Bill Shorten’s magic pudding bids fair to put Norman Lindsay’s creation well into the shade. Who knows what tempting goodies it might yield in the forthcoming weeks,but last week it was ‘affordable childcare’. In announcing his latest ‘investment’, Mr Shorten, according to the ABC, focused on how Labor’s announcement would help parents who are struggling to find a childcare place for their child.
“We need to make sure that child care remains affordable, it remains quality and it remains fair,” he said.
“Child care makes the difference as to whether or not mums are able to go to work, whether children get the best start in life.”
That collage of platitudes, typical of Shorten’s contribution to political discourse, sounds harmless, almost desirable, but actually masks a wealth of distortion and confusion. For a start, in order for childcare to ‘remain affordable and fair’ it must already be so. That is highly debatable. Full day care, if you can get a placement, can cost $150 per day. It could be lower and I guess it is in western Sydney, for example, but I suspect this figure would be about average. Whatever the actual number, I doubt it goes lower than $100 per day. Even working on the lower figure, that comes to $500 per week or $24,000 per year.
“Mitchell and Emma” have a child in Outside School Hours Care, quoted at $85 per week, and a younger child in Long Day Care, quoted at $310 per week. Total annual expenditure: $19,800.
The second couple, battlers “Jack and Alisha”, have a similar family but manage to find Long Day Care at $200 per week. Their annual bill is $8,550.
For the uninitiated, there are two forms of child care, er, “investment”, as Bill Shorten would have it: the means-tested Child Care Benefit and the Childcare Rebate. In our examples, Mitchell and Emma don’t qualify for the first but they do get a 50% rebate on their out-of-pocket expenses, up to $7,500, per eligible child. In their case they get back $9,900 of their $19,800. Jack and Alisha also qualify for some Child Care Benefit, in their case $450 for the school-age kid and $1,500 for the pre-schooler. They pay $8,550 and get back $5,280.
But wait a minute. Notice anything? Yes, you got it! These “typical example” couples are certainly not paying “typical example” child-care fees. Let’s forget Outside School Hours Care and concentrate only on Long Day Care. If Mitchell and Emma were paying the more realistic $100 per day, their annual bill would be $24,000 and they would get back $7,500, leaving them to cough up $16,500 for one pre-school child. This is very close to the annual school fees for Year K-2 at prestigious Newington College in Sydney. Their pre-rebate expense of $24,000 would cover the cost of their kid’s Year 5-6 tuition at Newington. And, as noted, good luck to them finding a Long Day Care facility that costs as little as $100 per day, let alone actually scoring a placement.
So the highly unrealistic examples in the leaflet are just fig leaves that allow government to claim child care is affordable. Truth is that it is not affordable for parents and it is not affordable for taxpayers. According to The Australian, in 2005 the federal government spent $1.5 billion on childcare subsidies, comprising the Howard government’s new means-tested childcare benefit and the non-means tested childcare rebate. This year those two subsidies cost $7.5 billion, which is a large chunk of a $40 billion deficit. Childcare fees have increased 26% over the past three years alone.
Shorten’s proposal, principally to increase the cap on the rebate to $10,000, would cost the taxpayer another $3bn per year and still leave real world’s Mitch and Emma $14,000 out of pocket.
So let’s hear no more about affordable child care.
The reason it’s so unaffordable, and will continue to be so regardless of how much of your money governments of both persuasion throw at it, is down to the notion of ‘early childhood learning’. Child care must now be delivered by tertiary-qualifiedtrained early childhood learning specialists. That sounds like a good thing, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t all kids have it?
But what about fairness? If Emma doesn’t want to go to work but would rather care for young Ruby herself, is it likely that she will be delivering an ‘early childhood learning’ program. Is she neglecting her child in some crucial area of development? Fact is, “early childhood learning” is a luxury, not a necessity.
Mothers work for one (or possibly a combination) of three reasons:
- To get ahead of the game financially
- To make ends meet
The first two are life-style choices – the ‘I can have it all’ mentality. A career and a family. Well good luck to you, but if the price of your lifestyle comes out of my pocket, then we have a problem. But isn’t it important to get more women into our workforce because ‘that will help to grow the economy’? Really, why? If there are jobs to be filled and qualified people to fill them, what does it matter if they are male or female?
Now factor in the credentialism and academic empire-building that has re-classified child-minders as “early educators” and boosted pay rates accordingly. With the increasing interference and involvement of government, the child-care industry has burgeoned from a cottage industry that worked well and met the needs of its customers to a multi-billion dollar rent-seeking boondoggle that evokes the greed, lobbying and chicanery of renewable energy promoters.
Think about it. They both have fine sounding aims – ‘to save the planet AND develop the jobs of the future’ on one hand and ‘to ensure equal opportunity for women in the workforce’ on the other. And they both exist solely on the basis that government fiat and subsidies allow them to foist their over-priced products on customers, most of whom would not otherwise choose to buy them.
There are two ways to approach this problem. Continue bestowing government largesse in ever-larger sums, which will only entrench the inequity, or reduce child-care costs. The best way to do the latter would be to de-regulate the industry and break the nexus between care and early childhood learning.
When my kids were growing up there was a very nice lady who lived in our town. Her name was Ruth. Her husband, Bob, was an accountant, from memory, but he could not work because he suffered from Parkinsons. Ruth and Bob got by looking after children in their home and backyard. They looked after the kids well, and the kids enjoyed themselves. They didn’t charge much, but they had a good customer base and it allowed them to maintain a reasonable lifestyle. Sadly, Ruth would not be able to operate today.
We’re told that kids who receive early childhood learning do better than kids who don’t. That may or may not be true, but are we talking about an educational issue or a work issue? If we believe that the current model of child care is necessary because it provides an educational outcome, then we need to re-examine the whole premise of our education system. If the educational outcome is a valuable by-product, then why is it fair that it should be available only to those who wish to work or to those stay-at-home mums who can afford to stump up the outrageous fees without any offsetting work income? Is that, in any way, ‘fair’?
Shorten’s other claim – that child care makes the difference as to whether or not mums are able to go to work, whether children get the best start in life – is eerily Marxist. It suggests that Mums, having availed themselves of the indulgence of childbirth should get back to work and get the kids into state care tout de suite where they can get proper tuition from idealistic young carers (no doubt appropriately trained in the latest LBGTI and gender-fluidity agendas). God forbid that the kids should remain under the malign influence of their mums, who might expose them in their uncredentialled ignorance to the racism of Noddy or the heteronormativity of, say, John and Betty.
Meanwhile, Bill Shorten’s unionised child-care mates will continue to find that storybook pot of gold at the bottom of taxpayers’ pockets.