One of the interesting facets of this week’s surprising outbreak of foreign policy on the national political scene is that it has obscured a range of domestic issues that, in the ordinary run of affairs, would be given much more scrutiny.
There are a swag of these, many of them driven by the government’s inability to wrangle favourable votes from the minor parties in the Senate.
The best example is the recent Productivity Commission report on Australia’s childcare and early education system, released this week.
This report deserves to be a major topic of conversation in the Australian media, but events in Ukraine and Gaza have occluded it.
As I wrote in June, child care is a classic “barbeque stopper”: an issue that affects millions of Australian families every day.
Getting access to affordable local child care can make all the difference for a young family, but many are finding that increasing fees have priced them out of care.
That often means that parents looking after young children can’t work, or at least can’t work as much as they want to.
So the Productivity Commission’s latest report is important, and not least because it proposes some significant policy changes for the sector as a whole.
For instance, it wants to simplify and combine child care subsidies paid by the government into a single payment. It also wants to means test them: a potential political hand grenade for the government.
Subsidies for nannies – a long-held dream of the Coalition’s – are also recommended.
One of the things that the Productivity Commission report is strong on is the fragmented and poorly connected nature of the current system.
The testimony from parents was damning. A firefighter parent with a rolling 8-day roster simply can’t access ordinary long day care at all because it is organised on a weekly basis.
Another parent told the Commission that a daughter was unable to access after-school care after pre-school, because she wasn’t of school age.
Many complained of long waiting lists and the difficulty of getting second and third children into the same centre.
For those reading the report closely, there is plenty of backhanded criticism of the Abbott government’s policies.
The Commission’s report strongly supports the National Quality Framework brought in by Labor. The government, however, does not.
Sussan Ley, the Assistant Minister for Education responsible for child care, attacked the National Quality Framework in opposition. She announced a review of the NQF in June.
The Productivity Commission wants the government to spend more on child care and early childhood education: approximately a billion dollars a year extra, which it thinks will have small but measurable impacts on workforce participation, bringing more parents into paid work.
The Abbott government has done the opposite, ripping $1.2 billion out of the sector since taking office.
The Commission also gives the Abbott government’s gold-plated paid parental leave a thorough going-over. Unsurprisingly, it finds that the money spent supporting wealthy mothers with up to $50,000 in government benefits could be better spent improving the overall quality and comprehensiveness of the early childhood education system.
“The Commission considers that it is unclear that the proposed changes to the Paid Parental Leave scheme — which is more generous than the existing scheme and that recommended in the Commission’s 2009 report on paid parental leave — would bring significant additional benefits to the broader community,” the report states.
That might sound measured and mild, but it amounts to a stinging critique of Tony Abbott’s pet project.
That left Minister Ley in the rather uncomfortable position this week of trying to argue that paid parental leave and child care were very different policies and had nothing to do with each other, a proposition that would surprise working parents trying to juggle their return to work with finding child care.
“Paid parental leave is a separate policy and childcare is a separate policy,” she maintained, rather unconvincingly.
Perhaps the boldest recommendation of the report was the idea to means test child care subsidies. Means testing applies in all sorts of other policy areas, and in this case represents a fundamentally sensible and fair idea.
In the wonderful age of post-entitlement, means testing would be an excellent way of targeting government assistance to the neediest.
But the Coalition hates means testing, because it denies government subsidies to the higher income voters that form much of its conservative base.
Means-testing child care rebates has next to no chance of gaining the government’s support.
Child care is generally uneasy terrain for a Liberal minister. Ley was considered very capable before taking the role, but Labor’s Kate Ellis is currently running rings around her.
“If the Government was serious about improving affordability,” Ellis said this week, “it would demonstrate it today and immediately abandon the cuts to child care assistance currently before the Parliament.”
It’s an argument for which Ley has no answer, as she struggles with the consequences of Joe Hockey’s austerity drive.
And Ley is not alone. There are plenty of other ministers dealing with the fall-out from the May budget.
To take just one example, Christopher Pyne’s draconian changes to university funding have yet to be voted on.
This leaves universities in the nervous position of not knowing whether their budget will suddenly shrink by 20 per cent next year.
Vice-Chancellors are reporting they can’t even tell prospective students what their university fees will be.
University of Canberra VC Stephen Parker wrote recently that the university changes, which the government is still committed to, are “potentially calamitous.”
According to those who have studied the changes to British universities rammed through by the Cameron government after 2010, calamitous is not too strong a word for Pyne’s plans for the Australian system.
Pyne and Susan Ley might want to pause and consider the fate of David Willetts, the minister David Cameron charged with pushing through the hugely unpopular university reforms.
Willetts was replaced in this month’s cabinet reshuffle, his once rising star extinguished.
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