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At both end of life, are we replacing care with cash?

This is something that seems to be brushed aside as governments are urged to find more and more cash for care institutions.

There has never been a royal commission into childcare – let us hope that, whatever its shortfalls, there never needs to be, because almost half of all children 0-5 years old are looked after in a centre. Families under pressure to earn dual incomes to pay the mortgage or just survive agonise over how quickly the primary carer – usually the mother – will be able to return to work. When it came time to put my own child in an astroturfed office floor in a high-rise building, it didn’t feel like a feminist decision, it just felt too soon. Centre-based long daycare was created to suit our economic lives, not our emotional needs.

There is bipartisan support for the childcare system and the only point of contention is to what level it should be funded. Labor has suggested that it might take a policy of free or cheaper childcare to the next election.

Generous proposals are almost always accompanied by figures which demonstrate that spending in services would be “offset” or even an “investment” based on the productivity they would unleash. KPMG informs us that raising the federal government’s childcare subsidy to a nearly fully funded 95 per cent could “boost the economy annually by up to $7.4 billion, at a cost of $5.4 billion per annum”. That’s nice, but are we people or productivity levers?

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We can all be glad that aged care and childcare options are available to people who want or need them, and that women are no longer tethered to caring responsibilities. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds undoubtedly benefit from comprehensive early care and as the population ages, more people require complex care for conditions such as dementia. But there is a dystopian logic to this treadmill, in which the people who care most – father, mother, son or daughter – are forced to work longer hours to pay for people who care less to replace them.

The institutional mentality is creeping into other areas of our family lives. Parents habituated to institutionalisation expect schools to teach their children about sexual consent. But this idea that the government should be inveigling its way into our bedrooms feels like a step backward instead of the best way ahead. When people negotiate relationships they are often imperfect. But when care-factory widgets embark on sex, the complexities of the human heart are reduced to a 0-1 binary of consent or none.

Our response to the aged care royal commission will tell us a lot about who we are as a society. In the industrial revolution people built factories to make widgets, now we build care factories to enable productivity. Perhaps the nationalisation of the family is almost complete.

Parnell Palme McGuinness is managing director strategy and policy at strategic communications firm Agenda C.

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