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Monday, 31 May 2010
Page: 4524

Mr TUCKEY (12:05 PM) —The member for Leichhardt, in concluding his speech on this important matter, just chose to recite the various items he has been given for attacking the opposition rather than present cogent arguments. It is a pity he has walked out of the chamber, because I just wanted to remind him that the principal town in his electorate, Cairns, presently has a 14 per cent unemployment rate—14 per cent. Western Australia is trying to do a bit to help them out in that regard, through trying to generate mining revenue for all Australians. There are now two 737s, I think—that would be about 300 people travelling east-west and west-east—flying directly from Cairns to Karratha. As I said in the House the other day, I doubt those on the flights would be going for the scenery in Karratha; they are going there for employment. As such, one would think that the member for Leichhardt would be taking the opportunity, as one Graeme Campbell did many years ago when the Hawke Labor government decided to introduce a tax on gold that had not previously applied, to cross the floor and vote against his own government.

Mr Laurie Ferguson —These are the paid parental leave bills, mate!

Mr TUCKEY —I just thought that that was a fair and reasonable response to the closing remarks by the member for Leichhardt, who did not say one word in his closing statements about this important matter.

Returning to the Paid Parental Leave Bill 2010 and the Paid Parental Leave (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2010 that are before us, it is a quite serious day in this House when a government moves to provide paid parental leave. I have spent many years in this place and I have seen attitudes on this issue change, both in the community and in this House. On my arrival in this place I would have been one of those who thought that probably the best arrangement was a single income family—which I, for instance, was raised in—where the responsibility of the female was to be the carer of the children of that marriage.

My mother never had paid employment until quite late in her career when she joined me in a couple of business enterprises. Not only was she a great help; she was a great innovator and clearly would have made a considerable contribution as an employed person during her married life had that been seen as the right thing to do. She was a very able woman and a great supporter of me in my ambitions. One of those was to go into business at the age of 18. She had none of the conservative views in that regard that my father had.

Here was a person in a period in my living memory probably denied the opportunity to contribute to the economy, if I can use that expression. She would have made a great contribution as a younger woman, but was denied that opportunity by community attitude. Of course, community attitude has moved on in many ways. Some of us with conservative views get a little shocked when we find out that the flower girl at a wedding is actually the child of the union. That is now commonplace. We have fiancees and partners. We have actually taken ‘husband and wife’ out of the vocabulary. Many people have happy lives without going through the process of marriage. I am concerned about that, but on the other hand it just shows how community attitudes have changed and that a response is required.

For numerous reasons the participation of women in the workforce—from the highest jobs, such as the Chief Executive of Westpac, to process workers and others—is now an economic necessity. It is always important—and I am sure the Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services, who is at the table, would agree with me—that the best stock breed. Quite some time ago in Singapore there was an initiative of the government—I do not know whether it was to restrict population growth or encourage it—and they found that the people not having children were the educated elite. Their economy was heavily reliant upon those sorts of people. The population was still growing at the other end of the socioeconomic scale, and that was of concern to them. Being as they are in Singapore, they very quickly admitted their mistake and moved away from it.

All of a sudden Australia is confronted with the opportunity and the necessity for women to be involved in the workplace at all levels. Those who can attract higher wage levels and whose genetic structure, if you like—and I will probably get criticised for this remark—means their children are more likely to be brighter than others should be encouraged to have children. I do not think there is any doubt that they will have pleasure and comfort from that decision anyway. I have an interesting family with two 20-year-old, one four-year-old and one two-year-old grandchildren. We are having so much enjoyment, as is their mother and father, watching those two younger children progress. I am pleased to say that the two-year-old can already count to 20. I am very pleased about that. She will no doubt pass her NAPLAN tests with little or no problem in future years. There are so many benefits in having children because of the contribution they make to a family.

On the other hand, we have seen the economic circumstances change. I want to take the parliament back to the days of my own parents. My father was a saver. He was nine years older than his wife. He took her into her family home the day after they were married. He had paid for it. He was a motor mechanic. He was not a man of great wealth or anything else. Therefore, when I arrived—the third child in the family—we could live on some £6 a week. He did not have a £5 a week mortgage.

What has happened now? Women must be in the workforce now because of the cost of housing and more particularly the cost of the block of land upon which it is constructed. I opened the Sunday Times in Western Australia the other morning and in the home section saw that there was a four-bedroom house available for $160,000 on your block of land. You will not buy a block of land in Western Australia for under $200,000 and in Sydney for probably under $300,000 or $400,000 because the state government I believe wants about $160,000 upfront anyway.

Here is a four-bedroom home with a TV room, an office and two bathrooms for $160,000 and we are paying, through the operations of this parliament, $800,000 for a school canteen. I thought to myself that something is wrong. Nevertheless, there is the cost. I read also that the recent interest rate rises are presently adding about $290 a month to the repayment schedule for a $250,000 mortgage. That brings us back to the fact that people need assistance in various ways if the female member of the family has to remove herself from employment when having a child or children.

The government have come up with a proposal. It is very modest. The internationally recognised standard is six months but they have not adopted that internationally recognised standard, but have chosen 18 weeks, hoping employers will top-up the leave entitlement to make it up to 26 weeks. They are looking at virtually the minimum pay rate for a person, notwithstanding the income that they forgo and, more importantly, the family debt associated with household mortgages and other investments that they might have made. I find it a bit worrying to watch all the whitegoods and TV retailers et cetera offering people no interest, no repayment offers—walk into the shop and walk out with a couple of thousand dollars worth of the goods they wish to market. There is always a point in time when that has to be paid and it often gives people an opportunity to accumulate other debts beyond their resources.

So this scheme is probably not sufficient to keep the family income up to a state where they can meet these excessive payments for home mortgages and things of that nature. There is a suggestion that possibly employers will make a contribution. This is probably not going to be much help and it could even be a disability because, as the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs said in her second reading speech:

In particular, new provisions will make sure that, as intended, families receiving parental leave pay will not be able to receive the baby bonus, and family tax benefit part B will not be payable for the duration of the parental leave pay. Those families not eligible for Paid Parental Leave, or who choose not to participate in the scheme, will be eligible to continue to access the baby bonus and the family tax benefit if they are eligible.

The problem with that is: which one do I take? I doubt that the loss of the baby bonus is even fully compensated by the amount of money that is being offered as parental leave under this arrangement. It is of course at the lowest end of the scale in terms of the remuneration that people are paid.

One of the great issues, as I am advised, is that small business will be burdened with the red tape of having to pay the government’s parental leave to employees who are participating and they may be liable for state payroll tax and workers compensation for those employees on parental leave as well as for their replacement. This adds cost and red tape which the business sector deeply resents. Furthermore, I read into that that in fact the employer will pay the parental leave and, presumably, seek reimbursement from the government. I could not find that particularly identified within the second reading speech but it follows, if that sort of payment is being made and those risks are inherent in the government scheme, that that is a huge financial burden for a small business. They are paying the absent worker and obviously a replacement. It could in fact tip such a business into the payroll tax regime, because payroll tax of course in most states has a threshold under which the business is not responsible for paying payroll tax but, if you add another salary, they could be. That has always been a criticism of payroll tax: that it frequently prevents the employment of people because the small business would have a situation where they had to pay payroll tax if they put another worker on. They might need another worker, but they say, ‘No, the business is not going to grow anymore because the net result is detrimental to so doing.’ Here we have that situation forced upon a small business employer by law and that seems extremely unfair.

That is why, having a changing attitude on the issues and recognising the changed circumstances between my childhood and today, I was quite amenable to the proposal of the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Abbott, when he said, ‘Okay, we will tax or raise a levy against the higher income earners across the board.’ He did not pick the mining sector or the financial sector or anything else. If you are an incorporated company and your taxable profit exceeds $5 million—not your turnover, your taxable profit exceeds $5 million—he proposes a modest levy to raise the funds necessary so that women deciding to leave their employment for the purpose of having a baby will be reimbursed to the extent of their salary up to $150,000 a year.

I have said in this place on many occasions that $150,000 is not a lot of money anymore if, for instance, you are raising a family, looking at their long-term education needs, and you have a mortgage on a $1 million house—or a $600,000 or $700,000 house. So it is grossly unfair and very negative to be saying to those people in that higher salary bracket: ‘Don’t have any kids. You can’t afford it. Wait till you’re 40.’ I think that is sad, because they will live such a short period of their life with their children and grandchildren. So I support the concept of remuneration relevant to the salary forgone in the period when they are having children.

I also note that many of the enterprises that will be so taxed already pay significant parental leave anyway. Under the Abbott proposal, they will have the full wages of those people paid to them and they will therefore not have that responsibility. I have not seen the sums. It is a pity that someone has not pointed out how much parental leave is already paid, typically, by large organisations and government, who will be relieved of that cost under the Abbott scheme. So for many—and, I think, most—the tax will be compensated by the payments that will be refunded to their employees under that arrangement. I think that is worth understanding. It just makes the point that the initiative was needed but that the response of the government seems to be a failure as compared to the proposal put forward by the opposition. I think that is pretty important.

This has to work. It has to be sensible and it has to recognise the realities of the modern family. To say, ‘You’re rich and almost famous if you are on $150,000 a year,’ is simply not true. Sometimes in the family—and I can quote examples known to me—the female partner is the big earner, frequently earning twice as much as the husband. When you take that into account in a family budget, that is another argument why the amount of salary earned by the female partner should be the one refunded.