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Thursday, 10 May 2012
Page: 4522

Dr STONE (Murray) (11:23): I rise to speak on the Paid Parental Leave and Other Legislation Amendment (Dad and Partner Pay and Other Measures) Bill 2012 and the amendments that have been moved in this House. The bill makes changes to the Paid Parental Leave Act. Paid parental leave is not welfare. It is not a right that can easily be legislated away. It is a right that all women, and in fact parents, should have access to in a country like ours, which has the capacity to support families financially when they need to leave the workforce when babies are born.

Public servants and higher-paid professional families have had access to paid parental leave for decades, but part-time workers and low-paid employees have not had access to paid parental leave in the past. So the coalition put on the table its paid parental leave mandated scheme for all families some time ago, and the government of the day, the Rudd Labor government, legislated to put a mandated paid parental leave scheme into place in Australia for the first time. I applaud those moves but I have been disappointed since day one because the paid parental leave scheme put in place by Labor was the leanest, meanest scheme that could possibly be managed and still bear the name of paid parent leave.

We have a situation where only the minimum wage is paid to the mother or, now, with these changes, to the father or partner. We do not have superannuation offered during the 18-weeks-only period of benefit. Everyone knows that at least 26 weeks of support is necessary particularly for a mother—but for either parent or a partner—following the birth of the baby. For the mother, breast feeding and other essential nurturing takes a minimum of 26 weeks to be optimal for the child. But in the Australian scheme, as introduced by the Labor government, we only saw 18 weeks of benefit to the full-time caring parent and at the minimum wage.

Sadly, when you have a mortgage and bills to pay, the bank will not suddenly reduce your mortgage payments because your partner has had a baby. Your payments have been geared to your usual income, but here you come with just the minimum wage to replace it with and to pay the outgoings to keep your household intact during parental leave.

So the paid parental leave scheme, as it stands, leaves a very great deal to be desired. It needs to be extended. It needs to be more generous in the payments made to the parent, but it is important that we add fathers and partners to the measures. Therefore, I am supportive of those particular changes.

The two weeks pay for eligible fathers and partners will, as I said, only be at the rate of the national minimum wage, which is currently $590 a week before tax. That is in line with the existing parental leave pay. To be eligible, the dad or partner would need to satisfy the work test. That is appropriate. They will need to have worked continuously for at least 10 of the previous 13 months, with a break of no more than eight weeks between two consecutive work days. They would need to have undertaken at least 330 hours of paid work during the 10-month period. They need to satisfy the income test that, under Labor, is $150,000. That is based on the dad or partner's adjusted taxable income in the previous financial year before the nominated start date for dad and partner pay or the date of the claim, whichever is earlier. They need to satisfy the Australian residency test and they need to be providing the care, whether this be primary or joint care, for a child born or adopted on or after 1 January next year. And they should not be working during the period that the person receives the parental payment. These are all common sense, and they obviously need to be spelled out in the legislation.

The legislation also includes refining the provisions which permit keeping-in-touch days and clarifying the operation of a number of other provisions, including debt-recovery provisions, notice provisions and provisions relating to the delegation of the secretary's powers under the act.

I am aware that some people still wonder why women in particular need to have paid parental leave: surely, their grandmothers and great grandmothers did not receive such support and they were able to raise their children in a reasonable way. That is how the argument goes. I want to remind the Australian population that women in Australia still suffer a huge gap in payment for same work undertaken. This gender pay gap is not diminishing; it is in fact growing. It is unconscionable to think that a female law graduate can be paid up to $7,000 or $8,000 less than a male graduate who may not have even achieved the same sorts of outcomes in his degree as the woman did and that the pay gap often grows, particularly in professions such as the law. It is not the case that there is a gender pay gap only for the lower-paid professions; it is the case right across the board. That is unconscionable.

There is also a problem in our society with women when they retire having substantially less superannuation—some 40 per cent less—than men do. That is why embedded within the coalition's paid parental leave scheme was ongoing superannuation support. How can we still have before us a paid parental leave scheme—the Labor Party's Paid Parental Leave scheme, which is still not amended—so women have no superannuation embedded in their leave? In Australia women have had to stop-start their work because of childbearing or caring for the disabled or other relatives; they have had to leave the workplace. They make an enormous contribution in unpaid or voluntary work for the society at large and their superannuation is, as I say, on average 40 per cent less than men's is, yet here is a mandated government paid parental leave scheme which does not pay superannuation to those women, who are already at an enormous disadvantage economically.

Women in Australia are more likely than men to face a long retirement alone—they are more likely not to be in a partnered situation—and women are much more likely than are men to end their days totally dependent on welfare. Welfare in Australia does not give you much chance to keep above the poverty line. Women are more likely to be in rental accommodation or to have difficulty finding any accommodation, because they simply do not have the superannuation given their life experience: their biological circumstances where they have been the child bearers and have had to leave work or where they have carried the biggest burden in caring for the disabled or older members of their family.

This legislation is still not fair. Paid parental leave is, as I say, not welfare; it is the right of families to receive payment while they undertake the broader public good of producing the next generations. But embedded and mandated in paid parental leave should be superannuation payment, and I am most concerned that this opportunity to amend the legislation has not included a provision of superannuation.

This legislation could have expanded the 18 weeks of support to at least 26 weeks of support. There could also have been amendments by this government to increase payments beyond the minimum wage. According to the Productivity Commission's report on paid parental leave, at least 37 nations around the world introduced a paid parental leave scheme prior to the launch of Labor's minimum wage scheme. The schemes of 35 of those 37 nations were based on full or part replacement of the person's wage. Australia is the only country with a paid parental leave scheme that is so miserable as to have payments based entirely on the minimum wage.

So this scheme is not fair. It does not include superannuation and it is not long enough. Women have to scuttle back to the workplace before their babies have had enough time to be with them. At least we are now acknowledging that fathers and partners are part of the parenting process. I believe that, until fathers have the same acknowledgement as mothers do that they are critical to the baby's development, women will continue to be discriminated against in the workplace when they are applying for positions on the basis that they, rather than men, are most likely to leave work or to ask for part-time work or flexible hours. Parenting needs to be understood as the role of either men or women. It would be excellent to think that some men could take paid parental leave while their wives or female partners with the newborn were also taking it so that the baby could have the benefit of having two full-time carers to look after them in those early days. Other siblings also in the family could especially benefit.

I am, of course, strongly supportive of our amendments. I think that Labor must revisit their Paid Parental Leave scheme. It is administratively clumsy, and Labor through their amendments are trying to address some of the clumsiness. But Labor failed miserably to take up a great opportunity at the time of the introduction of their Paid Parental Leave scheme. It was the first mandated scheme in Australia. It should have been world's best or at least equal to world's best; it was not. It was too short, too cheap, too mean and there was no superannuation in it. These amendments go a little way to addressing some of those problems but not nearly far enough.

The unions in particular should be ashamed to have clapped and cheered when Labor's PPL—Paid Parental Leave scheme—was introduced and to have said, 'This is magnificent.' It was not; it was just a first toe in the water. Why should Australian women have to accept a first toe in the water for a mandated scheme when there was enormous international experience in administering such schemes and their outcomes? We only had to pick off the shelf another country's example of a world's-best scheme; what we got instead was cheap and nasty.

Australian women are still discriminated against in employment on the basis that they may need time off to have their children. That is unconscionable. It substantially affects the productivity of our nation. It is well understood that more of our women should be able to return to the workplace at an appropriate time after their babies are born and have access to affordable and appropriate childcare, including in-home care, which is not a luxury at all; for many families it is cheaper to have in-home care than to spend $100-plus per day in a family day-care centre.

It is essential that Australia address all of these things. We have a long way to go, and unfortunately this bill does not do much more. Perhaps we will have to wait for a coalition government to introduce an appropriate scheme which will do right by the families bringing forward new generations of Australians.