Family Assistance Amendment Bill 2011

I rise this afternoon to support the government’s Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Child Care Rebate) Bill 2011. Before I talk about the bill, I would like to thank my colleague and commend him for his kind words about the construct of families and the 1950s view that those opposite have on what a family today looks like.

I find it quite offensive, coming from a single-parent family. I said in my first speech that my father left us when I was 11 and my mother did a fantastic job of bringing up my sisters and me on her own. She worked very hard to get us educated and to put food on the table. She worked a number of jobs to do that. She came from a tradition of working-class matriarchs, as I call them, who also did the same for their families. I commend my colleague for his comments on what actually makes up a family. What actually makes up a family is a loving parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle who loves the children that are within that family. I commend him for expanding the view on what a family can be, so thank you.

As I said, my mother worked very hard to put us through school, secondary school and tertiary education and she was greatly assisted by a number of Labor schemes that supported us financially during secondary and tertiary education. Those Labor governments were deeply committed to easing the burden on working families as is the Gillard government.

I can cite so many examples. My colleague has mentioned a number of them: first of all, there is the reduction in income tax to reduce the tax burden on working families; the education tax refund to reduce the burden on working families; and paid parental leave, which has been a huge hit. I understand that 22,000 families have now applied for the scheme and 2,000 are already signed up for the scheme—a long overdue initiative that women, particularly the feminist movement, have been fighting for for years. We introduced it, and congratulations to us for that— all designed to ease the burden on working families. We have also got plans for the resources tax to, again, cut income taxes for working families and also plans to boost superannuation for working families to secure their retirement futures.

We have also introduced, most importantly, workplace conditions so that working families are protected in their workplaces, so they do not have to fear draconian conditions. That is another way that we are easing the burden. Most importantly, we saved this economy from recession as a result of our economic stimulus package, which meant that working families continued to be able to work. Their jobs were saved. The economy was saved. That is a major achievement and it underscores our deep commitment to easing the burden on working families.

I also want to talk today about National Playgroup Week. I attended the launch this morning with the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, the Parliamentary Secretary for Community Services and the Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Carers. National Playgroup Week is designed to draw attention to and celebrate the need for children to play in an unstructured way with building blocks or whatever to get their imaginations stimulated, get them physically stimulated and to enjoy the benefits of play. I commend the minister and the parliamentary secretaries for launching this week, which was conducted at the Parliament House childcare centre, which has been a long overdue and much-awaited development. How old is Parliament House? Twenty-five years old, I think, and everyone has been waiting for the last 25 years for this childcare centre to be developed.

All the parents I spoke to today, both the mothers and fathers—most of them work—were absolutely delighted with the childcare service, with the quality of service that their children are getting and the quality of support they, as parents, are getting. It is another major development and, again, it underscores our commitment to child care.

This legislation gives effect to a pre-election commitment to make accessing child care easier for Australian working familles to ease the burden. This legislation will enable working families to receive their childcare rebate in a number of ways. A family may elect to have their childcare rebate paid to them via a fee reduction from the childcare service provider. We know that 98 per cent of families chose to receive the rebate this way, and I imagine that that will continue. A family may also elect to have their childcare rebate payments paid directly into their bank account on a fortnightly basis, and anyone who has gone from a fortnightly to a monthly pay would realise the flexibility benefits of fortnightly pay, so I think this is a great development. Families may also elect to have their rebate paid to a nominated bank account on a quarterly basis or to have their rebate paid to them as an annual lump sum. In order to enable this, the government has made available just over $42 million for the provision of fortnightly rebate payments.

This legislation will provide some much-needed flexibility to the childcare rebate scheme and continues a long legacy of this government and previous Labor governments ensuring that access to childcare is easily available and affordable to all Australian families. This current proposal builds upon previous changes from the government to increase the rebate from 30 per cent to 50 per cent of out-of-pocket expenses. That is nearly double the rebate for out-of-pocket expenses; it is a significant development. This government has also increased the maximum annual rebate to $7,500. Under the previous government, families could claim only $4,354 a year. We have provided nearly 40 per cent more than what the previous government provided. As a result of this change, the out-of-pocket costs for a family with one child in childcare and earning $55,000 a year have dropped from 13 per cent of disposable income under the previous government to seven per cent in 2010.

Overall, the government has invested $6.2 billion to assist with out-of-pocket expenses through the childcare rebate. However, these changes, while positive, will ultimately remain unutilised if parents and working families cannot access their rebate when they need it most. It is a reality that most Australians live from pay period to pay period, from fortnight to fortnight. It is therefore of little use to many that they receive their rebate on a quarterly basis, or each year as was the case under the previous government. This legislation recognises the fact that families are living from pay period to pay period and provides the flexibility for them to receive their payments in a time frame and manner that best reflects their needs. This legislation will potentially benefit almost 700,000 families. This legislation will also assist providers who are concerned by the issue of unpaid fees. It is anticipated that, by increasing the frequency of payments, families will be in a better position to meet the costs of their child care on a more regular basis.

Most importantly, the government consulted widely when developing this legislation and it received broadly positive views from the various peak bodies in the sector. I also note that the department has worked hard with the industry to answer its concerns and to provide information to providers and families.

As I have said, this legislation builds on a proud history of this government and previous Labor governments in assisting working families. The Gillard government is investing massively in improving the affordability and access to early childhood education and care. We have invested $8.7 billion over four years to help 800,000 families with the cost of child care through the childcare benefit. We are also professionalising the workforce in childcare centres and improving standards to give parents peace of mind, and we are reducing staff-to-child ratios.

In the second reading speech the minister labelled this legislation an ‘ambitious agenda’ and was unapologetic for that. I would like to thank the minister for agreeing to engage in this agenda and I join in the sentiments. In my own electorate I have heard so many stories of working families who have challenges with the cost of child care. Canberra has a large number of families where both parents are in the workforce and a number of families where the grandparents live interstate—so there is not that support network where the grandparents can look after the kids. For many families in my electorate it is simply not an option for one parent to remain at home to look after the children.

We need to recognise the reality that many families simply cannot afford child care, which is why this is such a great development. Canberrans pay the highest rate in the nation for child care and have some of the longest waiting lists. It is a common story in Canberra to hear of families who have had to add their unborn children to waiting lists. The Productivity Commission reported this year that Canberrans paid $60 more than the national average for child care. However, this government recognises these costs both for Canberrans and for the nation. We are deeply committed to rising to the challenge of costs of childcare and doing all we can to assist those families and ensure their children have access to high-quality and affordable child care—child care where the teachers of the children are actually professionalised and committed to quality education.

We are committed to ensuring that families have the flexibility to choose the work-life balance that best suits their families—whether that be through the eradication of antifamily workplace legislation or the introduction of Australia’s first paid parental leave scheme or, in this case, enhancing access and affordability of child care. The Gillard government’s reforms have already reduced the out-of-pocket expenses of Canberra families by seven per cent. I am proud to serve in the Gillard government. It recognises this need and is acting to improve the situation. I am proud to serve in a government that is determined to make the lives of these families easier and I am proud to serve in a government that has made child care a priority.

Before closing, I would also like to commend my ACT Labor colleagues for the work that they have been doing on child care. Since the ACT Labor government was re-elected in 2008, an additional 1,200 childcare places have been licensed, bringing the total to a historic high of more than 15,500 places. There are now 245 childcare service providers, employing about 2,200 staff. A number of centres opened last year and more are expected this year. So there have been major developments on the childcare placement front here in Canberra over the last three or four years, and I commend my ACT colleagues for the work that they have been doing in that area, as I commend the support that the Gillard government has given to the childcare issue. I commend this bill to the House.

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