Rural and regional families should be front and centre
Posted March 24, 2017
Ms McGOWAN (Indi) (16:23): I want to start of this speech with a story. The story took place about 21 years ago in a rural community in southern New South Wales. I was working as a rural consultant and I had been invited to this meeting to talk about service provision in country towns. As we gathered the women together from the farms we heard the story of a father. He told us how recently he had had an accident on his farm. He had a child on his tractor. The child was hurt, so he took the child to the local hospital for attention. It was the child's mother who was the nurse on duty at the emergency centre who looked after the child. The father told this story to a group of us country people who cared about services. The father, the mother and the community asked: 'What would it take for us to have child care? What would it take for us so that a man farming on his farm and a woman working in the local town could have their children cared for by professional carers?' That story so resounded in that community that they got organised and formed a committee, as you do in country towns, and began work on designing a service that would meet the childcare needs of farm families in small rural communities.
So it is with some degree of deja vu that I stand in parliament today, 20 years after the report Country kids—who cares?: child care a work related issue for farm families was written, and say that many of the issues identified 20 years ago are still unaddressed by this legislation. So I am particularly focusing my comments today on the Jobs for Families Child Care Package. I want to make a plea to my colleagues, particularly those who represent rural communities, to pay attention to this legislation. I believe it fails to address the needs of, in particular, farm families. It fails to address the needs of working parents in small rural communities.
I have been working very closely with the minister around these issues and I would like to acknowledge and thank him and his staff and the departmental staff, who have given me a lot of time and have listened to my concerns. They have committed to me that they have paid attention and that, in the development of the guidelines associated with this legislation, they will address my concerns. But how sad it is that when we have legislation like this before the House today we have to pay attention to unwritten, unreleased guidelines and rely on the minister, who said: 'Cross my heart. Trust me, Cathy: we will address this.' I want to take this opportunity to say that that is not nearly good enough. In designing childcare packages for all Australians, we need to put the needs of rural and regional Australians front and centre. I have to say how incredibly disappointing it is when people say: 'We will make special provisions for those disadvantaged people. We will make special provisions for those who just cannot get to a childcare centre.' I say that rural and regional Australia should never be regarded as disadvantaged and particularly the farming families of rural Australia should never be regarded as disadvantaged. We are mainstream parts of this country. We work really hard to produce the commodities that make this country flourish. As families who work to do that, we deserve to have our needs front and centre of this legislation. Sadly, they are not.
I have a few things I want to talk about. One is how government goes about making sure that rural and regional Australia is front and centre. How do we design services that meet the needs of farming families? How is it that we can take into account the particular needs of this particular group that I am speaking for today? I want to take the opportunity to read a couple of case studies from the report Country kids—who cares?that was prepared 20 years ago. I want to quote Nerida. Nerida is a dairy farmer and she said: 'Dairy farming is constant work. We milk the cows twice a day for nine months of the year. Some dairy farmers milk 365 days of the year. It begins in the early morning, starting around six, and goes until eight or nine when you come home for breakfast. Then it is off to do the day's farm work, with milking again in the late afternoon. The day's farm work usually finishes around 7 pm. These hours make it difficult to get people to come in and mind the children on the farm. But it is also impossible to get to a childcare centre, if there was one.' Nerida's neighbour would occasionally look after the children. She charged X dollars an hour. The nearest child care centre was 20 kilometres away, a round trip of 40 kilometres. Nerida said: 'I refuse to drag children out of bed so early in the morning and take them 40 kilometres for child care.'
Another little case study was about Marilla. The report says: 'Marilla and her husband have three children and they live in a community that is 100 kilometres away from the nearest childcare service. Marilla has no extended family living in the area. When necessary, her husband or neighbours provide child care. But it is difficult to ask a neighbour to look after three children when she is already busy on her own farm and has two or three children of her own. She says, "If it is necessary, I split the children up between neighbours. But each trip involves me taking them 15 or 20 kilometres." Marilla says that when shearing or tractor driving on the farm during cropping they employ a local woman to mind the two year old. 'The trips to town for appointments or for business can be a logistical nightmare. Sometimes I have to worry for a week as to how I can possibly get all of the jobs done to be back in time for the school bus. I normally only go into town once a week for shopping and farm business, and then it is incredibly stressful.'
What happened as a result of this report was that a childcare service was designed to specifically meet the needs of rural and farming families. It was called Mobile Child Care. Mobile Child Care was based in the Albury-Wodonga community childcare hub. It now employs 50 qualified staff. They have cars and they go out to the communities. They work in halls. They have renovated the community halls. They have got them all licenced. The mothers and fathers of these rural communities can now take their children to the local hall for occasional child care, long day care, after-school care—depending on what the need is. This has been a magnificent service in my local community that has really met the needs of the community. But, sadly, with the changes that are going to come in, that local service says it can no longer do what it needs to do.
The minister has said he would address it. But what is so sad about this particular bit of legislation is that it has not taken best practice into account, it has not taken the needs of agricultural industries into account, it has not taken the needs and the work of these really skilled childcare workers. So they are extraordinarily skilled people; they are not only qualified childcare workers. They go into the community, they take information with them, they provide support to the farming family and, if it is appropriate, they can refer to other services that are available. They do community development when there is a need. They can talk about how else the needs of families can be met. So these workers are, in fact, community builders. They save the government hundreds and thousands of dollars by making our rural communities work better. Sadly, they do not fit this model.
So what is wrong with this model? This model is based on what we call centre care. This model is really good if you live in a town and you have a centre base. The model is no good if you live in a small country town and you do not have a critical mass to support a centre. Many of our communities are not large enough for a centre-based child care. I really want to make sure that the minister actually understands that what he is doing meets the needs of a lot of people for sure. But there is a really significant amount of people in rural and regional Australia who are being marginalised by this change. And it is such a pity.
I want to talk a little bit about one of the things that happened in my adventures with trying to fix this up. You can imagine the angst that came to my community when they heard that the childcare legislation meant that their wonderfully loved service was no longer going to be provided. So they have been lobbying me, the member for Farrer and anyone that would listen. One of things we did was put a number of questions in writing through the system—question number 25, 'Budget-based funding services'. We asked the minister to tell us what impact study had been undertaken with this legislation so that at least we knew that when the government was making the changes it did it in full knowledge of the impact of this change. The answer came back—question number 25, answer number 5:
A Regional Australia Impact Statement was not required, as discussed with the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development, because the circumstances of all families, including families in regional and remote areas, were taken into account in developing the Package upon which the legislation is based …
I would like to say: somewhere someone is not telling the full truth.
The communities that I represent are loud and clear in saying that their needs have not been taken into account. They are being asked to transition. And 'transition' is a magic word; my community says to me, 'Transition to what?' The minister tells me, 'We'll put a granting process in place and communities can apply for grants to do transition.' I say, 'Minister, there's nothing to transition to. There are no services in these towns. There's no centre. If we don't have mobile childcare services, there's nowhere to go.' While all of us love the opportunity for a grant, for those of us who live in rural and regional Australia—and, let me say, I have had 20 years of applying for grants, of demonstrating innovation and of demonstrating how my particular circumstances warrant special treatment—it is a horrible way to have to justify what is a mainstream service for the city people, which is child care. Why should rural and regional Australia have to apply for a grant and special conditions, and demonstrate innovation when we have as legitimate needs for child care as everybody else.
I was so disappointed to read that answer. I have to say to the bureaucrats involved: do not do that to me again. Undertake rural and regional impact statements. In particular, to the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development: if you are undertaking major changes to the way fundamental services are provided in Australia, you must, as a matter of good governance, do the research to show how it is going to impact, and then put in place the necessary changes to make sure there are no unintended consequences that disadvantage a huge sector of the population. To that end, I have moved at an earlier time the Charter of Budget Honesty statement. And that charter, if we could bring it on to debate in this House, would do exactly that—it would make sure that every major change has an impact statement so that we understand how it is going to impact on our communities.
In bringing my comments to a close and in foreshadowing that I will be making amendments in the third reading stage of this legislation, I would like to acknowledge and thank the minister. He has certainly given me a really good hearing. I am sure that he understands my issues. I would like to acknowledge the public servants that we have met and who have given a lot of time and energy for this. I would particularly like to acknowledge the work of Anne Bowler, who is the national president of NAMS, the National Association of Mobile Services. She has worked so hard in a voluntary capacity to have these issues addressed. To Anne and all your colleagues: we began the fight 20 years ago. We will not give it up now. We know that rural and regional Australians deserve excellent service, and I will be your voice in this parliament to make sure it happens.
I would also like to acknowledge the work of Rodney Wangman, the chief executive officer of the Albury-Wodonga Community College. Rod, you have been the auspice body of the mobile childcare centre. You have seen it through 20 really good years. My commitment is that we are not going to let it go. We have a really good model, and we will continue to work with the government to make sure that in the long term we find a system that actually works for us—a place-based system, a whole-of-family system, a children's services system that acknowledges how important our children are and does not make them an add on extra, grant, innovation, apply-for system. This fight has really just begun, and I am not to let it go.
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