There’s no doubt families are a huge battleground in politics and its one, by his own admission, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has been a little late to.
But not anymore, he says. With a paid parental leave policy and a new announcement about funding nannies for working families, he’s making a pitch for families and in particular women.
So, we asked you to ask him the questions that sprang to mind regarding child care, nannies, parental leave and education. Here’s what he had to say:
Q: It seems to be a pretty hot topic among women this week. Can you explain where the idea to fund nannies came from?
A: My thinking on child care and paid parental leave has evolved over time, starting while we were still in government. For example, the first article I wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald in early 2006 after they gave me a weekly column was about the urgent necessity for a parliamentary child care centre.
It’s very important to ensure that women have every chance to be a part of the economy. It’s important that to harness the economic potential of women and that means having a decent child care system.
Existing child care services do not always meet the needs of parents, particularly shift workers. Australia is no longer a 9am-5pm economy and our child care system should reflect that.
In-home care is one of the ways in which we could be more flexible. There are a lot of parents doing shift work with very young children and this may well be a better option for them.
But this is not just about in-home care. The Productivity Commission review that I have committed to would consider all the current impediments to a family friendly child care system, including the role businesses can play in incorporating greater flexibility into their own workplaces. It would consider how parents can better access existing services including long day care, occasional care, family care and budget based care.
Q: You’ve said yourself that it has taken you a long time to “appreciate just how demanding it is in the modern world for a mother who also has a career.” Why has it taken so long and what changed your mind?
A: I might have been a slow learner but I have learnt my lesson well; principally, I think, because the main influences here have been my wife, my kids and my colleagues.
Margie, obviously, working in child care, is very attuned to these issues. I want my three daughters to be able to have a real choice, to have careers and families rather than being forced to choose the one or the other, or to have less of a family or less of a career because they had to focus more on one than on the other. Another influence was watching the way some of my parliamentary colleagues struggled with juggling motherhood and the demands of parliamentary life.
All of this influenced my thinking that finally crystallized when I sat down to write my book Battlelines. Since that time, I have made policies like paid parental leave a hallmark of my leadership and a practical way I can show voters that the Liberal Party ‘gets it’ when it comes to giving families, and women in particular, real choices in combining work and family.
Q: There are a lot of unqualified nannies and au pairs out there. How would you avoid a ‘pink-batt debacle’ where unscrupulous and possibly negligent people jump on the bandwagon to take advantage of the new subsidy (and possibly put children in danger)?
A: One of the things the Productivity Commission would be asked to examine is broader care options with appropriate regulation and transparency arrangements.
For example, there is already an in-home care programme that is capped at 8,000 nationally. The Productivity Commission should have a good look at that and see if it can be expanded.
Q: There’s already criticism from your own backbench that your Paid Parental Leave plan is a “Rolls Royce” policy that would cost too much. How are you going to sell your ‘nanny plan’ as real conservative policy and get your own team onside?
A: Choice is an important Liberal principle. The Coalition believes that parents are best placed to make decisions about the appropriate care of their children provided they can access child care that is responsive, flexible and affordable. We also believe that families deserve a flexible child care system that offers different care options depending on a family’s individual circumstance rather than a one-size-fits-all model that fails to take into account non traditional working hours.
On parental leave, it’s interesting to note that, according to the Productivity Commission, there are 37 countries that offer paid parental leave, and every country except Australia has a scheme built on a woman’s replacement wage. A paid parental leave that pays anything less than your real wage just isn’t fair dinkum. We don’t pay women the minimum wage when they take sick leave or annual leave, so why do we think it is fair to pay minimum wage when they have a baby.
Q: A lot of people are wondering how your government would fund this proposal. How would you keep this within the current budget and will this mean you’ll have to means test the child care rebate or perhaps the nanny subsidy?
A: The Productivity Commission review would look at ways that child care can be made more accessible and flexible within the existing funding framework. One issue that the Commission would look at is likely increases to participation and productivity that more flexible child care could bring plus possible revenue spin-offs. The Coalition has no plans to means test the child care rebate.
Q: It’s a personal decision to have a child. Why should the public fund someone else’s child rearing?
A: Children are a public good as well as a private choice. The strength of our national economy lies in its capacity to incorporate the individual skills and capabilities of as many adult Australians as possible. Better support for child care means more women back into the workforce. That means a stronger economy and higher living standards for all Australians.
Q: This has been criticized as the public purse funding housemaids, chefs and personal shoppers. How do you respond to that?
A: That is a comment that could only come from people with a very poor understanding of the juggling act most families undertake when they try to manage being working parents and raising children. The comment also underestimates the skills of many nannies who see child care as a career. The Productivity Commission review would look at ways to better regulate in-home care and to ensure it has appropriate transparency and quality safeguards. But seeing that the Government already provides funding for 8000 in-home care places, I don’t think it is beyond our ability to consider developing a framework for this option to be available to all parents, not just a few, if that’s their choice.
Q: A lot of Stay-At-Home-Mums want to know why they’re not funded to do the same work a nanny would be doing. What’s your answer to them?
A: It’s a matter of choice for women whether they re-enter the workforce after having kids or work at home caring for them. Government policies should be designed to support women in that choice. There is already a great deal of support for families, including one income families, through the family tax benefit scheme. In Battlelines, I speculated about how that might be made more generous but, right now, getting participation and productivity up consistent with strong support for families has to be our main priority.
Recent Australian Bureau of Statistics data showed that more than 80,000 Australian women are currently not in the workforce as they cannot find suitable child care. In many cases, this occurs because the child care options available do not meet their particular needs.
Q: What about preschools – they’re not currently covered by the Child Care Rebate because they’re not a government approved child care services. Will they be funded under your new proposal?
A: While preschools are predominantly a state government responsibility, the Productivity Commission’s review will look at all forms of care and education for children prior to starting primary school.
Q: Consulting the Productivity Commission is very different from a policy announcement. A lot of people doubt the nanny plan will ever happen. They say it’s just a ploy to win votes.
A: The Productivity Commission would be asked to examine how to make the entire child care system more flexible. The Productivity Commission, through its reports on the National Disability Insurance Scheme and aged care, has demonstrated an ability to draw together complex policy, social and fiscal challenges and to develop innovative solutions. If it’s possible to do it in an economically responsible way, the Productivity Commission is best placed to show us how to make that happen.
Q: How confident are you that it will go ahead? Are you worried about the backlash if you have to ditch it after you’re elected?
A: We are absolutely committed to an urgent Productivity Commission review of child care in Australia should the Coalition win the next election.
Q: What will the Coalition do to fund special needs children in schools?
A: We will have more to say on education policy before the next election. At the last election, the Coalition set out a plan to provide greater support to students with special needs, including the creation of a portable Education Card worth $20,000 for students with a disability. This card would initially be available to 6,000 students, commencing with those who needed it most. The entitlement would follow the student and be paid straight to education institutions providing real choice to parents and a guarantee of a better education for students.
Q: And what is your policy in response to the Gonski report?
A: The Coalition has welcomed the Gonski review because it is a good body of work. However, there are some recommendations in the Gonski review that pose a real threat to independent schools if implemented. The only way the Gonski recommendations can result in no school losing money is if there is $113 billion worth of additional funding over the next 12 years. Of course that amount of money isn’t available in state and territory budgets at the moment so, if these recommendations are implemented, some schools will inevitably lose out. That’s why the Coalition is warning that, just as they did in 2004, Julia Gillard and the Labor Party are preparing a hit list of independent schools that will lose funding.
Q: What is your policy on aged care, especially funding for carers?
A: The Coalition has welcomed the Productivity Commission report on aged care. When in Government, the Coalition substantially boosted funding for aged care and also for carers but I would be the first to recognise that the need to reform this area is now urgent. I am committed to working in a bi-partisan way with the Government to take the Productivity Commission report recommendations forward. I recognise, as I am sure the Prime Minister does too, that the needs of an ageing community will only increase in coming years. One of the landmark achievements of the former treasurer, Peter Costello, was to establish the Intergenerational Report, to put these sort of longer term issues at the forefront of policy making and I am pleased that this was one of the Costello reforms that Labor kept when they were elected in 2007.
Q: What do you think of the Nationals’ apparent proposal to double the baby bonus for stay at home mums. Does the idea have merit? If not that policy, would the Coalition look to other ways to incorporate SAHM-ers in a similar way?
I support the baby bonus but not doubling it. It’s an important policy innovation that was introduced under the Howard government. In a fiscally constrained environment our main priority will be to deliver policies that will get participation and productivity up consistent with strong support for families. Single income families will also continue to be supported through the family tax benefit scheme.