Senator BIRMINGHAM (South Australia): 23/8/11 (13:43): I was sparked by some of the comments that Senator Farrell made to ask an additional question of him about this mandate that he is claiming for this legislation, legislation that he said was approved by the Australian people at the election held just a touch over a year ago. I am wondering if Senator Farrell will be able to show the Senate how that approval was manifested. Where was the television ad about these changes to the childcare rebate? Where was the radio advertisement about these changes to the childcare rebate? Where was the mention of these changes to the childcare rebate in, say, the Prime Minister’s campaign launch speech?
Where was the mention of these changes to the childcare rebate in the material from the Labor Party that cluttered the letterboxes of Australians? Did Ms Ellis herself take this issue up with her own constituency? Did any of her campaign material in the electorate of Adelaide highlight these changes?
The parliamentary secretary is claiming that there was clear, unequivocal approval given by the Australian people at last year’s election for these changes. Obviously, if it was such clear and unequivocal approval there was very clear and unequivocal information provided to the Australian people. The people in the gallery and the school children in the gallery up there are obviously paying close attention to what is happening in the Senate today. As much as I would like to think that there are a few other people around the place, I do not kid myself, Senator Farrell, into believing that mums and dads who are busy at work, who have dropped their kids off at child care while they are at work, are necessarily paying intricate detail to legislation that is laid on the table and yet to be debated in this place or the other place. I do not think you can say, ‘We had a proposal; we had a bill; we had a plan and it appeared on a government website somewhere,’ and say that the Australian people were informed, and because they were informed and re-elected your government, you have this all-encompassing mandate to make a change such as this one.
Quite clearly, yes, you may have mused about doing this before. You may have put it on a government website and you may have even introduced legislation to get to the first stage of debating it. But what did you actually do? If you want to claim an electoral mandate, if you want to claim the stamp of approval and authority from the Australian people, what did you actually do to earn that? What did you do to proactively ensure that the families who will be most directly affected by this knew about it? What did you do to ensure that those families were fully informed? What did Ms Ellis do to ensure that before people in my home suburb, in her electorate, went down to the local ballot box and cast their votes that they knew that this is what she was planning to do as the childcare minister? How did they know that this is what your government was planning to do?
In claiming that there was widespread consultation, I note that in the submission to the inquiry into this legislation we have a situation where your now friends in the LHMU-the ‘missos’ union-made a submission that was quite critical of this and highlighted the longer term impacts of it. Their submission stated:
… it must be recognised that without alternative allocation of funding, the proportion of affected families will certainly increase over the subsequent years. We draw attention to the fact that childcare fees have risen by 34.9% since June 2005-more than 2.5 times the headline inflation rate over this period. With the capping of the [childcare rebate] and continuing fee inflation, the cost of future fee increases will be increasingly met by parents at all income levels, exacerbating the cost of childcare for many families.
Let us just dwell on those last few words.
With the capping of the [childcare rebate] … the cost of future fee increases will be increasingly met by parents at all income levels, exacerbating the cost of childcare for many families.
That is the ‘missos’ union. Senator Farrell, I know that you and Ms Ellis have not traditionally consulted the ‘missos’ union terribly much. Mr Butler, the member for Port Adelaide, has been the custodian of the representation of the ‘missos’ union in the federal parliamentary Labor Party delegation from South Australia and you have tended to take somewhat opposite approaches to things during that time. I note that recently there has been a bonding, a merging of sentiment, between the ‘shoppies’ union that you and Ms Ellis represent and the ‘missos’ union that made this submission, that Mr Butler and Mr Wetherill and others represent. I would have hoped that even if you had not historically listened to what they had to say, even if you had not listened to what they had to say back when this idea was conceived, or back when the ‘missos’ union gave their evidence, now you might give it a little more thought and encouragement. But, Minister, to return to the key question that your comments sparked, how is it that you claim this mandate, this sweeping approval from the Australian people? What did your government do proactively to inform voters before they put that little green piece of paper for the House of Representatives in the ballot box at the last election?
24/8/11 (10:51): I note that we are moving towards the conclusion of this debate. I have sat in on parts of it and heard this parliamentary secretary and the previous parliamentary secretary make some of their contributions. It is important that, as we move to the end of this debate, the core element of this is not forgotten. The core element of this is that it is not going to do anything to help the cost of living pressures that Australians face. In fact, quite the contrary, it is going to harm Australians, and increase those cost of living pressures. The minister can cite the statistics as to what extent that may be and what families may be affected, but there is no way you can look at this without coming up with the conclusion that there is a negative impact. It is not just a negative impact in terms of putting a freeze on the indexation of the rebate in future years. That is not the only thing that occurs here. What we actually have is a reduction in the rebate. The amendment that the government has had to move to its legislation makes it very clear that there is an effective reduction in the rebate. It is having to put in place a new subclause in this legislation that will ensure a rebate that could have been $7,941 as at 1 July 2010 will be brought back to $7,500. An indexed rebate that would have kept going up from that $7,941 will be brought back to a flat line of $7,500.
We should not forget core principles; we should not forget that this is one of a range of factors in the cost-of-living pressures that are building up on families. Since December 2007 we have seen electricity prices around Australia go up on average by 51 per cent, gas prices around Australia go up on average by 30 per cent, water on average by 46 per cent, education by 24 per cent, health costs by 20 per cent, rent and housing costs by 21 per cent, grocery prices-and in fact this statistic is a little old and they have probably gone up even further-by 14 per cent and, as we have heard in the evidence that has been highlighted, childcare fees since June 2005 go up by 35 per cent. These are massive increases for families doing it tough. Not just is this legislation, this approach of the government, doing nothing to help those pressures; to some extent it will add to those pressures. That is an undeniable fact and an undeniable consequence of what the government is doing here today.
It is critically important that if and when this debate wraps up it is very clear and on the record that this government is for families who use childcare services putting in place barriers, putting in place structures, that will see them face higher costs. That is the clear outcome of it. That is before we get into the carbon debate-and some of my colleagues have raised the carbon tax and the extra cost pressures that all of that will pile onto families and households-and it is from a government that within that carbon tax debate wants to keep highlighting the so-called compensation that it is going to offer, the compensation arrangements for households that it plans to have.
If this is the type of approach this government takes to support services around compensation and rebates and assistance for services, it is a demonstration that this government cannot be trusted when it promises some form of compensation. It is a demonstration that over time this government is happy to let rebates, compensation or assistance be eroded, because that is what it is doing here. It is letting those things be eroded here and it will let them be eroded under the carbon tax mechanism as well. Anyone listening to or looking at this debate needs to be absolutely clear that, despite the nice words from the parliamentary secretary in dealing with the many sensible questions that Senator Nash and others have asked her, this is a cut in assistance, a reduction in available assistance. It is a reduction now, it is a reduction of what might have been in the future, it comes on top of so many increases in pressure on the cost of living that everyday Australians face and it is going to do nothing to assist them. If anything, it will harm them. I think that the parliamentary secretary should acknowledge that very basic and core premise of the change that is being proposed.