TONY Abbott’s temple of cabinet blokedom has a big test looming for those who believe it’s lack of women is a side issue.
Can a cabinet full of older blokes and one impressive woman Julie Bishop “get it’’, that childcare is huge issue in the community, not a second or third order economic priority?
Not just for parents, but employers, schools and grandparents too?
Most importantly, can they deliver a policy that extends the childcare rebate for the first time to in home care as promised, without blowing the budget or self destructing in a new debate over means testing?
Whether or not a politician has children should not define them of course. But let’s not kid ourselves that it doesn’t help to have some MPs around the cabinet table who have dressed, breakfasted and transported a squealing infant to childcare before presenting themselves dishevelled and mildly broken at work.
The sad truth is working mums are simply missing in action in the Abbott Government. Maybe they can’t get childcare?
There’s plenty of blokes with young kids, including the Treasurer Joe Hockey. This Friday, it is the Treasurer who can expect to receive the final report of the Productivity Commission’s inquiry into childcare.
But working mums are thin on the ground. That represents a serious disconnect with the everyday struggles of the rest of Australia.
In cabinet, there are 19 Liberal MPs, including just one woman. There is not a single woman around the cabinet table who has ever combined work with raising kids, the experience of the vast majority of women under the age of 60.
Hopefully, this will change at some point when the Prime Minister promotes Childcare minister Sussan Ley to cabinet, an impressive performer who raised three children as a single parent after she divorced. Here’s that radical idea again for the Prime Minister who keeps saying talented women are knocking on the cabinet door: open it.
In the outer ministry, there’s also Assistant Minister for Health Fiona Nash, a mother of two. That’s it. In the entire Abbott ministry there are just two working mums. There are just six women in the entire 42-member executive including parliamentary secretaries. It’s beyond a joke.
If the Abbott Government has any doubts what a massive issue childcare is in the community, MPs might want to have a look at the submissions and comments of Australian families that flooded the Productivity Commission inquiry.
More than 2,000 submissions and comments were lodged, more public reaction than the recent inquiries into first home ownership (340), gambling reform (422) and government drought support (180) put together. Only the recent inquiry into a National Disability Insurance Scheme comes close to matching the hundreds of childcare submissions the inquiry generated.
Parents told the inquiry they were struggling to find after school care for kids post 3pm, that they couldn’t find childcare places for babies and that high fees in the big cities were forcing them to hit the $7,500 cap for the childcare rebate.
“I am currently facing resigning from my workplace, if they are unable to give me unpaid leave, as the subsidy for childcare runs out mid-April, and our family cannot afford the $720 per week that will need to be paid,’’ one parent said.
Shift workers told the inquiry that 9-5 childcare wasn’t working for them. It’s these parents who could benefit enormously from family day care moving into the home.
“As a single mother without family support, studying a health science degree (midwifery) I find it immensely difficult to afford and provide care for my children over the 24 hour period in which I am required to work practical shifts at the hospital as part of practical unpaid hours,’’ another mum said.
Women on maternity leave said they were forced to pay for a childcare spot for older kids because they couldn’t afford to lose it when they went back to work. Most put their babies; names down on waiting lists before the children were born.
“I am forced to use care for my 8 month old. It took 15 months to get her a spot, I am not ready to send her but have to because of lack of places for babies. That is ridiculous,’’ one mother said.
Many mothers said that after paying childcare fees they received little benefit from working.
“I currently pay $114 per day per child for long day care this equates to $30,000 per year for full time care for each child. I probably don’t make much money after tax from working,’’ another parent said.
It’s a big challenge for policy makers not only because the issues are complex but because any changes are the ones that families will really notice. But get it right and the Coalition could reap the rewards with voters.
Combining the debate on paid parental leave with childcare reform may even prove an elegant method of confronting opposition in the Senate and within the Prime Minister’s own party.