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Monday, 31 May 2010
Page: 4587


Ms PARKE (4:59 PM) —I rise today to speak in wholehearted support of the Paid Parental Leave Bill 2010, an incredibly significant and long-awaited reform that will better support Australian families, encourage greater workforce participation, increase the assistance to women who want to find a workable balance between their professional and family lives, and give children the best possible start to life. This bill is a reform that is in keeping with a policy commitment that Labor made in 2002, and it is a scheme that was designed with guidance from a comprehensive report from the Productivity Commission. It has also followed from the momentum created by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s 2002 report, Valuing parenthood: options for paid maternity leave.

From 1 January next year, for the first time in Australian history, eligible mums or dads will be entitled to receive the federal minimum wage—currently $543 a week—for a maximum period of 18 weeks, and will be able to transfer any unused portion of that leave to the other parent in the event that the first parent returns to work inside that period. Eligibility requires that a worker—whether ongoing, casual, self-employed or a contractor—has had continuous employment for 10 of the 13 months prior to the birth, and has worked for about one day a week across the period. Eligibility is also limited to families in which the primary carer has earned $150,000 or less in the previous financial year. This ensures that the government’s fully-funded scheme will be targeted to those who need support to balance their financial and family obligations in the critical period when their children are coming into the world.

Though the scheme operates from 1 July next year, families are able to lodge claims with the Family Assistance Office from 1 October this year, and it is expected that this landmark Australian reform will be available for take-up by some 148,000 eligible parents, most of whom will be women. Families, if they prefer, can choose to receive financial support through the baby bonus and family tax benefit B instead of paid parental leave during that 18-week period, and those who received support through the paid parental leave arrangements may still receive payments under family tax benefit A. An online paid parental leave estimator will be available from September to assist families in considering their support options.

New mothers who are ineligible to receive support under the Paid Parental Leave scheme will remain eligible for the baby bonus and family tax benefits, subject to the normal eligibility tests that apply to those payments. Parents who have twins or triplets—or more—will receive the baby bonus for the second and third child, and so on, in addition to receiving parental leave payments. And of course because all new mothers remain entitled to a full year of unpaid leave under the new National Employment Standards, there is the option beyond the 18-week period of paid leave to stay at home for the full 12 months before returning to work. There is also now the right to request an additional 12 months of unpaid leave, and it is important to remember that the 18 weeks of paid parental leave can in fact be taken any time during the first 12 months after the birth of the child.

All in all, this provides a flexible and substantial system of support for new parents and their children. It is a fully-costed government funded scheme that will not place a financial impost or any related uncertainty on Australian business. Indeed, there is every reason to expect that the support this scheme provides will make it easier for women and for families to navigate through the difficult shifts and changes in work/family balance that occur when children are born or adopted, and that in many cases this will make it easier and more attractive for women to maintain professional continuity, which will deliver those continuity benefits to their employers and the productivity benefits to the Australian economy.

The scheme will cost $1.04 billion over five years, and as an important item of expenditure it follows the principle of targeting government assistance to where it is needed most. This Paid Parental Leave scheme is subject to a means test and it is set at the level of the minimum wage. This means that it will provide support for those families that are not in a position to make adequate financial provision for the parental time out of work that having a baby involves, and it will be at the same level irrespective of family income. This is a fair and economically responsible approach.

In celebrating the arrival of this Paid Parental Leave scheme, I want to acknowledge the critical advocacy work of those who have called for this long overdue action. Unfortunately, this is not a reform about which we can say that Australia has played a leading role within the international community. While we have in the past done so in areas like universal suffrage, in this case, as many have noted, we were until now the only country in the OECD other than the United States to be without a comprehensive paid parental leave scheme. At last, we move ourselves out of that old-fashioned and outdated club.

The union movement has called for a comprehensive paid parental leave scheme for many years, and I want to particularly mention the advocacy on this issue by Unions NSW in the past two years. A number of passionate and indefatigable Labor women have argued the case for this reform for many years, including my predecessor as the member for Fremantle, Dr Carmen Lawrence. In recognising Carmen’s enormous contribution to this area of policy, I want to emphasise a point that she made in addressing the Public Service Association of NSW’s annual conference in 2002. In that speech—titled ‘Is paid maternity leave enough?’—Carmen Lawrence said the following:

Australia needs a sea change in the policies and attitudes that are hindering the capacity of families, and particularly women, to take on and survive the complex responsibilities of work and family. And we must oppose the message that those in the [Howard] government send that these policies are for the corporate high flyers with nannies and housekeepers, as they are really for the millions of Australian mothers whose jobs are the safety net in their family’s economic survival; who work to pay the bills and to support their families. These families simply can’t afford to have one parent at home full-time for five years, and many of these women can’t afford to lose their connection to paid work, and the skills and confidence that are so important to ensuring their security in our rapidly changing world. To do this requires the development of more responsive models of parental leave and income support, improved access to high quality, affordable childcare, and a modern industrial relations agenda with options like longer unpaid leave with guaranteed job security, part-time work, working from home, and job sharing.

I am glad that with this scheme, and in combination with the new National Employment Standards, this government has addressed some of those necessary changes, and I recognise that there is more to be done.

On parental leave itself, however, it is interesting to read that speech again and look at the statistics and facts it marshalled. The fact that in 2002 the Howard government resolutely believed that parental leave should be left for employers to choose to provide or not, as they saw fit, ignoring the fact that those who needed the financial support most were those working in the less secure and lower paid employment circumstances where the likelihood of an employer-provided scheme was next to nothing. At that stage only 0.7 per cent of all Australian workplace agreements provided paid maternity leave, while only 3.4 per cent of private sector agreements contained such provisions. Agreements containing any kind of paid maternity leave fell from around 10 per cent of all agreements in 1998-99 to seven per cent in 2000-01. And, according to the Australian Centre for Industrial Relations Research and Training, 65 per cent of managers and administrators had access to some paid maternity leave, compared to only 18 per cent of clerical, sales, and service workers. It is for all those reasons so many hardworking advocates have been calling out for Australia to join the rest of the civilised and sensible and economically forward-thinking countries of the OECD and introduce a paid parental leave scheme that covers all working Australians who need financial support.

I also want to acknowledge the fact that the former Democrats senator and leader Natasha Stott-Despoja tabled draft legislation for paid parental leave in the Senate eight years ago, which was at the same time that Labor committed to the introduction of a scheme like the one we debate today. As Natasha pointed out in an op-ed piece in the Australian last week, her proposal was also for a fully costed, fully funded scheme, and for 14 weeks, which was then in line with the minimum recommendations of the International Labour Organisation.I hope that Carmen and Natasha and all the many Labor women, especially the minister, Jenny Macklin, and the advocates, men and women, from unions, research institutes, business and community groups who have argued long and hard for this belated reform take some due pride, credit and satisfaction from this achievement—because they have certainly earned it.

As for those who can take no credit whatsoever for progress on this critical policy issue, I note that when in government the then Minister for Finance and Administration, Senator Minchin, described it as middle-class welfare, at a time when it was only the middle class and above who had any hope of enjoying the scanty and inconsistent maternity leave arrangements that were then available, and at a time when his own government was finding new and ever more profligate ways to expand non-means-tested payments for its own benefit. Furthermore, the Leader of the Opposition has previously declared that parental leave would be introduced over his dead body, but he appears to have achieved a remarkable kind of self-resurrection on this issue and is now in favour of it. It is genuinely difficult to know what the opposition leader believes.

But this is not a time to dwell on the naysayer and the dissemblers on this issue; this is a time to mark and celebrate a big step forward. I congratulate and commend the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs with all my heart for working with her cabinet colleagues, the caucus and the community to bring about this momentous achievement. This Paid Parental Leave scheme will change for the better the lives of hundreds of thousands of families and children in the years to come. It will mean that parents spend more exclusive time with their new babies, which we know is better for health and learning outcomes and better for their emotional wellbeing and security. It will increase participation rates for women and it will help employers retain continuity and the corporate knowledge and accrued skills of their employees.

This Paid Parental Leave scheme is a very significant change to the basic fabric of Australian life. It is a massive improvement in the guaranteed working conditions of all Australians, and so it is in keeping with the long tradition and progressive agenda of the Australian Labor Party. I commend the bill to the House.