Parties split on early childcare solutions

Red tape, no kidding

Is the cost of childcare soaring due to excess bureaucracy? Peter Martin and PolitiFact put this claim, by the Coalition's spokesperson Sussan Ley, to the test.

Georgia Marshall's return to work was not supposed to require tears in public and the fear that her husband might have to quit his job to look after their child.

A lawyer, Ms Marshall thought she was on top of the childcare question after placing her child's name down on four waiting lists when she was three months' pregnant. It cost $10 to go on a list. No one got back to her.

''Then all of a sudden I was hearing it was going to be two or three years [before a place was free], which was unacceptable,'' Ms Marshall says.

Neither the lack of childcare nor the tearful breakdown in a centre is an unusual story for parents of young children ...
Neither the lack of childcare nor the tearful breakdown in a centre is an unusual story for parents of young children living in Melbourne or Sydney. Photo: Phil Carrick

''I felt I would lose my job or the [work] status I had built up if I didn't go back. I turned up at the centre every day and then I lost it and I burst into tears.''

It was a Friday and Ms Marshall was due back at work the following Monday. To assist, the centre director found two days a week of care for Ms Marshall's daughter, while her employer also allowed her to spread the work over three days from home.

It wasn't ideal but it was better than nothing. And now, two years later, Ms Marshall wants to work full-time but still can't, because the centre doesn't have any available days.

High need, low vacancies

Ms Marshall is far from alone; the number of children attending some kind of childcare hit 1 million for the first time earlier this year.

In the first quarter of this year alone, an extra 20,000 children poured into a system that is struggling to keep pace with the numbers. The additional requirements the government has put in place to improve staff qualifications, and shift the emphasis to early childhood education, is also a contributing factor.

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A fundamental shift in families' working patterns is occurring.

Most women with young children work; the 2011 census showed about 45 per cent of mothers returned to work before their youngest child turned one.

''We do not have an adequately flexible system,'' says the co-convenor of the Work and Family Policy Roundtable, Elizabeth Hill.

''We have to have a very thorough rethink of the arrangements because it's so ad hoc. How do you pay for a high quality, flexible, affordable system? No one has ever said that can be done cheaply." 

Labor's actions and Coalition plans

Dr Hill praises Labor's changes to the childcare system when it comes to improving the quality of services, but is critical of its decision to increase the rebate paid to families

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 centres would be inflationary, and Dr Hill, a political economist at the University of Sydney, says this is exactly what has happened.

It is not unusual to find centres charging more than $130 a day in areas where demand is greatest.

Dr Hill says price rises have led to a debate that focuses too much on affordability. ''Quality, affordability and accessibility need to be kept together,'' she says. ''Affordability can't be the priority that means you trade off against quality.''

The only fair solution, she says, would be a public childcare similar to the public education system. However, that would be ''revolutionary policy-making'', and no political party has gone anywhere near such an idae with a hefty price tag.

Apart from raising the rebate, Labor has required centres to hire more qualified staff and increase overall staffing. It has set aside a small amount - $300 million - to top up wages, but the sector wants wholesale wage reform so educators would no longer be earning, on average, about $19 an hour.

Meanwhile, the Coalition has promised a Productivity Commission inquiry into the childcare sector. It would examine the controversial question of whether families should be able to receive the taxpayer-funded rebate for nannies.

The industry is privately concerned a Coalition government would wind back Labor's attempts to improve the educational quality of childcare to cut costs.

The paid leave debate 

A key policy difference between Labor and the Coalition is paid parental leave.

Labor came into office in 2007 and introduced a near-universal scheme: the primary carer of a new baby now receives the minimum wage for 18 weeks. It was designed to give women on low and middle incomes without access to employer-provided parental leave some breathing space.

But it has been gazumped by the Coalition's controversial scheme - backed by the Greens - which argues parental leave is a workplace entitlement like holidays or sick leave, so it should be paid at a parent's replacement salary. The scheme would be paid to people earning up to $150,000 a year; the Greens would cap it at $100,000.

Dr Hill says the Coalition's scheme is more in keeping with international research that shows women need much more than 18 weeks - ideally a year - to care for themselves and a new baby.

That parental leave should be paid at someone's replacement salary is only fair and not a controversial issue in other countries, Dr Hill says - but voters would be wise to consider when the Coalition's scheme would be introduced.

''A generous, paid parental leave scheme is great, but in tight budget times you have to think about whether [that can be balanced against] things like properly paying childcare workers and having quality care,'' Dr Hill says.

''We have a great first step in terms of the current paid parental leave scheme. It looks after the women who need it most. [But] the Coalition and Greens system isn't up and running. When would it go through? Would it go through?"

But the harder policy questions surround when parents re-enter the workforce.

''The policy objectives of paid parental leave aren't going to be achieved unless you have these other ones which are high quality, accessible, affordable childcare and decent workplace conditions,'' Dr Hill says.

After all, the time a parent spends caring for a newborn is short, whereas mothers and fathers will spend years trying to balance work and family responsibilities.