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Monday, 31 May 2010
Page: 4610


Ms NEAL (6:39 PM) —I rise today to speak on the Paid Parental Leave Bill 2010 and the Paid Parental Leave (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2010. This is a historic moment for Australian working families, particularly for Australian working women, who will finally have a federally funded paid parental leave scheme. The Paid Parental Leave Bill 2010 introduces Australia’s first national, government funded Paid Parental Leave scheme as of 1 January next year. The scheme will cost the government over $1 billion over five years, but it will be money well spent.

From 1 October 2010 parental leave pay will be claimed through the Family Assistance Office, along with other family assistance payments, up to three months before the birth or adoption of a child. The government will fund employers to pay their eligible long-term employees as part of the scheme. This scheme will apply to parents who are primary carers of a child born or adopted after 1 January 2011. It will complement other leave entitlements, such as unpaid parental leave in the National Employment Standards. This leave can be combined with or complement existing entitlements to paid leave, such as recreation, annual and employer provided maternity leave.

Families that do participate in the scheme will not receive the baby bonus or family tax benefit part B; however, families can elect on the basis of their circumstances which is the best option for them. Payments will be delivered either through the primary carer’s employer or through the Medicare Family Assistance Office branches located in most major centres. Parents will be able to lodge their claims up to three months prior to that birth or adoption.

The role of employers is being phased in over the six months of the scheme to help employers transition to the new arrangements. Employers can choose to provide parental leave pay to their employees from the commencement of the scheme with their employees’ agreement. Employers may be required to provide parental leave paid to eligible employees from 1 July 2011. Employers will only be required to pay their long-term employees—that is, people who have been with their employer for 12 months or more—prior to the expected date of birth. In other cases the Family Assistance Office will make the payment directly to the parent.

In terms of the possible impacts of parental leave on employers, the scheme will not result in the accrual of any additional paid leave entitlements by employees nor will it affect the calculation of notice periods, severance pay or workers compensation or accident insurance premiums. The government is also working with state and territory governments to ensure paid parental leave is not subject to payroll tax.

To be eligible for the payment the primary carer, usually the mother, must meet eligibility criteria relating to their work, income and residency. Specifically, a primary carer must have been engaged in work for a total period spanning at least 10 of the 13 months prior to the expected birth with a break of no greater than eight weeks between working days. They will also have to have undertaken at least 330 hours of paid work during the 10-month period, which averages out at around one day of paid work a week—not a particularly onerous requirement.

A parent will be eligible if they have an individual income of $150,000 or less per annum before the claim or birth of the baby, whichever is the earlier. This income test is consistent with our ideal of targeting government support to those who are most in need—a proposition that the opposition seems to ignore. This government recognises the irregular working patterns of contractors and seasonal and casual workers with inconsistent work patterns. A person can have a break of up to eight weeks between working days and still be considered to have worked continuously.

Casual and part-time working mums as well as sole parents have not been ignored in the bill. In fact, casual workers are said to be the big winners from Australia’s first Paid Parental Leave scheme—a fact that has not been commented on much. Women are more likely to be casual workers and make up almost 50 per cent of all casual employees in Australia. Almost 25 per cent of employed women in work are in casual jobs and receive no paid leave entitlements.

Parents who are not employed at the time of the birth of their child but have satisfied the work test will be eligible under the Paid Parental Leave scheme. Many casual workers have irregular work patterns and are in fact unlikely to be in work immediately before the birth of their child for fairly obvious reasons. Under our scheme an eligible mother who is in a contract position but whose contract finishes before her baby is born will still receive the parental leave pay providing she meets that work test that I outlined earlier. Eligible parents not employed at the time of the birth of their child will be paid directly by the Family Assistance Office.

Parental leave pay can also be available to parents who work in their own business or a family business such as a farm. This will have a very positive impact on the many women who have worked in small business, such as myself, and on many of the small businesses that are staffed and manned and managed by women on the Central Coast. Parents can determine the period in which they wish to receive their parental leave pay. The start date cannot be before the child’s birth, and parental leave pay must be in one continuous 18-week period. The 18 weeks, though, can be shared between both parents.

The government’s Paid Parental Leave scheme is fair, balanced and economically responsible. It helps employers retain valuable staff, reducing the time lost to recruiting and retraining, and it imposes no new taxes on business, being entirely government funded. This scheme recognises that taking time off to have a baby is a normal part of life and a normal part of working life as well. This bill and its complementary legislation will encourage businesses to progress the family-friendly provisions that many are already embracing. The government will review the scheme two years after its inception and will continue to evaluate adjacent issues as paid paternity leave and superannuation contributions for the period of paid parental leave.

I would like to relate the experience of one family in my electorate who are eagerly awaiting the passage of this bill into law. Lindsay and Gerrard live in Davistown in my electorate of Robertson on the New South Wales Central Coast. The mother, Lindsay, works in a cafe, and the father, Gerrard, is a police officer. They have a two-year-old boy and are hoping for another child in the near future. For this Central Coast family the government’s Paid Parental Leave scheme is a promise of support and security in a financially stressful and physically exhausting period.

During the birth of their first child, Lindsay was required to have an emergency caesarean. It was an unforeseen event, as it often is, and it delayed Lindsay’s recovery considerably. The result was a much longer recovery time for her, and her husband took several weeks off work on carers leave to support his wife and the new baby. With no additional financial support and constraints on the period of time available to Gerrard to remain on paid carers leave, the stress on the family was considerable. This is just one of the unplanned-for contingencies that can occur with the arrival of a new baby. In these instances, the support of paid parental leave can help a great deal. Particularly in circumstances where the father is taking time off work to support the mother and cannot work extra shifts and is only being paid basic wages, it can have a very serious financial impact on the family.

You can see in circumstances such as this that this bill will have great beneficial effects. Firstly, the mother was unable to work and therefore received no income, and the father’s wages were dropping due to his need to spend more time with the family. With the introduction of the Paid Parental Leave scheme, Lindsay’s income would be replaced by the federal minimum wage for 18 weeks. It would relieve the pressure on her to return to work sooner than she might otherwise want to and it would allow the financial obligations of the family to be met. I know that this is one family that will be very happy and grateful for the support for the family, but of course they only represent the many, many families out there in the Australian community that will be assisted by this particular bill. The Paid Parental Leave scheme takes the weight off the whole family in many individual cases across Australia.

Many mothers do ask themselves: do I put my young baby in childcare or do I stay home; do we have the financial resources to meet the additional financial burden; how will we pay the mortgage while I take additional time off work? The Harvester case, which in the past determined that wages supported a father, his wife—not working—and at least two children, no longer applies, and really, the single wage is seldom enough to support an entire family. As much as many of the opposition would like us to be in the 1950s and have those sorts of priorities set for families in Australia, it is not the present circumstances so the passing of a Paid Parental Leave Bill such as this, which provides financial support for families at a time of the birth of their child, is essential.

Women should have a genuine choice to determine within economic and family realities whether to spend an extended time with their babies after their birth, and the fact is that in the economic circumstances that exist today many women do not have that genuine choice. This parental leave bill provides a choice for them. I refer particularly to the sleep deprivation that invariably accompanies a new baby. I know I do not have to belabour this point, so to speak, with the members of the House, but certainly, even though my boys were born some 20 years or more ago I can still remember how difficult it was to get up and go to work after having spent sometimes six hours with a young child who would not sleep at the convenient time that suited my work patterns.

I am disgusted at the opposition’s grandstanding on this bill. After 11 years in government, in the period when most other OECD nations took the initiative to introduce support for working mothers, the coalition sat on their hands and did absolutely nothing. Worse, they stand in this place and claim with false sincerity that they would pass the measures they have moved as an amendment. I simply do not believe them. There is nothing more here than a cynical exercise in political expediency, and the public knows it. This is not a scheme that in government they would implement. Paid parental leave, a real scheme to benefit Australian working families, does not factor on their priority ‘to do’ list. I do not believe that the Leader of the Opposition is genuine in the maternity scheme that he proposed in February or March. Ostensibly, he is proposing six months maternity leave for all mothers, who would receive a payment equivalent to their wages up to a maximum of $150,000 per anum plus superannuation. Mr Abbot proposes that it should be paid for by a ‘big new tax’ on businesses with taxable incomes of more than $5 million per year. This proposal is really more about the opposition leader trying to soften his image with women voters rather than a genuine desire to bring equity to the workforce or to recognise the value of women in balancing work and family life.

If the opposition leader had been genuine about his proposal, he would have put a lot more work into developing a scheme. He would have consulted with employers, with businesses and even with the members of his own party room. He certainly took everyone by surprise with his announcement, almost guaranteeing that this scheme would never come to fruition. Immediately, Katie Lahey from the Business Council of Australia, Heather Ridout from the Australian Industry Group and Peter Anderson from the Chamber of Commerce and Industry said that they did not support the scheme. The Leader of the Opposition also shocked his own party room, which was strongly critical of his scheme. You might expect someone like the member for O’Connor, good old ‘Iron Bar’ Tuckey, to be opposed to this scheme, but even the more socially outward looking member for Paterson seemed to see that there was some difficulty with the scheme. The soft hearted members, like the member for Canning and the member for Gippsland, also saw that they could not support the scheme.

The opposition leader should stop play-acting and support the government’s maternity leave bill, which introduces a genuine scheme which has been thoughtfully considered. Consultation has taken place with business, employees, unions and many parents. That is also what he should do if he really wants to see paternity leave put in place for mothers, fathers and families. I suggest that the coalition cease their cynical politicking on this issue and pass that bill when it arrives here and also support it in the Senate. I would certainly be proud to see a paternity leave bill pass this House. I suggest that, in the interests of Australian families, the opposition support the bill we are currently debating and abandon the cynical exercise that they are proposing as an amendment.