David Leyonhjelm Gets Grinchy Again… And It’s Only 48 Weeks Until Christmas!

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Australia’s angriest white man has taken aim at childcare. And so Nelly Thomas has taken aim at him.

In case you missed it, Senator Leyonhjelm shat all over another important thing recently: childcare. (Sorry, I know that’s an impolite opening sentence, but it does match the tone of Leyonhjelm’s mutterings, so I ran with it.)

In short, Senator Leyonhjelm has got a bee is his bonnet about childcare which, he thinks, simply amounts to wiping noses and making sure kids don’t die.

Leyonhjelm thinks that the only reason childcare educators (and yes, they do prefer that description Senator) are now “over-educated” (that is, qualified) is because,

“[P]arents seeking to justify the decision to place their children in childcare are demanding standards that allow them to believe their little darlings are receiving a better start in life than if they stayed at home.”

I’ll translate: if middle class mothers are going to be crazy enough to have kids, they should be home with them instead of pursuing silly things like careers and paying bills. And because they feel guilty about it, they have made the work of childcare (which is easy and should be done by grannies and aunties) all professional n’ stuff. Now it costs too much.

Bah Humbug.

Of course, Senator Leyonhjelm’s real concern* is not money or an anti-feminist agenda, it’s The Kids and working-class women who, he suggests, would dearly love to stay home with their children but can’t because the lure of childcare subsidies is just too much to resist! Working class and poor women apparently don’t enjoy work or gain any benefit from it; they only do it because the government will pay some of their childcare costs.

Some of the Senator’s best friends are working class mothers, so he’d know (as an aside, for a man who so often calls for “common sense”, the idea that anyone would consider putting small children in childcare a way to make money is wackadoodle, even by Leyonhjelm standards.)

If Leyonhjelm’s remarks weren’t just the ravings of an apparently very angry man – his Facebook entry is so full of contempt – it would do well to ignore them. However, the man is a Senator and his views are indicative of a wider undervaluing of childcare educators, care-work in general and frankly, women’s work.

First things first, childcare educators do a bloody important job. Regardless of your views on why and whether or not kids should be in care, they are and while the “little darlings” (his words – but he means them pejoratively) are there, they deserve the best possible care they can get.

Not just middle class kids either – all kids deserve quality care; especially in the 0-5 years which pretty everyone now agrees are critical to children’s development. Loathe supposedly middle-class parents all you want, and dismiss high standards as “diamond-encrusted childcare” (again, his words), but it is in all of our interests to produce a generation of kids who feel safe, hit their developmental goals, have good emotional regulation and can do things like read. As Chloe Chant’s excellent rebuttal of the Senator demonstrates, Australian childcare educators do all this and more. Thank goodness.

The other thing that bares mentioning is that childcare is used by parents – not just mothers – and they fall into all income brackets. Many families have two working parents for financial reasons, and others have two working parents because both parents like to work. I was a full-time mother for a couple of years and I have worked in childcare, and I can tell you that it is without doubt, the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

Small children are demanding and proper care of them takes its toll. Childcare is used by some families for work purposes and by others to allow mothers – and it is usually mothers – a freaking break. Assuming we value the health of mothers and kids, this is good for all of us. Or, we could change society completely to make life for mothers with young children more manageable, but that would be social engineering and the Senator hates that.

Then there’s the inconvenient reality that some workplaces simply do not allow an extended break to care for children. Many women I know have asked for extended time away from work – without pay – to stay at home with kids, and been denied this by their employer. If the Senator would like to call for greater regulation of employers and stricter requirements for no disadvantage for women returning to work, go for it (but the Senator hates regulation too. Anyone sensing a theme?).

And the truth is, even with that, a big break from work is risky. Have we forgotten that the reason the feminist movement advocated for women’s choice when it comes to returning to work is because being unemployed leads to precarity? If your relationship breaks down, if you’re in a career that’s not flexible (and no, that’s not just white-collar jobs) or if you value things like superannuation, taking five to 10 plus years off work can be a recipe for life-long financial hardship. Mothers already earn less than fathers for the same work, now the Senator seems to want us to earn nothing at all.

On that note, I am a mother and yes I have used some subsidised childcare. What Senator Leyonhjelm refers to as “other people’s money” I refer to as “taxpayer’s money”. Yes, some taxpayers don’t have kids and are paying for my kids’ childcare. I don’t have a government driver, but I pay for politicians to do so. Moreover, I’ve never used a hospital in Queensland or been in an Aged Care facility, but I pay for those too. There’s lots of things tax dollars pay for – good and bad – it’s a collective pool of money the government deems necessary to use for the nation.

Perhaps if Senator Leyonhjelm is so against taxation as a concept, he could stop drawing an almost $200k wage from the government teat? Just a friendly suggestion.

Honestly, forgive my sarcasm, but it’s hard to keep yourself nice when a Senator is crudely dismissive of something so important. I understand that he has concerns, but if the Senator genuinely wanted to open up a discussion about, for example, tighter-means testing of childcare, I think he’d find plenty of people willing to do so.

What I don’t understand, is why he has to raise these concerns with such bile. There’s simply no need to dismiss the skills of childcare educators as unnecessary, to devalue their work as nose-wiping and to attempt to caricature middle class mothers as up-themselves, entitled whingers in the process.

The early years of life are important and the sector has worked really hard to educate the community about that; I genuinely hope the Senator takes up Chloe Chant’s offer to teach him more about it.

Finally, we must remember that good childcare costs money, but despite Leyonhjelm’s suggestions to the contrary, it works. To quote one of many reports on the subject (there are hundreds of credible ones a click away):

“More than 30 years of child development research and recent research in relation to child brain development indicate that key contributing components of quality in child care are the ratio of staff to children, number of children in the group in which they are cared for and the qualifications of staff.”

Subsidising the cost of quality childcare is a reasonable ask of the taxpayer. It would do all of us well to remember that one day – whether they’re our kids or not – this generation will be the ones wiping our noses.

I for one would like them to be as kind, caring, healthy, smart and secure as possible.

* not his real concern

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Nelly Thomas

Nelly Thomas has been described as one of Australia’s most natural comedians. An award-winning performer, she was listed as one of Australia’s “most innovative thinkers” in The Age Newspaper’s, The Zone and was featured on the ABC’s Big Ideas: The Smartest Stuff on TV, Radio and Online. Nelly is a regular guest on ABC Radio and writes extensively in the print and online media. In 2012 she published her first book. Nelly has performed in over sixteen festivals and directed shows by the likes of Maria Bamford and Stella Young. She’s also grown two humans of her own.

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