The loss of 200 plus promised child care centres is the latest example of both a broken election promise and government misuse of data to justify bad policy making. The justification for cutting the funding is claims that region wide vacancy data show that there is no need for Commonwealth capital funding for the new services. This indicates either bad faith or a lack of understanding by the Rudd Government of the so called child care ‘markets’.

Their basic assumption seems to be the interchange-ability of child care places, regardless of where or what it is. This is shown clearly in the publication they have produced to justify their dropping the proposed services.

Starting with geography, they seem to assume that all capital cities are uniform markets, that is the ratios of vacancies in any city is counted as one indicator, rather than many and diverse. This fails to recognise that choosing a child care service is not like a Laundromat. It is closely related to where people live, their transport options and also places that
feel good for kids. Secondly, they don’t recognise that parents have needs for certain days, particular hours and vacancies that are often age defined. So just any vacancies won’t do, babies’ places are often harder to find than for those over three. Thirdly there are questions of affordability, charges may vary considerably so affordability is often an issue. Fourthly, you need to be satisfied about quality and like the people whom you entrust with your children.

None of these factors were taken into account in the new Child Care Quarterly vacancies report. It is therefore a very inadequate document on which to claim that the overall vacancies show an over-supplied market. If products are not interchangeable, ie demand is inelastic, then this broad brush analysis of supply is not very useful, except to cash strapped governments looking for quick justifications for cuts.

I did a brief survey through the online child care vacancy listings offered on the DEEWR MyChild site. It gives you a dinky little map that puts balloons where vacancies are supposed to be. I looked up the area I live in, inner city Sydney. I know the area because my daughter has kids in the age group and her mothers’ network often discuss the difficulties they have in finding care. I found eight centres that listed vacancies. The costs ranged per day from S65 to $112 so affordability was obviously a factor. Most of the centres were commercial ones and the costs for these was generally in the higher bracket, except for the two ABC ones which probably were affected by the public fuss, and some concerns about quality and continuity. The centres were also not close enough to be equally accessible by scattered locals.

The two not for profit services had only one or two days available and no spaces for the under twos. Many other local not-for-profits had no vacancies, and long waiting lists, suggesting that parents prefer those to the often new commercial ones with many spaces. If this is parental choice, the government should respect this and use competing not for profit services to drive quality, the classic market model. Without capital, it is not likely we get more community based centres.

Yes, the ABC collapse and the takeover of many of these centres by a NFP consortium will offer more choices but these are not necessarily in areas of need. Nor does the consortium own the premises, as these are leased, so their long term history is not clear. One of the problems of uncapped places was that there has been no control over where services were set up, so there are too many places in areas where land was cheap and these distort the broad tallies of vacancies.

The loss of the extra capital funding in the Rudd promise is more than just the places. Using the slogan of abolishing the double drop off, the pitch was to recycle spare land in school grounds to put child care in with the primary schools. This was a very attractive option in areas with high land costs for both parents and communities,. It early childhood services back into a community context and made the relationship to education clear. The change could be read as an official signal that child care services were more important than laundry drop offs, as they should be part of networks of services to support families through the stretch of balancing jobs and parenting.

This once promising election option is now a victim of the razor gang. The very junior Minister Ellis claimed that more centres would further unsettle the current market for care. Her announcement presumably pleased the commercial centres by reducing competition from lower price, higher quality services, but the community sector was shocked.

Shame Labor, shame.