Parents are supposed to love their children. Watching that love played out in public warms most people’s hearts. A mother gently kissing her baby’s head, or a young couple reaching for each other’s hands as they walk down the street pushing a pram.
Watching Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s love for his daughters, however, can sometimes make me feel a bit squirmy. Knowing that his expensive paid parental leave plan was designed around what he thought would work best for his daughters feels like too narrow a focus for the man responsible for working out how to get more Australian women back into the workforce post childbirth.
Could it be that he is championing the wrong answer? Would better quality childcare, rather than paid parental leave be the answer?
There is no doubt that Abbott’s daughters are ‘women of calibre’ and they may well be the sort of women that he is keen to keep in paid employment. But is having a gold plated paid parental leave system the best way to get Bridget, Frances and Louise back into the workforce after they have had a baby?
The intensity of having a baby and the sheer love you feel for this bundle of needs can change a mother’s original plans on returning to work. I used to work in a childcare centre with a very large waiting list. Woman after woman would come in while pregnant with the plan of returning to work as soon as possible after the birth of their babies. The story changed after the birth. They often delayed their return to work. They just could not imagine leaving their precious baby anywhere.
If our aim is to increase women’s participation in the workforce we need to invest in making sure our childcare centres (or early learning and care centres as they are rightfully now called) are of such high quality that women are truly comfortable with entrusting them with the care of the person they are programmed to love and protect at all costs. There is no doubt that a generous parental leave scheme is good for gender equity and will also encourage greater female participation in the workforce. And with Australia’s female participation rate sitting at just 65% (in 2011/2012), we clearly need all the help we can get.
But any new policy, especially an expensive one, comes with an opportunity cost: another policy can’t be funded because of our investment in this one.
In the last few years Australia has taken great steps to improve the quality of our early learning and care services. We have increased the ratios of staff to children and increased the qualifications we require educators to have. But more needs to be done. We need to make our services places that families are truly comfortable with. Places that they can leave their child without guilt.
A quarter of Australia’s childcare centres have been rated under the new system that assesses their quality. Services are rated as ‘Working Towards, Meeting or Exceeding the National Quality Standard’ – the standard that outlines the quality of early education and care that services must provide to children and families. More than 58% of those that have been rated have been rated as Meeting or Exceeding the Standard.
This does not mean that a portion of our childcare services is bad. The whole aim of the new rating system is to drive quality improvement. But quality improvement costs. Unless there is more money put into the system it will not be possible to make every childcare centre a place mothers are truly able to leave their child without residual guilt.
Meanwhile, we also need more funding to make sure that there is a childcare centre place for every family that wants one, but that is a whole different story.
What would any money for improving childcare services be used on? Increasing the skills of educators and employing more of them. Paying the wages that will attract people with high level qualifications and skills (including men!) to work in early education and care. Improving and renovating the buildings that house our centres — they have been starved of funds for years.
Prime Minister Abbott, your daughters may well benefit from paid parental leave. But it is likely that your grandchildren will be in childcare for much longer than they will be looked after at home by their mothers. And you may not know it yet, but when your first grandchild is placed in your arms you will love him or her as fiercely as you love your girls. You will want that grandchild (and any subsequent ones) to have the absolute best childcare available.
So what about putting some of that money that the Commission of Audit says is too excessive for paid parental leave into ensuring that we have world class, guilt free childcare?
This would benefit not just your daughters, but your grandchildren. (And maybe even ours too!)