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Monday, 31 May 2010
Page: 4572

Ms HALL (3:43 PM) —The Paid Parental Leave Bill 2010 is landmark legislation, legislation that brings Australia into the 21st century and legislation that places Australia in a comparable position with other OECD countries. Currently, Australia and the United States are the only two OECD countries that do not have a paid parental leave scheme. It is unfortunate that, for the 12 years the Howard government was in power, the current Leader of the Opposition failed to advocate a paid parental leave scheme. Now his solution is to impose a great big new tax on business—a tax that will be passed on to each and every Australian. This legislation is great for Australian families, Australian businesses and the nation as a whole. It will enable all eligible working parents of babies born or adopted from 1 January 2011 to receive 18 weeks of paid parental leave at the federal minimum wage.

The fact that there has been no paid parental leave scheme until now has cost families dearly. It has impacted on family income. It has made it really hard for families to make the decision about whether or not to start a family or to have an additional child. If they have made that decision, it has often caused the family to experience financial hardship. In many cases both parents have had to return to work earlier than they would have liked to.

I think it is really important to put this on the record given the contribution of the previous speaker in this debate: I value the contribution made to child rearing by each and every parent in this country. I know that some parents choose to stay at home and rear their children, that they are with their children until they start school. That is their decision. Other parents choose to go to work or need to go to work. That is their decision. Each and every one of those families needs to be supported. This legislation does that. It helps families make that decision based on the fact that they choose to stay at home or to go to work. The government will be offering them financial support for the first time in Australia’s history. From the family perspective, it is also very important because there are issues relating to the mother’s health. In most cases it is the mother that tends to be the person that cares for the baby in its early months. Quite often if there are enormous financial implications the mother will be forced to return to work sooner than she would like to. From a health perspective, that could be sooner than it would be wise for her to return to work. This legislation will enable her to take the time that she needs to allow her body to heal and to bond with her newborn child or her adopted child.

If both parents have to return to work very early in the piece, that impacts on a family’s dynamics. That does not allow the whole family to come together and bond and to see itself as a family unit. There is an enormous social cost associated with both parents being forced to return to work very early. It is noted that a parent’s exclusive care for their child improves the child’s development. Where a mother chooses to breastfeed that enables her to establish a breastfeeding pattern. It also works with bonding and nurturing. From a social perspective, that is very good for the whole community.

Businesses have also been adversely affected by the lack of a paid parental leave scheme. In the past the lack of a paid parental leave scheme has led to a situation whereby the primary care giver, usually the woman, is forced to leave the workforce. This in itself is a cost to business. The employer is losing a skilled and valued worker so it leads to the business incurring a cost. Studies have been conducted into this. I would like to refer to one by an Australian human research institute which cites research that has found that replacing that employee can cost up to 1½ times the employee’s salary. A global expert on restructuring, a professor at the business school of the University of Colorado in Denver, has conducted research that has found that in some instances, depending on the employee’s role in a company and the supply of suitable skilled workers, it can cost up to 2½ times the worker’s wage. That is a significant cost to business. The costs involved include exit interviews, interviewing and selecting new employees, overtime worked by other staff to fill the short-term vacancy and then the training of the successful applicant. Retraining in itself is a quite significant impost on companies. Using the 1½ times salary figure and an estimate of the average staff turnover within large companies in Australia of 12.6 per cent, the institute calculates that the cost to the Australian economy could be as much as $20 billion. That shows that this legislation which we have before us today is a very fine investment in Australia.

I note that the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs is at the table. I would like to formally congratulate her in this House on all the hard work that she has done in developing this legislation. She has been a long-term advocate of paid parental leave. I know that without her efforts this legislation would not have come to fruition. Mr Deputy Speaker, forgive me for having been sidetracked for a moment. There is the cost to the nation as a whole because of the loss of skilled workers. Also there are the enormous financial implications when workers have to stay at home without any financial support and, as I have already mentioned, there are the long-term social costs.

This legislation has the potential to change the face of our society. It will deliver certainty and financial security to families throughout Australia. It is legislation the opposition should support. Listening to the contributions by members of the opposition, it is quite obvious to me that they do not support the legislation. If this legislation does not pass the parliament, each and every one of them will stand condemned. This legislation has the support of both business and unions. I refer to an article quoting a business leader on the legislation:

Australian Industry Group chief executive Heather Ridout, says the Government’s scheme is a “sensible approach” to an unresolved issue—

It has been unresolved for far too long. It was unresolved when the opposition was in government, when the Leader of the Opposition was in a position to bring about change. The article goes on:

“A taxpayer funded scheme providing payments to working mothers of 18 weeks at the level of the minimum wage is consistent with the recommendations of the Productivity Commission and is largely consistent with the Group’s proposals,” she said.

“The introduction of an appropriately designed paid parental leave scheme will provide many benefits to the community, not least of which is increased participation by women in the workforce …

Those are the words of industry. Those are the words that Ms Heather Ridout has spoken in support of the scheme. I also refer to a media release by the ACTU:

ACTU President Sharan Burrow called on Opposition leader Tony Abbott not to block the bill …

“Australian families and women in particular are counting on this scheme being in place on January 1 next year,” Ms Burrow said.

“This is an important reform in the way we help women especially to handle work and family commitments at an emotionally and often financially stressful time …

I think that says it all. This scheme has the support of both industry and the trade union movement.

There has been widespread community consultation. The Productivity Commission looked at the economic, productivity and social costs and benefits of a paid parental leave scheme. It also considered the health and developmental benefits for babies and parents. I referred to this earlier in my contribution to this debate, but from the mother’s perspective it is essential that in the first few months after she gives birth to a child she stays home to develop that bond, to allow her body time to recover and to establish breastfeeding, which is in the best interests of the baby. Further on, it allows the development of the baby to progress in a very measured and appropriate way.

The commission undertook extensive public consultation. The government also undertook extensive consultation with key stakeholders—trade unions, employer groups, families and community groups. This is well-researched legislation that has been thoughtfully developed. The legislation that we have before us here today is based on the recommendations of the Productivity Commission. This is not spur-of-the-moment legislation that is ill thought out, like the Leader of the Opposition’s tax on businesses with a taxable income in excess of $5 million—a great big tax on everything that will cause a burden to Australians, increasing the cost of living. This is a scheme that delivers to families, not a scheme that places enormous financial imposts on both businesses and families.

In the short time I have left in this debate, I will touch on a couple of key elements of the legislation. The scheme is for an 18-week period of paid leave, which must be taken in one continuous block. It will be paid at the national minimum wage. Parents can nominate when they wish to receive the pay, but it must be within the first 12 months after the child’s date of birth or placement, in the case of adoption. Parental leave pay can be received before, after or at the same time as employer-provided paid leave such as recreation or annual leave and employer-provided parental leave. A parent will not be able to work while receiving paid parental leave—and that is fair enough because that would defeat the purpose of the legislation—but they can ‘keep in touch’ with the workplace for up to 10 days during the period if this is mutually agreed between the person and the employer.

It is all about keeping workers connected to the workplace whilst giving them time to spend with their baby and, in the case of women, to allow their bodies to recover. This legislation is groundbreaking. It brings Australia up to the rest of the world as far as paid parental leave is concerned. We are no longer one of those outlying countries that does not provide support for parents to return to the workforce.

I conclude by imploring the Leader of the Opposition to abandon his flawed scheme and support this legislation, legislation that will benefit all Australians. We on this side of the House are very used to the Leader of the Opposition opposing anything just for the sake of opposing it. This legislation is far, far too important for him to adopt his oppositional politics on. All Australians look to him to show some leadership on this legislation, get behind it and see that it passes through both houses of this parliament.