The Abbott Government is playing the community off against itself on the right to childcare

The Productivity Commission is due to hand down its draft report into the Childcare and Early Learning sector this month. As the deadline approaches, we are finally beginning to see indications of policy approach from the Federal Government in this area.

The Coalition spent most of its time in Opposition, and so far all of its time in Government, blasting the ALP for inefficient management of the childcare sector. “Costs have skyrocketed”, they’ve declared; “educators are drowning in red tape”, they’ve proclaimed.

Over the last week a new angle has become clearer. The ALP’s mismanagement has left the system open to rorters and fraudsters. Decent, hard-working families are being denied places at their local childcare centre as the service is full-to-the-brim with the children of “stay-at-home-Mums”.

So determined to drag childcare into the Government’s overall narrative of “lifters versus leaners”, the Government has even started to demonise the very “stay-at-home-Mums” that during the Howard years were feted and showered with election-eve spending at the slightest hint of a poll drop.

The Government has been determined to reframe a difficult post-Budget period into a classic “us against them” battle, and it was inevitable that the complex and difficult issues around quality, affordability and accessibility of childcare would similarly be split.

Let’s get the obvious retorts out the way first. The Government has provided no data, statistics or numbers on any of the claims it has made. None at all. It has merely presented these issues as facts, and expected people to respond to them as such.

There are already clear, priority-of-access guidelines in place for all long day care services which clearly prioritise working families. If the Department of Education has specific evidence that specific services are flouting these guidelines, in breach of their operational commitments, then they can be followed up.

The Government has also alleged widespread rorting of a subsidy for parents who are studying (Commonwealth Jobs, Education and Training Child Care Fee Assistance or JETCCFA scheme), and has again directly implicated service providers. Apparently “some” parents are over-claiming this subsidy, and “increasing number” of services are claiming for services not provided and “a number” of services are overcharging to claim more of the subsidy.

It might be hard to pick through the dense layer of hard data and statistics quoted above from the Assistant Minister for Education’s press release, but it’s hard to actually tell how much of a problem this is from the information provided.

It’s the same story with the bludging parents taking up all the childcare places. The Assistant Minister has provided no evidence or data on the amount or increase of this problem. “It’s a very frustrating thing when you can’t get a place and you are a working parent and others who are not already have a place,’’ said the Minister – and she is undoubtedly right.

But the problem is that the Government are not proposing anything that will actually resolve these issues.

What the Government is doing is finally giving us an indication of what their policy approach to childcare will be.

A Productivity Commission into the sector was the right call, and should actually have been carried out some time ago. Childcare and early learning is an entirely different sector now than it was in the 1990s.

But the Commission has been critically held back from actually proposing the reforms that are desperately needed. The terms of reference provided to the Commission by the Treasurer Joe Hockey explicitly state that no further budget funds will be provided to childcare overall, despite investment in early childhood education being internationally recognised as best practice.

Given that restraint, the Commission will not be able to propose any policy changes that will actually fix the chronic underfunding and fragmentation of the childcare sector.

It is in that context that the Government’s framing of the debate becomes clearer. Despite the irrefutable evidence that access to high quality childcare has a hugely positive benefit not just to children and families but society as a whole, the Government will be making it harder for some children to access childcare.

For children’s advocates, every child has the right to access a high quality childcare service.

But rather than invest, repair and expand the sector to meet the needs of the modern Australian community, the Abbott Government will seek to play the community off against itself on which families and children have the right to access a service.

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