ABC Learning may yet turn out to be a significant problem for the Coalition, and it’s not clear they know it yet.
There was always an undercurrent of resentment about ABC Learning even when it appeared to be successful. The concept of making money from childcare, the flashiness of Eddie Groves, the reliance on taxpayer subsidies, its remorseless expansion — all rubbed a lot of ordinary parents the wrong way. It wasn’t just the non-profit sector and the left-wing media attacking ABC Learning. Sixty Minutes had a fierce go at Groves in 2006. At the time, Groves complained of having a target painted on him.
ABC’s collapse seems to have vindicated a lot of the antipathy that bubbled away for years as the company went from apparent strength to strength.
It was the idea of making money from looking after children that so many people found objectionable, and the fact that they had no choice but to participate due to the lack of child care choice in their area. It was almost like WorkChoices for the under-fives. And there was the suspicion that ABC Learning cut corners and offered lower quality care — a view reinforced when it tried to stop the Victorian Government from inspecting its centres and argued its directors weren’t legally responsible for the children in the company’s care, when figures emerged of the company driving down the wages and working conditions of its staff, and when stories emerged of poor quality care.
That’s all now linked to the Coalition. Not just because of the subsidies model that massively expanded under John Howard, but because of the company’s willingness to embrace the Coalition, with Sallyanne Atkinson as chair and Larry Anthony on the board. ABC Learning has now become emblematic of the Howard Government’s approach to childcare, and Eddie Groves will come to be identified with the era just as surely as Alan Bond and Christopher Skase represented the Hawke years.
Belatedly, the previous Government realised it had a problem, that “letting the market rip” as Julia Gillard now calls it, was stirring discontent amongst parents. While trumpeting its success in expanding the number of child care places in the lead-up to the last election, its policy document promised an “even stronger” childcare accreditation system to give parents “peace of mind”. By then, although none of us knew it, the spiralling financial crisis had already sealed ABC Learning’s fate.
Whenever the Coalition now talks about private-sector child care — an eminently reasonable concept, given sufficiently rigorous accreditation requirements — people will recall ABC Learning and a profit-obsessed approach to looking after their kids. This is slow-burn stuff, the type of political background radiation that doesn’t show up in polls but slowly accretes over time, shaping voters’ perceptions of parties, making them resistant to their messages, or in their opponents’ case, more receptive. But it’s not yet clear that the Coalition realises how much baggage it is carrying in the debate.
A month ago the Coalition spokesperson Sophie Mirabella said “when you have one major company that controls up to a third of the long-day care market, and the Government is providing more than $1 million a day to that company via taxpayer-funded subsidies, it’s crucial that some form of oversight is taking place in these circumstances.”
There would hardly be a working parent in the country that wasn’t aware that the Coalition was itself responsible for that situation. Malcolm Turnbull allowing himself to be portrayed as not supporting the $22m temporary assistance provided by the government would not have helped, either.
If thousands of parents have to spend their summer holidays worrying about where their kids will go for child care next year, they won’t be blaming Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, particularly given the steady drip of bad news coming out of the forensic investigation of the ABC corpse. They’ll be blaming the Howard Government and the Flash Eddies it threw money at.