Childcare at the Crossroads

| January 12, 2009
Childcare in Crisis logo

While I don't doubt the Government‘s commitment in preventing the loss of any further childcare places, I am concerned that there seems to be little planned beyond March 31, when its second prop-up of $34 million expires.

It's Monday morning, you arrive at your child's childcare centre to drop them off on your way to work and there is a sign on the door letting you know the centre is closed, not just closed, but closed down – what would you do? Take your kids to work with you, frantically ring a family friend and see if they can take the kids for the day, or call in sick to work?

This is exactly the dilemma facing some parents who had their kids cared for at a number of the ABC Learning Centres which have been shutting down since December, after the company collapsed back in October.

This wouldn't happen in the school system. Schools are not held to ransom by market profits or shareholders wanting their dividends at the end of each financial year – schools deliver an essential service of education and learning. 

But in today's age, when we keep hearing that we need more women in the workforce with government and business both encouraging mothers to go back to work before their children have reached school, childcare is a necessity. Even in two parent families, where both parents often need to work to cover the household bills, we know that the most crucial time for leaning is between 0-5 years of age, reinforcing the need for childcare to be viewed as an essential service, supported by government, and given the priority of proper regulation and oversight. 

We need a rethink about the way we deliver and support the care of our youngest children. 

The needs of working parents to have their kids cared for while they are off paying the bills should not be used as a commodity to line the pockets of shareholders, or run and owned by companies who put profits above the care and needs of children.  Even our independent schools put their school fees back into the maintenance of facilities and curriculum delivery; childcare should be no different.

The collapse of the profit-driven ABC Learning company should serve as a timely reminder to policy makers in Canberra that the time has come to recognise that childcare, as a whole, must be recognised as an essential part of any early childhood education plan.

For too long, politicians and profiteering companies alike have treated the childcare industry with contempt, and it's about time we shake things up to ensure that childcare is no longer considered a luxury, but treated as an essential service for families across the country.

Yet, despite the obvious mess ABC Learning has created for the sector, the lack of any real policy leadership from the government on childcare reform has been minimal, to say the least.

Childcare in Crisis logoSince ABC went into voluntary receivership in October last year, we have seen the Government announce a ‘prop-up' of $22 million to the original 1020 centres until December 31, and a further $34 million injected into the 241 centres that have been deemed unviable until March 31 this year.

While I don't doubt the Government‘s commitment in preventing the loss of any further childcare places, I am concerned that there seems to be little planned beyond March 31, when its second prop-up of $34 million expires.

We need solutions, and leadership on the management and conduct of this critical social service, not simply a case of policy-on-the-run.

Time and time again, I have heard from experts in the field willing to offer their expertise to the Government in developing a plan on how to move beyond the ABC collapse to ensure its devastating stronghold on the sector is never repeated, to no avail, which is why I successfully moved for an inquiry into the regulation of childcare in Australia. 

From childcare workers and employers, to academics and parents, we need the key players in the industry to come forward and tell the Government how we can strengthen and secure the childcare sector in this country, to ensure that Australia swiftly moves from third last in the developed world for childcare and early learning ("The Childcare Transition: A League Table on Early Childhood Education and Care in Advanced Countries", UNICEF Report).

The fact that UNICEF ranked our childcare standards the third worst in the developed world, has showcased to the international community the dire state of childcare in this country. 

It is appalling to think that in the twenty-first century we only managed to pass two out of the ten UNICEF benchmarks, failing on key issues such as paid parental leave, a national childcare plan, and child poverty, all of which highlight the importance of the upcoming Senate inquiry into childcare in Australia, due to report mid year.

This crisis represents an opportunity for childcare in Australia to transform from a market-driven industry to a vital community service and a government-supported first step in lifelong learning.

It is time for the Government to stop playing the blame game, and start taking responsibility for a sector in need.  We need action and we need a new way of thinking about childcare. Our future deserves our support.

Sarah Hanson-Young took her seat as South Australia's first ever Greens Senator on July 1, 2008. She is the youngest person ever elected to the Senate, and the youngest woman elected in the Federal Parliament's history. Sarah is the Australian Greens' spokesperson for Childcare; Consumer Affairs; Education: Early Childhood & Student Services; Human Rights; Immigration & Citizenship; Sexuality & Gender Identity; Sport; Status of Women; Tourism; Veterans' Affairs; Lower Murray and Youth Affairs.