opinion

I wish Bill Shorten was wrong about childcare being a 'woman's issue'. He's not.

Lisa Wilkinson, we salute you.

Your editorial this morning on Bill Shorten‘s retro choice of words when announcing Labor’s new childcare package was spot-on.

The cost of child care should not be a woman’s issue. It’s a family issue. Australia’s child care is among the world’s most expensive and it’s a serious financial drain on working families. A burden that pushes kids into school early, a barrier to parents returning to the kind of work they are qualified to do and a significant added stress to an already stretched life.

This is not the business of women. This is the business of every family, whatever their configuration, who have kids below school age.

Lisa Wilkinson, you are right about that.

Watch Wilkinson take aim at Bill Shorten’s comments below. Post continues after video…

Video via Channel 9

When Shorten said, “Let’s face it, men in Australia rely on women in Australia to do the childcare and to organise the childcare,” he sounded, as Lisa pointed out, like a dinosaur.

He sounded like the kind of man who talks to Australia’s “housewives” about the ironing.

But Bill Shorten was also right.

Yes, there are more female breadwinners than ever before – up to 40 per cent of households, according to a recent NAB survey, are led by a primary earner with a womb.

But child care will continue to languish in the colourful basket of women’s issues – along with increased paid maternity leave, reproductive rights and the tampon tax – as long as Australian men keep leaving it there.

“Affordable quality childcare makes the difference as to whether or not mums are able to go to work, whether or not children get the best start in life,” Shorten said when announcing that under a Labor Government, the Child Care Rebate benchmark would lift from $7.5k to $10k (in January, hallelujah!). “Working mums in this country should not face the choice as to whether or not they pay double childcare fees or drop out of work.”

"But unfortunately, Shorten was also right." (Image Getty)

The cost of child care - up to 80 per cent of a working wage in some cases - does not come directly out of a woman's pay packet to the provider. But when a  new family is sitting down to structure the costs of their new, post-child reality, in the vast majority of cases, it's the woman's job that has been disrupted by pregnancy, birth and the initial caring for a little human, and it's the woman's job that is likely to be renegotiated to fit around the on-going demands of that human.

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Not all houses, I hear you say. And you'd be right. Not in my house, for example, where it's my partner's part-time wage that covers the child care, and mine that pays the mortgage. But socially and economically, my house is not the norm.

  • Out there in the real world, women spend twice as many hours per week as men caring for children under 15.*
  • Out there in the real world, just under 60 per cent of mothers with children aged under four work, and 38 per cent of those work part time.**
  • Out there in the real world, 75 per cent of mothers are working once their child reaches school age.***

It's true that the language our leaders use is important. It's true that talking about child care and parental leave in broader terms will help to shift the perception of family business being women's business.

But politicians use language that they know will resonate the most with their audience. They use terms that their electorates can relate to. The reason Shorten spoke directly to women about child care is because he knows - his research would have told him - that women are the ones thinking about child care - from the choosing, to the paying, to the picking up and dropping off and factoring its limitations into their working lives.

Mamamia's head of podcasts, Holly Wainwright.

That won't change until it's completely unremarkable for an expectant father to sit down with their boss and discuss how their working life might change after parenthood. That won't change until it's completely acceptable for a man to arrange to leave early/arrive late/take sick days around the care of a little person who needs one of their parents.

And it won't change until a woman's value at work is exactly the same as a man's. Because ultimately, that's what this comes down to. Once a tiny infant is no longer solely dependent on their mother for food and shelter, who cuts back on work to care for them is a largely economic decision. And when, in general, one of those people is earning 17.3 per cent more than the other, that's a no brainer.

So, Lisa Wilkinson, we salute you. You were absolutely right to call out Shorten's antiquated language this morning.

But maybe this time it's not the language that's the issue. It's the issue itself.

Whose earnings pay for child care in your family? 

You can follow Holly on Facebook, here

* Australian Human Right Commission, 2014.
** Australian Institute For Family Studies 2013. 
*** Australian Bureau Of Statistics 2013.

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