When it came time for Coburg mother Emma Houghton to check her 10-month-old into childcare, the options available in her local area were - in her words - dire.
In her council area, the City of Moreland, where she lives with daughter Penelope, now 2, there was not a single spot available for an under-one-year-old. ''I had her name down at a lot of centres in Moreland and the City of Melbourne … A few offers trickled in but it was not until much later,'' she says.
Keen to return to her job in publishing, Houghton finally secured a place at a not-for-profit centre at the headquarters of listed medical company CSL in Parkville. While the facility was a stressful 30-minute drive from home, she was grateful.
''You take whatever you can get and hope for more down the track,'' she says.
Ms Houghton's problem is one repeated across the country every day, where the need for parents to find and turn up to work collides with the reality of the Australian childcare sector's costs and limitations. It is a system that eats up $5 billion in federal funding each year - but that is plagued by rising costs, availability problems and an inability to provide the sort of flexible care needed in a busy and fluid world.
According to think tank The Australia Institute, the number of households reporting difficulties with the cost of childcare for a child under five stands at more than three out of 10. Then there is the problem of what it dubs the ''uneven availability of childcare places'', that sees acute shortages in some areas even as official data reports a healthy number of vacancies nationwide.
The government, economists and researchers have targeted childcare as a major productivity issue, at a time when the economy faces an uphill battle amid job losses in the automotive sector and the push for non-mining sector growth.
Australia's female workforce participation rate lags behind other OECD countries, a fact bemoaned by state and federal governments and blamed, in part, on the costs and shortcomings of the nation's childcare system.
The Grattan Institute says boosting female participation could eventually push up Australia's GDP by as much as $25 billion a year. But there is evidence that households and the government are struggling to cope with the rising cost.
This week, Treasurer Joe Hockey underscored the government's stance that childcare was ''essential'' to boosting the nation's productivity.
But he also warned of an impending explosion in the cost of childcare subsidies to the federal budget - currently forecast to be $22 billion in the next four years.
And here lies the crux of the problem - how to balance the funding of childcare with the need to get more women back into the workforce while boosting productivity.
Government, childcare providers and parents are pinning their hopes on a landmark Productivity Commission inquiry into childcare that has already attracted more than 400 submissions.
''Families are struggling to find quality childcare and early learning that is flexible and affordable enough to meet their needs and to participate in the workforce,'' Hockey said last year, as he kicked off the commission's almost year-long inquiry.
The peak childcare body, Early Childhood Australia, believes it is a ''once-in-a-generation opportunity'' to improve the system. ''There are major benefits to be gained both in terms of outcomes for children … and increasing women's participation in the workplace,'' chief executive Samantha Page says.
The economics are clear cut, she says. ''Investment in early learning is a win-win for parents and children, and the economy more generally.''
At the heart of the inquiry are the issues of cost, availability, quality and flexibility. Cost isn't only a matter of strict affordability - it's also about whether the cost of childcare is low enough to make going to work worthwhile.
And it is here that experts say the childcare system - coupled with marginal tax rates - can fall down.
In its submission to the inquiry, not-for-profit operator KU Children's Services says it sees parents ''calculate a 'tipping point' at which returning to work and [using] approved childcare services becomes less financially viable''.
Altona mother Susan Wieczkiewicz says she was one of those parents. When daughter Ania came along, the rebate gave Wieczkiewicz - a lower income earner to her husband, Remi - a disincentive to work more than three days. The government's childcare rebate is not means tested and covers 50 per cent of out-of-pocket child care expenses up to $7500 a year.
''If I worked more than three days, it would mean I'd have to earn enough on top of that $110 [for childcare] to justify not only a day of work but transport, the cost of living and the extra time,'' she says.
''That's just with one child. If you wanted to have two, or God forbid you wanted to have three, good luck … the childcare cost is just always unmanageable.''
The limits of current government subsidies force working mums into three-day work weeks because this is where the childcare rebate - which has been frozen since 2011 - tends to run out. The freeze on subsidies means the gap between the government rebate and child care costs is increasing every year.
This means a couple earning $70,000 each with two children in childcare stand to take home just 20¢ for every dollar earned on the second wage if that partner works more than two days a week.
''I really think that me taking four years out of the workforce is going to impact on my ability to work in the future and earn money and pay tax,'' Wieczkiewicz says.
The Productivity Commission estimates a family with one child in full-time day care currently devotes about 9 per cent of their disposable income to childcare fees.
''There's a lot of evidence to suggest that the cost, and to a lesser extent the availability, of childcare is the major reason for the lower workforce participation rate of women of 'child bearing' age in Australia than in culturally similar countries,'' Bank of America Merril Lynch chief economist Saul Eslake says.
The Grattan Institute says the best way to remove the barriers for women to return to work is to alter access to the Family Tax Benefit and Childcare Benefit and Childcare Rebate so that the second income earner in a family - usually but not always a mother - takes home more income after tax, welfare and costs.
But other business groups and economists have pushed the idea of making childcare tax deductable as a work-related expense.
This would ''do vastly more to lift the participation rate of women, and hence boost GDP, than 'paid parental leave','' Eslake says.
The Australia Institute's David Baker, however, warns against this model. ''Those people on the lowest incomes aren't paying enough tax to benefit from this approach to childcare support,'' he says.
Baker says the challenge for the government is to find a way of directing assistance to those who need it most, rather than trying to play ''catch-up'' to rising costs. ''Whenever the government looks at changing or increasing funding to childcare, the response from the market is just to increase prices.''
But operators say margins in the sector are under pressure - and will be whittled even slimmer as the previous Labor government's push to upgrade Australia's childcare sector, the National Quality Framework, starts to take effect.
Higher staffing ratios per child in care, and raised education credentials - to reflect their growing role as early education providers - translate to an even higher wage bill for centres, which they say they are struggling to pass on to parents.
According to COAG estimates, the changes will add $1.2 billion to long day care costs over the decade to 2019, despite the fact that qualified staff at centres are often paid less than the workers who clean the centres at the end of the day for what is physically and emotionally draining work.
A recent report from IBISWorld paints a stark picture of the financial realities of an industry that relies on government assistance as its main source of income.
While the sector is set to generate revenue of $7.8 billion for the year ending June 30, staffing costs will account for 66.7 per cent, rent another 13.5 per cent and day-to-day running expenses another 11 per cent. That accounts for more than 90¢ of every dollar that comes through the door.
''To be profitable, a centre must have an occupancy of at least 70 per cent,'' says IBISWorld.
Hence the industry mantra that solvency is a function of rent, occupancy and price. What it leaves is a profit margin as low as 2 per cent for the sector.
''The industry as a whole is barely profitable, primarily due to the presence of not-for-profit community-based centres and the absence of economies of scale,'' IBISWorld says.
Of course the general statistics hide the lucrative pockets that are attracting a new wave of listed enterprises that are determined not to make the same mistakes as ABC Learning founder Eddy Groves.
The trend of ''premium'' childcare centres - clustered in well-heeled suburbs - highlights the heart of the availability issue. If private operators are to enter the sector, they must make money - and the best areas to make money are those with parents willing to pay more than $150 a day for childcare.
The country's largest childcare provider, not-for-profit group Goodstart, says there is a ''real and emerging issue'' whereby private operators are targeting wealthy urban areas to maximise profits, resulting in a shortage of care where it is most needed.
''There is much more incentive for for-profit operators to set up in those localities where you can charge a high fee and where you're going to get a high occupancy than there is for them to set up in middle or lower-economic suburbs,'' chief executive Julia Davison says.
Data from privately owned website Care For Kids, based on surveys of childcare operators, suggests that areas with the greatest need for more childcare are affordable, family-friendly suburbs and those with high income earners. The Melbourne suburbs with the highest number of under-two-year-olds on waiting lists are Blackburn and Brighton.
ASX-listed G8 Education is one new player that is hoping to benefit from the soaring demand for quality childcare in inner-city areas.
Its focus on ''high quality'' early childhood education at the top end of the market helped it make a net profit of $31 million last year.
It's a formula that is being replicated around the country, with Only About Children another premium-end player.
Goodstart took over ABC Learning's centres after the private operator collapsed in 2009 and is owned by a coalition of charities including Brotherhood of St Laurence. It has 641 centres nationally.
Goodstart reported that last year it capped its fee increase at 4.7 per cent across its 641 centres. This is despite a 6.2 per cent increase in expenses due to the new regulatory requirements.
Houghton, like many parents, has grappled with the big childcare issues - cost, availability and, crucially, flexibility. Since her daughter started childcare, she estimates the cost has risen 5 per cent - from $100 to $105 a day.
She is eligible for childcare assistance and the rebate, which brings the cost down to $35 a day.
While she eventually, after some struggles, overcame the availability problem, and is receiving government assistance to help with the cost, she says inflexible childcare hours have still meant a reduction in the hours she is able to work.
Formerly a production editor at a magazine, it meant she had to move into a different position with fewer late-night responsibilities.
With the industry already complaining of thin margins and cost pressures, convincing childcare operators to match their hours to those of Australians who work outside standard business hours may well be the biggest challenge.
Houghton, for one, says the benefit of helping parents return to work are clear. ''I can't see how there's a negative in helping people get back to work when you want a productive community,'' she says.
The Productivity Commission tables its report in October.
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