Can Scott Morrison fix childcare? Admittedly, it’s hard to fathom how someone who was happy to use the release of children from detention as a bargaining chip to get legislation passed, could be appointed as the person with responsibility for childcare in the first place, let alone, succeed at it.
On the face of it, the appointment makes about as much sense as having a bloke with a documented history of sexism serve as the Minister for Women.
But leaving aside his decisions in the immigration portfolio, can Morrison really succeed in the nigh-on-impossible task his boss has bequeathed him? In announcing Morrison’s appointment just before Christmas, the Prime Minister Tony Abbott said that the promoted minister would take responsibility for crafting “an holistic families package”. He has said this would involve a better targeted paid parental leave scheme and “increased and improved” childcare.
Ever since he announced a Productivity Commission Inquiry into Childcare, Abbott has led the Australian public into believing that he will be able to make childcare more affordable and more accessible to ensure that more women can enter the workforce. But without radical, transformative change, he and any minister – ruthless or otherwise – will struggle to get it right.
The Department of Education has released figures predicting childcare fee increases of 30% over the next four years. The bill for Government expenditure via the Child Care Benefit and Child Care Rebate has also been predicted to increase by more than 25% a year by the end of the forward estimates.
So the incoming minister been given the contradictory goals of increasing the amount of childcare, whilst also making it cheaper and reining in the budget outgoings. How can anyone, least of all Scott Morrison, possibly manage this panoply of aims?
The answer probably doesn’t involve picking up any of the Productivity Commission’s suggestions, unless their suggestions have improved substantially from their draft to final report. A possible solution to the childcare problem could be found in a simultaneously simple, but profoundly radical, suggestion.
Let’s start off with some questions. When was the last time you heard a parent of a school-aged child complain about being unable to find a school for said child? (Other than those who intended to put their offspring’s name on a waiting list at some ritzy private school within a few minutes of his or her conception, but forgot?)
When was the last time you heard a parent of a school-aged child decide to quit their job because the cost of schooling is so high it just isn’t worth their while to stay in the workforce?
Have you ever heard of parents of school-aged children calling on grandparents and nannies to look after their children because they couldn’t find a place in a school for love or money? Or heard of parents with their names on multiple school waiting lists, hoping against hope to get in to any of them?
Never? This is because our state and territory governments are responsible for ensuring that every child has access to a school. The Commonwealth government then provides the funding and, somehow, this system works. Children get a guaranteed place in a school near where they live at a minimal cost to their parents. (The better off can choose to go elsewhere, but given the latest HSC results, they are clearly mad if they do.)
Having a child in an institution from 9am to 3pm generally allows parents to participate in the workforce, with a bit of aftercare thrown in to round the hours out to something that equates a bit more to working hours.
Schools provide education, but also care for children. And this is exactly what younger children also need. A place to learn (because this is what children do when they are young) and a place where they are cared for while their parents are at work.
There are three main differences in how we fund and provide early education and care and schooling. The first is that schools are funded directly. Our early education and care centres aren’t – it is the parents that use them receive funding in the form of Child Care Benefit and Child Care Rebate. The second is that no schools run for-profit. Not so our childcare centres. The third is that State Governments are responsible for ensuring that supply meets demand in the education system.
These three differences make the difference between a functioning system of educating and caring for children and one that isn’t working as it needs to. But in moving early education and care out of the education department and into human services, the example of a functioning system that Scott Morrison could learn from and model from is outside of his domain. Without this, it’s going to be harder for him to get it right.
There is one other thing, in particular, that I’d like to advise Scott Morrison against in transitioning from immigration to childcare. Unless he really, really, wants to anger the mothers and fathers of Australia, he ought to avoid making any suggestiong that babies go back to where they came from.