On October 21, the day of the "great debate", Labor leader Kevin Rudd announced Labor's latest policy to help "working families". He promised, if elected, to increase the federal government rebate on child care costs from 30% to 50% and to pay the rebate quarterly rather than annually. This promise stands alongside Labor's pledge to allocate $2.5 billion dollars to allow "working families" to claim 50% of educational costs up to $750 per year for primary school kids, or $1500 for high schoolers. And of course, let's not forget the "education revolution".
What links all of Labor's promises to date? They all involve massive gifts of public money or resources to private business, while none of them really go to the heart of solving the problems they're meant to address. However, there are alternatives. Both the Greens and the Socialist Alliance offer progressive alternatives.
Labor's $1.5 billion promise to increase the childcare benefit, will undoubtedly sound good to many parents struggling with the fact that the cost of child care has doubled over the 11 years of the Howard government (the "fall" of 23% in childcare costs recorded in the October cost of living figures is an accounting fudge). If implemented, it would relieve some cost pressures facing parents who want to place children in child care, although the long-term benefit may be limited. And what of those who can't find suitable child care in their area? Labor's plan offers nothing.
Labor's promise to alleviate the costs of child care will certainly increase demand. However, as the vast majority of childcare services are offered by private operators (ABC Learning Centres alone provided one in five places in 2004) and there are no checks on the amount those private centres can charge for child care, the longer term result of increasing demand will be an increase in fees (increases in childcare fees currently average 12% a year — more than four times the rate of inflation), quickly eating up the extra money that parents may have pocketed.
The Greens' solution to child care is a vast improvement on Labor's approach. The Greens argue that private for-profit child care centres have far too large a share of child care spaces. Rather than boost the profits of private operators, they argue that government funds need to specifically be directed to assist and encourage non-profit centres, including making capital grants available to establish such centres in disadvantaged areas. They also advocate the abolition of the childcare rebate and its replacement with a more targeted and generous benefit, which targets the lower paid.
The Socialist Alliance goes further still, advocating community/employee-controlled, good quality, free childcare services in communities and child care funded by employers, in large workplaces. Such a commitment would require a massive injection of public money to provide infrastructure and to resume existing private centres into public hands, but as the Alliance's 2004 Gender Agenda points out, "Consider how different Australia would be if the $43.3 million per day that was allocated for military expenditure in the 2003-4 federal budget was redirected to social services." The question is one of funding priorities.
Labor's "education revolution" has a nice ring to it. But apart from the 50% tax-deductibility pledge so that parents can buy their children "the toolbox of the 21st century" (a computer, according to Rudd), Labor is offering little more than the Coalition. Labor would not reverse the increases in university fees (HECS) levied by the Howard government, for instance — let alone abolish university fees altogether — with the partial exception of those students who study maths or science and then take up teaching. They would be entitled to a 50% reduction in fees, as long as they stayed in the profession.
However on October 9 Labor promised to guarantee to maintain the so-called socioeconomic status (SES) model for school funding, meaning that Labor will not abolish, or even decrease, federal funding to private schools in the interests of "need and fairness", which has particularly raised the ire of the Australian Education Union. "We do not support Labor's decision to maintain a system which is clearly not needs-based", AEU federal president Pat Byrne said.
"We call on the ALP, if elected, to guarantee that sufficient additional education funding will be made available to Australia's public schools to address the current inequities and ensure that all children are able to access a high quality, well resourced public education system. Independent research commissioned by the state and federal education ministers shows that at least $2.9 billion in additional annual funding for public schools is needed to ensure every Australian child has access to a high quality education", Byrne argued. Labor has no intention of making such extra funds available for public schools.
Both the Socialist Alliance and the Greens support the abolition of HECS and a massive increase in federal funding for public universities. The Greens oppose federal funds going to the wealthiest of private schools and argue the government should abolish the SES funding model and fund public and less wealthy private schools according to need. The Socialist Alliance rejects all public funding of private schools. It argues that money spent subsidising private schools should be used to pay for smaller class sizes and better facilities for public schools.
As the election campaign progresses, Labor is certain to make many more promises for a little extra funding here, or a small subsidy there. However, their commitment not to upset the heads of big business outweighs their willingness to provide decent services to "working families".
How to vote
Labor's (minimal) promises for reform make it important that they receive a preference vote before the Coalition in the federal election on November 24. While not a great improvement on the Howard regime, the return of a Labor government will at least place them on the spot and force them to live up to expectations rather than duck and weave from opposition. A further term of the Howard/Costello government would also see a dramatic increase in the attacks levelled against working people.
However, under the proportional voting system, we are able to cast a vote for the more progressive candidates of our choice before Labor, without the risk of our vote being invalid or going to the Coalition. Voting progressive before Labor sends a strong message that Labor's backflips are not acceptable and working people want more. We only get this chance every three years, so make the most of it.
And after all, the election itself is not the final word in politics. The fight for a better world will continue after the election, whichever party may form government. "Only working people, organised into mass movements in the workplace and on the streets, are powerful enough to win real social justice and ecological sustainability", says Jess Moore, Socialist Alliance candidate for Cunningham. "Voting is not enough."