Senator HANSON-YOUNG (South Australia)
(4.32 pm)—I rise today to speak to the government’s $42 million stimulus package that, as the government puts it, aims to provide long-term infrastructure building for Australia. While the Greens have stated on the record our support for the intent of this package, we do raise genuine and serious concerns about a number of the areas that have failed to be adequately addressed within this package of the Appropriation (Nation Building and Jobs) Bill (No. 1) 2008-2009 and related bills.
My colleagues have outlined a number of these concerns on behalf of the Australian Greens. Today I would like to take this opportunity to raise the issue of the lack of support for parents with younger children through child care and parental leave and the problems associated with the proposed training and learning bonuses for university students. I would also like to point to the glaring omission of any funds to support struggling communities who rely on a healthy Murray-Darling Basin and, in my own home state of South Australia, the forgotten people of the Lower Lakes.
Firstly, I would like to address the lack of attention given to rebuilding the childcare sector within this stimulus package. While we welcome the injection of $14.7 billion into education infrastructure over three years for Australian schools, my question to the government is: where is the investment into child care? Where is the investment in early childhood education? Does the education revolution only start from four years old, when we know that the most crucial years of learning are from birth to five?
The collapse of the profit driven company ABC Learning should serve as a timely reminder to policymakers here in Canberra that the time has come to rethink and reinvest in child care and to recognise that child care as a whole must be considered as an essential part of any early childhood education plan. While we all recognise the global economic environment is in turmoil, the scope of the funds injected into educational infrastructure should include the development of new childcare centres across the country, which will help cut the waiting lists that families are faced with on a daily basis, and provide the opportunity to apply for one-off funding for essential maintenance and infrastructure issues. Childcare centres around the country, particularly those run by non-profit organisations and the community sector, are struggling with buildings that desperately need maintenance and support.
Creating new childcare centres—260, to be precise— is not a foreign concept. Back in July 2007, as
part of its election platform, Labor promised to provide capital funding to build 260 brand new childcare facilities, stating that it was determined to cut the waiting list for childcare places by creating 260 new childcare centres and creating preschool places for all four-yearolds.
Where has this commitment gone? Surely at a time when the government is trying to stimulate the economy through providing cash bonuses, infrastructure funding and committing to their education revolution, staying true to their election promise of creating more than 200 new childcare centres and fast-tracking their construction and generating more jobs would have been included in this package.
Blaming the delay on the collapse of the ABC Learning monopoly is simply not good enough. Yes, the government has injected more than $50 million into 241 ABC Learning centres that have been deemed unviable, but the government has admitted that some of the centres will close their doors once the prop-up expires on 31 March. That is not to mention the numerous centres that have already closed over the last three months around the country. Waiting lists for children aged birth to two are growing and growing by the day.
So, with centres closing across the country, we are faced with the prospect of even bigger waiting lists. It is a prime opportunity for the government to recognise child care as an essential service, particularly when they are investing more than $14 billion into their Building the Education Revolution package.
While I acknowledge that 38 of the government’s promised 260 early learning and care centres were budgeted for in the last budget, the fact that we are still awaiting actual construction of the sites is concerning. This stimulus package was the perfect opportunity for government to lend a helping hand to a sector in need and provide capital works projects that could have highlighted its commitment to the reform of child care and to investment in a quality and well-resourced early childhood education sector. Unfortunately, it seems, the education revolution is for four-year-olds and above.
The next issue I would like to address relates to the training and learning bonus for youth allowance, Austudy and Abstudy recipients. Under this stimulus package the federal government has proposed that students eligible for youth allowance, Austudy and Abstudy who were enrolled by 3 February 2009 would be eligible to receive the $950 payment, despite the fact that 3 February is earlier than many students enrol or reenrol.
During Friday’s hearing of the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration, I asked the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations exactly how many students would be eligible for this training and learning bonus given the early date of 3 February. While I am still awaiting the official figures, it seems to me that the 3 February date was simply picked without much attention given to the impact on and timing of enrolments for university students across the country. Many universities have not yet even finalised their second-round offers, let alone enrolled the new students, which highlights how unrealistic and arbitrary this deadline actually is, particularly as it excludes many full-time students who would be able to put this money to good use. The Greens are therefore calling on the government to reassess this arbitrary 3 February cut-off date and extend it to the more realistic university census cut-off date of 31 March.
The current youth allowance fortnightly payment for single individuals living out of home is a measly $371, well below the Henderson poverty line calculation of $616. One can see that the $950 payment would have proven useful for students establishing themselves for the new academic year—for example, to help purchase textbooks or set up new living arrangements for the many new students moving out of home. If the government is serious about supporting students in this economic crisis, actually ensuring they have access to and qualify for the $950 training and education bonus is essential. It is not good enough to say it is there if students are not eligible for it.
I would like to briefly touch on the issue of paid parental leave. Despite offering one-off payments to some, working mums and dads have again lost out, with no sign of paid parental leave on the agenda to ensure parents have the opportunity to stay at home with their young children. An economic stimulus package that gives mums and dads some financial security and a helping hand with a new baby just makes sense.
Now more than ever is a time to be supporting working parents with a government funded paid parental leave scheme. Australia is one of only two countries in the OECD without such a scheme. This is an opportune time to give parents a fair go. While I understand that the Productivity Commission is due to hand down its final report and recommendations to the government at the end of the month, I hope for the sake of working mums and dads across the country that a paid parental leave scheme will not be forgotten in this year’s budget. We must see a genuine commitment from the government to include a paid parental leave scheme before the end of the financial year.
Finally, I would like to turn to my home state of South Australia, where years and years of mismanagement of the Murray-Darling Basin are taking their toll on our local communities and economies. The communities living along the Murray-Darling Basin, in particular along the lower Murray and on the Lower Lakes in South Australia, desperately need a helping hand from government. It is disappointing that the government has not taken the opportunity throughout this stimulus package to help rural Australians, in particular those who are relying on the dying Murray. The need for fresh water in the lower Murray and the Lower Lakes in South Australia is just as urgent as our response to the financial crisis.
We need to secure freshwater flows to restore the river and lakes to health and ensure that the communities that rely on them are sustainable. I call on the government to urgently rethink its commitment to the Lower Lakes, the Coorong and the lower Murray in South Australia. I urge the Prime Minister to have a word to the South Australian Premier, Mike Rann, to ensure that some of the $200 million provided by the federal government to the state government is immediately spent on securing freshwater flows.
Hundreds of people on the lower stretches of the Murray are out of work because the health of the river is diminishing in front of them. Some of this money could have been put towards employing local people in the area, particularly in the Lower Lakes region, to help them carry out bioremediation. We need to engage the local people in finding a solution and help them in this time of need.
While the Greens have indicated that we are willing to work constructively with the government to enhance the current $42 billion package, ensuring that this suite of legislation is properly scrutinised is an essential part of upholding the historical role of the Senate as the house of review. It is important that we have taken the last few days to look at this legislation to pick up the hiccups, the errors and the typos that the government have left in this package in their haste to throw it together.
Now more than ever, as we face economic hardship, we need the government to show leadership. I hope that the concerns that we have raised as the Australian Greens, and the concerns I have raised in relation to the lack of childcare funding, restricted supports for students, the failure to provide any solid commitment to a paid parental leave scheme and the forgotten people of the Lower Lakes, will be examined by the government before we consider how we will vote on this $42 billion package.