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Thursday, 27 May 2010
Page: 4403

Ms McKEW (Parliamentary Secretary for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local government) (12:15 PM) —It is a proud day for me to be able to speak to the Paid Parental Leave Bill 2010 to introduce Australia’s first paid parental leave scheme. This is a long-awaited reform that will massively benefit the working women of Australia. I must say I have been outspoken on this issue of paid parental leave for my entire working life, but now the talk is coming to an end and the legislating is beginning.

I acknowledge first and foremost the tireless work and advocacy of the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. In a policy sense, this is very much her baby, although many of us in this place have a sense of maternal pride in this bill. It is important to note that Labor’s Paid Parental Leave scheme has had a careful and very considered gestation period that has brought us to where we are today. The Rudd government has seen this scheme through a Productivity Commission inquiry, through last year’s budget announcement and through extensive consultations with the community, with business, with family groups, with industry groups and with unions, and I think the minister’s patience and dedication has been something of a marvel.

From my work in the early childhood portfolio, I know how important the early years are in setting up children for life. Learning, as we all know, begins at birth. If mothers are stressed and anxious about a premature return to work, that is a less than ideal start for them and for their young babies. There is certainly a social and an economic dividend in allowing mothers to be given more time to connect with their children. As the Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, pointed out yesterday, independent modelling undertaken by Econtech shows that the government’s fully funded 18-week maternity leave scheme could result in an additional 126,000 jobs each year on average to 2040. Let me also acknowledge the work of the member for Hasluck, who I know is also due to speak on this debate. The member for Hasluck is a champion for women in this House. Her work on gender pay equity, through the Making it fair report, is a very important benchmark—and haven’t we been talking about the issue of pay equity for years as well. For decades, actually!

Back in 1975, I remember, in my previous life as a journalist, producing numerous news stories around the United Nations International Women’s Year. The hot issues then, in 1975, were affordable child care, pay equity and paid maternity leave. As we progressed through those decades, certainly the equal pay cases of the 1970s were important. Then there were the big reforms of the Hawke-Keating governments centring on sex discrimination legislation and the creation of the Affirmative Action Agency. But, even after these significant reforms, we still have a situation today where women earn around 82c to the male dollar. This situation explains the very hard work that the Rudd government is doing on what I would call the big troika: affordable child care, paid parental leave and pushing on gender pay equity. And when you consider the combined work across many ministries—be it the work of the families minister, the Deputy Prime Minister or the Minister for the Status of Women—there is only one conclusion you can draw: the Rudd government is not only a government of great women; it is also a great government for women.

When I think back over my own working life, I recall that in 1975 my female colleagues at the ABC, along with those in other government agencies, were able to access Public Service maternity leave provisions. But for our sisters in other industries it was a much longer wait. By 2007 around 54 per cent of female employees and 50 per cent of male employees had access to some form of paid parental leave, but only one-third of employed women who actually had children received paid parental leave from their employer. Of course, the women left out were low-income workers—women who worked in child care, in retail and in cleaning industries. These women will be the real beneficiaries of this legislation.

The beauty of what is proposed is the government’s 18 weeks parental leave at the minimum wage will come on top of existing industrial arrangements that working women have already won. Primary carers will be able to take the government’s paid parental leave concurrently or sequentially. In other words, they can take their employer’s leave, where it exists, and the government’s leave at the same time. Alternately, they can ‘stack’ it, taking their employer’s leave first and then the government’s 18 weeks on the minimum wage afterwards. All but the highest paid women in the workforce—those earning $150,000 or more a year—will have the opportunity to access this basic entitlement.

Labor’s Paid Parental Leave scheme is fair for families and, importantly, it is very fair for business. Everyone knows what to expect. Labor has delivered a balanced, considered scheme of up to 18 weeks at the minimum wage for women who give birth or those who adopt a child. This leave will be available to all primary carers who meet the eligibility criteria of work, income and residency tests. The payment will also be transferable to the other parent or carer in exceptional circumstances. It is a fully costed, fully funded, responsible scheme.

I note that there have been a number of third parties who have appreciated the government’s steady hand through these consultations. Jaye Radisich, the CEO of the Council of Small Business Organisations of Australia, COSBOA, had this to say:

What this scheme means is that life is going to be easier for a lot of people. We can do nothing but support that.

He said the paid maternity leave scheme will not mean an added burden for business. The Chief Executive of the Australian Industry Group, Heather Ridout, told the Sydney Morning Herald last year that this is exactly the sort of scheme that business wants to support:

Over time it will prove to be another step in getting participation up in the economy.

That is a very important point because, as we know from the material in the Intergenerational report, the future needs of the Australian economy are in many ways reliant on a significant boost in the female participation rate and paid parental leave has a very important part to play in this. These are just a few endorsements. There are many, many more. Locally, in my own electorate of Bennelong, the head of the Ryde Business Forum, Andrew Bland, told me last year this is just the kind of business-friendly approach that his small law firm needs. Andrew and his wife gave up careers in one of the big top-tier law firms in the city. What they did was set up a small practice in North Ryde. Andrew and his wife employ five women, all working mums, in an overall staff of seven. Andrew told me that they see a family-friendly workplace of the type that he and his wife have crafted as absolutely central to their business success and being able to have a life and engage in professional experience as well and that the government scheme is just what his firm needs.

I think it is worth pointing out as well that the government’s new Fair Work system complements the Paid Parental Leave arrangements with 12 months unpaid parental leave for new parents—one of the 10 legislated National Employment Standards which came into effect on 1 January this year. Also there is a parent’s right to request flexible work arrangements like returning to work part time or an additional 12 months of unpaid leave to help care for children under school age. These provisions sit very well together. They are complementary. I stress that employers like Labor’s scheme because it allows them to retain valued skilled staff—and that is of course a cost saver. If you are not constantly going out in the market to recruit extra people after the loss of staff that is certainly a cost saver for business.

If the government can successfully pass this bill through the parliament, and I certainly hope it does, eligible primary carers will be able to lodge their claims through the Family Assistance Office from 1 October this year. For families who are not eligible, the baby bonus as it exists now and the family tax benefit will still be there—a very important point. The introduction of legislation on Australia’s first universal paid parental scheme is a historic and overwhelmingly positive occasion. However, I have to note there are no guarantees here. This bill is not yet through the parliament. I was pleased to hear the Leader of the Opposition admit earlier in the debate that he had been wrong for all these years in his personal opposition to paid parental leave. I do wish he had told me that when we were having lunch at the invitation of the Bulletin magazine just a few years ago because, boy, would I have had a great scoop! It would have been on the front page—‘Tony Abbott supports paid parental leave’—because certainly at the time that is not what he was telling others. As many have noted, this is the same man who said that paid maternity leave would happen over his dead body.

Mrs Bronwyn Bishop —He said he’d changed his mind.

Ms McKEW —Indeed, yes, he did say that.

Mrs Bronwyn Bishop —He’d changed his mind. He’d listened to his wife and children. Some of us have them.

Ms McKEW —I have heard that, but I have also heard what he has said in the past, and what we have to ask now is: is this the gospel truth? It is one thing for the Leader of the Opposition to stand up and say this now, and I hope he is right on this, but we do know that he is already burdened by the fact that Australian women do not really trust him on a lot of these issues. I know that Australian women actually nurse a suspicion, well founded, that the Leader of the Opposition is likely to be just a bit too intrusive when it comes to how women manage their day-to-day lives. Modern women do not want a bar of this.

So I think the Leader of the Opposition has belatedly dreamt up a paid parental leave scheme of his own, one which is not entirely supported by his party but one which he says is bigger and better and will be funded by big business. It is a reckless and irresponsible scheme that slugs big business, who will no doubt have to pass the costs on. Fundamentally, the opposition leader has failed to make the case for the design of his scheme, which will include women on high incomes of $150,000 or more, who do not need government support, and be funded by a tax on business. As for the women who will get this maternity leave payment, those on $150,000 income will get a considerable payment far in excess, by the way, of the payment made to stay at home mothers, who will be getting the baby bonus of $5,000. That is an interesting point for the Leader of the Opposition to ponder as so many members on his own side have raised the question of financial adequacy for stay at home mothers, which Labor is determined to preserve by retaining the baby bonus.

It is not beyond belief that what we are seeing from the Leader of the Opposition is perhaps a cynical delaying tactic to try to hobble the scheme that the minister for families and others have patiently progressed over the last few years. But now we have the Leader of the Opposition saying that the bill needs to be enacted soon and he will not oppose the government scheme. Well, if he is fair dinkum he will commit to passing this bill through the parliament before it rises for the winter recess. Let us hope we see that. I think the young families across Australia who have waited for so long deserve that certainty. With pride, with hope and with great enthusiasm, I therefore commend the bill to the House.