I am disappointed to have seen some commentators disparaging the recent announcements about improving the right to request flexible work under the Fair Work Act.
Employees need, and deserve, flexible work arrangements. The right to request is far from worthless in its current or proposed form: it forces employers to consider, and respond to, requests. They cannot be ignored. The exercise of telling a worker why he or she can’t have flexible work is in itself helpful. No, it is not a revolution in flexible work arrangements, but it’s not worthless, either.
Childcare and flexible work are different measures towards the same goal: allowing men and women their best chance to stay in the workforce after they become parents.
Access to childcare in this country clearly needs improvement. Perhaps commentators that are complaining about the flexibility request changes on the basis that childcare is more important could talk about the measures that have already been taken, and are being proposed, in relation to working parents’ access to childcare services.
The history of childcare reform was recorded in a senate report in 1998 (http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate_Committees?url=clac_ctte/completed_inquiries/1996-99/childcare2/report/c02.htm). That history is instructive, for the purposes of assessing the major parties’ philosophies in relation to childcare, over the years.
More recently, I remember very well that one of the first measures that the new elected Howard government took in 1996 was to abolish operating subsidies for community (that is, not-for-profit) child care centres. In the same year, they reduced Childcare Cash Rebate from 30 per cent to 20 per cent for one child families with incomes above $70,000 a year.
In stark contrast, the current Labor government announced last year that it would invest $22.3 billion in early childhood education and care over the next four years. It said this is more than triple the investment made during the last four years of the Howard Government. In making the announcement about funding, the Minister, Kate Ellis, said:
“We’ve seen a massive 36 per cent increase in the number of child care services since Labor came to Government and the expansion of the sector shows no signs of slowing.”
In a speech to the Australian Childcare Allowance in August last year, Minister Ellis said:
“In affordability alone we have seen a massive increase in investment, we have seen an increase in the child care rebate from 30 to 50 percent, we have seen the increase in the cap of the child care rebate from $4,354 a year up to $7,500 per year but importantly they aren’t the only statistics that matter. The statistics that matter is the impact that this increase is having in Australian families. What we do know is that in 2004 when a family was spending on average 13 percent of their disposable income on their childcare fees, that by 2011 that figure stood at 7.5 percent.”
Obviously, in politics, substantial childcare reforms will be made only by governments that have the will to improve working parents’ access, and the support on the floor of the parliament to execute that will. My hope is that working parents will inform themselves about the parties’ childcare policies in deciding how to vote later this year.