Hillary Clinton noted in a recent speech that affordable, flexible and high-quality child care is the key to delivering fairness to families. As a new mum, I get to speak to lots of other parents—at the park with my mother's group, often with strong take-away flat white to counteract the lack of sleep; or sometimes at my son's favourite activity: Marrickville's Magic Yellow Bus, which is celebrating its fortieth anniversary. I get to share laughs and stories and also hear about people's challenges. What is clear from those conversations is that when it comes to child care we are a long way from fairness.
Some parents in my electorate are paying upwards of $120 a day for child care. That is almost double the national average and up to 150 per cent more than what parents paid in 2003.
Last year the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling released a report into childcare affordability, which showed that the average mother returning to full-time work loses up to two-thirds of her gross salary once we deduct childcare costs, tax and the loss of benefits. I repeat: She loses up to two-thirds of her salary.
This forces families, and most often mothers, to make really hard choices: Can I afford to return to work or is my only option to stay home? Can I afford to pick up those extra shifts? Can I afford those extracurricular activities or those special treats? Can I afford to keep my child in day care for another year, or should he or she start school early so I can afford my mortgage repayments? Can I afford to have more children?
These are the real and scary everyday questions that mums and families have to confront.
Let us look at the statistics. Only about 67 per cent of women aged 15 to 64 years are currently in paid work—that is compared to 78 per cent of men. While 55 per cent of employed women work full time, 85 per cent of employed men work full time, with the remainder working part time. These rates are substantially lower than in many other OECD countries.
The Grattan Institute has found that the vast majority of women who do not do paid work, or who work part time, have children. They found that women who provide care for their own children have significantly lower participation rates than those who do not, and that the female workforce participation can only change significantly if more mothers have jobs.
If Australian women did as much paid work as women in Canada—implying that an extra 6 per cent of women were in the workforce—Australia's gross domestic product would be about $25 billion higher. As a society, we need to ask ourselves: Can we afford to continue to force women to make choices that limit their ability to earn a living, to make a career and to contribute to the economy?
One of the principal drivers behind the gender pay gap—now at 17.9 per cent—is the fact that women are often forced to stay home for longer due to cost-of-living pressures, including the cost of child care.
We all know that the cost of living is on the rise. We are in the midst of an unprecedented affordable housing crisis across Sydney, with families facing ever-increasing rents and astronomical house prices. We know these pressures are greater for single mums.
Without affordable child care, mothers often sacrifice years of their working lives, with real impacts on their salary, superannuation and seniority. It makes it harder for them to get ahead and to earn more money as their careers progress. For mums who work casually, the loss of income can be immediate as they have to forgo hours of work to care for their kids.
The recent news that penalty rates may yet again be under fire from the Abbott Government worries me deeply.
I fear for the mums and dads who rely on weekend or night work to pay the cost of child care or to just get by. Clearly we need to find a solution.
I think Hilary Clinton's speech gives us a good starting point. We need to find ways to make child care more affordable—placing downward pressure on daily costs so that families have greater freedom to make choices for their families. We need flexible day care and parenting policies, including—and this is key—making sure dads have access to the same levels of parental leave as mums so that family choices do not become choices only to be made by women.
And, of course, we need child care of the highest standard, because our kids deserve the best start in life.
I welcome the recent decision by Marrickville Council to invest $5 million in a new childcare centre at Steel Park in South Marrickville. More than 2,000 families are on the waiting list. The new centre will provide an additional 60 spots, which is a great start.
I will say now what I say to the mums and dads I meet: I do not have all the answers, but as a society we must have the conversation about reforming child care now. Making child care affordable and flexible will have a real impact on families and mums; it is also an important investment in a more productive and inclusive economy.
It is an investment we cannot afford not to make.