06/04/2022 - 08:00

Broad support for childcare expansion

06/04/2022 - 08:00

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Universal childcare offers the potential for more women to enter the workforce

Broad support for childcare expansion
Jay Weatherill has become one of Australia’s most prominent universal childcare advocates. Photo: Matt Jelonek

Matt Kean’s latent progressive streak continued apace earlier this month, with the NSW Liberal treasurer making headlines for his defiance over the federal government’s policy on childcare funding.

Having earned widespread media coverage in recent years for his verbal tussles with counterparts in Canberra over the need for stronger action on climate change, Mr Kean pre-empted Treasurer Josh Frydenberg ahead of budget week by declaring that NSW will expand childcare access regardless of whether the state receives federal dollars.

Few should doubt Mr Kean’s political acumen in cabinet.

After all, his so-called ‘EV diplomacy’ reportedly helped turn arch-conservative NSW Premier Dominic Perottet from a climate change sceptic to a begrudging supporter of his state’s burgeoning renewable energy sector.

Whether his threats over childcare will resonate in Canberra is another matter entirely, though.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who hails from an opposing faction to Mr Kean in the NSW Liberal Party, has publicly mocked him in the past by saying most federal cabinet ministers don’t know him.

Even if they don’t, Mr Kean has already found at least one prominent backer in former South Australia premier Jay Weatherill.

Mr Weatherill is no stranger to confrontations with Mr Frydenberg and, having joined forces with Nicola Forrest since leaving politics in 2019, has become one of the most prominent advocates of reform for Australia’s early learning system.

“This is not a party-political issue, this is about improving the lives of Australian children, women and families and it will grow our economy at the same time,” Mr Weatherill said.

“The vast majority of Australians want action; now it’s time for the federal government to embrace early learning reform.”

In fairness to Mr Frydenberg, the federal government did guarantee top-up funding to support 15 hours of preschool enrolment per week in the last budget.

That came as part of the so-called ‘Women’s Budget Statement’, which identified spending commitments specifically aimed at women.

Undoubtedly, though, the Liberal Party’s policies on this front have been the most conservative of the three major parties, with the ALP pledging to massively expand childcare access and implement its ‘Early Years Strategy’ if elected at the next federal poll.

That, too, is aimed at increasing employment for women, with opposition leader Anthony Albanese repeatedly telling a party conference in December that cheaper childcare will mean better workforce productivity and participation.

Kate Chaney, independent candidate for Curtin, told Business News she wanted to see improvements in the overall standard of childcare provided in Australia, as well as federal leadership on the matter.

“I was stopped on the street in Shenton Park the other day by a mum who was telling me how there’s no after-school care at her child’s school [and so] she’s turning down work because it’s just not worth it for her,” Ms Chaney said.

“She’s working less, so I’m seeing real examples of the impact [affordability is having] on workforce participation for women, which is especially relevant at the moment when unemployment is quite low.

“We need to be doing what we can to drive increased workforce participation.”

That it’s the Greens pledging the most expansive childcare policy is to be expected.

While the party’s plan carries an estimated cost of $19 billion over four years, per the Parliamentary Budget Office, it would also go the furthest in allowing more women to enter the workforce by providing 100 hours of full care per fortnight at no cost to parents.

Mr Weatherill was effusive in his praise of that policy earlier this month, particularly as it committed to funding early childhood education as an essential service. Still, even he couldn’t help but note the effect it would have on women’s workforce participation rates.

“Early learning is too expensive and there are too many barriers in the way of accessing appropriate and flexible options,” Mr Weatherill said.

“This is one of the most significant impediments to women fully participating in the workforce and achieving equality.

“We know what’s needed to reform the system, now we must have greater political will to make it happen.”

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