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Thursday, 10 May 2012
Page: 4542

Mr MITCHELL (McEwen) (12:56): I am pleased to speak on the Gillard Labor government's Paid Parental Leave and Other Legislation Amendment (Dad and Partner Pay and Other Measures) Bill 2012. On 1 January 2011, the Gillard government delivered historic reform for working women and families: Australia's first Paid Parental Leave scheme, which has seen over 600 families in my electorate of McEwen assisted. It is one of the largest intakes in this country, because we have an electorate that is growing very quickly, every day. The Paid Parental Leave scheme provides working parents with parental leave pay for up to 18 weeks at the minimum wage, which is currently $570 a week, before tax. Paid Parental Leave gives babies the best start in life and helps women remain connected to their workplace when they have a child, with this bill establishing 'keeping in touch' days to ensure parents can keep in touch with their employers while not at work.

Labor's Paid Parental Leave scheme is funded by the government and is paid through employers so that employers can stay in touch with their long-term employees while they are taking time off to care for the new baby. This was the approach recommended by the Productivity Commission after a very extensive inquiry. It also means that one parent has the financial security to take time off work to care for their baby at home during the vital early months of the baby's life, as well as giving working mums time to recover following the birth and bond with their child. Paid Parental Leave also assists with the challenges and realities of modern family life, helping parents balance work and family responsibilities. Business will also enjoy the benefits of PPL, which helps them retain valuable and skilled staff as well as boosting workforce participation.

This bill makes amendments to the Paid Parental Leave Act 2010 to include provisions that deal with debt recovery, 'keeping in touch' days, the provision of notices and the delegation of the secretary's powers under the act. The bill also amends the Fair Work Act 2009 to clarify unpaid parental leave arrangements where people have to deal with the tragic circumstances of a stillbirth or an infant death, to enable the early commencement of unpaid parental leave and to enable employees on unpaid parental leave to perform permissible paid work for short periods for the purposes of keeping in touch. The 'keeping in touch' days in the bill make changes to ensure employees on Paid Parental Leave are able to perform paid work for up to 10 days for the purposes of keeping in touch with their employer. This is a move that is vital in some circumstances, particularly in those of highly skilled workforces and highly specialised fields.

The bill makes amendments so that a 'keeping in touch' day that is taken at the request of the employer cannot occur within six weeks after the child's birth or, in the case of an adoption, the placement of the child. This will allow an adequate period of time after the birth of a child for the mother to recover physically and will give her an uninterrupted period of six weeks with her newborn child. The bill will also provide greater flexibility for pregnant employees prior to the birth of a child so that an employer and employee are able to agree on unpaid parental leave commencing earlier than six weeks prior to the expected date of birth. As well as increasing the flexibility of unpaid parental leave, the Fair Work Act will be amended to give parents the right to return to their employment, subject to four weeks notice, should there be a tragic stillbirth or infant death. This bill also gives me a chance to speak about the Gillard Labor government's Paid Parental Leave scheme, because many families—as I said, over 600 in McEwen—have embraced it, unlike those opposite, who have been dragged kicking and screaming to support Paid Parental Leave and are still in a mess on where they stand. Over 100,000 parents have applied for Paid Parental Leave since applications opened on 1 October last year, and half the mothers who have so far been beneficiaries of the scheme earned less than $42,000 in the year before their baby was born or adopted. This illustrates the importance of the scheme for women on low incomes, many of whom would not have been able to access Paid Parental Leave through their employer. The scheme will be extended on 1 January 2013 to provide further support for new parents, with two weeks of dad and partner pay. Dad and partner pay will give fathers and partners financial assistance to take time off work, helping them bond with their new child and be involved in their care from an early age.

The Gillard Labor government believes in supporting families and in giving every child the best possible start in life. We understand the cost-of-living pressures on working families, and we are easing those pressures through initiatives such as the PPL scheme, tax cuts, family payments, fairer and more sustainable childcare assistance, and the schoolkids bonus introduced in the budget this week. There are many families in McEwen who are benefiting from this Labor government's commitment to supporting them. For instance, we have increased the childcare rebate from 30 per cent to 50 per cent and increased the annual limit for each child from $4,354 to $7,500 a year.

We have also established a $102.5 million maternity reform package, which is a key element of our health reform plans to deliver improved maternity care, particularly to regional Australia, and give women more choice. This includes $66.6 million to expand Medicare support for eligible midwives; $25 million to restore access to professional indemnity insurance for eligible midwives, allowing access to cover for the first time since 2002; $9.4 million for improved access to information and support; $11.3 million for expanded medical outreach services to rural and remote areas, bringing care closer to home; and $8 million for workforce support. We have also created a 24-hour pregnancy, birth and baby helpline and website, giving parents access to accurate information and directing parents to other services, like breastfeeding support.

The opposition has no real plan to support families when their child is born or to deliver child care when they need it. Let us not forget that, as workplace relations minister, the current Leader of the Opposition opposed a paid parental leave scheme and said it should be introduced over his government's 'dead body'.

The Gillard government's Paid Parental Leave scheme allows families to make their own work and family choices. Parents can transfer the leave so mums and dads have more options for balancing both work and family. Women in seasonal, casual and contract work, and the self-employed, will have access to Paid Parental Leave, most of them for the first time. The scheme has helped prepare Australia for the challenges of the future. Business will benefit from the retention of skilled and experienced female staff but will not have to fund the parental leave payments. The government has also made it easy for businesses: they get the money up-front from the government and pay their employees through their usual pay cycle. There is no need for special bank accounts or special reports. The scheme has been designed to ensure employers do not encounter new costs. Local employers only need to provide government funded paid parental leave to employees who have been with them for at least 12 months.

The Productivity Commission inquiry report Paid parental leave: support for parents with newborn children, of 2009, states:

The more that parental leave arrangements mimic those that exist as part of routine employment contracts, the more they will be seen by employers and employees as standard employment arrangements, with the dual effect of:

promoting employment continuity and workplace retention (thus helping to preserve job and employer-specific skills that would be reduced if parents were to resign or move to another employer) and reducing training costs for employers

signalling that a genuine capacity to take a reasonable period of leave from employment to look after children is just a normal part of working life.

The Productivity Commission also found that there would be a number of benefits in adopting a paid parental leave scheme, such as increasing the average length of leave taken by employed women after childbirth by around 10 weeks and encouraging increased workforce participation for women prior to having a baby and between pregnancies. Importantly, the Productivity Commission found that PPL would change community attitudes by sending a strong signal that having a child and taking leave from work around the time of the birth or adoption is part of the normal course of work and family life.

ABS findings in Employee earnings, benefits and trade union membership, Australia 2008 found that women in lower paid jobs have less access to employer provided paid maternity leave. We also know that PPL is more available in some industries than in others, and that the industries with the lowest levels of access to Paid Parental Leave are highly casualised. In 2007, less than one-quarter of women on low wages had access to Paid Parental Leave, compared to three-quarters on high wages.

This is a historic Labor reform, because only Labor delivers for Australian families and parents. Paid Parental Leave is a workplace entitlement, not a welfare payment. And it helps employers retain valuable skilled staff. Skilled staff is an issue that we have had to deal with after the 11 years of neglect under the Howard government left us with a nationwide skill shortage. That is why it is disappointing that the Liberals are trying wreck the Paid Parental Leave scheme that so many women and employers, right across the country, are benefiting from. We do not support the Liberals' amendments that would undermine the link between women taking time off to have a baby and their workplace. They have tried wrecking it once, and it got voted down. Now they are trying to wreck it again, with another ill-thought-out, short-sighted amendment that shows that they just do not get it. Paid Parental Leave is not welfare; it is a workplace entitlement. That is why I support this bill and hope that it has a very speedy passage.