Childcare funding changes puts affordability for hundreds of families at risk

I rise to speak on and oppose the Early Years Quality Fund Special Account Bill 2013, particularly from the perspective of the regional and rural centres.

Those that I know in my electorate are going to be so badly affected by this. I know it because they have told me so. For those who are watching this debate tonight, I am sure this will lead to yet another sleepless night for them and I know they have had plenty of those since they first saw this legislation. We do know that this is just another rushed bill into this parliament.

There has been no time for an appropriate parliamentary inquiry, as we heard from the two previous speakers.

Critically, this is just another piece of divisive legislation from this government and one that is really going to impact most on rural and regional day care centres. It is going to impact on the childcare centres in my electorate of Forrest because the legislation is basically going to establish a $300 million fund to provide wage increases to just around 30 or 40 per cent of just the long day care workforce, and only for two years.

To achieve this the centres will have to enter into an enterprise bargaining agreement with their staff and meet the eligibility criteria. As we know, given that limited pool of funds, it will be on, what, a first-in first-served basis or preferential? How will it actually work? What we do know is that there is only funding for two years and it is all being done on borrowed money by the government.

We do know this was part of the union United Voice’s Big Steps campaign. We do know that childcare workers and educators are low paid and any wage increase should come about through the ruling of the Fair Work Commission.

This is the body that this government itself established and it has the responsibility for determining what are appropriate and fair levels of remuneration. But we do know that United Voice, the union, has refused to lodge a wage claim with the Fair Work Commission, preferring instead for the government to just hand over the money but only to the favoured few.

It is, as we know, just an appeasement to the unions and is really divisive.

This is picking winners and losers again with two types of child care: the educators in long day care centres that are eligible for the pay increase and those that are not, which will see family day care, occasional day care, budget based care excluded—there are so many of those in my electorate—in spite of the roles they perform being very similar.

Two types of childcare workers: those who are union members of United Voice, who will receive this funding increase, and those who are not. Sixty per cent of childcare workers are going to miss out.

The majority will miss out. So it is unfair and it is inequitable.

We know that the Australian Childcare Alliance represents approximately 70 per cent of Australia’s long day care centres and they have grave concerns, as do their members.

They have had a lot of representations from their members about what is contained in this bill.

We know that there are still a lot of uncertainties around these actual grants, around the guidelines. We do not know what the guidelines are. We do not know how many workers will actually be eligible for the pay rise, but we do know how many will not: nearly 60 per cent of them will not in actual fact.

And we do know that this will create a two-tiered system of those who receive this money and those who do not; those who are United Voice union members and those who are not.

I have met a number of those who work in long day care and those who work in other sorts of child care in my community. They are all very concerned that their very good staff will be poached by the centres that can afford to offer the higher rate. I do know that there are managers and owners of centres in my electorate who are not sleeping, as I said, as a result of this.

This threatens the very viability of their childcare and day care centres. They know that they are probably going to have to offer that higher rate of pay regardless, just to keep their staff. As I said, this will have a disproportionate impact in rural and regional areas like my own. They will have to do that to adhere to the National Quality Framework staffing requirements.

There were thousands of submissions to the Senate inquiry, but the government allowed only a few days for reporting, so the process has been flawed. Not only is the legislation flawed and the intent of the legislation flawed, so has been the process. But it is something that is quite common with this government.

I keep coming back to the fact that the government is proposing legislation where 60 per cent of centres will miss out and they will be likely forced to increase wages just to keep their staff. That is what will happen. That means that the parents are going to pay more.

Long day care KU Children’s Services stated in a submission to the inquiry that the introduction of this fund to a portion of the sector will result in a division within the organisation.

That is guaranteed, it is there now. The government has created this. KU Children’s Services pointed out that since the 1980s many have worked tirelessly to remove the divide between preschool and long day care, yet the government has reignited that, driven a wedge down the middle and said, ‘Here you are: 60 per cent this side, 30 to 40 per cent the other.’

As the Child Care Association of WA pointed out in their submission, the bill does not consider the outcome of the fund on the sector as a whole.

The government is also failing to allow time for the grants guidelines to be published before proceeding with the bill—process flawed again. Many of the submissions to both the House and Senate inquiries from centres have been extensively noting a campaign of union misinformation and quite seriously, as we heard, in some cases bullying of centre owners and childcare workers.

I also heard that, as part of the Big Steps, United Voice’s campaign, evidence or information was given to the effect that someone posted a photograph on Facebook of the home of the president of the Australian Childcare Alliance. With the work that I do in cyberbullying I find that just extraordinary.

What form of bullying is that? Is that what we have come to in this place? That is exactly what this legislation has provoked. Some workers have been told that if they do not sign up to their union, their colleagues will not receive a pay rise. Claims were made throughout those inquiries. One union stated, under the heading ‘How does my centre qualify?’:

1. Join United Voice.

2. United Voice negotiates a new EBA.

3. Sign agreement. Owner-operator signs agreements with government.

4. Get the raise.

Despite the department claiming that the actual amount of wage increase was to be determined by a seven-member panel, United Voice provided a handy chart for members, telling them exactly what they would get. So, clearly, United Voice knows more than the panel itself.

Of course, this is a poorly designed and inequitable proposal, but it certainly will have far-reaching negative impacts, particularly on regional and rural areas, on regional and rural centres and, more importantly, on the families that rely on those great services provided.

I want to acknowledge the wonderful job that centres in my electorate of Forrest do for families, who trust them to provide quality day care for their children. The service they provide allows parents to return to workplaces as needed, knowing that their children are safe and sound in a supportive, nurturing, caring and learning environment. In the two regional cities of Bunbury and Busselton in my electorate hundreds of families rely on this service, yet the government is putting that at risk.

There are 43 childcare centres in the greater Bunbury area and another 17 based in Busselton and Dunsborough, not to mention another dozen or so in the wonderful little country towns throughout the Forrest electorate.

The structural changes that the government has made will have a particular impact on these regional centres where there is already an ongoing need and a shortage of qualified staff. I heard about this from the childcare centres.

There is a major financial cost. Established centres are now fearful of their future. That is what this proposal has done. They are fearful of their future and their capacity to provide this great service to families in my electorate.

By offering that government funded wage rise to perhaps one-third of the centres just so that centres are able to keep their staff and attract new ones, the Labor government has created division, inequity and a wage war between centres. For a medium-sized private childcare centre the costs are in the extreme.

To match the wage rise of $3 to $4, the owner of one Bunbury childcare centre, with 20 staff, told me that it will cost her business $200,000 a year in extra wages and associated payments.

A medium-sized centre like this one has about 150 to 200 families, which rely on the centre to provide quality child care, which they trust, and they do it at an affordable price for these families. So to absorb a wage blow-out of $200,000, centres will be forced—they have no choice; they cannot absorb this cost—to raise their fees, possibly by $10 a day per child.

So, for the working families in my electorate, this is about another $200 a month on top of their current fees. This is what is happening right now. I have spoken with childcare centres.

The owners and managers of these centres are not sleeping, worrying about the impact on the families and how many children they will lose and whether their centres will be viable. Unfortunately, this will make the unionised government-funded centres more attractive for families because of cheaper rates, which they can afford.

When a child in care costs about the same as a mortgage payment, this has huge impacts on families making decisions about whether they can afford another child or whether one parent has no choice but to drop out of the workplace.

I have seen firsthand the anguish and the fear of the childcare centre owner. I referred to her earlier. It is palpable and I know that she is not sleeping. Her feelings are shared by about a dozen others who attended childcare forums I put on two weeks ago with the shadow minister for childcare, Sussan Ley. They realise that they will be forced to pay the extra wages.

It is a blatant exercise by the government to impose a political allegiance to and ideology on its union masters in a sector whose primary goal should really be that of being there for the benefit of these great kids and their families by providing great child care.

Of course, this proposal is divisive and unfair. It is an issue of equity and fairness. The government is proposing only two years of funding. Parents will have to pay even more beyond that two years. Sixty per cent of parents in my electorate who will not be funded under this legislation will have to pay now.

Of course, the other 40 per cent will pay the extra beyond the two years, because the government has only funded this for two years. So it is a false promise. Centres are forced to pay more just to retain their staff. They are great staff, who do a fantastic job with our young people.

As I have said, only union members will receive this benefit. So many of them right now around Australia must believe that they are actually going to receive this pay rise—that is, after they have paid their union fees. But I wonder how many, in reality, will actually receive it.

I wonder how much they will receive over and above the union fees for what they do. I am profoundly concerned for the childcare centres in my electorate. I have met their staff. As I said, their concern and fear about their viability is palpable and the impact on the 60 per cent of families who will miss out will be direct, and then it will be compounded after the two years when the funding runs out. I oppose this measure.