It's time to meet key social policy challenges in COVID recovery

COVID RECOVERY: Long a political football, the time has come for free universal childcare. Picture: Shutterstock
COVID RECOVERY: Long a political football, the time has come for free universal childcare. Picture: Shutterstock

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of government in our country over the last several decades has been how politics has been increasingly short-term in its focus.

It's been opportunistic, populous, negative and expedient, more to simply win the next election than to provide good government. Government that thinks and plans longer-term, meet challenges and actually solves problems as they arise.

The big policy challenges have mostly been left to drift. The need for an effective COVID recovery strategy provides an opportunity for a reset in relation to these challenges, to be done in a way that delivers both near-term, and sustainable, economic and social benefits.

Four challenges stand out as particularly urgent in social policy after decades of politicking and neglect - the unemployment benefit, child and aged care, and social/affordable housing.

The unemployment benefit, renamed JobSeeker in the pandemic, needs to be set at a level well above the old Newstart allowance of $40 per day. It must be above the poverty line, but a little less than the minimum wage so as to preserve some incentive to move from welfare to work as the jobs become available.

The Morrison government has been resisting a commitment beyond December. It is reducing JobSeeker from its pandemic level of $550 per fortnight to $250 per fortnight until then.

There is still a lingering LNP prejudice against the unemployed as dole bludgers that needs to be jettisoned.

Childcare has been something of a political football over many years under governments of both persuasions.

The Morrison Government provided free childcare for a limited time during the pandemic but, surprisingly, cut it off abruptly, and terminated JobKeeper support to childcare workers.

This was well ahead of any adjustment for other sectors, and to the particular detriment of the 97 per cent of childcare workers who are women.

It is time to draw a line in the sand, and for government to embrace the concept of universal free childcare and early learning for children up to the age of five.

Many parents can't afford to send their kids to childcare - it costs about 30 per cent of the income of families with young children - and the existing system discourages women from working more than a couple of days per week.

Ninety per cent of a child's brain is developed by the age of five, and the meaningful interactions that occur during those years both at home and in the early learning system are vital for a child's development.

It has been estimated that such a universal system would allow an extra 380,000 parents - mostly women - to get back into the workforce.

It would remove the financial barriers to increasing the participation of women in paid work, and it could add up to $11 billion in economic productivity to our economy each year.

The Aged Care Royal Commission has been identifying the significant weaknesses and poor quality of services in aged care, and some of the extremes of these have been emphasised by COVID.

Considerable evidence has been highlighted of poorly trained, poorly equipped and underpaid staff, lack of nursing care, low standard meals, inadequate premises and excessive accommodation bonds to ensure entry to the homes.

What used to be called nursing homes are now just aged care facilities, as so many were privatised.

In addition, there is extensive evidence of the aged being ripped off by owners of self care (retirement villages) by way of control of the purchase and sale of units, keeping any capital gains, and overcharging for operations and maintenance and the like.

Finally, the government introduced the concept of support for the aged by way of home care packages, that allow the aged to stay longer in their homes rather than having to move into residential aged care. But the waiting list for these packages has blown out to more than 100,000. It needs to be addressed.

The Morrison Government has committed to bringing forward infrastructure projects.

One of the most urgently needed, shovel ready - promising significant investment and job benefits - is social housing. Especially given that the housing boom, especially in Sydney and Melbourne, that has frozen so many low-middle income families out of the housing market.

Fixing these four social policy challenges, among many others, would provide an important and significant boost to the COVID recovery, and correct years of neglect.

It would be good economics, good public policy and good government - and ultimately prove to be good politics.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.