Child-care under the hammer


By Susan Laszlo

The push to privatise child-care, in private centres or in the home, is starting to take effect. Since the fee increase in July — the result of the federal government's withdrawal of operational subsidies to community based centres — early childhood administrators report a jump in vacancy rates and centres closing. From next January, operational subsidies for out of school hours care will also be cut.

According to Allanah Ball, director of Community Child Care Cooperative, the future of community child-care looks bleak unless there's a concerted campaign to preserve the gains of the last 20 years.

"One wonders how bad this has to get before there's a fight back", Ball told Green Left Weekly. The ACTU's day of action on July 1, the day the operational subsidy was cut, was a case of doing something "only after the horse had bolted", she added.

Bernadette Mulholland, women's and equity officer with the South Australian Public Service Association, agrees: "The organising for the national day of action worked reasonably well given the short time frame, but there should have been a much more concerted effort by the unions to work collectively with community based child-care groups".

In Ball's opinion, there are "plenty of people" who oppose the government's cuts; however, it has been "very clever" at dividing them. "The introduction of competitive tendering [between centres] has made it very hard to work together.

"In the late 1970s and early '80s, I worked with people with whom I could identify. Today there is no guarantee that people [in the industry] have the same commitment. There isn't that sense of solidarity."

Under the Fraser Liberal government, "when things were tight as well", at least there was "some fight", Ball said. Now, people are exhausted "because it has been a really hard battle for so long".

The other problem hampering an effective campaign, Ball said, is that a lot of former feminists, with experience in fighting for reforms, have moved into powerful positions and are reluctant to create a fuss, or have disappeared into their private lives.

Some 20 years ago, an alliance of feminists, child educators and progressives campaigned hard to convince people that quality, accessible child-care was a right.

"A lot of work had to be done, especially by the women's movement, but eventually it became more accepted that child-care was good for kids and the quality of the program, the level of stimulation and socialisation wasn't something that could be got at home", Ball said.

"Family day care and preschool became a type of extended family. They provided a sense of community. This was especially so in community based child-care centres where families were involved in running them."

When community child-care started in NSW in 1978, Ball said that apart from being about children and care, "it was also about women's needs".

"We were as much advocates for women, as we were advocates for child-care and children. It is not a natural thing to stay at home with a young child day in, day out with no other support systems", she said.

In other cultures, alternative social organisations such as extended families allow mothers to interact with other adults and children, and provide be some divide between children's and adults' needs. "That doesn't exist here. It's doubly difficult if you choose to stay home: you are not financially independent, and it's a hard job to do on your own."

In the early 1980s, children's services went through a number of shifts. However, as women's working conditions improved and affirmative action was more accepted, so too was child-care.

Under Labor, funding for child-care was seen as a "work initiative", Ball said. The program was employment driven; the government's motivation was to help women enter the work force.

However, it was also under Labor that private child-care centres were actively encouraged. In 1989, the government extended child-care relief to the private sector, unleashing an unregulated and massive growth in private centres.

Small business people who knew nothing about child-care and were not particularly interested in children's needs entered the industry because it was profitable. This was the beginning of the privatisation push which the Coalition government is now implementing.

There developed an oversupply of child-care places in metropolitan areas — where low-income parents brought in more subsidies — and an under-supply elsewhere. There was also a big growth in services for three to five-year-olds and little or none for zero to two-year-olds, who require more intensive, and therefore more expensive, care.

Defending her government's latest round of cuts to child-care, Judi Moylan, the federal minister responsible, says there's a need to "level the playing field" to ensure quality across the board. Both Ball and Mulholland fail to see why dropping community-based standards will ensure this.

Mulholland told Green Left that there is very little evidence that self-regulation works in the child-care industry.

"Until the Hawke Labor government brought in accreditation [a quality control system in which centres were eligible for assistance only if they adhered to some 52 principles of care], lip-service could be paid to providing quality care. State regulations that governed safety issues were not enough."

Ball agrees that if accreditation is disbanded, "quality would be significantly affected". Already, there has been an increase in children's services in NSW being taken to court for breaching the state's licensing standards — minimal requirements which mainly deal with safety issues.

While the Coalition has left the accreditation system intact for the moment, sections of the private centre lobby are lobbying for this link to be severed.

Ball sees the government's decision to boost funding to family day care (where women look after children in the home) as a small victory. While she admits that the Coalition probably decided to fund family day care because it involves women at home, she says that the decision was also the result of this sector — "an increasingly militant group" — organising itself well.

Mulholland agrees: "Because these women — 'the poor relative in child-care' — haven't been blocked by the misleadership of bureaucrats, they quickly came to the conclusion that they would have to fight to survive. No-one was willing to make any deals, and they had nothing to lose. This is a lesson for the rest of the child-care industry."

More worrying, Ball said, is the steady increase in the use of home-based care, which is unregulated and less expensive than formal care. "If you're at home with one or two kids, you may as well take in a few more. But there is no award, no conditions, and the child's health and safety are also at risk."