Senator David Leyonhjelm was right when he said that the job of taking care of children is “wiping noses and stopping the kids from killing each other”.
Well, he was partly right.
He made the remarks in an interview on Channel Ten’s The Project, when explaining why he won’t support the government’s new $3 billion childcare reform package “without amendment”.
Leyonhjelm also said we needed to wind back the regulations around childcare and family daycare, and cut the credentials required to be a childcare worker.
As a small-government libertarian, he thinks there is far too much fuss around the whole early childcare system. The way he characterises it, childcare is little more than government-subsidised babysitting. All kids need is to be free from snot and safe from physical harm – how hard can it be?
It’s generally considered off-limits in political debate to talk about a person’s personal life, but it cannot go entirely unremarked that Leyonhjelm, a childless man, is unlikely to have spent a lot of time caring for children.
So perhaps we can’t blame him for not knowing that along with wiping noses and the prevention of homicide, caring for kids in the early childhood years also involves teaching children to self-regulate their emotions, establishing the basics of learning so they will be set up for school – things like helping them to sit still, and understanding that text has meaning - and teaching them to communicate their needs so they don’t get frustrated and act out violently.
"It cannot go entirely unremarked that Leyonhjelm, a childless man, is unlikely to have spent a lot of time caring for children"
It’s also safe to assume that Leyonhjelm is unfamiliar with the vast body of research that shows the early childhood years are make-or-break, a precious period when children’s biological and social fates can be set, sometimes irreversibly.
He probably doesn’t know that the fields of neuro-science, medicine and economics are united in proving, time and again, that if you offer quality early childhood education in the years before school, it can prevent everything from obesity to welfare dependence, anti-social behaviour, jail time and heart disease.
More importantly, perhaps, for an economic dry like Leyonhjelm, it can save money.
James Heckman is a Nobel prize-winning economist who has devoted much of his career to researching the economics of early childhood.
His analysis of various preschool programs has shown funding quality early childhood programs delivers a later return on investment of 7-10 per cent.
But I doubt Leyonhjelm has read that vast body of research.
I doubt, also, that he can see that the more he devalues the work of childcare, which is intensive, back-breaking and more socially worthwhile, dare I say, than sitting in the Senate and trying to negotiate more lax gun laws in return for his vote, the more he devalues women, who have historically done the lion’s share of it.
We often complain that politicians are out of touch, and don’t understand what it’s like to struggle in a day job, or balance a household budget, or sit in heavy traffic during a commute.
Leyonhjelm clearly has a poor understanding of what caring for children involves. Perhaps he needs a better education. A stint of work experience in childcare centre would be a good start. He will need a robust handkerchief, and an even stronger constitution.
Jacqueline Maley is a reporter with Fairfax Media.