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Monday, 31 May 2010
Page: 4613


Ms VAMVAKINOU (6:53 PM) —I am happy to be following the member for Robertson to speak very much in support of the Rudd Labor government’s historic Paid Parental Leave scheme. Firstly, though, I would like to take this opportunity to commend the extraordinary efforts of the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, the Hon. Jenny Macklin. The minister’s efforts in introducing Australia’s first ever Paid Parental Leave scheme are to be commended and, I am certain, will give her a well-deserved place in the history of this chamber.

Jenny Macklin is one minister and one member of the parliament who is best placed to understand the importance of this legislation to Australian women, Australian men and indeed Australian families. Like most of us in this place, she is first and foremost a working parent and, like an even smaller number of us in this place, she is a working mum. Although her boys are now young men, she came here all those years ago as the mother of two young children, as I did, along with many of my female colleagues. So we are very well placed to understand the significance of the Paid Parental Leave Bill 2010 and the Paid Parental Leave (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2010 being debated in the chamber this evening. Although parental experience is not required in order to appreciate the meaning and value of these bills to the Australian community, those of us who are parents and carers of children understand the practical aspects of balancing work and family and, as such, we understand the significance of these bills before us today.

Through the introduction of this legislation and the debate it has generated, the Rudd Labor government has placed Australia in a social and economic position deserving of an advanced modern economy. In Australia, there is now a recognition of the necessity for a universal scheme that is responsive to the interests of working families. There is recognition that Australia can no longer do without such a scheme. I want to remind the House that currently we are one of only two OECD countries without a national paid parental leave scheme, and that can no longer do. With the introduction of these bills, the federal government—and, in particular, the minister—has managed to do what no other Australian government has done before. Put simply, this national scheme gives working parents of babies born or adopted from the very beginning of next year 18 weeks of parental leave paid at the level of the federal minimum wage.

We came into government just over two years ago committed to protecting working families in Australia from the aggressive Howard government’s Work Choices offensive, aimed at stripping back our most basic rights at work, that inevitably would have hurt the nature and quality of working family life. Not only have we preserved the rights of working Australians but we have further strengthened them in a comprehensive way through the introduction of these landmark bills.

With a scheme that is fully costed and funded by the government, Australia now joins all other OECD countries, bar one, in the internationally recognised provision of pay during a period of parental leave. This international recognition is enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which states:

Parties shall take all appropriate measures … to introduce maternity leave with pay or with comparable social benefits without loss of former employment seniority or social allowances.

With the introduction of these bills, the government is not only carrying out its commitment to UN conventions by satisfying the recommendations of the Australian Human Rights Commission; it is also aligning itself with the International Labour Organisation’s standards for paid maternity, through the Convention concerning the Employment of Women before and after Childbirth. It is important to recognise that the ILO’s convention provides for maternity leave of not less than 14 weeks. The Rudd Labor government, in its recognition of the importance of parents being able to maintain both themselves and the child in an appropriate condition of health and with a suitable standard of living, advances on the 14 weeks recommended by the ILO by providing working families with a further four weeks of fully funded parental leave.

Often—and I am always conscious of this argument—the issue of discrimination against women in employment because of the likelihood of falling pregnant is raised whenever there is mention of paid parental leave. That is why it is important to recognise that the effectiveness of this scheme lies in the manner in which it is delivered. By allowing families to make their own work and family choices through the ease of transferring leave between mums and dads, it does not provide a basis from which employers can discriminate against the employment of women. This is because the role of a primary carer in our modern Australia is not assigned to gender. In fact, as the minister noted, the scheme benefits businesses through the retention of skilled and experienced staff whilst having minimal adverse impact, as they will not be forced into funding parental leave payments. It reflects a government which assumes the responsibilities associated with the role it plays within our society—a role which determines that governments are there to make things better, as well as fairer, for members of their community.

The roll-out of this national scheme will preserve the link between workers and their employers and in doing so will help retain skilled and valuable staff and do away with the added uncertainties of whether a parent, which in most cases is the mother, will return to work. The linking of the parental leave pay with the normal pay cycle of an employee, along with other workplace entitlements, will continue to strengthen the connection between work and home and is more likely to encourage a return to work.

If we are to give Australia’s children the best possible start in life, we need to provide the necessary level of support to the primary caregiver in order for them to help build the child’s emotional, physical and cognitive development at the most crucial stages of the child’s life, the early stages immediately following the birth of the child. With this in mind, 148,000 mothers and primary carers will be given access to Australia’s first comprehensive, statutory paid parental leave scheme in order that the critical early months in the life of a child are recognised as such, and treated with the necessary level of care as parents adjust to the very important task of raising a child.

When it comes to the Paid Parental Leave scheme, the government does not discriminate between workers and the conditions under which they are employed. For most women in seasonal, casual and contract work, as well as the self-employed, it will be the first time that the women will have access to paid parental leave, because the government is responsive to the facts. These facts are that women, who in most cases will be the primary carer during the immediate period following birth, not only make up more than half of the casual workforce in Australia, but that 25 per cent of working women are employed in casual jobs that do not offer any paid leave entitlements.

In aligning this important social policy with Australia’s economic reality, the government asked the Productivity Commission, as Australia’s leading and independent research and advisory body, to establish an inquiry into the feasibility of a paid parental leave scheme and the models associated with its introduction. The commission itself concluded that one-on-one care of a child, through the introduction of a national government funded statutory scheme of paid parental leave, would provide the best possible effects on the child’s development.

In recognition of this reality, I want to highlight the meaning of the Paid Parental Leave scheme for the working men and women of Calwell. I had the opportunity to discuss this bill with two women in my electorate. One of my constituents, Saja, who recently gave birth to her first child, Jamal, is now on maternity leave but Saja’s working entitlements did not include a provision for paid maternity leave. Naturally, this has meant that she has had to deal with coping with the birth of her first child, along with assuming the responsibilities—and the running around, of course—of trying to obtain whatever entitlements she has access to through Centrelink.

Beyond the financial advantages of a paid parental leave scheme, Saja describes a situation where, had this long-overdue scheme been in place, it would have allowed her to maintain her connection with her work more effectively and would have removed from her and her husband the burdens of uncertainty, especially financial uncertainty, in their lives. Saja explained that this connection is important because it allows mothers, especially first-time mothers, to be secure in the knowledge that they are performing an important function and that the link between work and home, between family and employment, remains an important part of the social and economic fabric of our society.

This view is also shared by Ann, also from my electorate, who is now on a career break following the birth of her first child. Ann, who is obviously very delighted about the introduction of Australia’s first-ever Paid Parental Leave scheme, notes that had this scheme been in place during her time, she might have reconsidered her options about returning to work.

These two examples, when put together, demonstrate the importance of developing policy that recognises the link between the social and economic direction of our country. The Australian Human Research Institute, in a study on human resource replacement costs, found that it can cost up to 1.5 times an employee’s salary to replace that employee. With this reality in mind, and taking into account the average staff turnover in Australia at large companies, the AHRI approximates that the cost to the Australian economy could be as much as $20 billion. With all this in mind, the real cost of not having a paid parental leave scheme is too great to ignore any longer. Australian families can today be proud of their achievements in not only preserving their rights at work, but also of progressively building upon them to address a reality that working families have had to face for far too long.

It is important to recognise that advocacy groups and unions, as well as the business community, have welcomed the financial and non-financial benefits that this scheme provides to working families. In acknowledging the Australian Industry Group’s position on what it called an important economic and social reform, I felt it important to draw the House’s attention to what working mothers of newborn children in my electorate of Calwell have said about this national scheme, because ultimately it is with these people in mind that this policy has been conceived.

This bill is responding to the years of campaigning by women and men who have been so committed to this cause. These are women and men who lead peak organisations such as the ACTU, the National Foundation for Australian Women, sex discrimination commissions, the Australian Industry Group and the Business Council of Australia, but there are also the myriad of women and men from the broader community, those who have lobbied us as members of parliament, our constituents, community groups, from factory floors to corporate boardrooms—such was the broad based call for a paid parental leave scheme that its arrival in this House was inevitable. Today it is their achievements that we celebrate, and I commend the bill to the House.