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Editorial

Child-care rebate: Split looms over nannies and au pairs

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Back in 2012 then opposition leader Tony Abbott had what many referred to as a "women problem".  The problem being that women  didn't like him – or at least that was the assessment of some political commentators. 

One of Mr Abbott's first serious attempts to turn around this perception was a plan to extend the childcare rebate to families who employed nannies.

In an interview with Fairfax Media, Mr Abbott pledged that one of the first acts of a Coalition government would be to ask the Productivity Commission to examine how much it would cost to extend the childcare rebate for in-home care, such as nannies, in recognition that existing arrangements did not meet the needs of many families.

The plan gave him a vehicle to improve his reputation with women, and he adorned his announcement with encouraging – if obvious – motherhood statements about the value women brought to the nation's economy.

"We want as many women as can be to have challenging and demanding careers rather than having to fit a bit of work in around the edges," Mr Abbott said.

His sentiments tapped into a frustration many women felt, having found that the hours they put in at the office to advance their careers before having a baby were not going to be accommodated by childcare centres that closed on the dot at 6pm.

Those time-related restrictions have led countless women to examine their options to "fit in a bit of work around the edges", often in lower-skilled positions, instead of returning to their previous workplace.

There's a trap there of course – just because something pays less and demands fewer hours doesn't mean it's flexible.

One of the alternatives to ditching the career is to turn to in-home care, where hours can be negotiated. 

Childcare centres are still an excellent option, but they cannot accommodate all parents, especially not those who work night shifts, weekends or who are expected to put in regular overtime at their office jobs.

However, in spite of the pep talk from Mr Abbott in March 2012, almost three years later parents are still unable to claim the childcare rebate for fees spent on in-home care.

The Productivity Commission is due to deliver its report on October 31. Judging by its draft report, it will give nannies the green light for the childcare rebate but not au pairs.

That, of course, raises issues of fairness. Aren't those parents who employ au pairs taxpayers too? Why should they be denied a benefit that is extended to other parents? Objections may be raised about the qualifications of au pairs but regulations could be introduced to remedy those concerns. Surely the answer is not simply to say to parents: "no tax rebate for you".