From Whitlam to Economic Rationalism and Beyond: A Conceptual Framework for Political Activism in Children's Services

Article excerpt

Introduction

Last year marked the thirtieth anniversary of the dismissal of the Whitlam Labor Government (1972-75), a pivotal political event for many, now middle-aged, Australians like myself. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that this 30-year milestone should prompt a somewhat painful process of reflection about where we have since come as a society and what our trajectory might be. Although short-lived, the Whitlam era was intensely seductive for those of us who were seeking to move beyond the somewhat narrow sociopolitical horizons of previous Liberal (conservative) governments. Much of its allure lay in the 'new philosophy and a new spirit' it heralded in social policy, for, in contrast to its predecessors, the Whitlam Government positioned its constituents as active participants and citizens, capable of identifying the needs of their communities and developing initiatives to meet them (Brennan, 1998, p. 73). It seemed a time of promise and expanded possibilities.

Within this context of political, economic and social change, the Whitlam years constituted a turning point in the provision and politics of child care--one marked by the first substantial funding of child care, the emergence of the community childcare movement, (i) and intense conflict between feminist groups and leaders of early childhood professional organisations as they vied to influence government policy (Brennan, 1998). For the first time, according to Brennan, the latter's role as expert advisers to governments on matters related to early childhood education was challenged and their formerly hegemonic status seriously undermined. Fragmentation amongst childcare advocates, their conflicting values and interests, the conservatism of many early childhood leaders, and their apparent obliviousness to significant social developments, political agendas and changing community attitudes, ill-equipped the children's services sector to fully capitalise on the opportunities of the Whitlam era.

Three decades after Whitlam, Australia's political, economic and social landscape has changed dramatically. Government policy in general, and childcare policy in particular, is characterised by continually increasing demands for accountability, efficiency, and adherence to market-based principles. The multitude of complex administrative, regulatory and accountability requirements of different levels of government have made it increasingly difficult for voluntary, community-based groups to operate children's services (Press & Woodrow, 2005). Moreover, funding changes such as the extension of fee subsidies to users of for-profit services in 1991; the removal of operational subsidies to not-for-profit services in 1997; and the introduction of the Childcare Benefit in 2000 have been successful in their aim of stimulating private sector investment in child care. (ii) The Australian Government's recently announced 30 per cent fee rebate scheme seems likely to further enhance the appeal of childcare provision to for-profit operators and investors (Jokovich, 2005). By 2004, fewer than 30 per cent of children attending long day care services attended not-for-profit services (Department of Family and Community Services [FACS], 2005), a dramatic contrast co the Whitlam era when almost all services were not-for-profit (Brennan, 1998).

This article arises from the belief that privatisation constitutes another crucial turning point for the children's services sector, and aims to identify possibilities that may assist in negotiating this turning point strategically. Its focus is deliberately theoretical, both to complement and to provide a conceptual framework for the practical strategies outlined in the many excellent guides to early childhood advocacy. Intentionally provocative, it seeks to disrupt the feelings of 'collective impotence' (Bauman, 1999, p. 2) that sometimes seem to characterise the children's services sector. Like Bauman (p. …