Can nanny rebate solve our childcare crisis?
Market failure ... Parents are forced to put up with long waiting lists on childcare queues.
When my daughter was less than six weeks old, I made the obligatory rounds of the childcare centres in my locale. Things looked grim. "She should have been registered six months ago," one woman said apologetically (presumably as a four-month-old foetus).
At the childcare centre at my work, there were 300 people in the queue before me. Another said not to bother calling again until she was three. Unless you knew someone, already had a child in care, had exceptional circumstances (single mother for example) or just knew how to ruthlessly monster people into getting what you wanted, there was no childcare.
Eventually, we cobbled together a patchwork solution with the help of family that cost nearly half my take home pay packet and a lot of stress.
The decision of the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, to consider a rebate for hiring a nanny if the Coalition wins office, reported in The Sun-Herald, could not have come at a better time for parents facing our diabolically inadequate childcare system.
Quite simply, there is a market failure in the care of children less than two years old and a shaky market at best for those between two and three.
Part of the problem is tight regulation - undoubtedly necessary to ensure the safety of our most vulnerable treasures, but which comes at a cost. Complying with 1:4 "adult to child" ratios, and stringent health and safety requirements have made childcare an unattractive investment proposition.
Some social conservatives would say women should really stay at home. Only that's not a solution for anyone in the modern world, except those who are not really part of it anyway - hippies, heiresses, wives of the super rich and the catatonically unambitious.
Not many women could or would take a five-year break from their careers and the statistics bear me out. Women now make up 45 per cent of the workforce and the economy benefits from a society in which workplace participation remains high. But despite these demographic shifts, the social infrastructure remains stuck in the 1950s, especially when we compare ourselves with countries such as Germany.
"In Africa, it takes a village to raise a child. But for the tribe of the Upper East Side [of New York], it takes just one person," the nanny played by Scarlett Johansson in the film The Nanny Diaries said.
She looks after a super-rich woman who "neither mothers nor works". But most people who depend on nannies in Sydney are ordinary working types who simply have no other solution.
At present, the government offers a 50 per cent rebate on out-of-pocket childcare expenses. If a similar system could be devised for the cost of hiring a nanny, pressure on the childcare system would ease and more children would be looked after at home.
True, all Abbott has promised is a Productivity Commission inquiry, and any scheme would be expensive.
But the fact he has made the proposal at all shows how desperate the electorate is to find workable solutions to childcare shortages.
For critics of the cost, there is a silver lining to Abbott's proposal. Tax evasion due to "cash in hand" nannies is rife - in Britain, for example, it is estimated by the Financial Times to cost the government £57 million ($88 million) per annum.
A rebate here would offer greater incentive to bring nannies into the tax and workplace relations systems, and add to general revenue.
It would also tackle a generally unmentioned concern about nannies; that it is a demeaning profession, a job, if not for servants, then for the unskilled and powerless. This is a tricky issue, especially for the Labor Party.
No one would be unwise enough to claim nannies in Australia are not exploited by greedy employers, but there is something to be said for a rebate from both a taxation and industrial perspective.
There is no question what is the childcare solution of choice for working mothers in political parties on the Left. The Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young has her nanny travel with her while Nicola Roxon and Tanya Plibersek have said they use nannies to balance the irregular and unpredictable hours of their lives. Abbott's idea is an attractive one that should be seriously considered as a different solution to our impasse over childcare.
It may not be a silver bullet but it will certainly empower parents.
Carmen Michael is an author and editor of the online opinion magazine therival.com.au
FROM Sydney Morning Herald