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Monday, 31 May 2010
Page: 4537


Ms JACKSON (1:05 PM) —The Paid Parental Leave Bill 2010 for me presents an opportunity for celebration. This bill, if passed by the parliament, will deliver Australia’s first national paid parental leave scheme from 1 January 2011. The scheme is funded by the Australian government and it is fair to business and fair for families. For the generation who campaigned for the rights of working women, paid parental leave is now finally being achieved by their daughters and granddaughters. This bill, as I said, is a cause for celebration.

For the working women who at the turn of the century watched their working conditions being steadily eroded by Work Choices and despairingly confronted the fact that they were about to become the first generation to pass on worse conditions of employment to their children, this bill in conjunction with the Fair Work Act brings relief and of course a cause for celebration. This bill represents a gigantic step forward for working women in Australia. It will help Australian families balance work and family commitments and help employers retain the valuable skills and experience of their staff. I want to commend and congratulate ministers Macklin and Plibersek especially for their work on this wonderful achievement for women.

The Paid Parental Leave Bill 2010 has been attacked and criticised by those opposite as symbolism. They say that it does not match pay and it does not pay superannuation. To them I say: the bill is a real leap forward for equity for all working women, not just for those on or near the minimum wage like cleaners, aged care workers and hospitality workers. This bill promises working women 18 weeks to spend bonding with their baby, coping with the stresses and enjoying the rewards that a newborn baby brings secure in the knowledge that they are still being paid and remain a valuable member of the Australian workforce.

Of course, the government’s paid parental leave can be taken in addition to existing employer funded schemes, either at the same time or consecutively. I want to take this opportunity to congratulate those forward-thinking employers who have already implemented substantial paid parental leave schemes in their own workplaces, because I think they truly value and recognise the contribution of working women to their enterprises and businesses. This scheme will help employers, especially small business employers, enhance the family-friendly workplaces that, as I said, many already have on offer.

After 12 years of refusing to deliver paid parental leave while they were in government, the opposition now claim that they support it and would have had ‘a better scheme than the government’. But the opposition intend to hit business with a great big tax to pay for it. Frankly, the opposition, the party of Work Choices, lacks credibility on this issue. I know firsthand from the work of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment and Workplace Relations that women workers in Australia suffered under the provisions of Work Choices and, indeed, were greatly disadvantaged under individual contracts in this country. It seems somewhat hypocritical to me that the opposition, which had 12 years in government to try and address these issues, chose not to do so.

Today I want to celebrate the achievements of working women. I have said that, in addition to this legislation being a substantial step forward in improving conditions for working women, paid parental leave also represents a significant achievement for Australian women in their campaign for equal rights. It is like the time when women got the opportunity to attend university or, in my own state of Western Australia, when Edith Cowan introduced the Women’s Legal Status Act in 1923—a private member’s bill in the Western Australian parliament which provided the breakthrough that enabled women to practice law and other professions. It is like 1966 when the marriage bar was lifted in the Australian Public Service, 1973 when the marriage bar was lifted in the Western Australia public service or 1972 when the Women’s Electoral Lobby was formed and for the first time conducted surveys of political candidates on issues associated with women’s rights. They held their first conference in January 1973 and were addressed by then lawyer Mary Gaudron, who had been asked by the new Whitlam government in its first week of office to reopen the equal pay case. In 1972 the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission handed down its decision on equal pay for work of equal value. In 1973 the first maternity leave was approved in the federal Public Service, with a period of paid as well as unpaid maternity leave. However, in its terms, it was clearly opposed to any flow-on to the private sector.

Towards the end of 1975, we saw an equal opportunity employment section created within the Public Service Board. We saw the abolition of women-only and men-only job restrictions in the Public Service, although not in the private sector until the Sex Discrimination Act in 1984. In 1977, the Working Women’s Charter was adopted by the Australian Council of Trade Unions. It called for equal pay and the provision of child care for working women and it condemned sexual harassment in the workplace. I still vividly remember as a young woman the campaign run by many during 1978. This was a period of high unemployment of some 7.1 per cent, and there was anger towards married women for ‘taking jobs from men and boys’. In 1979 the Arbitration Commission handed down a decision for 52 weeks unpaid maternity leave and, importantly, the right of women to return to their job. This was done well ahead of prevailing community attitudes—and that was only 30 years ago.

In 1984, then Senator Susan Ryan championed and then implemented the Sex Discrimination Act. In my own state of Western Australia, the Hon. Yvonne Henderson introduced and championed the Equal Opportunity Act. Finally, legislation was beginning to establish rights for women to live and work in environments free of discrimination. In 1984, Anne Summers, then an adviser to the Hawke government, pushed the government to make an election promise of 20,000 new childcare places in Australia. As recently as 2002, HREOC recommended in its report 14 weeks paid maternity leave at the minimum wage for all women. Unfortunately, this was hijacked in 2004 by the introduction of the baby bonus—then a $3,000 non-means-tested welfare payment, totally unrelated to work or the preservation of the rights of working women.

I have always campaigned for the rights of working women. I cannot let an occasion such as this pass without acknowledging that this legislation is a real step forward, irrespective of the different views in this House and in the other place, I trust and hope that it will be a real improvement for all working women in Australia. I want to talk a little about the baby bonus because, unfortunately, I think it was presented in such a way that it polarised working mothers against stay-at-home mothers. In truth, this distinction is largely false for a couple of reasons. Anyone who has stayed at home to raise children would know that it is very demanding work. In addition, there are a broad range of ways in which mothers return to work—a day a week, two days a week, three half days a week, full-time, nights, weekends and work from home. There is no clear point whereby the hours or the income indicate when a woman stops being a stay-at-home mum and becomes an employee. I believe the failure to recognise women’s unpaid work is one of the great failures of our national economic accounts and theories.

Mothers who are not eligible for paid parental leave or who choose not to receive it may still be eligible for the baby bonus and family assistance under the usual rules. I think that is appropriate. The Paid Parental Leave scheme does not need to make a distinction between stay-at-home mums and mums in the paid workforce, because paid parental leave is not a welfare payment. It is an employment benefit. It is the creation of a new right conferred upon employees who are pregnant. As such, employees may elect to take advantage of this benefit. It is not means tested against the family income; it is means tested against the primary carer applying for the benefit. This bill is not about the social or private aspects of raising a family. Clearly improvements in work based conditions mean improved conditions at home. This bill is directed squarely at the industrial issue of parental leave.

The proposed scheme will start on 1 January 2011 for eligible parents of children born or adopted on or after 1 January 2011. Eligible working parents will receive government funded parental leave pay at the national minimum wage for a maximum of 18 weeks. A person may be eligible for paid parental leave if they are the mother of a newborn child or the initial primary carer of a recently adopted child, have met the paid parental leave work test before the birth or adoption occurs, have an individual income of $150,000 per year or less, are living in Australia and are an Australian citizen or permanent resident. Paid parental leave will be for eligible working parents, including full-time, part-time, seasonal and casual workers, as well as contractors, the self-employed and, importantly, people who have had multiple employers.

Our scheme gives Australian families more options to balance work and family by allowing the primary carer to transfer any unused parental leave pay to their partner, provided the partner is also eligible. This means that an eligible father can get up to 18 weeks paid parental leave if the mother is eligible for the scheme but returns to work. Our scheme is based closely on the Productivity Commission’s expert recommendations for Australia’s best economic interests and follows consultation with employers and employer groups.

As I said before, the government’s Paid Parental Leave scheme is fair to business and fair to families. By providing time to parents to spend at home with a newborn baby, the scheme will help promote early childhood development and maternal health. The government’s Paid Parental Leave scheme will also help employers enhance the family friendly workplace conditions which, as I said, many of them already offer. This scheme will also provide long-term benefits for business as more women of child-bearing age stay connected with the workforce and their careers. It will help employers retain their skilled staff. Frankly, I also think it will help with the stereotype that unfortunately still exists in some workplaces in Australia—the assumption that a woman will not stay as long or will not be as committed to a particular employer purely and simply because she is the one likely to take time out of the workforce to bear children.

I am also very pleased this scheme contains provision that it will be reviewed in two years to enable the question of superannuation, in particular, to be reconsidered along with other things. I say that because this is an important consideration in closing the pay equity gap. As I said, in November last year the House Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations tabled the report of its inquiry into pay equity and associated issues relating to increasing female participation in the workforce, entitled Making it fair. As it followed so closely behind the Productivity Commission report on paid parental leave, Making it fair did not dwell upon the issue. However, a key observation of the report was the impact of interruptions to continuous employment on the pay gap and the resulting substantial differential in accumulation of superannuation over a lifetime.

It is my strongly held personal view that women should not be punished in their retirement as a result of having had and raised children during their working lives. As I said, the pay equity gap has widened. The gap today stands at some 17 per cent. In industries such as finance and insurance, it is 31.9 per cent and in WA during the last mining boom, it was 37.5 per cent. The undervaluation of women’s work in the industries in which women’s employment is concentrated still remains to be addressed. I look forward to the government’s response to the Making it fair report so that I can stand in this place and also congratulate them for taking genuine steps in addressing that pay equity gap.

Initiatives such as paid parental leave are a step towards closing the pay equity gap and enabling women to retain continuity of employment. That, as I said earlier, is something that should be a cause for celebration, especially for the women in this place, although I note that it will still be a little while before, and that we still have a little work to do to make sure, our numbers equal those of our male counterparts. This bill demonstrates an understanding that women do not automatically withdraw from the workforce when they have children. I am proud and delighted to be able to speak on this legislation and I commend it to the House.