Australia’s business community should be thinking long-term about childcare investment

We didn’t get a lot more information about the Government’s planned “families package” at the Press Club yesterday, but we do now know that Tony Abbott’s signature Paid Parental Leave scheme is – to coin a phrase – dead, buried and cremated.

Which leaves a rather large sum of money now up for grabs, funded by a 1.5% levy on some of Australia’s largest companies. Predictably, the business community has insisted that since the PPL is gone, the levy should be gone as well.

The Government has made no mention of what will become of this levy, though it seems reasonably clear given Tony Abbott’s address and Scott Morrison’s recent media comments that it will be kept and redirected in some way to the childcare budget.

The members of the business community quoted are flatly stating that any additional funding of childcare is the Government’s responsibility. I am fine with this argument in a broad sense, and indeed strongly advocate for full Government funding of all forms of early childhood education and care.

But this is still a cop-out from Australia’s businesses. The potential short-term increases to workforce participation (particularly for women), and the enormous long-term improvements to the economy are now almost universally accepted. Business has a chance to be a real part of the solution in ensuring that childcare is affordable, accessible and of high quality.

In the heady days of 2014, when members of the Government tended to laugh until they cried when anyone suggested they increase investment in childcare, I wrote that the sector may find a possible partner in Australia’s business community. This sprung from the Business Council of Australia’s submission to the Productivity Commission enquiry into the sector which strongly advocated for a much stronger childcare sector.

For the business community to now simply turn around and say “not our problem”, while demanding that the Government provide billions of dollars worth of tax breaks, incentives and other financial palliatives to support them is more than a little hypocritical.

Business leaders have made a habit recently of complaining about the short-term nature of politics, which doesn’t look beyond the next term. They should start looking beyond the scrapping of a levy that isn’t even in place yet, and think long term about what sensible structural reform to Australia’s childcare sector could mean for the entire community.

The Curious Case of Scott Morrison

It’s been a whirlwind week. Almost every political analyst in the country is predicting the end of Tony Abbott’s Prime Ministership, sooner rather than later. After years of crowing over the ALP’s internal squabbles, the LNP is finding out firsthand how quickly things can implode.

But I may have just reached the level of my credulity. Minster for Social Services Scott Morrison has made policy decisions that are sensible, obvious and may possibly result in better outcomes for children and families. I’m pinching myself to make sure I’m not dreaming.

In quick succession, Morrison has all but confirmed that the 1.5% levy on large businesses initially earmarked to pay for Tony Abbott’s signature Paid Parental Leave scheme will be redirected to better targeted childcare assistance. He has cancelled the ridiculous (and ridiculously expensive) “Stronger Families” program and will redirect the $17M to frontline social services. He has also postponed proposed changes to Family Day Care regulations that would have affected FDC educators enrolling their own children.

When Scott Morrison was announced in December as the new Minister responsible for childcare (as part of a revamped Social Services portfolio), it is fair to say that positive and reasoned decision-making was not the first thing that we were expecting. His time as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection was marked by the relentless and harsh treatment of vulnerable asylum seekers, including children. Using blunt force and operating largely outside of Australia’s ethical, moral and possibly legal obligations, Morrison is credited with “solving” the problem of the boat people.

Given dominant Australian attitudes to asylum seekers, this was never going to cause him any real problems. Most Australians wanted this to happen, and Morrison seemed to revel in the backlash amongst social justice campaigners and advocates.

My initial thoughts in December was that this approach would fall flat on its face with social policy. Australians have no problem at will harsh and damaging measures directed at “irregular maritime arrivals”, but would not countenance similar measures at home. To my surprise, Morrison seems to have quickly realised this.

There are few potential options worth considering with regards to these seemingly significant change of approach. The first is that Morrison is the first real indication of the Government’s overall “reset” to its political approach. Working closely with Tony Abbott and the rest of the Cabinet, Morrison is evidence that the Government will significantly and fundamentally recalibrate its way of doing business.

The second (and, to my mind, far more likely given the last week), is that Morrison is re-positioning his political image as a moderate as part of a potential run at the Liberal leadership. Morrison is considered one of the only three real contenders to replace Abbott, along with Julie Bishop and Malcolm Turnball. Of the three he’d be last in the running by most estimates. Positioning himself as a moderate on these issues during this time is a politically smart move for Morrison, particularly if Abbott is determined to dig in on his current approach.

We’ll know more after Tony Abbott’s address to the National Press Club tomorrow, but regardless of all the speculation in this post, we can at least be certain that Scott Morrison may be very surprising in his new role – and not in the way we had all assumed.

Exclusive Transcript: Scott Morrison’s First Press Conference as Minister Responsible for Child Care

[Minister arrives.]

MORRISON: Good afternoon, everyone. I’m thrilled with my appointment as the Minister responsible with implementing this Government’s much-needed reforms to the social and community sector. I’m particularly excited to get to grips with child care, something I’ve had some limited, mostly island-based, experience in. Well, limiting for the children anyway.

I want to assure the Australian people that I will be bringing the same clear, decisive leadership I brought to the Immigration portfolio right over to child care. I think I’ve demonstrated that I care a great deal about the education of every child, whether they’re in a tent or a cell block.

But I want to be really clear here. The chaotic days of our early education centres being swamped by illegal arrivals –

ADVISOR: Children, Minister.

MORRISON: Sorry, children – still getting my head around the new terminology, folks! – the days of children swamping our child care system are now over. I have statistics that under the previous Government, over 1 million children were swamping the borders of our child care centres.

JOURNALIST: Minister what do you say to those who say seeking early education is a human right and is entirely legal?

MORRISON: Well look I’m not going to run commentary on the usual bleeding-heart nonsense that goes along with these debates. I’ve got a job to do and I’m getting on with it. But the current rate of arrivals in child care clearly cannot continue. I think the voters would agree that we have been given a  strong mandate to implement our policies. Particularly the ones that harm children, they voted for those ones specifically.

JOURNALIST: Minister are you worried about how these policies are perceived by the international community? Australian early education takes in a small amount of children compared to other developed countries.

MORRISON: Let me be really clear here, Australia is a generous and respected member of the international community. But I will not stand by and let that generosity be taken advantage of by these illegal, queue-jumping children! Australia has a proper process and system to access early education that must be followed.

JOURNALIST: What is that process again?

MORRISON: Be rich and hire a nanny. Not that hard, people!

Now, in terms of other significant policy changes we will be introducing. Assessment & Rating of services will now be streamlined from the current 7 Quality Areas and 58 Standards to three questions. A determination is then made by myself, with no capacity for review. Should speed things up quite a bit, we reckon.

I’m confident that we will succeed very shortly in stemming the tide of young children receiving an education. No further questions, ever.

[Minister drops mic and leaves.]