MS LAWDER(Brindabella) (4.11): This matter is very important to our community, and I thank Ms Berry for bringing this issue here today. The quality, the cost and the availability of child care affects many families in our community, and quality is very important to every family. There is a great importance in investing in quality child care and early education in the ACT. I would like to add to the discussion today, as Ms Berry has already alluded to, that, along with quality, the cost and availability of child care is a serious matter for Canberra families. Although I personally do not need child care any longer for my children, I see firsthand the struggles that come with raising a family in Canberra at present, not least through my own grandchildren and also through other residents.
Child care is an incredible cost imposed upon a family. According to the 2011 census, 45 per cent of women now in the workforce who have young children returned to work before their youngest child turned one, and we do not appear to have an adequately flexible system. A good system must have variety and quality, but at the moment we know the system is struggling and families are struggling.
Federal Labor's changes to the childcare system focused on improving the quality of services, but the decision to increase the rebate paid to families to help them with out-of-pocket costs was not good policy. Boosting the payment from 30 per cent to 50 per cent of parents' out-of-pocket costs was an electorally popular decision, but childcare operators warned that paying the rebate directly to parents rather than to centres would have an inflationary effect, and this is exactly what happened.
In Canberra it is very common to find charges of $100 a day per child. The price rises have led to a debate about child care that focuses too much on affordability. This, in effect, hinders women's participation in the workforce. If it is financially penalising for a family, someone may give up work and, unfortunately, all too often that is the mother.
Apart from raising the rebate, Labor required centres to hire more qualified staff and increase overall staff numbers, and it is at a tipping point where many families say it is not worth going back to work after the birth of the child. While the value of high quality early learning has enormous potential for long-term productivity, the cost is making it unsustainable for some who need it most, especially people for whom quality child care may have enormous benefits for the future social and educational outcomes for their children. The quality of the system must be maintained to give all children a fighting chance of doing well at school, but the cost must be monitored to ensure parents earning low and medium incomes do not decide to give up work because child care is too expensive.
A few weeks ago, as we heard, the Productivity Commission released its draft report on future options for child care and early childhood learning. The report has a focus on developing a system that supports workforce participation, which is essential for individual families and our economy as a whole whilst still addressing children's learning and development needs. All you have to do is read some of the comments submitted to this review to get an understanding of how much this affects people every day.
Childcare costs in the ACT have doubled in the past six years, and that is a phenomenal impost on families. You also then must take into account the increases in other daily necessities across the board—electricity, rent, rates, fuel, food—and it seems everything has increased at a greater rate than the average income and the belt gets tightened more and more. This is even more noticeable for those who work in casual positions outside the public service and who may be on far lower incomes than their public service counterparts.
Earlier today a Conder resident said to me:
It's **expletive deleted** expensive. I've always been lucky getting a place, but I would hate to work shift work as the hours 7.30 to 6.00 are very strict. And before and after school care is a disaster too.
In the ACT child care accounts for roughly 12 per cent of gross income after subsidies as opposed to the rest of the country where childcare accounts for around eight per cent of gross income. That is a significant difference and a huge burden on our ACT families who are already struggling.
A parent from Gilmore with a young baby told me earlier today:
It's definitely a question about whether the cost of childcare is worth returning to work. It's a decision that we will have to weigh up. Even with our two incomes, the cost of living costs, the childcare expenses, mortgage payments, the rising cost of electricity, gas, et cetera, will be a struggle for us.
I could go on and on with the concerns of Canberra families, but I think we all get the picture—comment after comment that talk about the cost, availability, and quality of child care in our city.
We need to acknowledge that the ACT has the highest cost of child care in the country. It is disingenuous to put quality completely above affordability and availability. If you cannot afford a Rolls Royce or a Ferrari, there is no point talking about the quality that you get from it because it is completely out of your price bracket and it does not matter how good the performance is of that car. You do not get to make those choices if you cannot afford it. We really need to consider the impact that the cost of child care and the cost of living is having on our families—the rate increases, electricity and fuel costs, parking and transport costs and all the other expenses.
I look forward to what changes can be made as a result of the Productivity Commission draft review, but I also encourage this government to consider what else they can be doing to help our families who are struggling while ensuring that the quality of our childcare is uncompromised. Quality affordable and available child care is the key to ensuring not just the best educational outcomes for children but also women's long-term participation in the workforce. We need to get it right.