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Many obstacles on the road to nanny nirvana

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Chief Political Correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald

View more articles from Lenore Taylor

"Nanny nirvana" ... rebates for nannies are too hard and too expensive.

"Nanny nirvana" ... rebates for nannies are too hard and too expensive. Photo: Rob Homer

For the first year after maternity leave both of my children were cared for by a nanny. It cost us a bomb and we couldn't get government rebates. But we were fortunate: we could afford it if we shared with another family.

Hiring a nanny meant I could leave for work with peace of mind. It made it much easier to do my job, which, like many, doesn't always neatly comply with childcare centre hours and is difficult to put on hold every time a child gets sick. As every parent knows, in their first year in childcare, children seem to get sick most of the time.

It was also the only way I could feel comfortable about their care. Yes, there are many excellent childcare centres, and we used them happily when our children were older. But every time I entered their baby rooms I was overwhelmed by the thought that I couldn't possibly look after five one-year-olds, so how could I expect each of these workers, dedicated and trained as they were, to look after mine and four more.

Everyone makes their own choices but, for us, choosing a nanny meant we had a say over who our small children's carer would be and how they were cared for. Each time, she had only two charges.

It always seemed strange that, had our nanny registered as a family day care provider and cared for the children in her own home, we would have been eligible for a rebate but, since she cared for them at our house, we were not.

So, in principle, I'm all for Tony Abbott's so-called ''nanny state'' - the proposition that nannies could attract the same 50 per cent childcare rebate as institutional care. Actually, forget ''nanny state'' - I'd call that ''nanny nirvana''.

And it can't be dismissed on some kind of crude ''class warfare'' grounds. If there was a practical and affordable way to extend childcare subsidies to flexible in-home care then families of all means would grab it. If hiring a nanny works for most of the ministers and shadow ministers now discussing it, it is probably going to work for their constituents, too.

But recent experience suggests there isn't a practical and affordable way to extend subsidies. For almost 10 years politicians have been waxing lyrical about the idea and have then dropped it when the cost and the practical realities become clear.

John Howard, who famously called the question of balancing work and family a national ''barbecue stopper'', initially said the new childcare rebate would apply to nannies when he announced it during the 2004 election campaign. A few days later he clarified that it would not.

The following year, when his own MPs Bronwyn Bishop and Jackie Kelly were barracking for the idea as they travelled the country conducting committee hearings on the subject, he was attracted to it again.

''I think the proposition that if it's good enough to pay somebody X dollars a week to defray the cost of formal childcare, then why isn't it good enough to pay the same amount of money to another couple in a similar situation when the care occurs at home? I think there is some argument for that,'' he said at the time.

But when the MPs formally proposed the policy (along with tax deductibility for childcare costs) in their 2006 report, the Coalition rejected it.

Tony Abbott initially liked it when it was again pushed by his then families spokeswoman, Sharman Stone, in the lead-up to the 2010 poll. But when it came to defining and costing a policy, the nanny rebate again hit the cutting room floor.

The problems start with the difficulty of working out which carers should get it and which should not, and ensuring that the nannying being paid for by the rebate is only childcare related - and doesn't include the other housework that is often included in the job descriptions of au pairs and in-home carers. No one would support the idea of a taxpayer-funded rebate for time spent hanging out the washing.

The delineations are difficult. It would be possible for only qualified nannies to be eligible to provide full-day in-home care, for example, but families also now get the 50 per cent childcare rebate for before and after school care. Could they pay, and then claim a rebate, for grandma doing that same job at home? And how would the bureaucrats check?

The second problem is cost. Some of the extra cost would be offset by bringing ''black market'' nannying arrangements into the taxation system but, as the Treasurer, Wayne Swan, said yesterday of the nanny rebate, ''if you ever wanted to blow the budget, that would be the way to do it''.

That makes it impossible for the measure to work within Tony Abbott's firm proviso that it be funded ''within the existing funding envelope''. Which Liberals privately concede. ''No one really thinks we are going to do it,'' one told me this week. ''It's just part of the appeal to women.''

The Coalition is asking all the right questions in its proposed brief to the Productivity Commission (which is all that has actually happened; contrary to the perception, no actual policy, or even policy intention, has been unveiled).

It asks how childcare can be made more flexible to fit in with family's work, and - just as importantly - how businesses can make working arrangements more flexible to fit in with the fact that their workers also have responsibilities to their families.

(We might have made quite different choices had the new Parliament House childcare centre, on site, with flexible opening hours and applying new staff-to-children ratios, been available when the children were very small.)

The fact that Labor and the Coalition both now frame the childcare rebate as a workforce participation measure, not a hand-out, means the usual pre-budget speculation about Labor's imminent plan to means test it is almost certainly misguided.

But it also seems pretty likely, when the Productivity Commission reports back to an Abbott government of the future, the answer will be the same as it has been in the past. Rebates for nannies are too hard and too expensive. There may be no nanny nirvana.

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