Why is funding childcare so hard to prioritise?

Families want the childcare to be local, to be affordable, to be flexible.

Families want the childcare to be local, to be affordable, to be flexible. Photo: Stocksy

We do not need to save any money in order to buy submarines.

We do not need to save any money to fund innovation.

We do not need to save any money to fund company tax cuts.

But hold on! We do need to save money if we want to fund childcare.

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Of all the strange peculiarities of policy making, this might be the very strangest. That funding some policies allows you to spend without a care in the world. And funding other policies requires you to pinch money from Paula to pay Peta the parent. 

And this is how it is with funding childcare. The Coalition says we can only fund childcare if we can save the money somewhere else.

It took a very long time for childcare to make headlines in Australia. Such a long time. In 1985, when we had our first baby, paying for childcare was our responsibility – and our responsibility only. We were on two entry level wages and couldn't find a childcare spot to save ourselves. There were no available grandmas to step into the breach. So it was that we used the envelope method.

Money for the wonderful woman Helen Miller who came into our lives to look after our small ones. Money for the mortgage. Money for bills and food.

When the Keating Childcare Cash Rebate came into our lives in 1994, I remember heading into Medicare with the handwritten receipts from the childcare, handing them over and getting actual cash in return. I remember leaving the office, in the bowels of a worn shopping centre, and crying. We'd spent nine years struggling with the cost of childcare and now we were getting some help.

This is all families want. Some help.

When Australia's busiest childcare researcher speaks to families about what they want, the themes are always the same. Jennifer Baxter, a senior research fellow at the Australian Institute of Family Studies, says families want the childcare to be local, to be affordable, to be flexible – and the last is particularly true for nurses and police officers. Most important, it's got to be high quality.

So is there a single political party who can deliver what families need?

Yes. No. Possibly. Ben Phillips, an associate professor at the Australian National University's Centre for Social Research and Methods, has a very clear picture of what the childcare policies of the two major parties will offer.

"There are winners and losers from the Coalition policy but only winners or no change from the Labor policy," he says. And as for funding the policies? Phillips says that the Coalition's policy is more finely tuned.

"It would satisfy an economist more than it might satisfy from the perspective of social policy or child health."

So what's the go? Labor is proposing to spend $3 billion. It will lift the annual cap on the child care rebate to $10,000 for each child and increase the Child Care Benefit by 15 per cent, starting in January next year if they win. The Coalition will spend that much money too but won't start until at least a year later, although the Prime Minister did say earlier this week that the policy could be fast-tracked if the next Senate agrees to pass the budget cuts he says are necessary to fund the plan. See what I mean?

The other unpleasant aspect of the Coalition's policy will be the impact of what it calls the activity test – and that will really hurt some families and their kids – by having very strict limits on who can access what care. The activity test sets the number of work or study hours parents must complete before they can access childcare subsidies. As Phillips puts it, the Coalition activity test could make nearly 150,000 families worse off . The Coalition's own figures say it's just 37,000. But if it's even that many, that's the kids in 37,000 families who don't get access.

So even if you think, wow, the Coalition's going to help you, you'd have to also think about the families it is leaving in the lurch.

So are there any alternatives? There used to be. Grandmas and grandpas used to look after the kids. Now they have other things they have to do – like stay at work to fund their own retirement and I reckon I couldn't afford to stay at home to look after my putative grandchildren for at least another five years. John Cherry, the advocacy manager for Goodstart Early Learning, one of Australia's biggest childcare providers, says that the rate of informal care is trending downwards, precisely because of grandparents like me.

So will women be forced to stay at home? The fact is that families still consider the role of the mother to be the one that's flexible, if childcare isn't available, suitable, good enough, close enough. As Jennifer Baxter says, when the babies come, it will be the mother changes her work pattern.

"Mums tend to be really engaged. The dads are part of the solution, dropping off, picking up, but it will be the mum who cuts back at work and goes part-time."

As John Cherry from Goodstart puts it, working women who get child care assistance pay more in tax than they receive in child care assistance. That's one simple equation for governments which say they want women to participate in workforce.

Affordable childcare – one way to make it possible for women to return to work.

It will pay for itself and you won't need to ditch those submarines. Or anything else. Childcare is an investment in the future, caring and educating tomorrow's taxpayers.

Facebook.com/jennapricejournalist / @jennaprice