Many women believe in-home care should be subsidised.
CATHY Clark can't remember the last time a woman called her agency looking for a nanny to take care of the children while mum had a hit of tennis or went out to lunch.
''In the last five years, I haven't placed anyone with a non-working parent who only has one child,'' says Clark, who has run the My Little Friend Nanny Agency in Sydney's Ashbury for 20 years. ''Ninety-nine per cent of my clients are just hardworking families who want good-quality childcare and a good work/life balance.''
Once considered a luxury for the super wealthy, nannies are becoming an increasingly popular alternative to childcare as parents juggle careers with the needs of their children. ''It's not a Mary Poppins thing where mum is just twiddling her thumbs and dad makes loads of money,'' explains Debbie Otto, who uses a nanny to look after her five-year-old twins before and after school. ''It's working parents just trying to make it work when they don't have family around.''
Yet there is still a lingering prejudice that nannies are a more indulgent form of childcare. The federal government will pay half of a family's childcare fees, but its ''registered carer'' benefit will buy just one hour with a nanny a week. Its rationale is that it cannot monitor the standard of care nannies provide, and it does not want taxpayers footing the bill for the domestic duties nannies also perform.
But social policy experts argue that in the absence of universally available, quality childcare, the government must subsidise nannies if it wants to increase female participation in the workforce and bolster Australia's productivity. ''Women's home responsibilities have long been regarded as a women's problem, not a society problem that needs to be addressed,'' says Associate Professor Lyn Craig from the University of New South Wales Social Policy Research Centre. ''If the objective is to assist families [to] participate in the workforce, then what helps them do that is less important.''
An Australian Bureau of Statistics 2008 childcare survey found 3.3 per cent of under twos in care were looked after by a nanny or au pair, rising to 4.6 per cent of three to five-year-olds, and 4.2 per cent of six to eight-year-olds. Anecdotal evidence suggests the proportion of families using a nanny has risen markedly since then. Dial An Angel agency has recorded a 15 per cent increase in the number of parents wanting ''part-time professional childcare in the home'' since 2005. The rise of the nanny reflects that women are increasingly returning to work after having a child, to continue their career or simply help pay a hefty mortgage, according to Sydney University's Women and Work Research Group.
Nearly half of Australian children under two have both parents employed, but couples can no longer rely on extended family to help out. Many do not live in the same city or even the same country as their parents. Those that do cannot count on grandparent care, as the baby boomer generation stays on in paid work longer. For many working parents, formal childcare is not flexible enough as their jobs do not always fit the rigid opening hours of childcare centres. There is also less disruption to the child's routine when they are looked after at home, say nanny advocates, and the bonus is that nannies will shop, clean and cook. Jenny Fagg, a Melbourne senior finance executive and spokesperson for Chief Executive Women, says nannies offer flexibility that other childcare arrangements cannot. ''When you're working long hours or odd hours, in-house care is really the only way you can handle some of that,'' she says.
Parents are willing to pay a premium for the flexibility - especially when children get sick or it's school holidays. It costs $250 (plus superannuation) to hire a qualified nanny for 10 hours, almost double the cost of a day in childcare. But once you have two or more children, the fees are quite comparable.
Roxanne Elliott, who runs online childcare information service CareForKids, says she has noticed a big trend towards nanny sharing, where families split the cost to make it more affordable.
Nannies are particularly popular for babies and toddlers, partly because there is a chronic shortage of 0-2 places at formal childcare centres, and partly because many mothers prefer one-on-one care for younger children.
As more families opt for nannies, there is mounting pressure on the government to remove the discrimination in its childcare subsidies. ''The outsourcing of childcare costs should be treated equally, it shouldn't be dependent on the type of service you use,'' Craig says. ''Some families don't have much alternative to using a nanny.''
Like nanny employers, Craig believes tax deductions or rebates for nannies would boost female participation in the workforce, as the lack of affordable quality childcare prevents some mothers returning to work.
But the formal childcare sector opposes subsidies for nannies, arguing they do not provide the same regulated quality early education services. Barbara Romeril, who represents not-for-profit childcare services, believes families using nannies can find themselves isolated. ''It's a loss to that family's resilience. It doesn't link the family in with broader social services.''
Federal Minister for Childcare Kate Ellis says it isn't feasible to monitor the standard of care in the child's own home. ''Nannies and au pairs also often provide other services - such as shopping or cooking - which aren't childcare and shouldn't be subsidised by taxpayers,'' Ms Ellis says. ''It would be impossible to separately identify the time spent on such duties.''