There’s nothing wrong with a nanny state, literally and figuratively.

Nannies are not “chauffeurs” or “chefs” hired by wealthy women who want to go out for a spot of tennis. They’re qualified professionals doing one of the toughest jobs in the world: caring for children. For some families, it’s the only choice.

Australia has a hodge-podge of unregulated family day care and expensive formalised care, neither of which caters for parents who do shift work. In fact, a nanny is cheaper than a childcare centre if you have more than one kid.

The problem is the federal government gives you a 50 percent rebate, capped at $7500, for registered centres, but not nannies. Finally, a politician is prepared to address this anomaly. As part of his continuing campaign to woo women voters, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott says he’ll extend the rebate to nannies. But Childcare Minister Kate Ellis has accused Mr Abbott of effectively cutting assistance for low-income families:

“I think that when we have a look at nannies we see that they’re often chauffeurs, they’re often chefs … some of them do ironing, some of them do the washing and the household chores.”

This is incredibly insulting. Thousands of Australian women have gained degrees in teaching, psychology or early childhood studies. Suddenly, they’re seen as nothing more than house slaves. In any case, the current rebate pays for cooks and cleaners in childcare centres. Why is it so different if these tasks are performed in the home?

Now, I’m no fan of Tony Abbott. But his policy gives families the option of cheaper, more flexible childcare, allowing women to go back to work without going backwards financially.

One of my friends returned to the workforce six months after the birth of her second child. But the cost of childcare was so crippling she was losing money. Now she’s a stay-at-home mother, not by choice but circumstance. Another friend had her shifts changed, finishing at 6pm instead of 5pm. She had to quit because she couldn’t find a childcare centre that stayed open in the evenings. This is not just an issue for families: It’s affecting our productivity.

A research report by JB Were/Goldman Sachs entitled Australia’s Hidden Resource has found that closing the gender employment gap could boost our GDP by 11 percent. Ms Ellis says Mr Abbott’s plan is uncosted, like his “Rolls-Royce” Paid Parental Leave policy. In response, the Opposition Leader says he’ll ask the Productivity Commission to look into it.

If this means broad cuts to the childcare benefit or rebate, clearly it’s not worth it. But putting nannies ‘on the books’ would transfer money from the black economy into the tax system. There is a danger, as with all rebates, that it will open the floodgates to unqualified workers who charge through the nose. But rigorous regulation – a nanny state, if you will – would put a stop to that.

Which brings me to Scandinavia. Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark are the best in the world on all indicators of children’s well-being. They believe it takes a village to raise a child. Generous paid parental leave and quality state-sponsored early childhood care help mum and dad better balance work and family.

It’s no coincidence that Sweden has among the highest rates of women active in politics. So instead of degenerating into a debate of he said/she said, perhaps we should look at the policies instead of the personalities.

And embrace a true nanny state.

*Tracey Spicer is a journalist who has worked for many years in radio, print and television. This post originally appeared on The Hoopla.

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