Childcare disaster Australia can’t afford
In recent days both the Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the Education Minister Dan Tehan have indicated that the "free" childcare arrangement they initially promised for six months may be shelved as early as June 28.
To understand why this will be catastrophic for parents and centres you only have to look to the comments the PM himself made when announcing the rescue package.
"Child care and early childhood education is critical," Prime Minister Morrison explained.
"Particularly for those Australians who rely on it so they can go to work every day, particularly those who are working in such critical areas. I don't want a parent to have to choose between feeding their kids and having their kids looked after, or having their education being provided."
He continued: "This virus is going to take enough from Australians without putting Australian parents in that position of having to choose between the economic wellbeing of their family or the care and support and education of their children. I won't cop a situation where a parent is put in that place with their kids."
If the government proceeds with its reported plan to pull the rug out on free childcare and "snap back" to the old system on June 28 that is precisely the situation many parents will face.
And other children will no longer have access to the education and support their early learning currently provides - not necessarily because of their parent's positions - but because up to 86 per cent of childcare centres will be at risk of closing if the old system is suddenly switched back on.
The government's own review of its rescue package was reported yesterday and it indicates that 86 per cent of centres said the package had stopped them from closing its doors. All of those centres will be in jeopardy without the current relief in place.
According to the government review, attendance rates at centres across the board are currently just 63 per cent of ordinary times, which is well below break-even point, and not viable. Without the lure of free care, operators are expecting those numbers to drop further still.
Given more than 600,000 Australians lost work last month alone it's highly unlikely parents will be able to afford the same level of care now that they could three months ago.
The government intervened in April because parents were fleeing from centres in droves, driven by either health concerns related to the pandemic, or drastically changed financial positions, or both.
The health risk of COVID-19 is certainly less now than it was in April, but the devastating economic damage this pandemic has unleashed remains alive and well - and is unlikely to be repaired any time soon.
Charging full fees again will place unsustainable economic pressure on parents who are already squeezed; many will no longer be able to afford access to the education and care their children deserve.
Without children enrolled close to pre-COVID-19 numbers this vital sector's ability to survive will be compromised.
The Prime Minister has said free childcare is not sustainable. But withdrawing this relief early and attempting to snap back while we are still in the midst of the economic fall out of this health crisis is not sustainable either.
Providing "free childcare" is costly and not perfect. But it won't cost Australia nearly as much as it will if the early childhood education sector falls over altogether. We cannot afford that collapse - not for our economy, our communities and least of all our children.
Instead of unwinding this reform we need to strive for better and spend the next few weeks and months ensuring the early childhood education and care sector is strong enough to emerge from COVID-19 not just intact, but better than ever. For children, educators and families.
Georgie Dent is the campaign director for The Parenthood, a not-for-profit organisation and Australia's leading parent advocacy group
Originally published as Childcare disaster Australia can't afford