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Monday, 31 May 2010
Page: 4628


Ms REA (7:56 PM) —I rise, like my colleagues, to support wholeheartedly the Paid Parental Leave Bill 2010, which sees the introduction of paid parental leave by the Rudd government. It is landmark legislation because for the first time we are saying and really meaning that women do not just have the right to work but are a valuable part of the workplace and make a valuable contribution to the prosperity and work of this country. For that reason alone, this bill is a significant achievement. It is also historic because it recognises, as a result of that, that allowing women to care for their families is a part of any government’s industrial relations and workplace policies, that women have the right to work, that they make a valuable contribution to the workforce and that they can do that better if we allow them the flexibility to be able to care for their families in a meaningful way.

As this is such a historic piece of legislation, before I go into the detail of it I would like first of all to pay tribute to the many Australian women who have gone before and who have campaigned for many decades to see this legislation introduced. I begin by paying tribute to Jenny Macklin, the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, who has managed to bring through the cabinet a historic piece of legislation that also is detailed, fair, acknowledges the flexibility needed by women in the workforce, ensures an equitable distribution of the leave, and does all this in a way that is administratively simple for employers to be a part of.

Last week in my family was a very sad week for all of us. My mother passed away. On Friday her seven children and their seven partners, her 18 grandchildren and her 19 great-grandchildren farewelled her at her funeral. She was nearly 91 years of age. She was born the year after the Great War, in 1919. She lived through the Depression. She worked for a small period of time as a maid in a hotel before she married my father. She was a very bright and intelligent woman but, like many women of her generation, left school at 12—although they wished her to stay on—because she was needed to help on the family farm in western Queensland. She looked after her children through World War II, the fifties, the sixties and the seventies and she even made it into 2010.

She was a woman who not only cared for her family and believed that her priority was to be a mother who stayed at home and cared for her children but also believed that those children, particularly her five daughters, should always have better opportunities than she had had in her lifetime. She encouraged all of us to get an education, all of us to get a tertiary education and all of us to make the most of the opportunities that she and my father had worked so hard to give us. She believed very strongly that her sacrifice should see that we truly fulfilled our potential. She was also a fierce supporter of Labor governments. Indeed, being a woman of the bush, she constantly reminded me that in her experience of growing up in the bush it was not necessarily just conservative governments but also Labor governments that gave farmers, whose contribution was valued not just for their role in the sustenance of our country but also for their financial contribution to the country, the support they needed when they truly were struggling. She always reminded me of the role that Labor governments played in supporting those who were in need, and I cannot think of any more fitting tribute in saying goodbye to her than to be standing here as a woman in the first Labor government to introduce paid parental leave.

This legislation is, as I said, significant not only because of what it puts before us but also because of the way it has been detailed and administered by the minister. It is fair and equitable because it targets low- and middle-income earners. Under this scheme, something like 85 per cent of parents will be better off than if they had simply chosen the baby bonus. It is important because it does not preclude women who choose to stay at home and not participate in the workforce from receiving assistance—they will still be able to access the baby bonus and family assistance. It also gives all women who are working the same amount of money. It acknowledges the support that families need at a time when one partner at least is at home caring for a newborn baby and provides everybody with a guaranteed $543.78 per week for 18 weeks.

Importantly, this paid parental leave can also be passed on to a partner. Since the age of 21 I have been a mother, and in all that time I have been either studying or working. Unlike my mother or, indeed, my older sisters, I was the beneficiary of a Medicare scheme that supported me when I had small children with all sorts of ailments. I was also the beneficiary of affordable and available child care. But today we see another milestone reached. When I was pregnant with my second child, I had the great privilege of being a member of the Brisbane City Council—that is, an elected councillor in local government. I was fortunate that I had a partner who was very supportive of a work-life balance and, although I was an elected official and the amount of time I could take off to support our first child together was limited, he was able to take time off. It was important because it meant not only that I could continue to fulfil my role but also that my husband was able to bond with our newborn baby. That was his first child, and although she is 18 next week and has provided him with many challenges along the way, the bond between them is more significant because he had that opportunity to be at home.

It is wonderful that, as a result of this legislation, many fathers will not only be able to share that same bond but also be able to do so in a climate of greater financial security if that is what the family chooses, and I would certainly say that that is an important thing. As you would appreciate, Madam Deputy Speaker May, my being an elected official having contractions in the council chamber and having to get a pair the next day because I was in labour was a fairly nerve-racking way to introduce a father of two to staying at home and looking after a child. Nevertheless, it was right for our family at the time and I think it has improved the relationships that both of us have with our two children.

What is also important about this legislation is that it provides administrative simplicity and certainty for employers and employees. This scheme will be administered either directly through the Family Assistance Office or by employers where they have an employee taking paid parental leave who has worked for them for 12 months or more prior to the birth or adoption of the child. It is important that the eligibility criteria outlined in the bill be mentioned, because once again the minister’s attention to detail has been very important in this area. You are eligible for the leave if: you are the mother of a newborn child or the initial primary carer of a recently adopted child, you have met the paid parental leave work test before the birth or adoption occurs, you are living in Australia and an Australian citizen or permanent resident, and you have an income of less than $150,000. I fully support this income test, because I acknowledge that this is a taxpayer funded scheme and that, although the government needs to support and promote the right of women to flexibility in the workplace, this should not be done to the extent that the taxpayer is unnecessarily burdened. I also believe that that limit represents a reasonable balance in acknowledging the need for financial support.

Also significant about this scheme is the fact that the working parents eligible for leave include those who work full-time and part-time, those who are seasonal or casual workers, those who are contractors or self-employed and those who have multiple employers. I make that point because the vast majority of people who make up the casual workforce are women. To make sure that casual workers are included in this scheme is not easy to do, because you have to have calculations around hours worked and period of time in full-time work or the equivalent, and I pay tribute to the minister because she has managed to come up with a formula that does acknowledge casual workers and allow them to have access to the scheme.

While supporting this legislation, I am very concerned about the amendments moved by the Leader of the Opposition and his position on paid parental leave. Many of my colleagues have already outlined their concerns about the opposition leader’s policy—not just his policy but whether we can actually believe his policy. We have heard comments like ‘over his dead body’ and the fact that, whilst we are one of only two OECD countries that do not have a paid parental leave scheme, this was never a priority for the previous government in the many long years that they controlled the government benches. What I am more concerned about is that the Australian community cannot really be certain that, even though the amendments are moved and it is supposedly the policy the opposition leader puts forward, we can believe him. The Australian community should be concerned about whether this is simply, as many have said, a grab for more support from women in the electorate or some way of trying to balance his bike-riding, budgie-smuggling image with a man who cares for women and their families. His policy is simply not fair.

The reality is that if you are going to pay six months paid parental leave to any woman—six months of their $150,000 income; effectively paying up to $75,000—by putting a tax on industry, what you are saying is that the very people who need financial support the most, the middle- and low-income workers in this country, will be supporting high-income earners through an increase in consumer prices and through their taxes. Not only is that unfair in terms of the way that the finances of the Leader of the Opposition’s scheme are arranged but also it does not acknowledge the fact that something like 70 per cent of high-income earners who are women currently have access to paid parental leave as opposed to less than 25 per cent of low-income earners. So not only is it financially irresponsible and it imposes a great big new tax that is not fair and equitable; it does not acknowledge the discrepancies that this legislation is trying to address by creating a fairer, more equitable and broad-based Paid Parental Leave scheme.

I would warn people who may be attracted to the idea of receiving six months of their income. We know full well the opposition leader’s history on industrial relations. We know full well his support for Work Choices legislation. We know full well that he was part of a government that sought to strip conditions from working people in this country rather than enhance them. So I would be very suspicious about someone like that who guarantees six months paid parental leave. I would also say to women and men: just think about what he is going to do to the rest of your working life. You might get six months paid parental leave, but what happens when you go back to work? What happens to your job security? What happens to your income security? What will the opposition leader’s policies do to your superannuation? What will they do to your penalty rates and all of those added working conditions that particularly working families rely on to maintain the work-life balance, which we all know is a struggle when you are trying to bring up a family? So do not be seduced by six months of income that is paid for by a big new tax on industry that ultimately low-income taxpayers will pay for. Also be very mindful of what that will mean for the conditions that you have in employment for the rest of your life.

I commend this legislation. I thank the minister. I pay tribute to all the women who have gone before her and have campaigned for this. I am very proud to be Mum’s daughter and to be voting in a Labor government for paid parental leave.