The June 2013 quarterly from the Department of Education on ECEC will be available later today [UPDATE: is now available here], and the political brawl of affordability has already begun according to Judith Ireland.

The Education Department’s June 2013 quarter report on childcare and early learning, released on Monday, shows the average fee, per hour, of long day care was $7.50 between April and June last year, when Labor was still in power – up from a $5 average in the September quarter of 2007, at the end of the Howard government.

”Childcare now costs the average parent about an extra $70 per week per child than it did before Labor took office – for the exact same number of hours,” Assistant Education Minister Sussan Ley said. ”That’s extremely concerning.”

Sussan Ley and the Government are of course delighted with these figures and we will no doubt be hearing a lot of them over the next few months as the Productivity Commission does its work.

Kate Ellis has of course hit back at the claim, accusing the Government of being “sneaky” with the figures (but with no further details, at least in the media at the moment).

Labor raised the Child Care Rebate from 30% to 50%, and have always used this as their standard defence against political attack on this issue. It seems unlikely that this will work this time.

As Sam Page from Early Childhood Australia points out:

Early Childhood Australia chief executive Samantha Page said with wages making up about 80 per cent of long day care costs, wage increases over the six-year period would account for a ”fair proportion” of the cost change. But she said Labor had not adequately funded a 2012 national quality framework, that included reforms such as standardising child-to-staff ratios.

Labor’s failure to adequately prepare for the implementation of the National Quality Framework, and the resultant impact on operational costs for centres and therefore fees, is now reaping the obvious political dividends.

As I’ve written before, the National Quality Framework was a significant and critical reform that was carried out by Labor. But Ministers Kate Ellis and Peter Garrett both seemed completely oblivious to the broader landscape of ECEC.

Raising the CCR was supposed to be their cover for affordability and cost-of-living attacks from the then-Opposition. But as was inevitable, this encouraged a huge uptake in the usage of children’s services, long day care in particular. This pushed up waiting lists, particularly in the 0-2 age range, leading to regular media reports on inaccessibility.

The new qualification standards by themselves were always going to see fee increases for a sector that has always struggled to recruit and retain qualified staff. The signature failure of the NQF implementation was the seeming desire of the ALP Government to pretend there ever was a staffing problem (until in an election year it became politically convenient to finally realise). A funding and training package for this issue, that covered the entire sector, should have been rolled out in parallel with the NQF.

The ALP will spend 2014 being hit repeatedly over the head with the accessibility and affordability issue. They spent their time in Government pretending that quality wouldn’t cost anything. Will they spend their time in Opposition developing an early childhood education policy that can structurally address these issues?

The Government will of course continue their attacks – but this potentially leaves them with a very tricky problem.

Going on and on about affordability particularly rather implies that they think something should be done about it. At this stage they are refusing to commit to anything before the outcome of the Productivity Commission report.

But by raising this as a regular issue for the public, the Government will at some stage be held responsible for it. They will have to look at measures to improve affordability. But this Government is determined to be seen as economic conservatives – it seems unlikely that further increases to the CCR or CCB would be on the cards.

But what are their options? In their terms of reference the Productivity Commission has been instructed that any recommendations must be “within current funding parameters”.

This leaves the troubling conclusion that the only way to reduce fees for families is to roll back quality standards, particularly qualification requirements and ratios.

If that’s the case, we’re looking at the groundwork for that announcement today.

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