Why investing in childcare makes good budget sense

News Corp Australia/The Daily Telegraph
Jessica Irvine, National Economics Editor

IT was a shining moment of clarity amid an otherwise grey and trouser-dominated weekend of meetings between G20 finance ministers and central bankers.

“Women are the most under-utilised asset in most of … the economies in the world,” declared Angel Gurria, the Secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Of the 52 finance ministers and central bankers who assembled in Sydney last weekend, just six were women — albeit among them Janet Yellen, the chair of the US Federal Reserve and arguably the world’s most powerful woman.

But while small in number, women were not entirely absent from the agenda of the G20. You see, women’s liberation has long since ceased being a radical feminist idea.

And you don’t need to be a woman to be a feminist. Some of the most staunch feminists these days are economists, who regard equal rights for women as a central pillar of economic policy.

Gurria is one of them. And Hockey too, if frequency of nodding and “mmm”ing are any indication.

The two men held a press conference on the sidelines of the G20 meetings last weekend in which Gurria implored countries to find ways to unshackle women to join in the pursuit of wealth creation and to boost economic growth.

“You need, like they say in the marines, ‘all hands on deck’ and ‘every able body’ and certainly you need all the women you can get. They are just as educated, they are just as confident, they are just as smart — or more,” Gurria declared (with Hockey interjecting “more”).

All women need, according to Gurria, is the chance to participate: “How do you do that? You free them up from the need to be taking care of children.”

And get this, all you guilt-ridden mothers: you can leave your mother guilt at the door of the childcare centre.

According to Gurria, children who live in countries with above average attendance at early childhood care centres go on to score higher in educational tests.

“Early child hood care and education has very good results on the children themselves,” he said. “But the most important thing is it frees up the women to go into the labour force.”

Australia’s female workforce participation rate ranks above average for OECD countries, but it is hardly best practice. Australia’s economy could be $25 billion bigger if women here participated in the workforce as much as Canadian women, according to the Grattan Institute.

With Tony Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme in the cross hairs of his Audit Commission, which reportedly has concluded it is too expensive, the government is being urged to ditch the scheme and spend the money on childcare instead.

The reality is we need to do both. Paid parental leave is an election mandate for Abbott and will likely pass in some form.

But urgent action is also needed on childcare.

Australians are already accessing more formal childcare than ever before. Over half of 2 to 4 year olds today attend some form of childcare. In 1991, just 250,000 children were in approved childcare. Today the figure is more than a million.

Abbott’s Productivity Commission inquiry in childcare and early childhood learning is underway, but not due to report to government until October 2014.

Already it has received 426 submissions, indicating the demand in the community for strong recommendations on better and more affordable care.

Indeed, of all the OECD’s economic policy prescriptions for Australia, reforms to alleviate the high cost of pre-primary education were emphasised in a recent report “Going for Growth”.

“In the case of Australia, expanding early childhood education service may put pressure on the fiscal balance, at least in the short run. However, it contributes to a narrowing income inequality by enabling a more equal formation of human capital at early age and by facilitating full-time labour participation by women.”

That’s a fancy way of saying that better formal early childhood care not only helps kids get a head start at school but also helps women to achieve their goals in the workforce.

It’s time we too changed the way we think about childcare, not as a subsidy or welfare check, but as an investment.

And some investments are so good, they are worth making regardless of the budget balance — because they earn a return greater than their cost.

Childcare is one of them.

Money spent on childcare has a boomerang effect on the budget: it comes back in greater tax revenue from the incomes of working women.

And that just makes good business and budget sense.

Read online