Any minute now the 2022 Federal Election will be called. On a soon-to-be designated Saturday in May every Australian aged 18 and over will be expected to exercise their democratic right and cast a vote to determine the composition of the next Federal parliament.
Every election in every democracy matters. Is it hyperbolic to say that in 2022 the election matters more than ever before? Is it outlandish to observe that the junction Australians face in May of 2022 is fundamentally different from what we faced in May of 2019?
The last time we went to the polls to elect a federal government feels like a lifetime ago. It was before the catastrophic Black Summer bushfires that ravaged so many parts of the country.
It was before a pandemic rendered life as we knew it redundant in ways few of us ever imagined. It was before we became familiar with lock down orders. Daily press conferences. Hard international and state borders enforced. Schools and parks and shops and offices closed. Supermarket shelves emptied. Curfews imposed. Contact tracing. JobKeeper. Fee-free childcare. Quarantine periods and isolation being the norm. Remote learning. Death by Zoom. PCR testing queues. Rapid Antigen Tests.
It was before multiple once-in-a-hundred year flood events decimated the northern rivers in NSW and parts of South-East Queensland. It was before the devastating impacts of rising temperatures began wreaking havoc before our very eyes in real time. It was before the IPCC declared it is now “now or never” for climate action.
It was before a number of shocking allegations of sexual harassment and assault inside Federal parliament became public. It was before more than 100,000 Australians took to the streets to protest the treatment of women and march for justice.
Whichever way you cut it, the May 2022 Federal Election will be different because we are a different nation in a different world.
It was shortly before the May 2019 Election I joined the board of a not-for-profit advocacy organisation called The Parenthood. I knew of the organisation, that represents parents and carers around the country and pursues positive policies for families, because of work I’d done here at Women’s Agenda, but also in the now-Nine newspapers, at Mamamia and at Marie Claire. In July of 2020 I stepped into the role of Executive Director, keen to campaign around two key policy reforms in particular: adequate paid parental leave and access to quality affordable early childhood education and care.
My professional interest in paid parental leave and early childhood education and care policy settings was first piqued in 2011 while I was working as a junior reporter at Business Review Weekly. It was my curiosity about the stubborn gender gap – in pay, leadership roles and representation – that led me there and it was the backing of a female editor that enabled me to cover the subjects extensively.
Now, full disclosure, my personal and professional interests collided at that point. Trying to find suitable and affordable childcare for our first child was illuminating, in a practical sense, about the challenges families, but particularly mums, face in combining work and care.
I’ve written about our experiences countless times: from the only spot for our daughter being in the CBD and having to take it despite neither my husband or I working in the CBD, from spending more on childcare than we spent on rent, from not being able to get our two daughters into the same service. I know a version of these experiences are universal because our members tell us. Personally and professionally over the last decade I have collected countless anecdotes from mums and dads about how hard it is to be able to raise a family and provide for them.
In cities and in regional towns right around the country parents struggle to either afford or access suitable childcare. Mums and dads remain discriminated against when they request flexibility to juggle their responsibilities. An inadequate and outdated paid parental leave scheme puts women and men on markedly different paths, even in 2022, from the moment a child is conceived.
Once these structural barriers are seen they are impossible to unsee. It’s why, a full decade later, I remain as fixated on two key issues as I was back when I was – literally – juggling a toddler and a baby.
At The Parenthood we have more than 77,000 parents and carers in our membership and our mission is to make Australia the best place in the world to be a parent. It’s our mission because when parents and carers are supported children can thrive and our communities will be stronger. It’s an unapologetically ambitious mission. In different realms Australia is, and has been, a world leader so why would we shy away from being world leading in the manner in which we support children?
Our children are, quite literally, our future. Supporting children starts with supporting their parents and carers and right now Australia lags the developed world in providing children, parents and carers with the support they need.
In a 2021 UNICEF report comparing the 41 richest countries in the world, Australia ranked:
- 37th out of 41 on access to Paid Parental Leave
- 34th out of 41 on access to Early Childhood Education and Care (for birth-3 year olds)
- 34th out of 40 on affordability of ECEC
A 2020 UNICEF report analysing child wellbeing ranked Australia 32nd among 41 OECD and EU countries and found we are “falling short in delivering consistently good health, education and social outcomes for children”.
Australian parents pay the 4th most expensive early learning & care fees in the world. Despite being ranked number 1 for educational attainment for women and girls, we rank 70th for female workforce participation. The latter is connected to the former.
In February 2021 more than 140,000 Australians wanted to work but didn’t apply because they can’t access or afford childcare.
The children who would benefit the most from quality early learning remain those least likely to attend.
One in 5 kids in Australia arrive at school behind and they rarely catch up. It’s two in five for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and among children living in rural Australia. Children who go to early learning are half as likely to arrive at school behind. For every dollar we spend on quality early learning we get at least $2 in return.
Almost three quarters of all early educators are planning on leaving the sector in the next 3 years. Early learning services around the country cannot find the staff they need so are closing rooms as I write.
Is it any surprise this cohort of workers who have spent two years on the frontline of a pandemic are exhausted, burnt out and fed up? Can you blame them for leaving when you consider that a bricklayer with the same level qualifications as an early educator takes home $2070 a week while an educator gets $953?
If parents can’t work because it’s too expensive, if not enough kids are attending and getting the benefits and the workforce is leaving – who exactly is our Early Childhood Education & Care system working for?
Expanded paid parental leave and access to affordable, quality early childhood education and care might not solve ALL of the problems we are facing as a nation in 2022. They cannot, sadly, remedy the climate crisis.
But these reforms can – and will – transform the lives of children, women, families and the nation for the better. They will set children up for lifelong advantage. They will reduce inequity, create employment, level the playing field for mums, support dads, improve women’s safety and generate national prosperity. In health, social, educational and economic terms there are no other reforms with the capacity to transform our nation like paid parental leave and access to quality early childhood education and care.
This is, sadly, not new information. The evidence has been abundant and incontrovertible for decades. What has eluded us is a willingness to accept it and a commitment to deliver. There are positive signs this is changing and now is the moment to demand it. It will be harder for the next Federal parliament to ignore the need for change.
In May when we go to the polls we all have a choice to make about the future of this country. Despite attempts to dismiss The Parenthood as a partisan organisation, we’re not. We’re fiercely independent and doggedly policy-focused.
We will work enthusiastically and constructively with any government – at a State or Federal level – that shares our vision to deliver a better deal for children, parents, carers and families. Not through platitudes but through bold policy and reform.
How any Australian chooses to vote is their democratic prerogative. Between now and May at The Parenthood we’ll urge you to think about your vote and to ask the candidates in your seat where they stand on these issues. Australia cannot afford to ignore children any longer.