Labor’s childcare magic pudding
A peculiar thing about the Puddin’ was that, though they had all had a great many slices off him, there was no sign of the place whence the slices had been cut. ‘That’s where the Magic comes in,’ explained Bill. ‘The more you eats the more you gets.’ - Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding
Generations of Aussie children have been captivated by Norman Lindsay’s classic story centred on the exploits of Albert, a somewhat devious pudding who had the magical quality of being anything the eater desired and, fortunately, limitless in quantity.
It’s no wonder Albert appeals to children of all ages - he epitomises the hedonistic and naïve dream of “having your cake and eating it too” (literally).
Unfortunately, for today’s generation of toddlers there is been a distinct air of “the magic pudding” about Labor’s approach to childcare. In the lead up to the 2007 election Labor promised to make childcare more affordable for working families, to improve conditions for childcare workers, to boost the quality of care, and to set about on a huge infrastructure program of building 260 shiny new Childcare Centres to address an apparent childcare shortage. Childcare was at the forefront of Labor’s policy agenda - remember the promise of ending the “dreaded double-drop off”?
But there was conveniently never any mention of exactly how this childcare “magic pudding” would be achieved and how much it would ultimately cost. Since the election, various Committees, Reviews, and Taskforces have all been put in place – but the industry has seen nothing by way of genuine reform.
Earlier this year the Chairperson of the Rudd Government’s Expert Advisory Panel on Childcare, Professor Alison Elliott, let the cat out of the bag when she candidly admitted “quality childcare is expensive and someone must pay”.
Professor Elliott’s Panel made a series of recommendations to the Government as part of the National Quality Standards Framework. These included reducing mandatory staff to child ratios, and increasing qualification requirements – both of which are currently set down by State authorities.
Alarmingly though, Professor Elliott admitted that her Panel had given no thought to how much these recommendations would cost or who should pay for them. That’s fine in Norman Lindsay’s fictional world where the pudding is endless, but the Taskforces and Panels the Rudd Government sets up are essentially pointless if they don’t examine what can realistically be achieved within the budget constraints of the real world.
In the real world, we have childcare employers before the Fair Pay Commission calling for a freeze or even a reduction in wages in order for their businesses to survive, while the Government plunges headlong into requiring these employers to hire more and higher qualified workers (therefore commanding higher pay). That’s clearly not sustainable.
In the real world the Childcare industry has been left reeling by the collapse of ABC Learning which has revealed, among other things, an apparent over-supply of childcare places in many parts of Australia.
I say an apparent over-supply because we have no concrete data on vacancy rates – but plenty of anecdotal evidence. The 2006 Childcare Census found that the average utilisation in long day care centres had fallen to 74%, compared to 85% less than 2 years earlier in 2004. Despite collecting data on childcare vacancies every week, the Rudd Government has refused to publicly reveal any figures since coming to office.
In a time of crisis, the Childcare industry is essentially flying blind because the Government refuses to reveal the real status of childcare in this country – lest it not be consistent with the hysteria Labor generated before the last election.
If there is in fact a nationwide over-supply of places, the question has to be asked - is it prudent for the Government to be planning to build an extra 260 new Centres? Mind you, they have been appallingly slow to act on this key election promise – funding for just 38 of these 260 Centres is currently provided for in the Budget over the next 4 years…and while work has started on a handful of Centres, not one is yet operational.
The Government claim these Centres must be built because they will address shortages in some regions. Industry interest in purchasing the 241 ABC Learning Centres deemed as “unviable” suggests that if the industry is made aware of any pockets of high demand, there is a willingness to meet that demand.
So why doesn’t the Government release the vacancy figures and finally scrap their plan to spend taxpayer funds on building new Centres while others close?
Why doesn’t the new Minister for Childcare Kate Ellis explain exactly who will pay for the new national regulations on childcare ratios and staff qualifications – which Labor clearly plans to impose on childcare centres?
Cash-strapped families certainly cannot afford higher fees. The majority of Centre operators are running their business on a shoe string and cannot afford higher costs. And Treasurer Wayne Swan has warned taxpayers that “sacrifices will have to be made” as a result of Labor’s $42 billion spending spree, so there’ll be precious little forthcoming from Government coffers.
The fact is, Labor promised a childcare “magic pudding” to help get themselves elected just 20 months ago. With all their rhetoric, Labor raised community expectations of what they would achieve. It now appears that instead of a magic pudding, taxpayers and working families will be the ones forced to eat crow courtesy of the Rudd Government.
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