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Nanny state threatens nanny with naughty corner

By Mark Christensen - posted Friday, 15 April 2011

The Childcare Minister, Kate Ellis, believes commonsense will prevail when her new childcare regulations come into force.

Apparently, the huge fines provided for in the draft legislation will only be imposed when "inappropriate forms of punishment" are handed out. Cold comfort for carers that this remains undefined.

This trust me approach raises some interesting philosophical issues.


If the law can't adequately codify good and bad practice, and it seems Kate Ellis accepts this to be the case, how does one justify threats and coercion?

If the regulations perfectly capture the idea of quality childcare then by all means punish those who contravene the pre-emptive standard. But if this isn't the case and there are permanent unquantifiable factors involved, where is the commonsense in applying harsh penalties?

In economics, this dilemma is known as the principal-agent problem.

Parents have an obvious interest in the care of their child, yet are at a distinct knowledge disadvantage compared with the carer.

Did Johnny really deserve to be put in the corner? Only Johnny and the carer really know the context.

While a detailed performance monitoring regime can be established, asymmetrical information is, in the end, unavoidable. We need to trust, at least in the first instance, the professional judgement of childcare staff, given parents and government representatives can never properly appreciate the circumstances in real time.


The parent, as principal, has two mutually exclusive choices on how to deal with incomplete transparency. Accepting the dilemma and trusting the carer can deliver the desired results, but it can also be abused. The alternative is to deny the inconvenient truth, minimise autonomy and pretend punitive regulatory oversight capable of eventually achieving excellence.

As a society, we consistently opt for the latter, a lie.

The language used by Minister Ellis is conciliatory and practical. This is a joint effort with consultation. There is no silver bullet.

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About the Author

Mark is a social and political commentator, with a background in economics. He also has an abiding interest in philosophy and theology, and is trying to write a book on the nature of reality. He blogs here.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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