Accentuating the positives

Early childhood education and care has been moved out of the education portfolio. Our new Federal Minister has a track record in blunt, non-consultative decision making (as well as locking up children on remote island prisons). In general, the Federal Government is buffeted by distractions and “gaffes” of its own making.

On the face of it, it’s hard to be positive about the likelihood of any positive reform to Australia’s children’s education and care sector. The current Government is firmly opposed to any budget increase to this area, and appear far more focused on “crackdowns” on a minority of operators and services engaging in financial misbehaviour.

However, despite the noted cynic I am, I determined to find some positives. And it turns out, there’s a big one.

The Government has to get this right, or their current woes will seem tame by comparison.

Australia’s child care sector is one of the most expensive for families in the OECD. This has inevitable flow-on effects to workforce participation (particularly for women), and has a demonstrated impact on Australia’s overall economic performance.

The Coalition may be ideologically opposed to Government funding of child care (as Mums have always done it for free), but they are now in the absolute minority on this issue. Access to affordable, high quality child care is now a necessity. In a short space of time, it will be seen as a right.

The Government have repeatedly laid the blame for the sector’s woes at the feet of the previous Labor Government, but that window of opportunity has now closed. This is now firmly the problem of this Government.

Given their current woes, they will be desperate for a big win. What better area than the one that is a pressing issue for a huge number of families? Medicare backflips, knighthoods and all the rest would recede pretty rapidly into the distance if the Government announced sweeping reforms to the child care sector that maintained (and extended) quality outcomes for children, while improving accessibility and affordability.

Is this likely? Perhaps not. But it should be remembered that Tony Abbott has already had to back down from his “signature” Paid Parental Leave policy, with the expectation that some of this money will go to addressing child care issues.There are even reports on the day I post this that the Government is still working through its plans on this.

If we’ve learned anything about this Government, months and months of hard-faced insistence that their policies will be enacted are pretty easily forgotten when they are backed into a corner.

Over a million children are now utilising some form of child care in this country. All of them have their own challenges (major and minor) navigating Australia’s complex system. That’s a lot of voters ready to put pressure on the Government.

Failing to adequately address accessibility and affordability issues will be an unmitigated disaster, both for the sector and for the Government. Even maintaining the status quo with some tinkering at the edges won’t cut it, given that Abbott has committed 2015 to being the year of family policy.

But positive reform of the sector, improving accessibility and affordability for all and bringing the child care sector into the 21st Century would be a huge victory for Tony Abbott on this front. It’s not hard to imagine that a win that size would not be tempting for him.

So keep that flicker of positivity alive in 2015 – and keep an eye on the Government’s desperation levels.

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Government arrives at policy position the rest of Australia arrived at 18 months ago

In what is presumably another example of the Prime Minister tackling the numerous barnacles that seem to be stubbornly attached to the ship of Government, Tony Abbott has foreshadowed that 2015 will see some tinkering to his signature Paid Parental Leave scheme. This will apparently see a focus on low- and middle-income families, as well as “more available and more affordable child care as well.”

As in many policy areas with this apparently “consultative” and “listening” Government, it seems that everyone else in Australia (including the majority of his own party) came to this realisation many, many months ago. Tony Abbott’s stubborn determination to hang on to the original “Rolls-Royce” version of the PPL was turning in to some sort of ongoing performance-art piece on political incompetence.

It’s important to note however that no actual details have been provided regarding any redistribution of funds from PPL to childcare. Presumably Cabinet s sifting through the Productivity Commission’s report into the sector, utilising its incredibly broad and diverse breadth of experience in these kind of issues to develop sensible and considered policies.

(Quick reminder below of the immense diversity and breadth of life experience in Cabinet. I dare anyone to find a group of old white guys more reflective of today’s Australian community than that bunch below.)

Various media outlets are reporting that the “tinkering” will see significantly less money spent on women earning $150,000 and over, with the savings essentially redirected into funding nannies and other in-home care arrangements.

I’ve written before about the complications that would ensue from simply pushing for more nannies. Clearly, the best solution to the issues facing the childcare sector is a well-funded, high-quality and easily accessible early childhood education and care sector. A significant redirection of funds into Long Day Care in particular could reap significant benefits.

We’ll likely know a lot more in early 2015. But given the Government’s track record in other policy announcements, we’ll likely wish we didn’t know a lot more in early 2015.