|Issue No 8||09 April 1999|
Anne Jones on the Child-Care Titanic
If the child-care industry is the Titanic, the Howard Government is the iceberg and there aren't enough lifeboats to go around.
During the nineties the child-care industry grew to Titanic proportions -- new centres sprang up all over the countryside.
Between 1991 and 1997 the number of places in long-day-care centres trebled from 40,000 to around 143,000 -- most were in privately-owned centres.
The building of the Titanic child-care industry was fuelled by strong demand and the policies of the Keating Government.
Child-care assistance was provided to parents making child care more affordable for working families and subsidies were granted to developers to build centres in areas of greatest need.
Meanwhile community-based child-care centres continued to get an assisted passage in the form of operational subsidies of about $50,000 a year for an average centre.
In less than ten years the industry changed from parents booking berths prior to conception to today when many areas have far more places than children to fill them.
A Gold Coast child-care worker reported seven other child-care centres within a two kilometre radius of the centre where she worked.
As well as the obvious problems associated with over-supply of child-care places, this rapid growth brought many sharks into the industry.
For a time everyone wanted to get aboard the gigantic new ship bound for the new world.
Investment advisers saw child care as a growth industry where for a modest amount you could set up a centre and make good, quick returns.
This brought a number of people into the industry who had no knowledge or experience of child care.
Even without iceberg Howard looming on the horizon, the Titanic would have sprung a leak at some point.
With Captain Keating at the helm maybe the ship would have made it but the weather turned bad with the election of the Liberal Government.
Iceberg Howard had two clear initiatives in child-care that were directly contradictory to the Labor Government's.
He wanted to cut operational subsidies to community-based child care and to reduce amount the Government was paying to parents in child-care assistance.
Both of these visions are ideologically driven.
The operational subsidy to community-based child care was withdrawn in order to make them compete on an equal basis with private centres in the marketplace.
Whatever the moral rights and wrongs of this action, it was the first big hit to the ship and the cracks started to appear in the hull.
Community-based centres were forced to increase fees, reduce their services, cut staff hours and ultimately the quality of the care was affected.
The second policy of cutting back on child-care assistance allowed the water to trickle in from every direction slowing sinking the Titanic.
Howard set a limit on the number of hours for subsidised care, restricted access for non-worked related care, capped rises in the level of assistance, moved to greater reliance on means testing and generally made assistance hard to get.
Parents reacted by reducing their hours of care or withdrawing altogether which in turn reduced the income of child-care centres.
All centres suffered a drop in numbers because some parents could no longer afford to place their children in care.
So the child-care industry was hit with the double whammy -- too many child-care places and at the same time centres were forced to increase fees just to stay afloat.
Families aren't benefiting by extra competition, they are suffering because of higher fees and a reduction in the quality of care.
To take an even more cynical view of the Howard Government's actions, many people have concluded that the Government is trying to subtly force women to give up working.
For the sailors on the Titanic, the child-care workers, the situation is dire. They are left on a sinking ship.
Child-care workers have had their job security dramatically affected, many have been forced out of permanent jobs and into casual positions with fewer hours.
Others have been made redundant or sacked on flimsy grounds as centres try anything to reduce their staff and stop the ship from sinking.
Most child-care centres are small businesses so they are exempted from unfair dismissal laws in many States -- making compensation hit-and-miss.
The Senate inquiry into child-care funding which reported in December 1998 found that the Department of Family and Community Services had a questionable understanding of what was going on in the industry -- they didn't even know the ship was sinking.
The Senate inquiry recommended the Department improve its data collection and processing so up-to-date information is available for policy development and planning.
The inquiry also recommended urgent action on child-care assistance for low-income families and further study on the impact of change of the quality of care.
It recommended further support for community-based child-care -- but argued against reintroducing the operational subsidy on equity grounds.
This had Minister Jocelyn Newman crowing about "the endorsement of Howard Government policies by the Labor-majority Senate Committee".
Senator Newman tactfully ignored all the other recommendations in the report including the swipe at her own department's ineptitude.
In fact, it appears the Howard Government's course remains in the great laissez-faire tradition of letting market forces preside.
Iceberg Howard is just going to keep bobbing around in its wake creating job losses, hitting the poor hardest and affecting the quality of the care our children receive.
Anne Jones is a Brisbane-based journalist who writes for the LHMU
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