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Thursday, 27 May 2010
Page: 4398


Mr CHESTER (11:58 AM) —I rise to speak on the somewhat modestly titled Paid Parental Leave Bill 2010. Given this government’s penchant for hyperbole, surely it could have squeezed ‘super parenting’ or ‘baby revolution’ somewhere in the headline. I would like to stress from the outset that I am not opposed to the principle of paid parental leave but I do have some reservations about the bill before the House and the current public debate on some of the alternative approaches. I note that the bill does help to recognise the important role that women play in our workforce. Certainly the criteria in the legislation recognises casual workers and farmers, and that will be well received in regional areas. I believe this is a positive, if modest, first step, but it presents more questions for the mature national debate that we will need to have in the years and months ahead.

This debate on paid parental leave legislation is of more interest to Australian families than many of the more abstract pieces of legislation which come before the House. Other speakers have already touched on the fact that it goes to the heart of the most important job, the most rewarding job and perhaps the toughest job that most of us will ever do—that is, raising our children. The interests of children must be paramount in the decisions we make about supporting families in our community, and it is from this perspective that I make my contribution to the debate today.

As I indicated, I have several reservations about the bill. My concerns relate to a few key areas: equity and fairness, an apparent preference for one form of motherhood over another and the long-term impacts on the social and economic life of our communities. I, like you, Mr Deputy Speaker, am a regionally based MP, and I suspect that I therefore approach this legislation from a different perspective to those of many of my suburban counterparts. That is an important distinction to make in this debate. In regional areas, we depend more heavily on volunteers, have higher transport costs to attend our community and sporting events and have less access to full-time or high-paying jobs, all of which are important factors when considering any system of paid parental leave, one of which is the subject of public debate at the moment. On the positive side, though, in regional areas we have more affordable housing, which often means it is more achievable for a family to meet its financial obligations with one partner working and the other remaining at home as the primary carer for the children, probably with some casual or part-time work to increase the household income during the early years of a child’s life.

It is from this perspective that I raise my key concerns with equity and fairness and the not-so-subtle message that this legislation sends to the community, either intentionally or inadvertently. It does not really matter whether the message is intentional but this legislation sends a message that the government values one form of motherhood more highly than another. In her second reading speech on this bill, the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs basically concedes my point:

Eligible families will be able to choose whether to take paid parental leave or the baby bonus, according to their individual circumstances.

The government estimates that more than 85 per cent of families will be better off taking paid parental leave. These families will, on average, receive around $2,000 more than if they chose the baby bonus. This is after tax has been paid and all interactions with other family assistance have been taken into account.

The key points here are the phrase ‘eligible families’ and the sum of $2,000. Under this scheme, if you have met the workforce eligibility criteria—that is, you have worked continuously for at least 10 of the 13 months before the birth or adoption of the child involved and at least 330 hours in that period—you will receive more money from the government than a stay-at-home mum. I use the term ‘mum’ rather than ‘parent’ because, in the overwhelmingly majority of families we are talking about, the mother will undertake the primary care in the first months of a baby’s life.

It is my contention that this is unfair and inequitable to stay-at-home mums and sends a message to the community that the government places more value on the offspring of working mothers than on the offspring of stay-at-home mothers. I am not saying that this is the government’s intention, but the message is clear. By providing an additional government funded payment to the mothers of babies in the paid workforce, we are sending that message. I do not understand the logic of that position. Both mums forgo income to have their child and both face increased costs associated with setting up their home for the new arrival. The eligibility criteria and the situation facing parents becomes almost farcical if they have subsequent children. We risk creating a yo-yo effect, where mums will return to work briefly to achieve the workforce criteria in order to pick up the extra $2,000 on offer from the government, and that is not in the best interests of either the child or the mother. My view is that we should be supporting and encouraging a parent—more than likely, as I said, the mother—to remain at home longer after having a child. Again I refer to the minister’s second reading speech:

Paid parental leave will give babies the best start in life. It means one parent has the financial security to take time off work to care for their baby at home during the vital early months of their baby’s life. It will give mothers time to recover from birth and bond with their baby.

The references to ‘babies’, ‘months’ and ‘bonding’ simply do not gel with me. It is not just the vital early months we should be talking about but also the vital early years—the bonding process is certainly not completed in 18 weeks. I do not contend that the minister is suggesting that at all, but I think we should be careful not to get too carried away with the legislation before the House as if it were some panacea for the issues facing working mothers and stay-at-home mothers. I believe it is critical that we recognise that Australian families come in all shapes and sizes. It is difficult to legislate in any way that provides the fairness and equity that I am talking about, but this legislation clearly discriminates against stay-at-home mothers. That being the case, it is reasonable to ask, ‘Does that really matter?’ In my opinion, it certainly does. It is my view that the ideal environment for children to spend their formative years in is a loving family home with one of the parents in the role of primary carer for an extended period. That view is the subject of constant debate and research, but it is relevant to the comments I make here today.

I argue that the interests of children are best served when one of the parents has the role of primary carer, at least until the child starts school. I do not believe that outsourcing to childcare centres the majority of the care of children in their early years is the ideal situation, particularly if children are attending formalised care for upwards of 30 to 40 hours per week from a very early stage in their lives. Some may argue—and I am sure plenty will—that this is an old-fashioned view of the world. I am happy to have that debate at another time, and it is an important debate to have in the context of this and other legislation which promotes a government sanctioned model of motherhood. Under this legislation and under our system of rebates for child care, the mother who decides to stay at home and look after her own children is financially disadvantaged in terms of the comparative level of support offered by the government. This has been a gradual and bipartisan process over many years. We now have a government sanctioned model of motherhood which promotes a view that mums should go back into the workplace as soon as possible, probably within months and not years of giving birth.

I would have less of a problem if this were a fair and equitable system where all mums, subject to income and assets tests where relevant, were treated equally. But it simply is not. I hesitate to use an emotional term such as ‘social engineering’, but there is a strong element of that in both this legislation and previous legislation dealing with income support for families. I do not seek to force my preferred model of parenting and motherhood onto my community, but the government does through these decisions that provide more financial support for working mums than for stay-at-home mums. Our government sanctioned system of raising children rewards people who send their children to outsourced care over those people who adopt a system of parental care.

We seem to be promoting a culture that places more value on becoming a productive member of the economy by returning to paid work than on parents who make the decision to raise their own children rather than outsource a significant part of that responsibility to some type of formal child care. We are sending a message that our government values your economic contribution more than your contribution to raising well-adjusted, responsible and resilient children. I stress that I strongly support measures to assist women to have productive and meaningful careers. That is not an issue. I think the increased participation in the workforce by women over the past 30 years has been an overwhelmingly positive development and assisted in creating greater financial independence for women in our community. It is important that women stay engaged in the workforce, update their skills and be involved in training wherever possible during their child-rearing years. It is important because it helps to provide mothers with the confidence to return to the workforce at a later stage and keeps them connected with their work colleagues. There are also some real benefits in terms of increased lifelong earnings, a subject that has been discussed by members on both sides already today.

When it comes to government funding for policies assisting with the raising of children I fear that we are heading in the wrong direction—and I am not the only one who has reservations. I refer to a joint submission made by the Australian Family Association and the Kids First Parent Association of Australia to the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee. The two organisations presented similar arguments to the ones I have raised today. They said:

The scheme would unfairly discriminate by giving an average 37% more birth funding to subsidise wages and support families with paid work mothers, than to families whose mothers make a career and childcare choice for parental care.

The submission calls in its recommendations for an equal parent benefit:

The federal government should redistribute birth support and ongoing day-to-day childcare subsidies direct to parents through a single Parent Benefit to recognise that every family gives up income to pay for childcare. This would give the same funding to every child in the relevant age group, to free families to choose parent care, grandparent care, daycare or other care from birth.

They also argued that the government has not accurately modelled the true net cost to the community if more mothers move from community and charity work to paid work as a result of this scheme. This is a key issue in regional communities. I confess that I have no real knowledge of the suburban experience, but let me tell you what happens in regional areas like Gippsland. One partner—normally the male partner—will have full-time work after a child has been born, and the mother will be home with a couple of children. For the sake of the debate, let us say one is at primary school and other is two years old. The stay at home mum does not spend her time cooking scones or having coffee with other mums in the same situation; she is called on constantly to assist with a whole range of community activities. You will quite often find young mothers taking remedial reading classes in our primary schools—classes not even involving their own children. They are often called on to do that kind of work in the education sector. I would dread to think what would happen if our government had to pay for the number of hours mothers in particular and some fathers are putting into our education sector, supporting disadvantaged students just with reading classes and providing extra support to teachers in the classroom. It is a very practical example of what stay at home mums tend to be doing in whatever spare time they have.

These mums are often called on to ferry children to community and sporting activities after school—and in regional areas a lot of the time it tends to be a car-pooling situation where the mother driving will be ferrying working mums’ kids around. There is no angst about that in my community; it is a simple fact of life that some of the mothers are working full time and they have to make a whole range of arrangements to get their children to, for example, sporting activities. Again, it is the stay at home mums who tend to pick up that load. It is an important contribution that they make in their own right to the community. Stay at home mums have more time to be involved in parent clubs or the school canteen or the school council, and they also cop the job of washing the Auskick footy jumpers at the end of the weekend. These are all practical contributions these mothers are making to our community, and I do not believe we are recognising that in the context of this legislation.

I should not even be using the term stay at home mums, as it suggests they are sitting around playing Lego with the kids when in fact they are out there working just as hard as anyone else and they are making an enormous direct contribution to the wellbeing of regional communities like those in Gippsland. These are direct and tangible benefits to the community that can only be achieved when these mothers have some spare time to assist with school, charity and sporting groups. The flexibility to choose the form of child care which suits individual families is a critical issue for our nation, but the decision to reward one form of parenting more highly than another runs the risk of pushing more families in the direction the government wants to take. I believe regional community life will suffer as a result in the longer term.

If the paid parental leave legislation acts as an incentive for more mums to return to work sooner, then communities will inevitably lose a reliable source of volunteers for a wide range of important initiatives. If mothers feel compelled to return to work more quickly after their first child in order to qualify for the paid parental leave for any subsequent child, we will have the yo-yo effect I referred to earlier where family life will be disrupted, and in my view children will be adversely affected, as the routine of families is compromised.

As I said at the outset, I am not opposed to paid parental leave, but I am opposed to any system that discriminates against one form of motherhood over another. I count myself extremely fortunate that I was brought up, and I have been able to bring up my own children, in a country town where it has been possible for a relatively modest single income family to meet its financial obligations. I accept that is not always possible in today’s society, and for various social and economic reasons many families require two incomes just to survive. I accept all those points; they have been well made by speakers on both sides of the House. I would contend, however, that some families could lower their financial obligations by reducing some of their material wealth aspirations, but that is an entirely separate issue. We could debate that for hours on end.

It is a regrettable fact of life in many areas that two incomes are essential, and I accept the need for a system of paid parental leave. But returning to work and putting children into child care often creates a giant money-go-round where no-one is happy. The mum tends to feel guilty because she wants to spend more time with her kids at a young age; the young children can be disadvantaged from extended stays in child care; and the financial benefits of two incomes are eroded by the costs of child care, which incidentally are about to increase under this government’s reduced subsidy. The whole work-life balance discussion is a national debate of importance that is directly related to this legislation before us. We are all torn by the desire to spend more time with our families but still meet our financial commitments. The explosion in housing prices and cost of living increases make it difficult, if not impossible, for some families to survive economically without two incomes. Without question—and this is a positive outcome—this legislation will provide some additional assistance for some workers who have missed out in the past, particularly low-income workers.

Families which choose to have one parent stay at home face similar costs and are also forgoing income. It lacks logic to suggest that they are somehow less deserving of government support. I refer to the $2,000 sum that the minister in her second reading speech indicated would be the cost-benefit, if you like, of choosing between the baby bonus and the Paid Parental Leave scheme. Of course, the scheme is only available to those mothers who meet the workforce criteria. I do welcome the government’s commitment to undertake a review of the impact of this legislation in the months and years ahead, as I believe the big issue we are really not doing enough about is the cost of living pressures and concerns over affordable housing. I do not believe policies such as this, which are designed to push women back into the workforce, often before they are ready, will necessarily address the core of the problem we are presented with in our community.

We do need to be developing policies which make it affordable for more parents to take on the primary caring role, rather than pushing more kids into child care and more mums back into the workplace regardless of their personal preference. Flexibility and choice are key issues in this debate, and I fully support a family’s right to decide that both partners need to return to work. But let us not delude ourselves into thinking that there are no consequences as a result of that decision. Paid parental leave will guide some families to that decision, but this is a much bigger issue than providing 18 weeks pay at the federal minimum wage. This is about looking after the interests of children, keeping families together and building stronger communities. As I said earlier, parenting is by far the toughest and most rewarding job any of us will ever do. If the community and the government consider it is important to provide financial support to assist families, it should be equally distributed to all families.