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Monday, 8 March 2004
Page: 20963


Senator STOTT DESPOJA (3:32 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Family and Community Services (Senator Patterson) to a question without notice asked by Senator Stott Despoja today relating to a national system of paid maternity leave.

I must pay tribute to Senator McGauran's spirited defence of the political sisterhood, and I look forward to seeing that support reflected in the number of National Party women in the Senate one day. However, I take on board his comment that he wants positive energy and celebration today. I have always celebrated IWD. International Women's Day is something that I have been proud to be a part of since I was a kid. I use that opportunity to celebrate the achievements and the progress of women, but I also use it as an opportunity to reflect on how far we still have to go. Today, whether it annoys Senator McGauran or not, I feel like a humourless feminist—to use that stereotypic phrase. I feel angry that domestic violence programs are not being acted upon or are having their funding cut. I feel angry that the wage disparity that exists between men and women in our society is continuing—indeed, in some sectors that chasm continues to grow. And I feel angry that all this rhetoric on the barbecue stopping topic of work and family is not being acted upon. I am sick and tired of the fact that paid maternity leave is a debate we have heard lots of rhetoric about but see no action on.

We have legislation before this parliament—tabled by me in May 2002—that would implement tomorrow a national paid maternity leave scheme, government funded at the minimum income. It would cost this government around $213 million per annum, or $352 million per annum, depending on whether or not you scrapped the baby bonus. If there is another scheme that the government thinks is better, make it average minimum incomes, make it more than 14 weeks—although that is the ILO standard—but for goodness sake I am sick of ministers talking about it. I am sick of the answers at question time that say, `Yes, this government is considering it.' Government has been considering it for years. I know that Labor did not act on it in 13 years; I know that this government has not acted on it in nearly eight years. When are we going to see some action on this issue? Will it be in this budget? Until that time I will continue to launch e-petitions or postcards or letters to the Prime Minister.

The international media have exposed the fact that Australia is not simply out of touch with other developed countries. It is not something on which Australia is out of step with developing countries—it is developed and developing countries that have systems of paid maternity leave. We are one of two OECD countries that do not have a scheme, and there is no excuse. The government introduced its regressive, ill-targeted and ill-conceived baby bonus, which can cost up to $500 million per annum—although we acknowledged today that it has been an abject, pathetic failure—but only one-third of new mums have taken up the baby bonus. The majority of those are getting less than the maximum bonus, despite the fact that the Prime Minister guaranteed that women would get $500 from that scheme. It is targeted at wealthier women; it does nothing to alleviate the fact that two-thirds of Australia's working women still have no access to a system of paid leave when they decide to have a child. In this country the government has done nothing to alleviate or try to redress the systematic discrimination that working women face—and I take on board the minister's comments about women who are in the home. Of course the principle of universal access to benefits and payment on the birth of a child is agreed with, but there are schemes in place for those women. It is the two-thirds of working women who are missing out. Only a third of Australia's working women have some access to paid leave when they have a child.

I am sick and tired of ministers talking about everything around the issue—work and family rhetoric; barbecue stoppers rhetoric—but not the issue itself. Look at fertility rates, for example. Senators and ministers in this place care more about fertility rates than they do about addressing this as a basic workplace entitlement. While I want to share Senator McGauran's enthusiasm, and I am the first in this place to recognise and salute the achievements of women, on a day like today we owe it to each other and to our sisters and foremothers to be honest about the fact that there are still a lot of impediments and barriers and obstacles facing Australian women, and paid maternity leave happens to be one of the standout examples. Enough of the rhetoric, government, would you at least consider maternity leave for this budget, if not beforehand? Get your act into gear and bring us up to date with nearly every other country in the 21st century.

Question agreed to.