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Thursday, 27 May 2010
Page: 4412

Mr BRIGGS (12:59 PM) —I rise to speak on the Paid Parental Leave Bill 2010   and cognate bill. I support the contribution made earlier today by the Leader of the Opposition—for the information of the member of Petrie, that is the official title of the member for Warringah—which was well thought through and about a direct action policy that this side of the House will address upon coming to government. I notice the member for Petrie, while acknowledging that several members of this place have proudly had children while they have been here, referred only to the mothers in this place. There are of course some fathers in this place, who have got young children too. This is about families and not necessarily just about one parent or the other. It is worth while acknowledging that the Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services, the member for Maribyrnong, who is at the table, recently became a dad. Pressure and quite large expectations are put on fathers with young kids, particularly on those who have very strong-willed wives.

This is a very important issue for the parliament to be debating and one which has been debated in the community for some time. It has been addressed largely through the market, particularly in the last 10 years, through enterprise agreements and workplace agreements starting mainly with government. Government organisations were the first to introduce into their employment agreements paid maternity leave provisions. Shortly thereafter they were followed by major big employers like banks and particularly employers who had a large female workforce, which made a lot of sense. The challenge has always been small business. Most large businesses, and I suspect a fair proportion of medium-sized businesses, today have some sort of paid maternity leave as part of their employment conditions, because if they do not they lose very high quality female workers who go to government employment or large corporations which do have paid maternity leave schemes. Ensuring that small business gets assistance to do what large businesses do themselves is one of the areas that the Leader of the Opposition addressed quite well in the opposition parental leave policy that he released a couple of months ago.

Small business is never going to be able to provide for large paid maternity leave schemes. It is simply not possible, particularly in the industries where a lot of the employees are female such as retail or hairdressing and so forth. For instance, my mother-in-law and sister-in-law run a small hairdressing salon. They would never be able to have a paid maternity leave scheme without some sort of government assistance. The country has moved in the last few years from not having a government legislated paid maternity leave scheme to the point now where it is necessary that we do so. I agree very much with the Leader of the Opposition’s remarks in that respect. We have moved from the time of the Howard government’s approach to this issue to the new reality of the times and, therefore, I think our policy makes a lot of sense.

It was a very proud record that the former government had on assistance to families. In fact, it was one of the core promises of the first-term Howard government to implement assistance to families through direct payments. Those payments increased during the time of the Howard government, directly assisting families, whether for stay-at-home mothers or for those in the workforce. There was a criticism, particularly by those on the other side and some in the bureaucracy, that the Howard government focused too much assistance on stay-at-home mothers as some of sort of old conservative ideal. I appreciate that the member for Petrie has acknowledged the contribution that stay-at-home mothers make in our society and the importance of those women having the choice.

The other area where the Howard government did create better circumstances for families was in its building of an economy where a lot of jobs were created. Government never creates jobs; it creates the circumstances in which jobs can be created. In the last few years of the Howard government the jobs that were created were full-time jobs. They were not part-time and casual jobs or the sorts of jobs that we used to hear those on the other side rail against constantly. I remember a comment from the now Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs—the minister responsible for this bill—in about 2003 when she said on Meet the Press that a casual job was not a real job. The record of the Howard government, while never saying a job was not a real job, is such that most of the jobs created in the Australian economy were full time, which is much better for families because they have the certainty of ongoing employment and they have the opportunity to improve their economic circumstances. Full-time employment is particularly important in dealing with banks and so forth. One of the proudest records of the former government was job creation and job creation for female employees. It is a very proud record.

One of the impacts of the Gillard ‘fair union act’ is that it reduces flexibility for employers and reduces the opportunity, particularly for females, to get full-time work. The major culprit of that for small businesses, as the shadow minister at the table, the member for Dunkley, knows all too well, was the reintroduction of the job-destroying unfair dismissal laws, which affect working women more than any other segment of the employed workforce. Women end up being forced into casual jobs as small business tries very hard to avoid being caught by the unfair dismissal burden that the ‘fair union act’—implemented by the Deputy Prime Minister—has placed back around their neck. An Abbott led government will reduce that burden for small business and create the circumstances where more jobs can be created, particularly more full-time jobs.

I think the bill before us is very much an encapsulation of the problem with the Rudd Labor government: they just do not think through the policies they are pursuing and they do not get the detail right. We have seen it with the insulation program, with the Green Loans Program, with the computers in schools program, with the school memorial halls program and again with this bill, which is poorly drafted, leaves a lot of questions unanswered and seemingly creates a red-tape burden for small business which will make it more difficult for small business employers. That is typical of this government, which fails to understand how small business works. While this bill is a step on the right path, it is not well drafted and it is certainly well short of the paid parental leave plan announced by the Leader of the Opposition, with the reasons for that plan very well articulated earlier today.

The Liberal Party’s plan will provide payment to all full-time, part-time and casual workers provided they meet the work test, the 330 hours in a 10-month period over 13 months. It will provide primary carers—in the vast majority of families, mothers, but in some circumstances fathers—with 26 weeks paid parental leave at full replacement pay, up to a maximum salary of $150,000 per annum or the federal minimum wage, whichever is greater. It will be available to all employees, including contractors and the self-employed, who meet the work eligibility test. It includes superannuation contributions at the mandatory rate of nine per cent, an area where the government has failed. The government talks a lot about superannuation and how it is allegedly a friend of superannuation yet fails to deliver. The coalition’s plan includes two weeks of ‘use it or lose it’ parental leave for the non-primary carer, usually the father, to encourage the father to support the primary carer and be with the baby in those very early weeks, which we all acknowledge to be a very important time and a fantastic time to be around.

The coalition’s scheme will signal to the community that taking time out of the workforce to care for children should be considered a normal part of the work-life cycle of parents. I think that is a very important element of this issue. We must encourage circumstances that ensure Australians will continue to have babies. It is important that Australia continues to have a solid birth rate, and we have a sustainable plan to do that.

If you compare the Liberal Party’s plan as outlined by the Leader of the Opposition with the bill before the House, you can see they are two starkly different systems—although they are similarly opt-in, subject to eligibility. Under the coalition’s plan, the period of leave is 26 weeks, compared to Labor’s 18 weeks, which is a big difference. The coalition rate of pay is at replacement wage or the federal minimum wage, whichever is greater, to a cap, which we have highlighted; Labor’s rate is the minimum wage. So there is very large difference between our plan and the government’s plan that is before the parliament.

There have been some critics of our plan. Understandably, there are people in the community who have very strong views about this type of government assistance. There were some critical comments made by the member for Petrie—ill-informed comments, unsurprisingly. She was off script, which is always dangerous with the member for Petrie. The Liberal Party policy will apply a levy to a small number of businesses who have a taxable income above $5 million. The member for Petrie made some interesting comments about the flow-on effects of taxes on business which I note that, in another environment, the Prime Minister and the Treasurer denied exist. The member for Petrie made it very clear she thinks that, when you put a great big new tax on business, there are flow-on effects to other services in the economy, which is quite different from what the Treasurer and the Prime Minister are saying about their great big new tax on mining.

So there have been some critics of the levy. Our position is quite clear: when we get the budget back into reasonable shape, when we pay off Labor’s debt and get it back into surplus, we will be in a position to remove that levy. That is the economically responsible way to go about it. If we were not in the position of being nearly $100 billion in net debt, we would not have to apply this levy; however, we are in a position where the Labor government has spent the proceeds of the former government but also borrowed $100 billion, most of which has been wasted through ill-conceived, badly thought through and badly implemented programs. That is unfortunately a necessary element of what is an important policy announcement by the Leader of the Opposition and one that I do support—otherwise, as the shadow Treasurer pointed out, we will be in the situation where we are missing out on very productive and high-quality workers at a time when we will need more workers in our workforce.

We have a challenge with our ageing population; we all know that. It is coming on us very quickly. We have a large number of baby boomers in the system who are now getting to retirement age, so it is very important that we have these high-quality, mostly well-educated young Australian women back contributing to the economy, and they cannot possibly do that in many cases, particularly in the major cities, without some sort of assistance. Without that, they will either not have a family or be in very difficult financial circumstances. That is the reality of the age we live in, with the challenge of housing affordability, particularly for young people. This is a necessary policy, in my view, to help alleviate those costs.

There are people from previous generations who do not think it is needed because they did it without any government assistance, and I understand that they have that point of view. I say to them, however, that times have changed and that it is more difficult now to cope with a single wage when having a family and we do need to take steps to ensure it is in fact affordable to have children. Then, when they have had those children, it is important to be able to get that productive capacity that is sitting there back into the economy reasonably quickly so we can continue to grow and raise our living standards, as we all like to do.

So I think the Leader of the Opposition should be congratulated for pushing the envelope on this issue. He should be congratulated for understanding the needs of families in our society. He thinks deeply about these issues and he has understood not only the importance to women and young dads out there in the economy but also the impact on small business, which is a very important element of what we on this side of the chamber are proposing.

It is unfortunate that the Rudd government, as usual, are so set in their ways and blinkered in their approach to this important issue that they do not see the reality of this. They do not see how this is a much better and more well-thought-through plan that can be implemented as policy. They should amend this bill and change it to reflect those policy announcements by the Leader of the Opposition. Then we could have bipartisan support in this place for a very important policy area. With those few remarks, I will conclude.