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The commodification of child care: ABC Learning
Last Friday, 14 November 2008, the new Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young had something to say about the ABC Learning debacle. Webdiary thanks Kathy Farrelly for sending in an extract. It started like this:
The issue is of such importance that it deserves its own thread. We now publish Senator Hanson-Young's contribution to the Urgency Debate on Childcare in Australia in full:
Senator HANSON-YOUNG (South Australia) (3:53 PM) —I move:
That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:
The collapse of ABC Learning and its effect on childcare across Australia, which requires an urgent response from the Government including an emergency summit of the key childcare providers from around the country, to ensure services to parents and children are available beyond the end of 2008.
Child care in Australia is in desperate need of an overhaul. The crisis that we are seeing with ABC Learning Centres is simply the tip of the iceberg. For years and years, we have seen the child-care sector in Australia being taken over by profiteers and being seen as an industry. Child care should be seen as an essential service. Child care should be seen as part of the lifelong learning that starts at birth. Child care is something that we as parents trust to give our kids the best quality of care so that we can go out to work and pay our mortgages. How was this crisis with ABC Learning Centres ever allowed to happen? How has it been that one corporate entity was allowed to control 25 per cent of the market? How can we say that one corporate entity should be allowed to monopolise a quarter of the child-care sector—for profit, not because we are putting the care of our children first?
Child care should not be viewed or treated as a profit-driven industry; it should be seen as the essential service it is. We have seen over the last couple of weeks a response from the government, a response from the community sector and a response from various child-care providers from around the country to try to get together to talk about what to do next. We know that ABC Learning is responsible for 100,000 long day care places around the country. We know that ABC Learning relies heavily on government funding; it was anticipated to receive up to $300 million from taxpayers through benefits paid to the company and on behalf of parents in this financial year. We have heard from the government that the response in trying to keep these centres open until 31 December this year is a $22 million rescue package. What then? In estimates a few weeks ago, I asked Senator Ludwig, the minister representing Minister Gillard, whether he could explain the federal government’s contingency plans, which they assured me they had. I also asked whether they could explain what would be happening, when it would be happening and what kind of discussions had happened so far to try to avoid the possible crisis that may happen if ABC Learning Centres were to go under—what would happen to the 100,000 children in care in their centres around the country? How do we, as a government—as elected parliamentarians—ensure that we do not leave these families in the lurch?
In response, the department said that there had been some thought given to the issue of ABC Learning folding and that some scenarios had been looked at. Since then, we have seen the $22 million package but we have not seen the details of any type of contingency plan. I have been inundated by various community child-care workers from around the country saying that they have put themselves forward as experts in the sector, people working on the ground, wanting to help the government move forward and ensure that we can keep as many centres open as possible, and yet the biggest criticisms that all of them have come to me with are a lack of transparency in the government’s plans, a lack of transparency in their conversations with government. It is a lack of transparency that led us into this mess in the first place. It is time for the government to shed light on what is really happening with ABC Learning and what types of contingency plans the government has. It is time to ensure that we involve the experts every step of the way.
Today the Senate passed a motion to support an emergency summit to get together the brightest minds in child care from around the country to talk directly to the government about the way forward. I am thankful that the government has taken the opportunity to ensure that centres are open until the end of this year, but we need to be looking beyond 2008. There are people who are willing to help, willing to put up their hands, willing to step in and keep centres open in order to ensure that kids can be dropped off as their parents go off to work and that the quality of care for our kids remains the highest it can possibly be.
I am glad that I have been able to kick-start some debate on this issue in the chamber. I think Australian mums and dads must be sick and tired of the petty party politics that go on in this place. We have just spent almost an hour hearing about who is to blame for the ABC crisis. There is definitely enough blame to go around on both sides of the chamber. The ABC crisis would never have happened if ABC Learning had not been given the opportunity to monopolise the sector. Mums and dads around the country would not be worried about whether they can drop their kids off at their local childcare centre if companies had not been given free rein over what is meant to be an essential service. Mums and dads would not be worried about whether their local ABC centre is closing if companies were not able to profiteer from an essential service and the essential needs of Aussie families.
The government should have responded sooner. The government are creating more anxiety by their lack of transparency on this issue, keeping parents and the elected members and senators in this place in the dark on the rest of their contingency plans. The $22 million to be used to prop up ABC Learning over the next two months will only keep centres open until after Christmas, until 31 December. If the plan is more than this, let us see it. I hope there is more of a plan. I want to see it. I want the key stakeholders in the childcare sector to see it because that means we can get together and move forward.
We need to know now whether the minister will hold an emergency summit of the key stakeholders in the childcare sector, given that today the Senate voted to call on the government to hold one. We need to know within days when that summit will be held. Senator Collins mentioned that consultations will be happening and that those who were not spoken to today at a luncheon held by the parliamentary secretary—which I must point out was not a crisis meeting; it was simply a luncheon—eventually will be consulted. Frankly, ‘eventually’ is not soon enough. We need to know within days what the minister’s contingency plans are. We need the minister to commit to bringing together the brightest and best minds in the childcare sector. Those involved on the ground—the service providers, the local government associations that run childcare centres in their local areas and the small, independent operators—need to be brought together. We need to figure out how we move forward to ensure we can give parents some certainty after 31 December. ‘Eventually’ is simply not good enough.
We need to be take this opportunity to reform child care in Australia. The status quo simply is not working. We need a full investigation into how we ever allowed this essential service to be monopolised by a private company that puts the lining of shareholders’ pockets above the care of children. The company has a 25 per cent market share and that is simply not acceptable when we are talking about an essential community service. We need a full investigation as to how this happened. We need an emergency summit to move forward to ensure we can give certainty to parents and working families that their kids will not simply be left at the gate on 1 January.