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Thursday, 27 May 2010
Page: 4420

Ms LEY (1:34 PM) —I am really pleased to speak on the bill which introduces the government’s paid parental leave scheme and, in so doing, I draw a clear distinction between the government scheme and the one that the coalition is proposing by way of amendments to this Paid Parental Leave Bill 2010 and the cognate bill. We would all agree that paid parental leave is needed desperately, and needed sooner rather than later. The length of paid parental leave now available to parents through private enterprise and the Public Service varies greatly from, in some cases, a few days, to 18 weeks. Few schemes meet the widely acknowledged ideal leave period of a full six months, and that is something that we would agree on both sides of the parliament. Mothers choosing to stay at home bond with their babies over those vital few months of life and they really do need a full six months.

Labor has not adopted the internationally recognised standard of six months, but their scheme—the subject of this bill—has chosen 18 weeks, hoping that employers would top-up the leave entitlement to make up to 26 weeks. Most employers that do not already have a more generous scheme in place are just not in a position to be able to afford to top-up any new scheme. Meanwhile, the inequity which sees only some 23 per cent of the lower paid and part-time working women being offered parental leave continues to persist. These bills will do nothing about that inequity. So if you are a young woman entering the workforce now, you are most likely to choose an employer that has their own paid parental leave scheme in place rather than one that does not. After the government scheme commences, you are still more likely to seek out an employer with a company scheme—for example, the Public Service or any one of Australia’s large corporations—rather than a small business which has been funded to provide the government’s 18-week minimum wage scheme.

The government says that its funding the scheme removes the burden from small business and, yes, it is true that it is paying the amount of money that women will receive under the scheme, but the businesses themselves are still left with considerable red tape, and that is something that we should not overlook. They may be liable for state payroll tax. They may be liable for workers compensation for those employees on parental leave as well as for their replacements. They will have to manage the payments and keep yet more records and meet yet more standards of accountability. So make no mistake—this is a burden on small business.

The fact that the government is having to introduce a six-month moratorium for businesses so they will not have to make payments to employees until all of these details can be negotiated between the Commonwealth and the states does not bode well for an efficiently managed program.

It is also important to note that the government’s scheme does not include superannuation. Given that the broken work history of women is contributing so much to their poorer retirement incomes, superannuation should be included.

The real problem with the government’s scheme is that the payment of paid parental leave at the minimum wage is simply not adequate. Parents will not be able to afford to take leave at the minimum wage and may decide not to have a baby or to delay having a baby, choices which regrettably will result in fewer babies being born in Australia. This is the key to the reason why modern working mothers and fathers need the coalition’s scheme and not Mr Rudd’s scheme. We need to see more babies being born in Australia.

There is of course a human aspect to the policy in this area, and that is just as important as the economic aspect. But the economic aspect should not be overlooked. The coalition’s policy can be seen in terms of its productivity. Without improvements to productivity, a country’s standard of living will decline. It is not a remote economic concept; it is absolutely central to the real world. Our ageing workforce, as the cohort of baby boomers moves through, is not being followed by a similar number of young people. That is a challenge that successive reports, including the Intergenerational report, have highlighted. A sinking birthrate threatens productivity like nothing else.

In 1988 there were 246,193 births in Australia. In 2008, 20 years later, there were 296,621 births. That is a modest increase of perhaps 50,000. It is a very small increase over a 20-year period, particularly when you consider the ageing of the population. The more important indicator is fertility rate, babies born per woman. That rate was 1.831 in 1988 and it dropped to 1.762 in 1998. It appears now to be on its way back up. It was 1.969 in 2008 and there is some evidence that the baby bonus of the previous coalition government was partly responsible for this.

In any case the fertility rate in Australia is too low. It is below two. That should sound alarm bells when we consider the future responsibilities of Australia’s workforce in terms of what they will have to provide in national income for the ageing generation. When women cannot afford to have children, they put off having children. Then it is too late and it is certainly too late to have the number of children they might like in their ideal family. We all know that family sizes are reducing over time. This is also about perhaps stopping after two or three children because of financial commitments, when in an ideal world a family might have one more child.

The coalition’s paid parental leave scheme is actually a wage replacement scheme, not paid at the minimum wage as the government scheme is. It will provide payment to all full-time, part-time and casual workers provided they meet the work test, which is 330 hours in a 10-month period over 13 months. It will provide primary carers—mothers, in the vast majority of families—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.

The coalition’s paid parental leave scheme policy includes two weeks of ‘use it or lose it’ parental leave for the non-primary carer—typically the father—and this is to encourage the father to support the primary carer and be with the baby in those vital two weeks of early life. 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.

Australia is the second last of the OECD countries to mandate a paid parental leave scheme. It is very concerning that the scheme that is being introduced by the government is so woefully inadequate. There is no point in introducing a scheme which has as one of its principal aims to increase the birth rate if all the evidence points to the fact that it will not work.

One of the harshest things that society can do is make judgments about women in terms of the choices that they make, including their child-bearing choices. There is no place in this debate for judgments about stay-at-home mothers versus working mothers. In fact, I believe those labels are outdated and they often describe the same mother at different periods in her working life and family life.

The scheme that the coalition proposes will be welcomed in my electorate, where a lot of working women are farmers. We should not forget the human aspect of women who reach child-bearing age and find that it is just too difficult to have children—they have left it too long. That is a very powerful argument for our policy. I reflect back on my statement about making judgments. It is just too easy to say, ‘You should have got on with the business of having children earlier in your life.’

I met a young woman from western New South Wales a couple of weeks ago. I do not want to describe her as a farmer’s wife because she is of course so much more, but she talked about the difficulties following her marriage, which was in her early 30s. The drought came along and she was down in the paddock every day with her husband and home at night doing the books. Following that, there were issues around the intergenerational transfer of farmland. That is very common in farming areas. There is often great tension between the younger and the older generation. During that time, in the back of her mind she thought, ‘I’ll just wait until this is all sorted out and then we’ll get on with the business of having a family.’

Finally it was all sorted out, but by then she was 41 and found that pregnancy did not happen easily, so she booked into the IVF program and she is there still. She described to me her trips from western New South Wales to the big regional city of Albury, where she had her IVF treatment, and the difficulties that she experienced every time she underwent that treatment—the weird emotional feelings, sometimes anger and sometimes manic activity levels. We are talking about quite a dose of medication. But what made me sad was when she said: ‘I had nothing to do overnight between treatments. I had seen all the shops, so I used to walk up and down the streets and think about the situation that I was in and desperately wish for children.’ I would not like to see women in that position when it is not necessary. I would really like to see in this place a policy that helps those women and that would have allowed that woman to take the time out of her busy life, while knowing that income was continuing to come in to pay the bills, pay the mortgage and give some sense of financial security, to have children.

We have dry economic argument that supports our policy. We also have a very human argument. I really do believe that both sides of the House should look carefully at what is happening to the demographic of women who are ageing, having children and encountering difficulties as older mothers. As women, we will all say, I am sure—and, Madam Deputy Speaker, you would probably agree with me on this—that having children is the greatest gift and the greatest joy and it sure beats anything we ever do in our professional life. I am enormously thankful for my three children here today. But just because it was easy for us does not mean it is easy for the modern woman or that it will be easy for the women of tomorrow.

Lives are changing, the workforce is changing and people’s circumstances are different. Some people have said: ‘This is a lot of money to be paying women over a six-month period. Should we be thinking twice about this?’ It does sound like a lot of money, but in the context of the average mortgage on the average house these days it is not a lot of money. When you consider that most people going into mortgages as first-home buyers in Western Sydney are trying to find between $400,000 and $500,000, you can understand that pausing to have a child, and becoming unable to meet those mortgage payments, is just not going to happen. We are not talking about people who are making grand choices to have it all and who expect to have it all. We are just considering ordinary people—ordinary women in their ordinary working lives. Certainly, in some of the rural areas I represent, the cost of a mortgage is much more modest, but we should not forget that in a lot of our capital cities, where a lot of the women who will be affected by this policy work, it is just not possible to manage a mortgage without two incomes. That is what this policy is focusing on.

The other criticism that we have copped is that big business will fund the policy. As the Leader of the Opposition made very clear in his remarks earlier today, we would prefer that there was another way. We would prefer that it could be done out of consolidated revenue, that surging tax receipts coming in over the next few years and a budgetary situation that did not see us at a deficit of $57.1 billion on 30 June this year would allow us to meet the cost of the scheme from somewhere else, but the scheme cannot wait. Paid parental leave cannot wait. The government scheme is insufficient and it is not going to achieve the policy outcomes that it needs to and it is letting women down.

We look forward to a time when there will be another source of funding for our scheme. Nobody likes imposts on business. We have taken a decision with our policy that it is reasonable to levy the biggest businesses in Australia to pay for the scheme. I might add that it is a very modest contribution compared to the slug that the government is placing on the resources industry, but we know that whatever we can do to keep tax rates down for businesses we will do. We just know that bringing the budget back into surplus, restoring the budget bottom line, is important and has to happen first, but we do not believe that this Paid Parental Leave scheme can wait until then.

I really urge those opposite to consider the benefits of the coalition scheme and to look at the inadequacies of the scheme they have proposed. I am sorry, but the scheme that government members have explained to us here today is not going to encourage women to take time out of the workforce to have babies in their child-bearing years when we as a nation need those babies to be born today in order to provide for the economic future of Australia tomorrow.