ELECTION 2013 has brought a bidding war for women's votes in terms of paid parental leave from the Coalition, and a decision by the Government to expand out-of-school-hours care, and to make programs more flexible in their hours of operation.
The Coalition's policy is the more expensive - the announced net cost of some $5 billion per year is close to the current annual spend by the Commonwealth on childcare subsidies. The out-of-school-hours care offer is $450 million over four years to create or expand programs through 500 existing primary schools.
Few of the commentators appear to understand that so far as parental leave is concerned, currently about 51 per cent of working women are already covered by an employer-funded scheme at income replacement, in addition to accessing the 18-week government-funded scheme at adult minimum wage.
This means that right now the best part of 97 per cent of working women have access to a period of paid parental leave of varying lengths and generosity.
The women using the government scheme tend to be lower income, part-time or casualised workers whose awards do not provide such leave. Data from the Workplace Gender Equity Agency shows that many women in higher income brackets have employer schemes already more generous than the proposed Coalition scheme.
Careful analysis of the available data from the Coalition suggests that women working part-time, mostly earning less than around $60,000 a year won't get anything like the extra $21,000 claimed by the Coalition, although they will get superannuation and a longer break.
The most benefit will flow to women earning $100,000, and upwards to $150,000, per year.
The Coalition will still pay women earning above this, but will cap the total value at $75,000.
The Coalition will also scrap the existing government scheme.
The growth of women in the workforce over the past 10 years has led to the demand for childcare outstripping the supply, and this has put pressure on prices and on waiting times. Out-of-school-hours care has been poorly and unsystematically organised, and generally has been not of interest to children once they reach around nine.
The current legislatively mandated review of the government parental leave scheme is finding that quite a few women are not returning to work simply because they can't organise affordable childcare, some simply can't find a vacancy.
All the experts on productivity agree that increased workforce participation is necessary, and women and the retired are the available potential participants.
Most also agree that higher payment levels for parental leave are unlikely to drive greater workforce participation (or even more childbirths).
The issue which must be solved to allow women to return to the workforce after bearing a child is childcare.
Childcare access and affordability will drive the decision to work, to work part-time, or to decide to leave the workforce.
Other relevant factors will be the net dollar gain to a woman once she has met the costs of returning to work (fares, clothes), of childcare, and any loss in government benefits such as parenting payments.
The Coalition has undertaken to refer the issue of childcare in all its aspects to the Productivity Commission, which in itself is a sensible enough proposal. Women's organisations have asked the government to do the same, and to have the inquiry look at these related costs, and any disincentives in the existing tax and benefit system.
A Productivity Commission inquiry is likely to take time - any significant changes to the current system would be unlikely before the time of the next election in 2016.
The Coalition has also talked of extending subsidies for nannies from the current funding envelope.
This sounds good, but must come at the cost of some other elements already getting funding.
We have come to the conclusion that in terms of the goal to get more women staying in and returning to the workforce, a more efficient use of $5 billion per year would be to increase the supply and lower the cost of childcare, rather than give women already on considerably higher than average incomes an additional payment when they have a child.
Most comparable countries which have high female workforce attachment have a good, inexpensive childcare system alongside their parental leave schemes.
Australia's current hybrid parental leave scheme can certainly be improved, but we need also to look at priorities for spending in this policy area.
Of course, many would also think that improving the financial position of women with children getting by on Newstart or a parenting payment, helping lift their children out of poverty, might be an even more pressing need.
Marie Coleman chairs the social policy committee of the National Foundation for Australian Women (nfaw.org). She is a member of the Steering Group for the Review of the Commonwealth Paid Parental Leave Scheme.