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Monday, 31 May 2010
Page: 4601

Mr CHEESEMAN (6:01 PM) —Today I rise to speak on the Paid Parental Leave Bill 2010 and the Paid Parental Leave (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2010 that are before us. These bills have been a long time coming and I am proud to be a part of a government that is introducing them to the Australian parliament. The Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission granted men and women the equal minimum wage back in 1972. This was a big step toward equality, a very substantial step forward. But, in reality, the gulf between male and female pay and benefits at that point in time was very great, and many steps have been required to be taken since. In fact, we still today have a very large gap between female and male wages. The average industry pay gap today between men and women is still about 17 per cent.

In my own electorate of Corangamite there are some 6,000 women working in clerical and administrative jobs, nearly 5,000 women working as community service workers and some 4,000 working in sales. These women are also likely to be employed as casuals and part-time workers, and are more likely to have interrupted work patterns as they take time from the workplace to have children The flow-on implications include women being more likely to be dependent on pensions as they get older, and having accumulated less superannuation.

Incredibly, the pay gap has actually grown since 1992. In one of the world’s great privileged societies that we live in here in Australia, we also have one of great shames—that is, we still do not have, in a meaningful way, equal opportunity between men and women, particularly in the workplace and in terms of taking time off to rear one’s family. In plain English, this is just not fair; it needs to be fixed. That is of course what the Rudd government is very determined to do. We want to redress the trends and the prejudices of the Howard government.

The bills we have before us today will go some way in helping to bridge the gap of the pay inequality between men and women in Australia. I know in my electorate, thousands of mothers, and for that matter fathers, will certainly be helped by paid parental leave. I thank the minister for these particular bills and the policy work undertaken in the lead-up to the 2007 election and beyond. Government funded paid parental leave will pay mothers and adoptive parents who have been working and have had a baby or adopted a child on or after 1 January 2011. This is very positive news for working families across my electorate, and indeed across this nation.

To be eligible for the scheme parents will need to meet the paid parental leave work test, income test and residency requirements, spelt out within the act. The parents must also be the primary caregivers of the children. The parent will also be entitled to 18 weeks of paid parental leave. Today, as these bills begin their passage through the Australian parliament, is a great moment for working families. These bills will allow families the freedom to have children and not be completely hamstrung by their household budget. This gives working Australians real choice as to when they can have a family. These bills give more choice by allowing parents to choose when they receive their paid parental leave.

Parents can start receiving payments on the birth of a child or, in cases of adoption, on the placement of that child into their care, and they will receive all payments in the first 12 months. These payments must be taken in a continuous sequence. In reality parents have a choice to take the 18 weeks whenever they think they need to in the first 12 months of their child’s life. This will provide much more flexibility for parents when deciding to have children. Importantly, these bills give the opportunity for both parents to receive the payment. As a father, along with many fathers in this chamber and in this nation, I know that we also want to participate in the rearing of our kids. If a parent returns to work before the 18 weeks, their partner maybe eligible to receive the unused proportion of the paid parental leave arrangement. This is great news for working families, particularly those who choose to jointly raise their children. Significantly, when planning these bills, the circumstances of a very wide range of families has been taken into consideration.

We have tried to make sure that we cater for people in different circumstances. Not every family is the same, and we have tried to make sure that the government recognises that with these arrangements. Because of these bills, many families in my electorate of Corangamite will have real options when making decisions about having children. Under these arrangements, they will have more options as to when to take time off, when to have children and who will have responsibility for raising the children.

These bills also provide for subordinate legislation to give eligibility for parental leave pay to other carers. These cases will be exceptional circumstances, and the pay will be provided to the primary claimant or a secondary claimant. Exceptional circumstances will be granted where parents are incapable of caring for a child or where there have been orders resulting in a mother and her partner no longer caring for a child. Parents who are not eligible for, or do not choose to receive, paid parental leave may be eligible to receive the baby bonus and the family tax benefit under the usual rules.

The Rudd government is committed to making life easier for working families. It will launch an online paid parental leave estimator in September to assist families in making these critical decisions. The process for parents will be simple, and they will be able to use the agency that they deal with already. Claims will be lodged with the Family Assistance Office and the office will assess these claims. To give parents more flexibility, they will be able to lodge claims three months prior to the expected date of birth of a child or the placement into their care of an adopted child. When the scheme is fully implemented, parental leave pay will be provided by employers to their long-term employees. Someone who has been employed for 12 months or more prior to the expected date of birth will be classed as a long-term employee. These procedures will make applying for paid parental leave very easy for working families across this nation and in my seat of Corangamite. A notice to an employer will be sent by the Family Assistance Office if they are required to pay employee parental leave pay.

These bills provide an easy process for parents and also for employers. This is a great step forward for working Australian families. The Family Assistance Office will ensure that funds are made available to an employer in advance so the employer can meet their obligation to provide parental leave payments. This will make life very easy for businesses, including small businesses, in my electorate. If employers adhere to their normal and proper pay practices when providing parental leave pay, they will not breach any of their obligations under the paid parental leave scheme.

I am very excited for the many parents in my electorate and I am confident that this will assist small businesses across the country. I believe the opposition should support these bills to ensure that working men and women across this nation can access paid parental leave. Most of those opposite supported the Work Choices legislation, which made it much more difficult for women, including women in my electorate. I know those opposite have a leader that is deeply committed to Work Choices and deeply committed to denying women the opportunity of taking paid parental leave.

On the other hand, the Rudd government is committed to real, practical assistance for young families in accessing paid parental leave, to ensure that we close the wage gap between men and women. I ask Tony Abbott and the opposition to support the government’s efforts in this regard. There is one woman that I would particularly like to pay credit to for her contribution to my life and the lives of many working Victorians. That is my former employer, Karen Batt, the state secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union. Karen has been in that office for a very long time. When she was first elected as state secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union, most of the Victorian public service did not have paid parental leave, maternity leave or carers leave. Through her efforts and the efforts of the union, when I left that union in 2007, almost all of the Victorian public service had arrangements that enabled families to choose when to take time off. I would like to commend Karen Batt and her colleagues for that tremendous work, and commend these bills to the House.