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Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Rebate) Bill 2011

Senator HANSON-YOUNG (South Australia)

(6.16 pm)—I rise today to speak in favour of the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Rebate) Bill 2011. To finally see some legislation in this place to deal with this issue is a welcome move. Of course, back in June last year, before we took a break before the last election, the Senate actually amended a piece of legislation to do exactly this—to bring forward the payments for families. So the Senate has indeed already agreed that this is a good idea. Unfortunately, because of antics in the House, we were never able to deal with that piece of legislation and get it moving for families sooner. After the Greens’ amendment went through this place and got stuck in the

House, we went to an election. During that election campaign the government—the Prime Minister herself— announced that this would be a new government policy: to bring forward childcare rebate payments from quarterly to fortnightly. That was exactly what the Greens had already amended the legislation to do, but we have had to wait until March the following year to see the government fulfil that promise to families.

But it is a welcome step. Finally we are starting to see some common sense coming out of this. Look at the cost of child care to families across the country. We know that families are paying anywhere from $80 to $150, $200 or $300 a week in childcare costs, depending on the centre, the number of children and the number of days. That means that some families are waiting for three months to get their $1,800 back through their childcare rebate. That is a lot of money and a big chunk of the family budget to be waiting on every quarter as opposed to every fortnight, even though we know that most people pay their childcare fees monthly if not fortnightly.

So it is going to make a big difference. It will put money back into the pockets of families, giving them the ability to manage their budgets better and the flexibility they need, as well as ensuring that they can give their child the care they choose on the basis that they can afford it. So this is all a very good thing. It is unfortunate that this place agreed to do this in June last year, yet it has taken until March the following year for the government to agree. But there you go; that is the way this place works. Sometimes, even though the parliament decides that something is a good thing, it still takes the executive a little while to catch up.

We really want to see the Senate agree and support this piece of legislation again, because it is really important.

Many of us, including several people in this chamber—Senator McLucas and Senator Bilyk—have spent a lot of time working on these issues in the past.

Most would agree that the way we currently structure and pay for childcare services and early childhood education in this country would, if you were going to start from scratch, be done differently. You would start to fund the services and the quality frameworks and ensure that we have the best quality care. That is the link you would make. We are not there, but we can try to make some things easier for families in the mean, time. Bringing forward those rebate payments from quarterly to fortnightly is definitely going to help.

I want to put forward here in the chamber a warning that we need to make sure we do not go backwards on this and that we see this as an opportunity to keep making things better and reforming the system. The last thing we want to see is any measure in the upcoming May budget that would make it more difficult for families to afford the costs of early childhood education and care. Let us not make it more difficult. Let us use this as an opportunity to say, ‘Yes, we agree that children in this country—the youngest citizens—deserve the best start.’ That means ensuring that families can afford to give them the care that they deserve and that they need to manage their daily lives. We all know the stories of working families juggling all those different commitments.

Let us not make it harder; let us make it easier.

This is a good first step towards doing that. Let us make sure that when the May budget comes around, this area of the childcare rebate—early childhood education and care—is not seen as a pot to dip into for further budget saving measures. I do not think that would be a good look for anyone.

Let us accept that this was a good idea. The Greens amended the legislation in the first place and the Senate agreed. Finally we have got the government to take it on board. Fantastic. Let us tick it off and move on.

Let us start to get the money that families deserve back into their pockets. But let us also have an eye to how we can continue to make things better, easier and of course carry out delivering on those quality framework issues. I believe that we have to ensure that we are investing as much as possible in the care that we give our children in those really crucial years from zero to five.

That means that we do need good quality standards.

We do need good child-to-carer ratios. There must be quality standards in centres that must be adhered to across the country so that our kids are given the best quality care and the best start to life.

That kind of reform needs to be funded and it should not just end up being whacked on at the end of the bill for families to cover. If we believe as a country that the best way to give a child the best opportunities we have to start it in those early childhood years. That means not trying to find ways of saving money in that pot. It means that we have to put a bit more money in to ensure that early childhood education and care is the best it can possibly be and that Australia values it and sees it as an investment. The effort that we put in at this end pays off at the other end. We know it does. Students who graduate from high school and go on to TAFE or university are going to be much better equipped and resourced, and they will be able to do anything if they are given a good start in the beginning. That means investing in the early years and not waiting till the end and hoping that you can catch up there. It needs to be done right at the beginning.

I commend the bill to the chamber. It is a good initiative.

Let us get on and start making this area of early childhood care and education something that we do not just talk about but invest in. That means we are going to have to put a bit more dosh in the pot to ensure that we can fund the system properly.

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