“We must not leave our children worse off.”
That’s what Joe Hockey said 12 months ago when he announced the most reviled budget in recent times. “As Australians, we must not leave our children worse off. That’s not fair. That is not our way. We are a nation of lifters, not leaners,” he said.
Hey Joe! Guess what? Your government’s failed! With the last tranche of the government’s childcare package released, we now know the package will leave at least some Australian children worse off. And despite being announced on Mother’s Day, it is not going to leave mothers, fathers or grandparents happy because it has done nothing to address one of the issues that most bugs them – their inability to find the childcare they need.
So, what is the government’s childcare solution? A refined subsidy system designed above all to stop the blow-out of government expenditure and to encourage families (read women) to work more. A two-year-only extension to the funding given to the states to support preschool education. A two-year trial of subsidies for nannies for 10,000 shift workers or families with additional needs. And a repackaging of a bunch of existing programs as a child care safety net for disadvantaged or vulnerable programs.
But the “solution” is a fail. It won’t solve the problem.
The new subsidy system (which doesn’t start until July 2017) is based on a benchmark price of care. The problem with a benchmark price is that high unmet demand for childcare means that services can (and do) charge higher than the benchmark. The subsidy system is tapered so families with lower incomes will receive a higher rate of subsidy. Families earning below $65,000 a year will be on an 85 per cent subsidy of the benchmark price rate, families earning up to $175,000 a 50 per cent subsidy and those earning above $185,000 a year will have their subsidies capped at $10,000 a year. Ensuring the most disadvantaged get higher subsidies is good, but should high income families (those earning more than $250,000 a year) be subsidised?
The solution also fails because it ties access to early education to families’ workforce participation. Unless you earn less than $65,000 a year there is no subsidised early education and care until you work or study eight hours a week. The more you work, the more subsidised care you can access. Some of our most vulnerable children (those in low income families) will only be able to access one day (12 hours) of care a week unless they have already been judged to be at serious risk of abuse.
It’s a fail because it does not set up a high-class system of early education and care for children that amplifies the learning they obtain from parents. This puts us out of step with other countries such as Britain (where 30 hours free childcare for all children over three and disadvantaged children over two is currently being considered) and the United States (President Obama has called for the expansion access to high-quality preschool for every child in the US, supporting a continuum of early learning beginning at birth and continuing to age five). So much out of step is our program that Professor Edward Melhuish from Oxford University has said our system was “equivalent to the childcare system in the UK 25 years ago and what we would have seen in other countries several decades ago”. He particularly damned the separation of early education and childcare that our government is busy entrenching. “If you get the first five years right, you get better health, better educational development, better learning, better social development, better emotional development,” he said.
The new solution is also a fail because apart from the tiny nanny trial and some rejigging of existing programs there are no mechanisms to fix the supply issues. The Productivity Commission’s proposed solution was that providers should “compete to offer a range of quality early childhood education and care services”. In other words they proposed, and the government has accepted, the continuation of the mixed-market model that has already proved unable to match supply of childcare with demand from families.
Why have they failed? Why was it apparently so hard for the government to craft a credible childcare and early learning package that would have satisfied families’ needs and set Australian children up for the future? Maybe the answer lies in Tony Abbott’s desire for a budget that is “measured, responsible and fair” and above all non-controversial.
There is a question begging to be asked here. Why should our children’s futures be subject to policy formulation designed with the primary motivation of not annoying specific groups of voters? In ensuring that richer families, those who want to use nannies, and of course their own backbenchers would not be too put out by any reforms, the government has missed out on a golden opportunity.
By failing to make use of the opportunity to craft a better childcare/early education package Hockey’s promise to not leave our children worse off has been well and truly broken.
Published on The Sydney Morning Herald May 12th 2015.
Lisa Bryant is a consultant in the early education and care sector.