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Monday, 16 February 2004
Page: 24802

Ms HALL (4:26 PM) —One of the biggest problems facing our nation is a rapidly ageing population coupled with a declining birth rate. The Howard government has engineered policies geared towards encouraging married and de facto women to reproduce. These include cuts to child-care budgets designed to make it difficult for women to work outside the home, conditions attached to the baby bonus and inaction in relation to paid maternity leave. These policies, coupled with the huge rise in house prices, are likely to result in an even further decrease in births. Rather than encouraging women to stay at home and reproduce, this government's policies are having exactly the opposite effect.

For young women who have completed tertiary education and incurred a huge HECS debt before embarking upon a career, the decision to have a baby is huge and problematic. Currently, women have to decide between the extremes of full-time work and staying at home and putting their career on hold. Labor's plan to introduce a national 14-week paid maternity leave scheme would address this and give women the right to ask for part-time work upon their return from maternity leave. This work would have to be at the same level as the full-time position they had before taking leave. Labor has also promised to provide affordable and accessible child care, especially within disadvantaged areas. These timely policies would go a long way to reducing the interruption to the career path for women arising from their decision to have a baby.

The Howard government is sending a mixed message to women. On the one hand it is attempting to force married or de facto mothers out of employment whilst on the other hand it is trying to force single mothers into the work force via the extension of the mutual obligation provision of welfare reform to sole parents, which is heavily geared towards the welfare recipient. This policy forces single mothers into low paid and often casual jobs, which are usually their only employment options, with no provision for suitable education and training to assist them in accessing well paid positions. The result is that they will most likely be even worse off than before, with their talents and their abilities remaining untapped through a lack of education and training opportunities.

In spite of this, the conservative think tank, the Centre for Independent Studies, released a proposal in June 2003 to force sole parents whose children are at school off welfare and into employment. The irony in this report is that, according to the Centre for Independent Studies, these measures would save taxpayers over $1 billion a year, and they suggest that the money could be used to reduce taxes for low paid workers. Labor has plans to introduce training and support programs for parents re-entering the work force which, it is proposed, would be conducted through existing Job Network agencies, adult education colleges, TAFE colleges and even some large employers. These training programs would also be advantageous for women who wish to alter their career direction after having children.

There has been an alarming increase in the number of women who are totally dependent on welfare. There are almost 1½ times as many female headed sole-parent families with children as there were at the beginning of the 1990s, and two-thirds of them rely exclusively on support from the government. In my electorate of Shortland, 61.8 per cent of single-parent families with children under the age of 15 are not employed. The poverty levels experienced by sole parents are exemplified by the fact that they survive on about half the income of two-parent families where the woman is in the work force, even if only on a part-time basis.

In our rapidly changing society, there are now more divorced women and widows over 60 years of age. Many of these older divorced women have very limited funds because they do not have superannuation and are not eligible for the age pension. Consequently, there are now more women living on the verge of poverty, or in poverty, than ever before. Many of these women are on disability support pensions. This is a repercussion of the termination of class A and class B widows pensions, changes to the supporting parent benefit and the Howard government's failure to offer them viable alternatives. Ironically, these women had defined themselves as homemakers. These changes in welfare policy have had the most profound and life-altering consequences for these women. You would think that women calling themselves homemakers would be something that the Howard government would embrace.

For most of those women, whose life experiences have left them with limited and outdated work force skills, the requirement that they re-enter the work force places them at a severe disadvantage. Thrown unprepared into the work force at a time of high unemployment, these middle-aged women are often offered the survival strategy of being reclassified from `unemployed' to `disabled'. The repercussions of this are now being experienced, and they parallel the present policy of attempting to encourage young married and de facto women back into the home to reproduce, whilst forcing single women with inadequate work force skills into the work force without adequate training. The only difference is that the option of being placed onto the `too hard' scrapheap of a disability pension is now negated.

Australia is falling into the trap of becoming a country with low skills and low wages. This is caused by the increasing implementation of casual employment. There has been 30 per cent growth in this form of employment under the Howard government, compared with only 10 per cent growth in full-time employment. Labor has on its agenda consideration of the right of workers to request permanent part-time work after a long period of casual employment with one company. If more flexible working hours can be obtained, employees will be more likely to stay in the same job for a long period of time. The flow-on effect of this could be employers investing more in workers' skills, and this will benefit not only the workers but also the employers.

Another consequence of the Howard government's cutbacks is that, because of the scarcity and expense of child care, many older women are saddled with the responsibility of caring for their grandchildren. This is a repercussion of the Howard government's cuts to child-care budgets. As if this were not enough, because of the dismal lack of community care packages and affordable aged care facilities and the availability of beds in aged care facilities, many middle-aged women also face shouldering the care and responsibility of aged parents. So grandparents who should be enjoying this stage of their lives are shouldering the responsibility of caring for the very young and the very old in their extended families. All this is a result of the Howard government's policy of slashing funding in the areas of aged care and child care.

Women have much to contribute in all aspects of society. In the Newcastle Herald on 10 February, Bishop Roger Herft of the Newcastle Diocese of the Anglican Church noted:

The church is a more wholesome community to belong to when women find their vocation in pulpit, sanctuary and in service. Transparency and accountability, particularly in the area of human relationships, has benefited from the presence of women in the ordained ministry.

The consequences of the Howard government's misguided policies add up to a nation missing out on a valuable resource by not utilising the skills of women at all stages of their lives. If more flexible work situations and guaranteed access to part-time work were provided, young women would return to the work force after the birth of their baby. The government needs to provide adequate education and training to ensure that sole parents can re-enter the work force and gain well-paid and secure jobs. Training and education opportunities for middle-aged women would enable them to update their skills and so become a valuable part of the work force by tapping into their valuable talents and experience. It is a national tragedy that John Howard abandoned new work and family measures in order to increase spending on defence and security. (Time expired).