Lack of childcare access is hamstringing the regions almost as much as the housing crisis, with the number of available places dropping dramatically in rural and remote areas.
An Australian Competition and Consumer Commission found in major cities, there was an average of almost 400 childcare places per 1000 children.
The number of places steadily declines in inner regional areas (332), outer regional areas (295), remote (212) and very remote areas (166).
Former South Australian premier and Thrive by Five director Jay Weatherill said poor access to childcare in the regions had been accepted as a universal experience, which was unacceptable.
"There are some things you can do without in the regions, but this isn't one of them, this is an essential service," Mr Weatherill said
"If someone said that about schools, there would be outrage. But it's tolerated in early learning."
Although the number of childcare places grew by 17 per cent in the past four years, it was primarily in larger population centres. Approved places in remote areas have remained flat and the number of places is low, even when accounting for population size.
The limited childcare access is handicapping population growth of regions, with childcare one of the primary factors families consider before moving. It's also limiting rural economic growth, with more parents kept out of the workforce to look after their children.
"The single biggest issue on the productivity agenda is early childhood reform," Mr Weatherill said.
"If you do find a house and jag a job, you can't say you'll start tomorrow, you've got to have childcare sorted first."
Thrive by Five is campaigning for a universal childcare system, which would give everyone "an accessible, high-quality place near you".
"The people that would benefit the most are people in rural and regional Australia," Mr Weatherill said.
"In a perfect world, there would be a centre just a pram walk. That would completely change work and family life in this country. The benefits it would bring to the economy and child development are almost immeasurable."
Universal childcare is a lofty goal, but there are small steps the nation can take to immediately improve regional childcare access, such as abolishing the activity test that requires parents to be looking for a job before they can access childcare subsidies.
"It's excluding a lot of disadvantaged families from accessing childcare, and logically it's back-to-front; to even look for a job, you need to have your childcare in place,"
"From a moral viewpoint, why are we connecting the right to early learning to what parents do or don't do? Imagine if we told kids in school 'sorry, you can't turn up today because your parents are looking for work'."
Childcare subsidies need to be reformed, with payments going directly to centres rather than parents. The current system has been criticised for increasing prices and not creating new spaces.
"The way the system works you get a voucher, and run around to find a place - that assumes there is a place out there," Mr Weatherill said.
"It's meant to create supply through market demand, but the evidence shows it doesn't work in rural and regional areas."
Rural childcare access could also be quickly improved by increasing the wages of early education workers and a government guarantee of 15 hours of childcare for three- and four-year-olds.
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