On childcare, we can’t ‘waste the crisis’ and go back to the old system

On childcare, we can’t ‘waste the crisis’ and go back to the old system

These are indeed extraordinary times.

In a remarkable turn of events, yesterday Education Minister Dan Tehan urged the parents of Australia to send their little comrades to kindy.

Well, not quite.

But he did announce that all childcare – yes, essentially all — would be free from Sunday night onwards for the next three months, with the strong possibility that the new arrangements would remain in place for as long as six months.

“These are extraordinary times,” the Minister told the ABC’s Patricia Karvelas in an interview shortly after he announced the measures as part of a Government package to help prop up Australia’s childcare sector, which is ailing in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

These are indeed extraordinary times.

It is hard to believe that the Dan Tehan who appeared on Karvelas’ programme yesterday is the same Dan Tehan who less than a year ago called Labor’s pre-election proposed changes to the childcare sector — which included subsidies that would see free childcare offered to the majority of families earning up to $69,000, higher subsidies for families on incomes up to $174,000, and a commitment to address the appallingly low wages of early years educators in the female dominated sector — “a fast track to a socialist, if not a communist, economy”.

Fast forward eleven months – it’s been exactly eleven months since I wrote about those comments — and it’s a new world!

A combination of the Jobkeeper payment announced earlier this week and yesterday’s proposed simplification of the current labyrinthine childcare payments system goes further in achieving all those ends than even Labor dared to dream less than a year ago.

There is nothing like a crisis to shift deeply entrenched, and downright stubborn, ideologically held views about essential services, particularly the Government’s role in providing and funding those services.

Having lived in the UK for seven years, I never thought I would see the day a Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson sang the praises of the NHS, but here we are.

That said, my advice to Mr. Tehan and his comrade Morrison (I know, I know… am I the only one finding it difficult to resist the socialist jokey asides?) is to heed the advice of another Conservative British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who famously said, “Never waste a good crisis.”

And in that regard, we might also learn from history.

During World War II in the United States, another time of great disruption when women were needed in manufacturing jobs as men were shipped off to the front, President Franklin Roosevelt funnelled funding from a wartime infrastructure bill to create and run a network of child-care centres. Without these, there would have been no Rosie the Riveter.

It cost just US $10 a day in today’s dollars. The quality was high, attracting and retaining trained teachers with low child to teacher ratios. And research showed it improved children’s educationemployment and earnings later in life, in addition to the obvious immediate imperative to increase and support women’s workforce participation rates and boost overall economic productivity. (These are all also outcomes, coronavirus or no coronavirus, that Australia might consider worthy goals in and of themselves.)

Unfortunately, President Harry S. Truman shut the childcare centres down shortly after Japan surrendered. And judging by Mr. Tehan’s interview on the ABC yesterday, he hopes to follow Truman’s lead. “We would love to be able to go back to the system we previously had in place,” he said.

To put it mildly, that would be a huge mistake.

Just a few short weeks into this global crisis, it has already become a cliché to say that there will be two very different worlds: the one before coronavirus and the one after. Nothing will ever be the same again, and why should our approach to childcare be any different?

Mr. Tehan cannot credibly claim to be ignorant of the fact that the system is already broken.

Just a mere two months ago (though these days a week can seem like a year), the Sydney Morning Herald and Age reported that the federal government’s $2.5 billion childcare package had dried up for some parents just 18 months after its introduction because operators were driving up prices more than three times faster than the rate of inflation.

According to the report, Mr. Tehan was so concerned about how the Government’s “signature” childcare policy was being eroded that he announced he was meeting with operators to find “new” ways to keep a lid on prices while he commissioned a review of key parts of the system.

At the time, I gently pointed out that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Many, present company included, had pointed out at the time of the childcare package’s introduction that price increases would quickly erode the benefit to parents. Why commission a costly review to deliver a collective, “I told you so”?

Now events have clearly overtaken that proposed “review”.

Truman and the US missed a valuable opportunity to capitalise on a well-resourced, world class childcare system that could have further underpinned the country’s post war economic recovery. Only recently, as out of control costs and a lack of availability turned America’s “childcare crisis into an economic crisis” of lowered workforce participation and productivity, as Bryce Covert saliently wrote in the New York Times, did the issue once again attain national prominence with most of the Democratic presidential hopefuls pitching the return of universal childcare to voters.

Let’s not be so foolish.

Kristine Ziwica is a regular contributor. She tweets @KZiwica

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