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Thursday, 10 May 2012
Page: 4537

Mr CHAMPION (Wakefield) (12:34): This Paid Parental Leave and Other Legislation Amendment (Dad and Partner Pay and Other Measures) Bill 2012 is really all about family and work life balance. Probably the biggest issue in society in Australia, and around the world, is the fracturing of family life in the face of a new globalised, competitive economy and, in particular, the creation of what is often called more flexible work—casualised work, work at unpredictable hours—and the rise of the dual income family and other changes in our economy which are radically affecting our society.

Once upon a time there were predictable economic circumstances. Typically men worked and women stayed at home. There was some predictability to work life. You worked regular hours and there were penalty rates for antisocial hours and there was a great deal of regulation to protect family life. If you look at my home state of South Australia, for a long time shopping hours were regulated so that you shopped Monday to Friday. You shopped from eight to six. Then there was half a day on Saturday to shop in the morning. The idea behind that was that it gave shop assistants and everybody else some time for family. That regulation has slowly been peeled back over time as a response to the fact that we are living in a different sort of society. We are living in a society now where, more than ever before, people work irregular hours. Often they work antisocial hours and hours that are not friendly to families. They do a lot of overtime. We have the rise of the dual income family.

People typically do this because they need to pay the bills and because the economy now places those demands on all of us. We heard the member for Canning talk about fly-in fly-out workers in the mines. It is interesting to note that fly-in fly-out workers have very high divorce rates because of the pressures that that lifestyle puts on relationships. So we know this is a massive issue. It is not one where there is necessarily much partisan divide in recognising that it is an issue, but often there is a somewhat partisan divide in our approaches to dealing with it.

These issues are not new to me. In my previous working life as an official with the shop assistants union I spent a lot of time implementing enterprise bargaining agreements which had extensions to paternity leave. First of all, there were extensions to the right to unpaid leave, which were obviously important and significant contributions we could make to family time. We extended the amount of time from 12 months to 18 months to sometimes the full two years by allowing people to use their paid leave at half rates and expanding the return-to-work options by allowing full-time workers to return to work on a part-time basis and the like, and we eventually extended some of those rights to men.

It is interesting to note that most of the evolution of maternity and paternity leave arrangements began with women, and there is this somewhat belated recognition by all involved that men often want to spend time with their children as well at these very important times in their family. I think a lot of men have a fear about being absent fathers, and that is something we need to acknowledge and prevent as far as we can. When we come to making these arrangements in the future, perhaps they will not be through amendments to the act but by being incorporated in the design of the act from the outset.

As I said before, my union was very involved in extending these leave arrangements through enterprise bargaining agreements. The Labor movement generally has been the voice of working people in trying to get some recognition for the family unit and of work-life balance in our system of employment, but at every turn we have heard people complain about paperwork, cost or other things. That is a predictable and persistent argument for opposing progress, and we should not pay too much attention to it because the same arguments were made about workers compensation, overtime, penalty rates and the original maternity leave act. They are predictable and unconvincing arguments.

The fact is that the Labor movement is a family oriented movement. We exist to protect people's working lives and, as part of that, their lives with their families, which is very important for us to acknowledge. That is why Labor have been at the forefront of the industrial fight for these conditions and that is why we are standing here today introducing this legislation. It is a very important role for the Labor movement to defend families in our community and to defend community life, because that is really at the heart of our movement.

The provisions in this bill are enabled by the fact that we have a strong economy. If you look at us in comparison with the rest of the world, you would find that most other countries would give their right arm to be like us. We have low unemployment, low inflation and low interest rates, we have a predicted surplus and we have protected wages through our Fair Work Act. All of those things are important to families because there is nothing more important than having a job where you can have some predictability about your wages and having some predictability about prices; there is nothing more important than having low interest rates—obviously, most families are buying a home while they are raising children; and there is nothing more important than having a strong family budget, and I think that is what our most recent budget has set out to do.

These plans that we have in place extend paid parental leave to fathers and partners, with two weeks pay at the national minimum wage, the same weekly rate as the parental leave rate of some $590 before tax. That means eligible families can welcome a new child into the world while receiving up to 20 weeks in paid parental leave pay and in dad and partner pay. Those are all new entitlements that can be put in place to support families at the appropriate time. They can be combined with periods of paid leave, such as long service leave, annual leave and paid maternity leave, to stretch out a period where families can rely on income from that source rather than having to head back to work early, and I think that is a particularly important thing to do.

I heard the member for Canning talk about the plans of the opposition, and I must say that they all sounded like wishful thinking to me. It is not that they might not be desirable, and I acknowledge the generosity of the coalition's scheme, but they sound like something that might have come out of the Socialist Left in Young Labor, to be frank. It is not that I would be criticising them, but, if you think about a very generous scheme funding people on incomes up to $150,000 a year out of increases in corporate taxation, I would think that sounds a bit like something on the Far Left of Australian politics. It is not necessarily a bad thing, but it seems to me particularly ambitious. I find it curious that the member for Canning should be up here complaining about the paperwork that our scheme might inflict on small businesses while he is advocating an increase in corporate taxation to pay for a very generous paid parental leave scheme. I find that quite odd. I find it nearly as odd as the fact that he talks about nannies being desirable. I think nearly every family would love to have a nanny—it sounds like Shangri-La—but you have to look at the costs of that and who might pay the costs. As those opposite have said, it will be out of the existing childcare budget. One predicts that in order for some people to get nannies others must lose benefits. The questions the Australian people must ask themselves are: how will that work; will they means-test child care; will they cut childcare places; will they cut the rebate? One expects answers out of the coalition about what they might do with these grandiose plans they put out there that sound very good but which I predict will fall down when they are examined more closely.

The legislation we have put down is right for the time. It is right for the economic circumstances that we face at this time. This government, as I said, has pretty good fundamentals for the economy—we have protected people's jobs and we have protected their wages at a time when the rest of the world is mired in unemployment and joblessness. There is no greater blight that you can inflict on a family than to make breadwinners unemployed. We have to be very careful that we chart a modest course in this country and not embark on grandiose schemes which sound good but which the nation can ill afford at this time. There may well be some evolution of benefits over time, but I do not think that time is now.

The government's program supports families in a responsible way, it protects families in a responsible way and it is right for our nation—a welcome addition to the assistance this government gives to families and to the assistance and respect that the Labor movement has always had for the Australian family. With those words, I commend the bill to the House.