Mothers call for overhaul of childcare system to address affordability, availability problems

There are calls for a significant overhaul of Australia’s childcare system as families continue to battle issues of affordability and availability.

Childcare is increasingly seen as not only an issue for individual families, but also key to encouraging more women into the workforce and to the future growth of the Australian economy.

The availability of childcare remains one of two main hurdles women must overcome when contemplating returning to the workforce.

Waiting times at day care centres are leading to many families seeking alternatives to childcare, such as grandparents or nannies.

Melbourne mother of one, Amy Phillips, put her almost three-year-old daughter’s name down at a number of centres shortly after her birth.

But with no places becoming available in the years since, Ms Phillips said she had no option but to share a nanny with one of her colleagues at the advertising agency where she works.

“Really, not having any grandparents or in-laws to help us, [a] nanny was ultimately the only choice that we had,” she said.

“Fundamentally, being able to share a nanny made it affordable. It would have been inaccessible to us otherwise.

“But really, there’s a whole bunch of other benefits, and that’s with the girls together, they get an opportunity to play with their best friend and socialise more than being on their own.”

Inner-city areas worst affected

Sydney designer and business owner Lucie Trinko has two children under three and her third child due soon.

She is also battling to find full-time care for her children at one of a number of day care centres within a half-hour drive from her house.

“It’s been a nightmare to be honest. We laugh that we’re still on the waiting list and Francesca’s now three years old,” she said.

“But we did manage to secure two days a week not too far away from here, which was great.”

Ms Trinko now employs a nanny to care for her children two of the remaining days, and works the fifth day from home.

“Working with children at your feet, I really don’t know how people do it effectively,” she said.

Waiting times for childcare vary according to where you live and the age of your child.

Inner-city areas of Australia’s biggest cities appear to face the biggest squeeze and it is significantly more difficult to find a place for babies and children aged under three.

The website Care For Kids, which collects data on the waiting time and cost for childcare, says the greatest unmet demand is in NSW and Victoria.

Scroll down for an interactive showing the wait list hotspots around the country.

Feminist author Dr Anne Summers says the double drop-off and pick-up at school and day care centre is also a big issue for many families.

“The school system and the work system are completely out of kilter with the childcare system,” she said.

“I think if we were starting from scratch and designing these systems we would do it differently and try and create some more equilibrium between the various parts of most people’s lives.”

Families being priced out

The latest figures from the Productivity Commission put the average weekly cost of care for one child at less than $200 after the Government rebate is applied.

But that figure disguises the quite starkly different costs depending on which state, and even which suburb, you live in.

According to Care For Kids’ most recent survey of providers, the daily cost for one child at a centre is between $65 and $165.

At the higher end, that means a weekly bill of $681 after the Government rebate is claimed.

Yolanda Vega from the Australian Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry says the cost of childcare is making a return to the workforce hard to financially justify for many women.

“If you’re the average Australian female earning approximately $720 net per week – you work it out,” she said.

“If you’re paying on average $120 per child, per day, it’s almost impossible to survive if you have two children, which is costing you in excess of $1,000 per week just for child care.”

Ms Trinko says child care has become an enormous financial burden for her family.

“I basically pay myself to pay for child care. And that’s the bottom line,” she said.

“There’s not a lot left over after paying for a private nanny two days a week and then two days of child care on top of that.”

Ms Phillips believes working women should be able to claim the childcare rebate when using nannies.

“I don’t think the nuances of who looks after my child, whether it’s access to childcare or whether it’s a nanny, should affect whether I’m supported to do that,” she said.

Australia’s participation rate not competitive

The current participation rate of women in the Australian workforce is about 66 per cent.

This is in contrast to Canada, a comparable country to Australia, where the female participation rate is approximately 80 per cent.

“If Australia’s participation rate was the same as Canada’s, it would add something like $25 billion to the economy,” Dr Summers said.

She says Canada identified childcare affordability as one of the key elements holding back women’s participation in the workforce in the 1990s.

“They looked at the effective marginal tax rates … and they got it down very, very substantially and there was a very dramatic increase in the participation rate of women virtually overnight,” Dr Summers said.

Ms Vega says it saddens her that the majority of today’s university graduates are women, but many are unable to work because childcare is unaffordable and inaccessible.

“If we are to survive as an economy in a global platform, we need to break down the barriers that are stopping women – 3.4 million women, in fact – from going back to the workforce.”

Mothers call on major parties to address issues

Both Ms Trinko and Ms Phillips see childcare as an important issue that will help decide which party receives their vote at the federal election.

“If there was a way to tax-deduct the cost of a nanny, or have some sort of a rebate system with a nanny, it would just open up so many more opportunities,” Ms Trinko said.

“I think childcare five days a week is not an option for everybody and I’m a perfect example of that.

“If you think about the whole idea of women returning to work and really just increasing the productivity and ultimately adding to the wellbeing of the whole country, it’s really important that women are supported to go back to the workforce.”

Dr Summers agrees with the Australian Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry that the system must be redesigned, perhaps through the Australian Productivity Commission.

“I think childcare is politically quite a difficult issue because politicians don’t really know what to say about it,” she said.

“All they can do is brag about how much money they’re spending, even though they know no matter how much they spend people are still unhappy.

“It’s one of those extremely difficult policy areas. It shouldn’t be. It should be a no brainer. We seem to be able to grapple with education. Why can’t we grapple with childcare?”

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Mothers call for overhaul of childcare system to address affordability, availability problems
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