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Thursday, 27 May 2010
Page: 4386

Mr HAYES (11:07 AM) —It is an honour to participate in this debate on the Paid Parental Leave Bill 2010 and the Paid Parental Leave (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2010, particularly with the government’s Minister for the Status of Women at the table. Tanya has been gracious enough to visit my electorate on a number of occasions to talk to local parents on this issue, and she knows full well the importance placed on paid parental leave in the area in which I live. It is fundamental.

All of us in this place who have been blessed with children—and those of us who are a little more mature, such as you and me, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott, who are very boastful of grandchildren—know that there is nothing more important to us than ensuring that our kids are safe. We do everything we can to give them the best opportunities in life so they can grow into adulthood and fulfil their potential. That is something innate in parenting, something that comes from unqualified love.

We know very clearly that young children, babies in particular, need the full-time care of their parents, particularly in those vital early months of life. The social, cognitive and physical development of the child are very important. When each of our three kids arrived, Bernadette could not work. There was an absolute necessity for her to spend time with our kids. And in those days there was not access to maternity leave, certainly not paid maternity leave. They are the kinds of decisions that parents have to make at that stage. That is why this is very important legislation.

It is extremely important to recognise that the primary caring responsibility normally falls to the woman. I fully understand how difficult it is to take time off work for many parents, particularly women who want to remain connected to the workforce. There is an economic reality in modern life, particularly in the outer metropolitan areas of Sydney, where I come from: the mortgage needs to be paid; the bills need to be paid. There is an economic reality to staying in touch with paid employment.

Prior to the last election, the Labor Party indicated that we would ask the Productivity Commission, as an independent body, to investigate the options for a paid parental leave scheme. After accepting most of their recommendations, we have the legislation before us today. This legislation addresses the modern challenges which I have raised and is Australia’s first paid parental leave scheme. This is a major win for working families, who have been waiting for decades for such a scheme. Importantly, the scheme gives babies the best start in life, which, as I indicated earlier, is critical for their development. Once the scheme is delivered, we will have finally caught up with the rest of the world. It is a shame that Australia is one of only two OECD nations that have not so far had paid parental leave.

It should be said that our scheme will be funded by the government and therefore it is fair for families and, particularly, for businesses. It is not just the government claiming that this is a great achievement. Elizabeth Broderick, the federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner, at the launch of the draft legislation, said:

It’s a great thrill to be here today as the Sex Discrimination Commissioner and to see a piece of legislation which has the words ‘paid parental leave’ on the top.

Sharan Burrow, the retiring ACTU President, said:

This is a magical moment. To see a piece of legislation with paid parental leave on the front of the cover is a 30-year, long-awaited moment of justice for working women.

She went on with some very stern words about the Leader of the Opposition and some reasonably contentious remarks about the opposition’s wish list. She is not alone in her views. Paid parental leave has long been an issue in the minds of people in my electorate. South-west Sydney, like any other outer metropolitan area, is the mortgage belt. These are hardworking families, families that have been waiting for the government to address their concerns, and they have been looking forward to us giving them real options to balance work and family life. We have listened and that is why we are introducing the scheme.

I do not want to be like a broken record—because I probably tend to say this a little too often in the House—but I have to say something after listening to the critical comments that the member for Murray, Dr Stone, made about this legislation, although the coalition are not going to oppose it; I understand that. The opposition spokesperson for the status of women was in government with John Howard over the whole period of 12 years. You have got to start asking yourself: if these criticisms are being levelled at this government about the introduction of this legislation now, what did the coalition do over the 12 years that they held the reins of office? Surely there cannot have been an extraordinarily long-range plan that in the 13th year they were going to do all these things. They had 12 years, and what did they do about paid parental leave? I will tell you, Mr Deputy Speaker. They did absolutely nothing.

Our commitment to working families through this scheme is in stark contrast to the absence of any effort to acknowledge paid parental leave throughout the whole 12 years of the Howard government. They refused to deliver paid parental leave. By the way, they have a track record. It was not just a refusal. They had a very committed position. The Leader of the Opposition has now articulated a position—on the very day of International Women’s Day—but do not forget he is also on the record as saying:

… compulsory paid maternity leave, over this Government’s dead body …

That was their position in government. He was very clear and very precise in his characteristic offhand way, but it certainly acknowledged that their position on the issue of paid parental leave was ‘over their dead body’.

I do not know. Perhaps he did have an epiphany. Maybe there is something in that ‘road to Damascus’. I am not quite sure. Far from simply being converted, he has now come to a position without the consent, support or urging of any other member that sits on the coalition side. On the very day of International Women’s Day, he decided to come out and say: ‘We are going to have six months paid paternity leave, paid at whatever rate people are earning. So, if you are earning $150,000 a year, you will get $75,000 paid to you. But we are going to tax big business’—what he now refers to as ‘big business’ is any business that has a profit line of $5 million—‘We are going to slug them so that not only are they going to pay for the parental leave of people in their own business, but they are going to pay for the parental leave of anyone else out there in the workforce, any other businesses.’

Mr Deputy Speaker, I do not know about you, but I have actually had a look to see how many businesses in my electorate fall under the $5 million profit line and I have to say that there are a heck of a lot of them. The last time we looked, I think about 98 per cent of all businesses in my electorate would, under Tony Abbott’s big new tax on business, have some other business paying for the parental leave of their people. No wonder the coalition were a bit taken aback by that. They wanted to make some criticisms on issues about tax before, although one thing is that they did not see this as a tax. They saw it as a levy, so therefore it was not a tax. In that case, it can be Tony Abbott’s big new levy on all businesses that earn over $5 million.

To participate in this debate you need some credibility and there is no credibility in that approach. There is no point in people over there scurrying around and wanting to put their head in the sand. The truth of the matter is that nobody other than the Leader of the Opposition was aware of what he was going to say on that day. No-one, including the opposition spokesperson on the status of women, knew that this was going to be said. Maybe it is just one of those things. You turn up for this international function and you really do not have anything to say, so you think: ‘Let’s fill in the gaps. Let’s just make this grand new announcement on the basis: we know we can’t deliver it, but we will say it anyway.’ That is not really participating in a constructive debate on something that is as serious for this country as paid parental leave.

The opposition claim to be the friends of business. I think that claim is a bit spurious, but if it is true that part of the motivation of those on the other side of the House is to be the friends of big business, it is very interesting to see what big business have to say about this. I will sum up their total reaction, but I will not attribute it to anyone. The reaction, according to business, is ‘Over our dead body’—that is, if you take the comments of the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry as being any indication of their view on the approach being adopted. So you can see that the opposition and, in particular, their leader cannot be trusted when it comes to this debate. Without authority, without planning and without looking at numbers—because we know he does not like economics and does not like looking at numbers—he just wants to throw something into the mix. This is not the way you have a dialogue on a piece of social policy as important as this issue.

We might also need to check their comments and find out if this promise to working families was scripted. I know a lot has been said about gospel truth on the other side, but, unless this is in writing, maybe it was not really a serious opposition position. However, I just noticed here that, in the amendment to the motion, it is now, ladies and gentlemen, in writing. So it must be the case that it is now their policy position to put a new tax on all businesses. It is their position to pay everybody for six months at the rate they are earning and it does not matter what amount of money they are earning up to $150,000. If you are a solicitor in Sydney or Melbourne earning that sort of money, the Leader of the Opposition is out there trying to take care of you.

But what he is proposing is designed never to be implemented. He knows it will never be implemented. He is simply trying to join in the debate without coming to the table and saying that the government got it right. They do not have the intestinal fortitude to say: ‘Look, we had 12 years to do something on this matter. We did not give it priority, but we actually agree with what you are doing and we will support it because it is the right thing to do for the Australian people.’ They will not do that because they simply want to play politics. They want to go to an election on the basis of claiming to have some affinity with working families. People in my electorate will see through that and there is no way they are going to take that sort of risk.

Today I have tried to keep my remarks to the benefits of the scheme for families, but the scheme contained in the bills will also benefit employers. What most employers say is that they want to be able to retain their good staff and they want to be able to keep those skills. These are things they want to be able to do. We saw that when this whole debate really started a number of years back, when the Catholic University here in Canberra wanted to ensure that they retained their tutorial and lecturing staff. They voluntarily introduced paid maternity leave for their employees. We want to assist business to retain their skilled and valued employees, and this is what our legislation will do once implemented.

This is good for the country, and it is good for the country as a whole. It is good for the economy. Therefore, it will not be an impost on business. This is being borne by government. This is budgeted for. This is not going out and putting a great big new tax on enterprise. What this is doing is budgeting for the result because the introduction of this legislation will deliver true and meaningful benefits to our economy. It is no surprise that the move has been welcomed by thousands of businesses. I know, from talking to businesses in my region, that they look forward to having the opportunity to retain their valued staff in their respective business enterprises. It is certainly being looked forward to by working families throughout the south-west of Sydney. The only logical way to minimise the scheme’s impact on employers was, as I say, to ensure that it was addressed as an economic package and provided for in the budget. We have not imposed on business as a consequence.

Our scheme will come in on 1 January 2011 and eligible parents will for 18 weeks receive government funded paid parental leave at the national minimum wage. It is important at this stage of the debate to outline who will be eligible, as working people will need to make various decisions. For this reason I would like to take members through the criteria for eligibility for paid parental leave. The scheme will be available to people if they: are the mother of a newborn child or initial primary carer of a recently adopted child; have met the paid parental leave work test before the birth or adoption occurs; have an individual annual income of $150,000 or less; and are living in Australia and are an Australian citizen or permanent resident. It is also important to note that, in planning this, people who have worked just over one day a week over the 10 months prior to the child’s birth will have access to this paid parental leave.

The work test will, for the first time, ensure that women working in seasonal employment, casual employment or contract employment or who are self-employed will have access to the scheme. That is because the scheme will not be an impost on their employer; the scheme will be funded out of the budget. There is no doubt that those workers will be the big winners. But so again business will be. It is true that under the current voluntary system parental leave tends to be available to workers in the higher-paying categories in some areas of enterprise where they are regulated by industrial awards and indeed in the Public Service. This will ensure that all women will be able to benefit from the scheme, that all women will be able to do what we take for granted—that is, provide that initial primary care of their child when it is most important, in the child’s first 18 weeks of life.

It is estimated that there will be approximately 148,000 eligible new parents per year who will be able to spend more time at home recovering after giving birth and nurturing their infants. It is about time women in the country got what they deserved and children got what they needed—nurturing and care by their mother. I commend the bills to the House. I am very proud to be part of a government that is bringing these bills forward. I look forward to the contribution of the Leader of the Opposition, as most businesspeople will, on the big new tax the coalition will attempt to foist on them.