The Australian experience should teach the Harper government a lesson
Ottawa (25 Nov. 2008) – Australia’s largest child care corporation, ABC Learning Centres, went into receivership in early November.
This privately owned, publicly subsidized corporation provided services for over 100,000 Australian children. The Australian government, which has been providing public funds to the tune of $300 million annually to subsidize individual parent fees, now finds itself paying $22 million to keep centres open until the end of December.
The beginnings of this debacle began in 1991 when Australia introduced market forces into the sector by extending child care assistance to the users of for-profit care. The government promised that the market would lead to greater choice and lower fees.
It allowed private businesses to determine the location of services even though large public subsidies were involved. Then, in 1997, the government ended operational subsidies to community-based care and introduced a more generous child care assistance scheme.
This allowed several for-profit companies to prosper and grow including ABC. At the peak of its growth, ABC controlled 25% of the child care operations in Australia. As ABC grew, the “choices” in many communities shrank and the cost of care grew as much as 123% in 15 years. Access to child care for immigrants, aboriginal populations, children with special needs, rural and low-income families was restricted. And the working conditions of child care workers declined.
In 2007, this corporate child care giant came to Canada under the name of 123 Busy Beavers. It attempted to gain ground in B.C., Alberta, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Child care advocates and activists from across Canada have worked tirelessly to publize the dangers of this expansion and, as of September 2008, 123 Busy Beavers has publicly listed centres only in Alberta.
However, there are concerns that a new company associated with the ABC/123 network, Educare, has surfaced in Canada.
Lessons to be learned
The Australian experience should teach the Harper government the ABCs of what not to do with the issue of child care in Canada. Its implementation of the $100 a month Child Care Benefit has not created more spaces as promised. And the lesson learned in Australia proves that it will not work in the future.
What will work is a national early learning and child care system governed by principles and accountabilitly. The National Union of Public and General Employees has worked diligently to promote the need for a universal early learning and child care system in Canada. It believes that Canadians must fight to ensure that early learning and child care in this country cannot be based on business’ need to make profit but rather on a social investment in the future of our children and our country.
A Nanos poll conducted before the Canadian election on Oct. 14 revealed that almost twice as many Canadians prefer a national child care system to the current Harper government’s Universal Child Care Benefit. It is time for the Harper government to listen to what Canadians want and to learn from the Australian experience. It is as simple as 123 or ABC. NUPGE