Doorstop interview, Adelaide Topics: Child care enforcement action register; National Energy Guarantee
Simon Birmingham: Thanks very much for coming. Australian parents have an absolute right to know that child care providers are reputable individuals; that they do the right thing not only in the care and wellbeing of children, but when it comes to the administration of tax payers’ money, of parents’ fees - that these are individuals who are beyond reproach in terms of their operations and activities.
That’s why the Turnbull Government is now publishing a register of child care services who have breached their undertakings in terms of the way in which they operate their services. This register comprises around 180 services who over the 2016/17 year and the first quarter of the 2017/18 year have breached their obligations in terms of the administration of their services. Most of them are financial breaches, most of them are people who have fudged or dodged attendance records to claim more money than they should have. But this goes to the heart of whether or not these services are operated by people of good repute or dodgy individuals, and we don’t want dodgy individuals looking after Australian children. That’s why we’ve taken the steps, not only to publish this, but during our time in government to dramatically crank up compliance actions. We’ve toughened the way in which the regulations apply to make sure it’s easier to catch out those doing the wrong thing. We’ve taken steps to boost compliance checks, putting in place close to 4000 compliance checks over the last 12-month period; around eight times more than occurred under the last year of the last Labor government.
All of that is saving taxpayers now an estimated $1.8 billion of claims against childcare subsidy and child care rebates that would have been otherwise made. It’s a massive saving to taxpayers, but it’s also driving dodgy individuals out of the childcare system, ensuring that when it comes to quality early childhood education, quality childcare, Australian families can have more confidence in the safety and wellbeing of their children.
Journalist: How much have these dodgy operators ripped off taxpayers? Can you give us a ballpark figure on how much they may have made?
Simon Birmingham: Our estimates are that the steps we’ve taken are saving taxpayers around $1.8 billion, that over a 12-month period turns to hundreds of millions of dollars, and that we have seen and we have prosecuted individuals who have ripped off the system to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. So this is, can be, a source for people who want to go down the wrong path to really rip the taxpayer off, and it’s something that we have closed the net on and that we will take no prisoners in regards to. We will continue to make sure compliance checks take a high priority, we will continue to clamp down on services doing the wrong thing. That’s why we’re naming and shaming, to make sure that there is every incentive there to do the right thing, to make sure that services, individuals, know that if they do the wrong thing, they will not only be caught but they’ll be shamed as a result of it.
Journalist: So what should parents do if their children go to one of these centres?
Simon Birmingham: Well, as a dad myself I would expect that everybody wants to make sure the people looking after their children are of good repute, are of high standing, are going to do the right thing, not just when it comes to looking after the kids, but when it comes to all aspects of their business operations. So for individual families who may have had engagements with these services, I’d encourage them to think twice. Now, many of these individuals will of course no longer be in business because our steps to suspend or
cancel their access to childcare subsidies means their business model’s broken in any event, but we want to make sure that it’s public, that it’s clear, and that people can keep tabs on who the best providers are.
Journalist: Is there enough capacity in the system to pick up the strain from these childcare centres closing?
Simon Birmingham: We’re seeing large numbers of childcare centres opening around the country all the time. And that’s encouraging and it shows that record numbers of Australian families are accessing quality early childhood education. And the overwhelming majority of providers are of great quality, providing outstanding care. But we have to keep a watchful eye for those few who are doing the wrong thing and make sure those few are pushed out of the system.
Journalist: What about family day care? Do you have confidence in that system?
Simon Birmingham: Family day care provides an important flexible alternative care option; however we do see that the majority of problems do come from the family day care sector. We’ve skewed our compliance activities to make sure that we focus more on the family day care sector. The regulatory changes the Turnbull Government’s put in place have really tightened the net around family day care so that the good operators can continue to do the right thing while the bad operators get caught out.
Journalist: Why has it taken the Government so long to act on this rorting?
Simon Birmingham: We’ve been taking a number of steps: we took regulatory action and made regulatory changes more than 12 months ago, we’ve steadily been increasing the number of compliance checks ever since we came to office. This is just the next step in what is an ongoing campaign to make sure that taxpayers’ dollars, when it comes to child care, are going only to legitimate, reputable childcare services and that parents can have confidence that their kids are going to services with good reputations and good activities.
Journalist: How does the rorting work? What are these dodgy operators doing to get to this stage?
Simon Birmingham: In the main, those who are listed on the register have done the wrong thing in the administration and financial operations; they’ve made claims for money they weren’t entitled to, they’ve claimed children were at their services when they weren’t really there. Now, where we can, we take those steps beyond cancellation or suspension into prosecution and legal activities. But, of course, we want to ensure as well that they can’t just easily sneak back in elsewhere. That’s why ensuring there’s a register and it’s a public register is important to safeguard not just the here and now, but the future operations as well.
Journalist: I know you hinted at it earlier, but do you envision many if not all these shamed operators will be forced to close down, will be shut down as a result of being on this list?
Simon Birmingham: It’s very hard for a service to continue operating if they can’t access the subsidies that parents rely upon to pay child care fees. So the fact that we’ve cancelled or suspended access to the child care rebates, child care subsidies, means these guys should be going out of business, will be going out of business.
Journalist: How would you describe this sector? I understand you’ve had some pretty tough words in the past, how would you describe some of these actions?
Simon Birmingham: We should be very clear that for the vast majority of Australians, their child care centres and services are outstanding, provide wonderful care and brilliant early education opportunity to their children. But there are a small number of people who do the wrong thing, who seek to access taxpayer dollars and subsidies to which they are not entitled. And for those doing the wrong thing, the message is clear: you will be caught, you will be punished, you will be named and shamed, you will be driven out of business.
Journalist: Is it a hot bed for shonks and rorters?
Simon Birmingham: We see too many individuals who think that there’s a quick buck to be made in child care by ripping off the taxpayer, and those shonks will be driven out of business as a result of these steps and actions.
Journalist: Yes, thank you. Minister, we’re seeing a very hot weekend and while there isn’t a high likelihood of blackouts this weekend because people are still away and businesses haven’t started back, what
is your message to your Labor colleagues, both in Canberra and across the country, when it comes to coming up with a uniform plan for the stability of the market?
Simon Birmingham: It’s well and truly time that state Labor governments, particularly here in South Australia, stop playing politics with energy, recognised that experts right across the board are calling for the Turnbull Government’s National Energy Guarantee to be supported, to be implemented, to ensure that we have the type of mechanism in place that not only drives down emissions, but also ensures reliability and is the most affordable approach to be undertaken. We have a solution, there’s good progress being made on it, and those such as the Weatherill Government who are still opposing that, need to get out of the way, get on board, join their other Labor colleagues who have been more positive about this type of development.
Journalist: If later this month and over the course of this summer we do see blackouts, who do you think is to blame?
Simon Birmingham: I’m not interested in blame game; I’m interested in policy solutions. And in terms of ensuring that reliability is given a greater focus, the Turnbull Government’s taken action there by proposing the first ever integrated approach to dealing with energy that looks at affordability, that looks at emissions reductions, and deals with reliability in terms of ensuring that there is enough dispatchable power in the system at any time to ensure we can cope with hot weather days like today. So it’s about getting that policy implemented. We’ve done the hard yards of developing it, we need the states and territories to cooperate. I call on each and every one of them to get on board and do so. I welcome the fact that Labor and Liberal across the country have both done so, except standouts like the Weatherill Government or Bill Shorten’s Opposition who won’t say where they stand.