Welcome to the The Conversation’s Election 2013 State of the Nation essays. These articles by leading experts in their field provide an in-depth look at the key policy challenges affecting Australia as the nation heads to the polls. Today, we examine the issue of caring, from paid parental leave and child care, to disability and aged care.
In the current election campaign, the major parties use the language of “care” in a battle of claims and counter claims over “who cares the most”. This public face of care on the one hand emphasises the importance of economic management, building productivity and providing the right conditions to secure the nation’s borders. On the other hand, demonstrating each party’s “care credentials” is played out in their policies on paid parental leave, child care, disability and aged care.
The policies of both the major political parties appear caught between a neoliberal emphasis on the importance of the economy, and a social democrat emphasis on the importance of society. At a simple level, we assume policies put forward attempt to balance the pros and cons of both positions: one that protects us from the vagaries of the market while ensuring Australia continues to develop into a vibrant and diverse society.
However, developing and implementing policy is never simple, and election campaigns provide citizens with the chance to explore and examine the positions put forward by each political party.
Care is a social good; it shapes society and links the world of personal relations with the public world of politics, policy and the public sector.
Few would suggest that Australians are “uncaring”. After all, Australia is one of the top performing nations on the OECD Better life Index, across the range of indicator. But while Australia has a social welfare system that provides for citizens and a redistributive taxation system that ensures those who are struggling receive some financial assistance from the state, an examination of the different approaches to policies that “care” raises serious questions about what it means to care in the current political environment.
Caring for families
Caring for families is a key policy area for all political parties. Care-based policies include paid parental leave and access to good quality, affordable child care. However, the major parties use different “care credentials” to demonstrate their caring ability.
For the Labor government, paid parental leave amounts to 18 weeks pay post birth set at the minimum wage, roughly A$620 per week. The Coalition’s approach is to provide 26 weeks at full pay for those who earn up to $150,000 (the total payment is up to $75,000), supported in part by a levy on Australia’s wealthy businesses and supplemented by the government.
While there are questions about the funding for the more extensive Coalition policy, the idea that governments care for families is emphasised in the allocation of benefits. Certainly the Labor government’s introduction of the paid parental leave scheme in January 2011 provided the essential ingredient to support families; the issue now appears as “who cares the most” when care equates with receiving financial assistance.
For many families, child care enables both parents to work, which has flow-on effects for the economy. Accessing child care has been highlighted as a long-standing problem with limited places available and growing costs to cover appropriate care for children. This situation certainly makes returning to work difficult.
The Labor government introduced the National Quality Framework (2012) to ensure quality of educative and care services and it tinkered with rebates and family benefits to the tune of A$7,500 rebate for many families per child. But this does not cover the total costs for children attending day-long or out-of-school child care.
The Coalition has proposed a Productivity Commission inquiry into child care: one that takes into account costs, rebates and subsidies but does not target funding for child care centres.
As proposed solutions, these positions reinforce the tension between policies that “care” and enhancing the economic bottom line. The Coalition’s paid parental leave policy has been criticised for reinforcing inequality and discrimination against women; the Labor Party’s approach has been criticised for excluding superannuation. In both positions, the importance of care is lost in the rhetoric that focuses on time periods and amounts of financial assistance.
It is not unreasonable for all involved – government, business, society and families themselves – to take some responsibility around caring for the well-being of families. A shift in the terms of reference from “who gets what”, to that of how best to meet the needs of all families situates equality as the defining feature.
Caring and disability
People with disabilities, their carers and service providers have been calling for radical changes to this policy area for decades. Imagine the pressure on a family with a severely disabled young adult with no prospect of finding suitable accommodation or even appropriate respite.
For many families, the prospect of inadequate care arrangements, ineffective employment prospects coupled with ignorant community attitudes towards people with disabilities provided the baseline for discussions at the 2008 2020 Summit, where the the idea of a National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) was formally raised.
As a response, the Labor government called for a Productivity Commission report on the state of disability services in Australia. The Disability Care and Support Inquiry (2011) highlighted that a 90% increase in funding was needed to ensure the well-being of people with disabilities. The report demonstrated the need for a national scheme that enables people with an ongoing disability to receive a range of supports and care that enhances their life and well-being.
The Labor government worked with the states to roll out the NDIS, however gaining support from all of states was slow going, with Western Australia finally agreeing to be part of the package earlier this month.
The key feature of the report and the implementation of the policy through DisabilityCare Australia is that the people concerned, their families and carers are the ones to choose the type of assistance required. Similar to approaches in the United Kingdom, the Australian model draws on the ideas of community-led supports, enhancing connections through local area coordination and reinforcing the use of the market through expanding the National Disability Employment Initiative.
Certainly these initiatives provide a reinvigorated approach to supporting and caring for people with disabilities. There is, however, the need for the new model to ensure clear, transparent and accountable governance practices to protect all in their decision making processes.
As with family care policies, disability care also situates the problem in line with the importance of the economy. The Productivity Commission’s report advocated the need for funding to be based on certainty, sustainability, equity and efficiency, the preferred option being legislation, which funnels funds from consolidated revenue into the NDIS fund. This has required a form of “tax swap” between the states and the Australian government, which for all intents and purposes created tensions between the levels of government.
Linking care, disabilities and the economy has resulted in the Labor government increasing the Medicare levy to ensure the NDIS is adequately funded. With rhetoric aside, the major parties have agreed that, for the time being, this is the most effective and sustainable approach to funding such a national insurance initiative.
Care and ageing
Questions around ageing and how to ensure that older Australians remain valued and integral part of society are part of the Labor government’s Living Longer Living Better aged care package. Ageing is something we all face, and for those who are confronted with the need for parents and loved ones to move into aged care many areas of conflict arise.
The Productivity Commission’s 2011 report Caring for Older Australians outlined a framework that would enhance the options for aged care services in Australia. The report primarily argues that the current rationing approach, one that restricts the quantity and type of services offered by providers, requires significant changes.
This includes increasing flexibility of types of care, being consumer-directed so that citizens have a choice and control over how they live, to be affordable, equitable and transparent and above all, aged care needs to treat people with dignity and respect.
The Coalition also supports the framework and adds that it will establish an Aged Care Provider Agreement with the sector.
The Council of the Ageing (COTA) also argues that the current situation that is supposed to care for aged Australians is not acceptable. Many people are on extended waiting lists for either in-home support or residential care, while others receive some support but it is ineffective or insufficient.
Added to these pressing problems is the recognition that Australia’s population is ageing and that by 2050 well over three million people will require some form of aged care assistance. As it stands, many people are, and will be, left in limbo waiting for an appropriate aged care place to become available
How we care as a nation says a lot about the type of society in which we live; it also says something about how we see ourselves as people. Governments have developed and implemented policies that aim to care – and the NDIS stands out as a policy that radically changes our approach to addressing the rights of people with disabilities.
The debates around how we care, for whom we care and the inevitable questions of affordability require a vigilant citizenry to ensure that it is not the economy that dictates care, rather it needs to be a basis in humanity that put cares first.