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Monday, 31 May 2010
Page: 4579

Mr BRADBURY (4:19 PM) —It is with great pleasure that I rise to speak in support of the Paid Parental Leave Bill 2010 and cognate bill, which will put in train for the first time in Australia’s history a national paid parental leave scheme. If this legislation is passed it will come into effect from 1 January 2011. It is noteworthy that we are one of only two OECD nations that does not currently have a national paid parental leave scheme. One might ask why it has taken so long for a progressive country such as ours to grasp the nettle and introduce a scheme of this sort. If we look over the past decade or so, we see that there has been much opposition, particularly from those who were in government and who are now in opposition. I welcome their most recent embrace of more progressive policies in this regard, but those in opposition were deadset opposed to the introduction of any scheme of paid parental leave. We all recall the former Prime Minister, John Howard, and we all recall each and every one of the members of the then cabinet standing up, one after the other, telling us that this was something the country could not afford. But it is something that the country cannot afford not to do. That is what the Productivity Commission has concluded, and that is the advice that this government is determined to take on board and to act on. The scheme that we propose to introduce will cover up to 18 weeks at the national minimum wage and will be open to eligible primary carers who have or who adopt a child on or after 1 January 2011. The primary carer must satisfy the work test, the income test and the residency test.

Having a child is one of the greatest privileges that any of us can have. Those who wish to do that and those who are fortunate enough to experience the joy of parenthood can all reflect upon just how significant it is. I have the great privilege of having four children and of having gone through three pregnancies with my wife, having had twins on the third occasion. Each of those pregnancies became the central focus of our lives. Each was something that we prepared for and something they we enjoyed and relished. We were often fearful of the challenges that came with that, but we also recognised that the great leap one takes in choosing to become a parent, if in fact one does have that choice, does not come without a financial cost.

I also reflect on an experience I had several years ago when I was the Mayor of Penrith City. Back in the year 2000 I decided to go out on a tour of all the local childcare centres that the council was managing. I recall visiting some of the centres, walking in and seeing some of the young children, in some cases as young as six weeks. It struck me on a number of levels. Firstly, one can never judge these cases because you simply do not know what the circumstances are, but in many cases I suspect the children were in child care at such a young age because their parents had no other option. Financially, they had to get back into the workforce in order to meet the financial demands of raising a family in an area like mine in outer Western Sydney where, over the years, house prices have continued to increase exponentially or at a much greater rate than average wages and salaries have increased. It is almost a necessity these days for families on average incomes in my electorate to have at least a second parent partly in the workforce, if not full time. Some families who are on a single income are doing it tough, others might be doing it that little bit more comfortably; but very few people can do it comfortably on one income in communities such as mine. That is the reality that many families and communities such as mine face.

There is the additional issue of choice of career—choice of the contribution that parents, both mothers and fathers, may wish to make. Certainly a lot was made of notions of career choice in the speech just given by the member for Kennedy. I think it is a great development that, over the years, opportunities have been opened up to women to pursue their skills and talents and to make a contribution in many areas of life that were previously closed off to them. With three sisters, three daughters and a very well educated wife, I am a great advocate of the importance of preserving those opportunities and making them available to all Australians, male or female. Science has only come so far, and when it comes to having babies the males are still in the passenger seat. It is the female that has to go through that experience and, more often than not, that becomes a reason why the female may spend a little more time out of the workforce in order to rear the child. The importance of breastfeeding is a consideration. As hard as I may have wanted to try, I would never be able to match my wife on that. These are the realities that we deal with.

On the one hand, there are the financial issues and, on the other hand, there are the career opportunities. Then there is the productivity that can be achieved under a scheme of this sort. I simply make the point that the Intergenerational report and its predecessors have very clearly articulated the case for why we need to boost productivity throughout our economy. We need to ensure that, where people are taking some time off to have children, their skills are preserved and they are given the opportunity to seamlessly move back into the workforce and, where possible, return to the work that they had left in order to have their children. Without a scheme such as the one that is proposed here, it simply would not be possible for some families to have children or an extra child that they may long for and hope to have. The financial pressures and the challenges that one faces in terms of career and career opportunity are considerations that actively weigh on the minds of parents and impending parents all around this country. That is why this measure is essential.

I am shocked by the approach that the opposition have taken to this scheme. For so long they were so opposed to having a scheme of this sort at all. We all recall none other than the now Leader of the Opposition when he was in government saying that a paid parental leave scheme would only ever be introduced over his dead body. Thankfully for the Leader of the Opposition, and thankfully for most Australian families, that is not going to be the case. With the passage of these bills, we look forward to seeing a system in place as of 1 January next year—a scheme of paid parental leave that will be fair to not only families but also business because it is funded by the government. I think that is an important point to acknowledge.

As I said a moment ago, the Leader of the Opposition has previously said it would be over his dead body. We have moved a long way. I think in his speech in this second reading debate he said that his position had evolved over time. This is hardly evolution; this is more like revolution. We have gone from ‘over my dead body’ to a position where he now proposes a scheme that basically will allow individual caregivers who were previously earning salaries of up to $150,000 to receive payments that equate to about $75,000. That is a hugely generous scheme that will impose a very significant burden on those 3,000-odd businesses that will be required to bear it.

A basic question that has to be resolved here is whether schemes of this sort should be funded by the taxpayer through the government or whether they should be borne by business. Clearly the opposition had decided that this was not a burden to be shared on all business, so they decided to impose this on big business alone, on those 3,200 businesses that the Leader of the Opposition says pay company tax on a taxable income of over $5 million. It beggars the question: if raising funds for paid parental leave is as easy as going and putting an indiscriminate tax on the 3,200 businesses that just so happen to be generating income of more than $5 million taxable income, why don’t we impose an additional levy on these same businesses to achieve certain other social policy goals throughout the community? Why stop at the 1.7 per cent levy? There are other needs in the community, whether it be infrastructure needs or whether it be the Leader of the Opposition’s much celebrated additional assistance to stay-at-home mums that went to shadow cabinet but was knocked over in shadow cabinet. Why stop here? It is an interesting question to ask and one that those on the other side have to come forward and respond to.

But we see, as we saw recently with the comments the Leader of the Opposition made on The 7.30 Report, that there is a distinction to be drawn between those comments that are supposedly carefully crafted, carefully scripted, the ones that are in the fine print, or at least in writing—the gospel truth, we are told—and those statements that are made in the heat of the moment.

I thought it was astonishing when, in December last year, the Leader of the Opposition came out and said, ‘There’ll be no new taxes.’ I find it astonishing because, contrary to the rhetoric you often hear from those on the other side, they have been pretty good in government when it comes to introducing new taxes. Remember the GST, perhaps the biggest tax to have been introduced in my lifetime? That was a great big fat tax, but we do not hear so much about that. In fact, at the time I think it was not described by those opposite, who were in government at the time, as a great big fat tax; it was described as the tax that was somehow going to ‘unchain our hearts’. Their taxes ‘unchain our hearts’ or are modest levies, whereas any tax that the government introduces is ‘a great big tax’ that threatens to bring the sky down.

The Leader of the Opposition, in his first statement on paid parental leave, said ‘over my dead body’. We have had subsequent statements from him, though. We also had a comment from him when the Productivity Commission handed down its report in relation to paid parental leave. I will read from an article in the Australian on 30 September 2008. The article reads:

Opposition families spokesman Tony Abbott attacked the scheme proposed by the Productivity Commission because it gave stay-at-home mums less taxpayer support than those who worked, creating “first- and second-class mothers”.

I thought that an interesting principle. We have seen the evolution of the Leader of the Opposition’s approach, the Tony Abbott approach, to paid parental leave. It started with no scheme, unless it was over his dead body. And then it moved on to, ‘I’m opposed to any scheme that treats stay-at-home mothers as if they’re second-class citizens’. I want to make the point that I value mothers whether they stay at home, whether they are engaged in the workforce or whether they are looking to re-engage in the workforce. Frankly, the role of motherhood is something that is one of the most important things that we ask anyone in our community to do. How mothers choose to balance their responsibilities is ultimately a matter for them and for their families. It is government’s role to provide as many opportunities, to give people the choices so that they can actually have choices and make those according to what suits their personal circumstances.

Notwithstanding that, we have the Leader of the Opposition moving on to his position that this would make a second-class citizen of the stay-at-home mother. Then we had the Leader of the Opposition come forward with his policy, and I understand that he did not take it through the usual party processes. This is one of those things for which he simply sought the subsequent forgiveness of the party room, which is one of those robust approaches which I guess could only occur in policy development as far as the opposition is concerned.

But in relation to his proposal, we have a 1.7 per cent levy on taxable income over $5 million for those 3,200 companies, and that would raise $2.7 billion. So, from the Leader of the Opposition who said he did not want a paid parental leave scheme—over his dead body—a Leader of the Opposition who said there would be no new taxes, we then have a Leader of the Opposition who comes forward, without consultation with his party, and proposes to introduce a new tax to fund a new paid parental leave scheme. It is extraordinary. Talk about evolution! That is not evolution but revolution coming from the Leader of the Opposition, who has already said publicly—it is all on record now, although it was not in writing—that if he says something when not in the heat of battle that is carefully scripted then it is gospel truth, although no-one has pointed out to me when you are not in the heat of battle when you are engaged in debate in public life. But if you are in the heat of battle and you happen to answer a question from a journalist—you might not be expecting that they are going to ask a question—and perhaps you have your guard down, and if the answer you give happens to be a bit of a porky, then no-one should be surprised, because that is all in the heat of battle. Frankly, that is absurd.

The interesting point about the statements that the Leader of the Opposition made when he said that he was opposed to any paid parental leave scheme that treated stay-at-home mums as second-class citizens, or ‘second-class mothers’, as he put it, is that the particular scheme that he proposed—and I say ‘he’ because it did not go through the coalition party processes—will in fact create a much larger differential between the government support that is provided to a stay-at-home mum and a mother who happens to be on a high income and takes a little bit of time off to have a child.

Just to put this in stark relief: the proposition we began with was that any scheme that discriminates against a stay-at-home mum is a bad thing. That is what the Leader of the Opposition said. Under his scheme, a woman who is currently on an income of $150,000, takes 26 weeks off and receives $75,000 will be almost $70,000 better off than a stay-at-home mum who receives a baby bonus but is not eligible to receive family tax benefit part A or part B. Under the government’s scheme, the differential is not very big at all. Mothers who take 18 weeks of leave will receive the equivalent of $9,788 or thereabouts. The difference between what is provided to women under this scheme and what is provided to stay-at-home mums is not much at all. But under the opposition’s scheme—and this is, after all, the opposition leader who said that this was one of those great maladies that he would never bring himself to support—there is a difference of almost $70,000.

The Leader of the Opposition cannot be trusted when it comes to paid parental leave. He has had a different position for all seasons. He once said he would support such a scheme over his dead body. He then said he did not want a scheme that would disadvantage stay-at-home mums. He said he would not introduce any new taxes. And now he has proposed a scheme that discriminates against stay-at-home mums. He cannot be trusted. He has no consistency. He has shown himself to be phoney.