12 May 2014
(Private Members Statement, 8 May 2014, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)
Almost one-third of Sydney childcare centres are at capacity and parents can wait up to two years for a spot. According to the Australian Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry, childcare demand is growing 13 times faster than supply.
The situation is dire in inner-city areas where raising families is a rapidly growing trend. Once in attendance, costs can be astronomical, totalling between $70 and $140 a day per child per day. In the inner city, particularly in areas such as Paddington and Surry Hills, the price is at the upper end. One child in childcare for five days a week at $140 a day adds up to $36,400 a year. Australia has a complex system of payments to assist parents through the Childcare Benefit and the Childcare Rebate. However, the investment is low in comparison to other OECD countries and the approach has been blamed for encouraging childcare price increases. Even with benefits, many parents pay more than $100 per child per day.
The Australian Council of Social Service points out that benefits are completely insufficient for low income earning families. The Australian Council of Social Service also suggests a simpler system with one payment paid at a higher rate to low income earners, which is in line with the Henry tax review recommendation. In areas where there are few childcare choices, some parents send their children to a facility that is ineligible for rebate claims. A February ABC report revealed that some centres charge up to $100 to place a name on their waiting list. I understand that it is difficult for childcare centres to manage long waiting lists when parents refuse offers, but parents have no choice but to register with multiple centres, or risk not getting a place at all. The financial strain on parents forces many to weigh up whether it is worth returning to work, and one in 10 mothers does not do so because it is not economically viable. Affordable childcare is critical to helping parents, particularly mothers, return to work, which is vital to the economy.
Recent modelling by Access Economics shows that increasing women's workplace participation could lift national output by $98.4 billion over 30 years. Canada increased its women's workforce participation by improving childcare affordability. As a result its female labour force rate is 80 per cent compared to Australia's rate of 67 per cent. The State Government is responsible for major developments and can help increase the provision of childcare through conditions in planning approvals. Massive developments such as Barangaroo, Darling Harbour and the proposed Central to Eveleigh corridor should not only provide for the childcare needs of future residents and workers but also for existing adjacent residents. In 2012 the City of Sydney allocated $55 million to build six new childcare centres over the next decade. The Bourke Street Childcare Centre is expected to be completed around October next year and to be opened in January 2016. Other councils are supporting family day care, which is approved care in qualified educators' homes.
I recently held a forum in Pyrmont on family day care for local parents. Educators are nationally accredited professionals in early childhood and care, and councils assess their home for suitability. The small group environment enables strong bonds between children and carers. There are 112 registered educators with family day care services in Waverly, Botany, South Sydney, Bronte and Randwick. I share concerns that the recent drop from one in five to one in four in the educator to children-not-at-school ratio will reduce places and leave more parents without access to quality childcare. Governments at all levels should work to encourage more people to become educators. Parents are increasingly using nannies. The 2013 CareforKids online childcare resource found that 14 per cent of parents engaged a nanny compared to 10 per cent who had done so in the previous year. In New South Wales, 16 per cent of parents employed a nanny.
The cost of a nanny is often more than childcare, making it a last resort. Benefits could also be extended to this practice. Other parents are looking at creative responses, including the playrooms model, which combines childcare with co-working spaces. Playrooms include a safe play area for a small group of children overseen by professional staff while the children's parents work in the same space. The presence of a parent on the premises at all times provides support and peace of mind, and can reduce regulatory burdens associated with opening a childcare centre. I understand playgroups are emerging in co-working spaces around the world and two Sydney mums have suggested introducing the community-based model here, which they believe will provide an affordable childcare option. The Darling Harbour Live project provides an opportunity for co-working spaces within the new building on the former Entertainment Centre car park site.
While childcare is a Federal responsibility, the impact on the economy of an inadequate service should be a call to action for all levels of government. The Productivity Commission has been asked to suggest ways that the system could be made more flexible, affordable and accessible. The State Government should work with the Federal Government, corporations and councils to deliver improvements and increase option for parents.