Why is the government focused on families all of a sudden? The government actually went to the 2013 election with a childcare policy – specifically, to ask the Productivity Commission to inquire into how it could make childcare more "flexible, affordable and accessible". The ccommission spent the best part of 2014 conducting a huge inquiry on the matter. Then, in the midst of some barnacle clearing at the end of last year, Prime Minister Tony Abbott declared that he would spend the summer holidays coming up with a "families package". Come 2015, as the government's woes deepened, childcare had been imbued with even greater importance. At the National Press Club earlier this month, in what was billed as a "leadership saving" speech, Mr Abbott flagged that families would be a key area for attention. What about paid parental leave? Mr Abbott's decision earlier this month to finally axe his more generous paid parental leave scheme was not controversial, given it was largely friendless within Parliament, and parents and childcare experts overwhelmingly wanted the money to go into childcare instead. What isn't clear is what will happen to the funding mechanism for the scheme. It was supposed to be paid for with a 1.5 per cent levy on big business, and there has been chatter that this will be kept be transferred to provide new funds for the families package. Big business hates the idea, the childcare sector is desperate to see it happen, and argues there cannot be real reform without it, and the government has been highly ambiguous about what it will do. There are constant complaints about childcare costs. How expensive is it really? It varies depending on where you live and the services included. According to a recent report by AMP and the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling, daily rates for long day care are now as high as $170 a day in inner city areas. Other reports suggest fees are as low as $60 a day in outer suburbs. On average, costs have increased by 44.2 per cent over the past five years - easily more than the consumer price index (up 13.9 per cent), food (6.5 per cent), rent (21.6 per cent) and petrol (36 per cent). But not as much as electricity (78.9 per cent). What does the government currently offer? The federal government already makes a hefty contribution, picking up the bill for about two-thirds of childcare costs. There are two main forms of government assistance for childcare. One is the childcare benefit for families with an annual income under $43,000. This provides $4.10 an hour for children under school age at an approved carer. The other is the childcare rebate, which covers 50 per cent of annual out-of-pocket child care expenses up to a maximum of $7500 a child. The rebate is not means tested. It is estimated more than 90 per cent of families who use childcare services have received it. The AMP/NATSEM report suggests that, if you take government subsidies into account, out-of-pocket childcare prices have not risen long term much more than the general cost of living. But the concern is that prices will continue to rise out of step with the rebate cap. What's happening with the families package? Social Services Minister Scott Morrison has the day-to-day responsibility of developing it, although Mr Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey are also involved. So far, Mr Morrison has stressed the need to make it easier for women, particularly those on lower incomes, to get back to work after having a child. He says the government will not touch the childcare quality standards introduced under Labor, which increased the number of carers per child, boosted staff qualifications and is supported by the childcare sector. He also says he is consulting widely, although there is no formal public process for this. With a new minister (Sussan Ley had the portfolio until December 2014) and a new political impetus on families, Mr Morrison is essentially starting with a blank slate. The government says that the Productivity Commission's work on childcare will provide a basis for their final package, but also that there is more work to do. There is consternation, to put it mildly, among lobby groups that the government has not publicly released the commission's final report. The government has had even though it has been with the Coalition since October 31. The summer holidays are over. When will we see the package? While it was initially thought that we would see a families package after the Christmas break, it is now widely expected that it will be released in or around the May budget. But, again, Morrison is not giving much away about the timing. As he said this week, "the families package will be out there when the families package will be out there". What sorts of things could it include? One of the best (i.e. only) indications we have so far is the Productivity Commission's draft report, released last July. Its suggestions include that the government's multiple childcare subsidies be replaced with a single means-tested payment. It also suggested that there could be payments for care from nannies and grandparents if they had proper early childhood qualifications, though this presents something of a regulatory nightmare. There was also a controversial suggestion that qualifications be watered down for people who look after children under three. The commission again raised the issue - long lamented by academics and parents - that when some women go back to work the combination of a drop-off in family tax benefits, reduced childcare assistance and an increased tax bill can result in an effective marginal tax rate of close to 100 per cent. What is the sector calling for? There is broad support for streamlining the payment system and there are calls for payments for low income families to be boosted and for measures to better cater for vulnerable children, including those with disabilities, at risk of abuse, who face developmental issues or don't speak English at home. There is concern that all children are able to have access to early learning programs, regardless of how much their parents earn or work. One proposal is that there be higher payments for younger children as babies are more expensive to care for than older children. The theory goes that this could then make costs for older kids cheaper.