Suddenly, the government finds itself being lobbied from all directions on childcare. The outbreak of activity was sparked by Tony Abbott on Tuesday, when he committed a Coalition government to asking the Productivity Commission to ''consider ways that high quality childcare can be delivered more flexibly to suit the individual circumstances of families''. He said the circumstances might include: ''living in regional and remote areas; shift workers and workers who do not work traditional hours; and parenting without the support of an extended family''. But it was his further step that caught the headlines and fired up the debate.

The Productivity Commission, he said, would also ''consider how parents can better access existing services including long day care, occasional care, in-home care, family care and budget-based care''. ''In-home care'' means a nanny - and that concept comes with all manner of preconceptions. Childcare Minister Kate Ellis commented that subsidising nannies would mean subsidising carers who worked as families' chauffeurs and chefs. She later elaborated: ''I was making the point that, unlike the childcare assistance that's delivered through the childcare rebate, nannies fulfil a whole lot of other roles. Now, that doesn't make it a good thing or a bad thing, but it's just the truth that for the first time we would be having childcare funds subsidising a whole lot of other jobs around the house and it would be very, very difficult to remove those from the equation.''

The 50 per cent childcare rebate, capped at $7500, is not means-tested. Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said that extending it to in-home care would only increase the cost of nannies. ''Tony Abbott's proposal to extend tax deductibility or subsidies to the use of nannies would unquestionably be an expansion of middle-class welfare.'' For a government looking desperately to bring down a surplus budget, middle-class welfare is not in favour. Indeed, the childcare sector suspects that their rebate is being lined up for means-testing.

The Australian Childcare Alliance, representing about 70 per cent of long day-care centres, is writing to all MPs and senators stressing that the childcare rebate is a workforce participation measure, not welfare. They also note that the cap on the rebate has been cut back to $7500 from $8179. The alliance says that means-testing the rebate would see ''tens of thousands of parents'' forced to leave the workforce. Even the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry says it would be ''concerned at any move that would see a reduction in female participation at a time when we need to grow the workforce''. In the Australian Financial Review this week, Marian Baird and Alexandra Heron, of the Women and Work Research Group at the Sydney University Business School, wrote: ''Nannies will never be the solution for most working women's families. In addition, the problems and solutions associated with women's workforce participation and suitable childcare arrangements do not begin and end with a choice between a nanny or group childcare. Rather, many families experience difficulties with both arrangements and end up employing a variety of care including other means of in-house and informal care, especially as children enter the school years.

''What is needed is an inquiry into childcare, acknowledging that its function does not end when children enter the school gate and that many families turn to more expensive options, like nannies, or stretch family relationships, simply to counter the inflexible nature of standardised care. Such an inquiry should examine what could be done to improve the flexibility of standardised childcare, as the most cost-effective state solution to childcare needs, and look at workplace flexibility and overall childcare costs incurred by families that need to employ a mix of care. … So yes, thank you Tony Abbott for generating a contest on family friendly policies and for your initial sprint. But let's start the longer race - a debate on all forms of childcare, its quality and the working conditions of carers to ensure it is inclusive of children from all parts of the Australian community.''