Cathy says government response to childcare concerns disappointing
Posted March 24, 2017
Ms McGOWAN (Indi) (10:57): I am so disappointed to be here today, because we have missed an opportunity to provide services that meet the needs for rural and regional Australia. I have to say that the politicking with this policy, connecting core funding responsibilities of child care to welfare cuts, splitting the bills in the Senate, and then the reintroduction, is even more disappointing. To me it is a clear sign that someone in the system, someone in the government, is missing the point.
While I commit to continue to work with the government and with departmental staff and service providers, people like Ann Bowler and Rod Wangman, they will continue to do the services in our community and we will make the best of this. But what it clearly shows is that there is no overarching policy for rural and regional Australia about how we should be treated. As a result, we are working backwards and playing catch-up. We are trying to fit policy to the needs of particular communities and we are failing.
In addressing the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Jobs for Families Child Care Package) Bill 2016 today, I specifically would like to call Senator Birmingham into the House. Today, Senator Birmingham had a letter published in my local paper, the Wangaratta Chronicle. I will use some of his comments to refute his arguments. Senator Birmingham, I am looking forward to you watching and reading this speech and telling me where I have it wrong, because I am not politically grandstanding. I am not here for any other purpose than to represent my community. I am here because you came to our community. Together with me, you listened to everything my community had to tell you. We have met with your staff, we have met with the Labor Party, we have met with government, we have met with all the crossbenchers. We have put hundreds of hours into this particular topic. We have given it everything we have, because what we wanted to say to you is: there are problems, and we could work together to fix them up. We had great trust, in the beginning, that you would listen to what we had to say. When you came to Wodonga and spoke to the TV cameras and said, 'Trust us; It will work out,' we really wanted to believe you.
But, sadly, we are back in the parliament today with the original bit of legislation we started with. So there was an opportunity to try the whole process again, to re-move our amendments, to go through all the work that we did a couple of weeks ago with the omnibus legislation, but we are not going to do that. We are going to call it a loss—a really sad loss. And, in calling it a loss, we will be gracious and we will work together to make it work better. I give you and all the government members here my commitment that we will do everything we possibly can as Independents never to be in this situation again. We will focus 100 per cent of our time on getting a really decent policy on rural and regional Australia—a policy that commits to deliver comprehensive services that meet our needs. We have learned our lesson on this single issue, and we will not be going there again.
Let me address your specific points, Minister. You said:
The Turnbull government's early childhood education and care reforms have been comprehensively designed with regional Australia in mind.
That is good to know. When we put up amendments to this House, so that we could test the logic of that, they were knocked down by your government 70 to 72. Your government was not prepared to back this up by getting the statistics that would show us that the reforms had worked. So I ask you to reconsider those amendments in the Senate. Come back to the House in six or 12 months time and show us that the reforms have worked. Frankly, I do not believe they will have. Minister, you also said:
Families in cities, in regional centres and in the bush know that our early childhood education and care system is not working for them.
We all agree with that. We would like a system that did work for us, and we agree with your statistics: the system of mobile child care, as it has been funded—or budget based funding services—absolutely needs reform. But the sad thing is, we do not think you are reforming it in a way that is going to work. You say in your letter:
Many of the services in regional and rural areas are part of a scheme set up 40 years ago that limits the amount of funding they can get from the government and stops them from growing to support families.
Interestingly, Minister, my community tells me that exactly the same problems are built into this legislation. It is a grant based process, limited to a maximum of five years. It does not allow for new services to be instigated into the long term. We believe that many of the problems in the initial program are running out again, so I would be very keen to have you and your department's staff tell me how this system is avoiding those problems, because everybody in my community tells me it is not. You talk about the plans the government has. You say:
Rather than reduce their support we plan to increase it and provide more opportunity for services to respond to changes in their community.
We are supporting services onto a new model of funding that targets increased support towards those families working the most and earning the least, while our ‘Child Care Safety Net’ worth $1 billion will help services that might not otherwise be viable—like some mobile education and care services in regional and remote communities.
That is great, but the thing is it is not going to be policy driven or needs based—we are going to have to apply for grants. Minister, you have told me there will be a designated amount of money out of that $1 billion that we can apply for, but it still will be short term. It will not be enabling us to build the workforce and the capacity that we need in our rural communities. I need to say here that what makes rural communities special is that we do not have childcare centres. Because we do not have childcare centres, most of the service, which is designed for centre-based care, is not relevant to us. So the subsidies do not apply, and if we cannot get the grant we do not have a service, or, if we have not got the people in the community to apply for a grant, we do not have the service. Minister, you said in the letter to the Chronicle:
Firstly, the services will have access to the child care subsidy—
that is no good if we do not have child care—
which will allow growth in funding per child for the first time.
Sure it would, if you have a childcare centre. But if you live in the towns that I live in, we do not have childcare centres, so the subsidy is irrelevant for us. For you to print that in the paper, as if it works, is so wrong. Thirdly, you say they will 'access the $110 million Community Child Care Fund'. I beg your pardon; that is the fund and the grants—I just made a mistake around the childcare safety net. But that is the fund, and that is so limited and will go nowhere near to meeting the demand we are going to have to provide child care for the particular groups that I care about, which are farming families and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families.
It is not just me who says this is not going to work; Fiona Stanley, who was Australian of the Year, got on the phone. She was really, really upset about the changes that you are going to make. She is not convinced that you have got it right. I am not convinced you have got it right. My community is not convinced you have got it right. You keep telling us that you have got it right, but you have not come forward and said how our rural and farming families will be able to create new services that will last for the next 20, 50 or 100 years, which is what our sister cities will be able to have access to. They will have services that work. There are clearly things about this package that are good; they are really good if you are town based and you have access to a service. They are no good if you live in the country and you do not have access to a service. And no-one is saying the changes to the funding will work. Minister, you also say:
We will also remove red tape that currently stops child care services from only operating on certain days or for limited hours, which should also help regional Australia …
For sure, if you have a service. But if you do not have a service, what do you do? You apply for a grant, if you can get it, for one or two or three years. Minister, you are not instigating a mainstream service into our communities. You continue:
Overall, official analysis shows our reforms are set to benefit around one million families across the country.
We have no argument about that. What we are asking is this: how are you going to make sure that, in the long term, our farming and Aboriginal families have access to the services?
Your letter goes on. You say that the amendments recently suggested are already addressed through the package and are unfortunately more about political grandstanding than supporting Australian families. We could not see it there in the package. We cannot see how the things that we have asked for are addressed. You talk about the guidelines. The guidelines are not in existence yet. The guidelines will have to be drawn up after this legislation is passed. Of course we are happy to have input into the guidelines and we will try to make them work; but guidelines are not legislation. They do not force whichever government is here in parliament to do what it needs to be doing. It is a matter of 'Trust us—we will look after you.' Well, we did not want to do that. We actually wanted to make sure that the changes that you have promised deliver what your government said they would do and that you must report back to parliament on how they are going.
It is true, Minister, that you say you have provided me with the information; but none of it has satisfied me. It is true that you say you will continue to engage and speak with me and hope that we will appreciate how your changes will make child care more affordable, accessible and flexible for Australian families. Sadly, I am not convinced. I am not convinced because the people in my community are not convinced. I am not convinced because people come to my door and say, 'Cathy, this is not going to work. Can you go to parliament and represent us?' I am not convinced because the experts in my community have asked me, as their representative, to come forward and make their case.
We have lost. This legislation will go through the House today. It will go through the Senate. I am sure that there will be some really good outcomes from it. We will continue to work.
I would now like to move in my closing comments to how we could have done this better and how we could have made this work. The little bit of my conversation that I am really wanting to talk about is the opportunity that the minister and the government have to work with the regional ministerial task force. If I could bring in my final comments here, to finish on what I hope is an optimistic note, I am really pleased to see that there are five Liberal members and three Nationals on this task force. There are some very key people, including the minister for this particular legislation. So that is a positive step. I am really hoping that you can work, as a ministerial task force, to look at child care, transport, telecommunications and education; to look at our young people and how we operate in rural and regional Australia; and bring it into a whole so that we do not have to come here to the parliament every single time and fight the same battles, saying, 'Child care is not working for us; public transport is not working for us; the NBN is not working for us; changes to higher education were not working for us.' It is so time consuming and it lacks vision.
What we are hoping is that the regional ministers task force will take this lesson to heart. It is a great opportunity to deliver a coherent regional policy that ensures that all regional Australians have access to really good government services. Hopefully the task force will focus on the budget that is coming up. Hopefully the budget will deliver our long-requested budget impact statements as part of that private member's bill that I moved to amend the Charter of Budget Honesty Act, calling on the government, if it makes changes that impact on rural and regional Australia, to come and tell us first what the effects will be. Do the money, do the economics; do not do that last. Let us understand how the budget is actually a budget that includes rural and regional Australia in its planning and design. I am really hoping that the ministerial task force takes a look at that legislation, and when we get the budget in May it has really clear financial indicators of how budget measures are going to grow—ideally that will be the case—rural and regional Australia.
In October 1999 the Hon. John Anderson hosted a regional Australia summit here in Parliament House. I had the real pleasure of being here. As a result of that summit John Anderson set up the Regional Women's Advisory Council. Could I really encourage the government to take a leaf out of the book of past members—of the National Party in this case. That summit worked. It did really good relationship building. It created a task force. It created a combined, bipartisan approach to policy. So can I ask the regional ministers task force, if it does nothing else, could it call another summit? Could we invite John Anderson back? Could we get him here in parliament telling us what he did that worked so well? He was an outstanding minister and he did such great things for rural and regional Australia. We have a really opportunity now to do that same sort of thing again, and not put us back into the wilderness of coming into the parliament and having these really scrappy debates about child care. It should be at such a higher level, and we should be able to build our trust together and not be arguing through letters to the paper about what does not work.
In bringing my comments to a close I will say how disappointed I am. I am really disappointed in the politics of this. We deserved better. I am sorry the minister has not been able to come to the table and deliver for Aboriginal families and for us in rural and regional areas. We will continue to work with you on the guidelines to make the best we can out of that. We will continue to ask for statistics to come back into parliament so that we can get a real sense of how this program is rolling out. Then we will work to make the amendments we can in the future. Thank you for the opportunity to speak today. I look forward to meeting with you, Minister, and working on how we can make the best out of this very poor circumstance.