

Omeo was one of those communities adversely affected by the local government amalgamations in December 1994—a decision made by the then Kennett government in Victoria. It is fair to say that some of the smaller communities suffered more significantly, I would say, than the big regional centres. As someone who was working close to local government at that time—I was involved with the East Gippsland Shire—I think it is a fair criticism to make that the ‘one size fits all’ approach to local government amalgamations caused some degree of disharmony and some degree of financial stress in many small regional communities.

Omeo was once a seat of local government. It lost that status under the amalgamations and lost a lot of professional staff from the community, something the community has never really recovered from. Following the withdrawal of the local government staff came the withdrawal of state government staff from the Department of Sustainability and Environment, VicRoads and other organisations. I raise this in the context that there are many issues facing a small community like Omeo. One of the biggest concerns the residents have raised with me about getting the town back on its feet is the issue of childcare. Despite the fact that the minister says:

All Australian families deserve a high-quality, affordable and accessible child care services no matter where they live—

and I stress ‘no matter where they live’, because it is a very interesting point—the funding models that are currently available do not work for all communities. We need to work with these local communities to develop individual and innovative solutions to the local problems they are faced with. As I said, I have met with community representatives in the Omeo area and I gave them an undertaking to raise their concerns in the House.

Omeo, for those who have not been there, is a small town in the High Country of Victoria. It is in a beautiful setting and it has a great history and heritage, with links to the goldfields. It is set in the foothills of the Great Dividing Range and there is easy access to the snowfields. It is a town which is determined to improve its fortunes in the future, whether through regional tourism or through being a service centre for other industries in the immediate vicinity. It is a great place to raise a family, but it is also a place where services are very hard to deliver. Even though houses are more affordable in the Omeo community, families often need two incomes or 1½ incomes and they need access to childcare.

In a moment, I will refer to some stories from my constituents about their experiences with trying to access childcare in Omeo. Professional people have left the town and school enrolments have suffered, so the town is continuing to dwindle. It needs an injection of government resources to ensure that people, particularly people with professional skills, can remain in the town and raise their children and be heavily involved in helping this town back to get on its feet. I make my comments tonight not with any anger or bitterness but to reflect the community’s disappointment with the direction the town is taking.

Several people have written to me to express their concerns about the lack of services in the Omeo district and I will quote a couple of them. One communication was from a local business owner who has trouble getting staff because her staff cannot access childcare services and have trouble making their shifts. She points out that:

We are one of many businesses that are affected by the school holidays and the common sudden cancellation of childcare, sometimes only minutes before our staff are going to drop their children off. The population numbers are such that we do not have a very big pool to source good, suitable staff from and we want to retain the staff we have.

It is about time the rural areas were looked after as well, if not better than the city areas. We came up to Omeo from Kilsyth and are appalled by the discrimination towards small towns in the way of suitable services to keep the small towns prosperous.

Another one is from a lady who is a paramedic, who has actually now been forced to leave Omeo because she cannot access childcare services. I will quote from her experiences:

I currently travel from Omeo to Traralgon in order to maintain employment with Ambulance Victoria. I pack up the children on a fortnightly basis and we all travel down to stay with my Mother-in-law for four days. I go to work and Nana looks after my girls. It is exhausting for us all as my Mother-in-law is an aged pensioner who has barely recovered from a battle with breast cancer.

After completing my shifts, we all pack up and travel back to Omeo …

As you can see, this is obviously not an ideal arrangement and definitely one that cannot be sustained. With community support and with an extension of child care hours and days in Omeo, my family would be able to remain in this beautiful part of rural Victoria. We love living here. We love the close community spirit and lifestyle opportunities that Omeo’s region has to offer. It is with great regret and heavy heart that we have chosen to leave and move back to the Valley where we can easily receive the child care support my family needs … I know the child care issue has been an ongoing problem for many years, and with many families before my time fighting the same battle. I wonder how long this cycle will continue until something is done to keep young families like us in this region.

As I said, it is not through anger or bitterness, it is just disappointment, that we have got young families who are prepared to move to a town like Omeo and then cannot stay once they have children.

The promises were made in 2007, specifically in relation to Yarram but more generally across Australia, to build 260 childcare centres and the program has been pulled. At the same time there are communities that are still waiting and still urging the government to work with them, to show some flexibility and abandon this one-size-fits-all approach which prevents them securing funding at the moment. Children’s services funding models often restrict the capacity to provide childcare and education services in some of our more remote communities. The Omeo and district community has been challenged by government policy and funding models for service provision for a number of years and I am not pretending that this is a new problem or that it is just this government which has failed to deliver for this community.

If we are serious about promoting opportunities to live and work in regional communities, we have to get serious about service delivery and that includes child care. There are many aspects of this bill before the House that are completely irrelevant to people in my electorate because they cannot access childcare services and access any rebate in the first place. We need to improve the delivery of services to children in regional areas to give them every opportunity to achieve their full potential in later years. One of those areas is child care. I urge the minister to consider the impact of future decisions on service delivery outside our capital cities.

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