The 'Family First' group has put an interesting idea into debate for this election year. It wants the state to pay a parent to stay at home and look after their child rather than go back to work and put the child in daycare. The proposal is a direct challenge to some of today's prevailing political principles, two of them held most dearly by the National Party, another two by Labour.

National believes state dependants should have to return to paid work as soon as they can and, even more fundamentally, that the Government should leave family responsibility to parents. Labour believes it is healthy for all children to have access to good early education and, even more fundamentally, that public policy should do nothing that might discourage women from pursuing paid careers.

Both parties, though, have espoused state-paid parental leave immediately after childbirth. National increased the leave to 18 weeks last year, Labour would extend it to 26 weeks, roughly six months. It is not clear how long Family First would like a stay-home parent to be paid a benefit but obviously Labour is closer to its thinking on this point than National is.

So is Parliament and the public, according to a poll by Family First. Parliament had a majority for Labour MP Sue Moroney's bill to extend paid parental leave last year, and the poll of 846 people found 74 per cent agreed with the statement, "It's generally better for children when one of the parents can stay home as a full-time parent. When asked whether the Government should subsidise a parent to stay home, 59 per cent believed it should.

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Moroney's bill was blocked by Bill English as Finance Minister on budgetary grounds. Family First has an answer to the financial objection, though it is not one that will attract Labour's support. Its national director, Bob McCoskrie, clearly has his eye on some of the $1.7 billion a year the Government spends on early childhood education. He wants to see the benefits of early childhood education carefully evaluated against the all the needs of little children and their families.

"Mothers have been undervalued," he told the Herald on Sunday. "Many parents use daycare simply because they cannot afford not to. Stay-home parenting has been discriminated against by the state."

Many parents who return to paid careers when their child is still very young cite financial necessity. It would be interesting to see what their decisions would be if it were possibly to remove their financial consideration. Women and men usually miss the social life of work and its mental stimulation when they take time out to care for a child full time. It is quite likely that so long as subsidised daycare remains available, many more parents would take that option Family First believes.

But it will find plenty of support among those who believes babies and toddlers are being put in daycare too soon. If a parental care payment can keep one of them at home for much longer, it would be well received. With the Budget now showing a healthy surplus for the next four years, National might find it had to refuse.