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Thursday, 21 August 2003
Page: 19295


Ms PLIBERSEK (12:41 PM) —I rise today to discuss this government's failure with regard to paid maternity leave. It is a failure that is disappointing and which continues to disappoint the women of Australia who are being denied what is internationally regarded as a fundamental right: the right for mothers to stay at home with their newborn babies in the first few months of their lives. Of the OECD countries, only Australia and the United States do not have paid maternity leave. Indeed, many OECD countries are now talking about extending one year's paid maternity leave to two years or even four years paid leave.

There has been much toing-and-froing from the government on this issue. Until as late as March this year, the Prime Minister maintained that the government was in favour of some form of paid maternity leave. Unfortunately, this Prime Minister has been all about headlines and not at all about actually putting the money on the table for paid maternity leave. The 2003 budget was silent on this issue. There is still no white paper or draft legislation, despite a very comprehensive 227-page report entitled A time to value from Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward. From this Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission report, which received over 250 submissions, has ensued a public and constructive debate. The final report recommends that the government allocate $213 million a year for 14 weeks paid maternity leave. Once again, there were many headlines about this but no commitment from the Prime Minister. On 13 December 2002, the Prime Minister said on AM:

Paid maternity leave has a legitimate claim in the debate, there is merit in it and we're looking at it.

Well, they are still looking. In November 2002 the Prime Minister said in a CEDA speech:

Our key policy goal in this area is to facilitate choice for families and not to mandate particular behaviour. We need to respect the different priorities that individual families have and the different choices they want to make.

Unfortunately, a lot of families do not have choices. They are forced by economic circumstances to have both parents back in the work force before they would like or, in some cases, they are forced to have one parent stay out of the work force because they cannot afford appropriate child care or they cannot find a place near their home for appropriate child care. When we are talking about the choices that families make, we cannot allow the government to make those choices for families in a de facto way by not providing money for paid maternity leave or for adequate child care.

In August 2003 the Prime Minister published an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald on women and work life. He said that `no one policy will fit all families' and that is absolutely true. I absolutely agree with that. What we disagree on is that we have 60 per cent of women who want to work and who have families and the support that this government is providing for them is completely inadequate in terms of not providing paid maternity leave and also, as I mentioned, failing to provide adequate child care. It is also failing to protect pregnant and breastfeeding women in the work force and failing to protect casuals. Most women work as part-timers or casuals and there has been a continual erosion of the working conditions of part-timers and casuals, making it very difficult for some families to combine work and parenting.

I will turn briefly to some of the suggestions that have been brought up by Jackie Kelly and Sophie Panopoulos, who have written in the Daily Telegraph and said publicly that, while paid maternity leave is middle-class welfare, the baby bonus is a solution. That means that the non-means-tested $500 million baby bonus is not middle-class welfare, while paid maternity leave is. I do not know how Jackie Kelly can convince herself that that is not a contradictory argument. Sophie Panopoulos has talked about income splitting as a solution. Again, that targets the greatest benefits to the people on the highest incomes. Surely we would want to target the greatest benefit to the people on the lowest incomes to facilitate their re-entry into the work force, in the way that the tax credit program in the United Kingdom has helped low-income earners to get back into the work force. There is a real incentive there for low-income earners to get back into the work force, rather than an incentive for people on already high incomes to structure their tax arrangements in a new and favourable way.

A future Labor government would take the $500 million baby bonus money and redirect it into programs, such as paid maternity leave, that actually assist working women to balance work and family obligations. We would return funding to high-quality child care, renew our focus on the first few months of life and protect pregnant and breastfeeding women. Work-life balance is not about dictating to women but, rather, about providing resources so that they can make a choice. (Time expired)