Ever since Tony Abbott, leader of the Opposition, announced his plan last weekend to consider an extension of the childcare rebate to include in-home carers – or nannies – there’s been a flurry of activity, criticism, misinformation and debate from politicians, journos and the general public. Perhaps it’s time we all took a deep breath and considered the reality of his proposition.
Last year on International Women’s Day I launched a petition – Make Care Fair – to get childcare back onto the political agenda. It came after research I conducted into the impact of childcare on women’s careers – 48% of women said the cost of childcare negatively hit their career but not their partner’s career.
And after almost two years of researching, talking about and reporting on childcare options for Australian families, I know that a lot more. I also know that what Abbott is proposing is exactly what hundreds and thousands of Australians have told me they want (in my earliest research 86% of women said they would give their vote to the party with a better policy on childcare for working families – it’s clearly a hot public issue).
Yet Kate Ellis, Minister for Childcare, has dismissed Abbott’s suggestions as nothing more than middle class welfare, a thought bubble. "I think that when we have a look at nannies we see that they're often chauffeurs, they're often chefs . . . some of them do ironing, some of them do the washing and the household chores," said Ellis on Tuesday. “This new policy is undeveloped and uncosted and will hit hard-working, low-income families who rely on childcare the hardest."
This kind of politicking drives me crazy. Who is it really appealing to? And how does it help families, kids or the productivity of Australia?
I know absolutely - from my research and experience – that there are too many myths and misconceptions about childcare and nannies and the haves and the have-nots. It’s time we set the record straight.
Myth #1: Nannies are for the super-rich. Wrong. I’ve received 2,000 signatures and comments on the Make Care Fair petition and many of the contributors paint a picture of working class families who are struggling – financially, emotionally and logistically. One woman told me she sold the family car to pay for childcare (the bond payment just to SECURE a childcare place is in the thousands of dollars at some centres). Many former defence force personnel said they left work because they couldn’t find childcare to suit their working hours. And hundreds of regular, working class families have commented saying they use nannies and in-home care because it’s the only option given their long commute times, the impossibility of navigating pre-school wait lists or of holding down a full time job when work hours and school hours are at a complete mismatch.
Myth #2: The current system is affordable and works. Wrong. Ask anyone what the greatest obstacle is to getting back to work after kids, and they’ll tell you it’s the availability of quality, affordable care. The waitlists for daycare places are out of control. The number of parents who’ve told me they cannot get places in their local daycare centres is stunning. Unless of course you can actually choose the hours and days that you work – and therefore take an odd random day that might be available – which most of us can’t). Dozens of nurses have told me they couldn’t work – even part time – after having kids because no childcare centres open for shift workers’ hours (and in any case who wants to take their child to an unfamiliar place while they’re doing night shift?) And as to affordability – yes if you’re on the lowest income levels you’ll get government subsidization of your fees. Anyone above the “average” income will pay full tote odds, which means upward of $140 per child per day in major capital cities. No wonder parents tell me that it’s not worth it – financially – for the second parent to work once childcare is factored in. Even when that second parent WANTS to continue her career.
Myth #3: Government knows best. Wrong. Parents know what’s best for their family, always have and always will. Many policy makers say that daycare centres are better for kids than the “unregulated care” that nannies provide. For the record, I’m a fan of the daycare system – which is why I currently spend 3 hours daily driving my son to and from pre-school in the nearest country town. But it doesn’t cover the after business hours requirements of my work – or the times when I’m required to travel – and I know many of you are in the same boat. And for some parents, in-home care is the only option that brings the peace of mind they need to perform well at work. Particularly with very young children who are still building their immunity, and in the early days as parents transition back to work and get used to leaving their little ones. If parents seek more individualized service, in line with their needs, during these times then who’s to say it’s a bad thing?
Myth #4: Childcare support – and nanny rebates – devalue the role of stay at home parents. Rubbish. According to some, Tony Abbott’s suggested review of the childcare system denies parents the choice of staying at home and raising their children themselves. “Why would anyone want to raise their own children if they could hire a nanny to do it for them?” This is just nonsensical. Parents who choose to stay out of the workforce while raising their kids do so for a variety of reasons, mostly personal, and no one is saying they can’t do that. And if others choose to work – and get a fraction of their costs back through the rebate system – well why should it (or would it) influence another parent’s choices. But here’s the thing: working and raising kids are not mutually exclusive. It’s 2012 – not 1950 – and we need to stop judging, take perspective and have faith in the choices we make. Irrespective of what others think, say or do.
Myth #5: Childcare support is just middle class welfare. Read any of the articles on this issue and you’ll always find comments posted along the lines of “parents choose to have kids; why should society pay for it?” Well that depends on what you’re asking society to pay for. A Joint Senate Committee into Childcare in 2006 found that for every $1 the Government spent in this area, they get back $1.86 in revenue from improved participation rates. So it does make financial sense. Limiting childcare support to those on low or no incomes removes an important incentive to get higher earners back into the workforce and contributing to the tax-funded system in the first place. But remember, it’s just an incentive, a token gesture: at present the childcare rebate is 50% of fees paid, to a MAXIMUM amount of $7500 per year. The full amount of childcare fees is not covered – which in the case of a full time place in a childcare centre will be over $30,000 per child per year (from after tax earnings) in our major cities. A nanny costs a lot more and NO ONE is considering for a moment that the full amounts be covered by the tax payer.
I could continue for days on this issue – and I haven’t even touched on the reasons why women would CHOOSE to work after kids (there are many and it’s a separate issue to why we should support that desire on their part).
Really, let’s open our eyes and ears on this issue and consider why so many have said they support Abbott’s suggestion of a complete rethink on childcare. Without doubt, it’s time.