MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Around Australia today thousands of parents
are struggling with how to combine work and family life and they're doing the
sums on skyrocketing childcare costs.
Last month the Productivity Commission released its draft report into the childcare system and today it begins public hearings around the country. The first will be in Perth.
The report recommended a new subsidy be introduced to cover 90 per cent of the costs for childcare for families earning over $60,000. That would cost the Government an extra $800 million a year and the Productivity Commission wants to see Tony Abbott's paid parental leave scheme pared back to pay for it.
Elizabeth Proust has held leadership roles in the private and public sectors for more than 30 years. She's currently the chair of Nestl Australia and also the Bank of Melbourne and I spoke to her a short time ago.
Elizabeth Proust, is the availability and the cost of childcare the most pressing issue for working women?
ELIZABETH PROUST: Yes, it is. A few years now since I've had to personally worry about that, but I'm a grandmother of two young children. I have personal experience of what that means for my daughter.
And I know from talking to many women, both in the workplace and those who would decide to be in the workplace, that finding flexible, quality, affordable childcare is a key issue: not only whether many of them can work or not but also affects the quality of their working lives and their lives in general as they try to juggle and find good-quality childcare.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: In some parts of Australia it costs up to $160 a day for childcare. Are those high costs holding women back from re-entering the workforce?
ELIZABETH PROUST: Yes, they are because that means that you're working for either no money or you're eating into your savings to pay for it. Some women make the decision to do that - they're generally better-off women - so that they can continue in their careers.
But for many that's not an option and they make other arrangements. The grandparents are doing some of the heavy lifting on this or they choose to stay at home. And it's a big issue, I think, in terms of women's participation in the workforce.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Now, the Government is of course intent on pushing through its paid parental leave scheme. Do you think the focus is too much on PPL and not enough on childcare?
ELIZABETH PROUST: Yes. For the last year or so the whole focus has been on that. I struggle to think of anybody - you know, working women, for example and others - who support it. Many businesspeople don't support it. Many businesses already provide either paid parental leave themselves and feel they'll be double-taxed to deal with this.
But most people I speak to stress the need for quality, affordable childcare, not a paid parental leave scheme.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: So is it your view, then, that childcare would boost productivity more?
ELIZABETH PROUST: I don't think there's any doubt about that. It'll be interesting to see what we find out from the Productivity Commission when it does report.
But I think that both the hours that women are able to work - and let's not forget this includes men as well: both single fathers but also where both in the family work - I think we would see both more women able to come back into the workforce, more single fathers able to come back into the workforce and I think it would take away much of the worry that impacts on families and women in particular today.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Now, you mentioned that companies have their own PPL schemes and childcare, I suppose, to a certain extent. Would you like to see companies do more in that regard?
ELIZABETH PROUST: Well, I think that a lot has already been done, as you say. Some have their own childcare arrangements. I'm conscious that generally it's the larger companies with the ability to do this and I know from people who run their own businesses that - the smaller companies - they find this a struggle.
But I think most of the big companies either have good leave schemes in place both for fathers and mothers when they have children and many have childcare centres as well, which is a big help to families.
But I think that some Government assistance is needed on this because not every company can do that.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Just on the budget generally: Joe Hockey is quoted today as saying he'd like to see more public support from business leaders about the importance of repairing the budget. Has big business been sitting on the sidelines? Could they be doing more?
ELIZABETH PROUST: Well, I'm not sure it's actually the job of big business to take sides - which, given where we are in the budget debate at the moment, is I think what it would be seen to do.
But I think the biggest problem with the budget: I don't think too many people in business accept the need for budget measures to be put in place.
I think the biggest problem is that many people perceive the measures to be unfair and I think that, if business is sitting on its hands, assuming, you know, there's a role for them in supporting the budget: I think that what's holding a lot of people back from doing that is that many of the measures - the GP co-payment, for example - are seen to fall unfairly on those who can least afford it. And I would expect that's the reason holding business back from doing so.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Elizabeth Proust there.