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Thursday, 10 May 2012
Page: 4545

Ms LEY (Farrer) (13:06): I rise today to speak on the Paid Parental Leave and Other Legislation Amendment (Dad and Partner Pay and Other Measures) Bill 2012 and to very much support the amendments that the coalition will be moving in this place after this second reading debate. This bill extends the Paid Parental Leave scheme to working fathers and partners who meet the prescribed criteria, enabling them to take two weeks paid paternity leave at the federal minimum wage. That in itself is unremarkable and the coalition have no particular objection to it because we are supportive of any measures which will improve Labor's, quite frankly, substandard Paid Parental Leave scheme. As far as Australian families are concerned, right now every little bit helps as they struggle to make ends meet. However, regrettably, even despite this measure, Labor's proposal falls well short of the coalition's paid parental leave policy. I think that is the message that will come out of today's debate, when people listening and considering the two schemes realise that the coalition scheme is vastly superior. It does so much more in looking after families, in looking after mothers and in recognising the very great need for increasing, in particular, female workforce participation.

As I said, Australian families are doing it really tough under this Labor government. Our side of the chamber appreciates the pressures being felt by families. What is also blatantly clear to us is that the Gillard Labor government must bear responsibility for a number of these pressures. The carbon tax will see family power bills skyrocket. Childcare costs are soaring, with the Australian Childcare Alliance predicting that some families may have to pay an additional $22 a day for care. Parents are fearful that they will not be able to continue to afford child care for their young children.

As I travel the country I am being made aware of more and more real-life examples of parents placing their children in backyard care. I was provided with all the details of one case where the parents, who live quite close to Sydney on the coast of New South Wales, travel into the city and are leaving three of their children to be minded by somebody in their street. At no stage do I blame parents for the childcare decisions they make or the safety concerns they do or do not have about particular arrangements they may make. But what I do see presented to me continually is parents under stress with the rising cost of child care. They are genuinely fearful that they will not be able to continue to afford the cost of child care. Just managing the weekly budget is a massive nightmare for so many families, as they juggle their finances and have to prioritise which bills get paid.

I note that members opposite, particularly the ministers in this area, refuse to accept that rising childcare costs are making a difference to the decisions and the choices that families make. I receive emails from women who say things such as: 'I would have had a third child, but I can't afford it. If the coalition's paid parental leave scheme was in, I would continue to be paid at my current salary and that would make much more sense. I could continue to afford the mortgage and take some of the stresses off my family.'

We on this side of the House understand what it is that families really need—paid parental leave, paid at their real wage, not the added stress of trying to adjust to a lower wage when one member of the partnership, the earning partnership, is stepping back from full employment.

In addition to the rising cost of living under Labor, this budget predicts unemployment to rise to 5.5 per cent. I, as the opposition spokesperson for employment participation, must note that because it is worth noting. This forecast comes from a Treasurer who promised to create 500,000 more jobs last year. Tragically for Australians, the Treasurer did not get that forecast right and, even more tragically, for those who find themselves amongst the ranks of the newly unemployed, the government have decided: 'You'll be on your own.' They have savaged employment services support for stream 1 job seekers, leaving them to fend for themselves, despite rising unemployment. These are job seekers who have recently lost their jobs. We should be acting quickly, efficiently and effectively to reconnect them with the workplace before they fall off the edge of the cliff and become the long-term unemployed.

The government has failed to introduce any real measures for unemployed youth, either. I am personally very alarmed by youth unemployment. The average rate across Australia is about 11.7 per cent. That is double the general unemployment rate. But in certain parts of Australia it is way higher. I have been provided with figures that show that, in the north-west of Melbourne, it is about 40 per cent. In central and western New South Wales, which include parts of my own electorate, it is about 25 per cent. In New South Wales, the average rate is 23 per cent. There was no mention in this budget by any minister in an employment portfolio of youth unemployment. More importantly, when you look through the programs, you will see that there is nothing that actually addresses this specific and looming national problem.

The coalition's proposed paid parental leave scheme is a comprehensive one. We have proposed 26 weeks paid leave at replacement wage, up to a maximum of $150,000 a year. We based our decision for a 26-week scheme on World Health Organisation research that indicated that 26 weeks is the recommended period for exclusive breastfeeding, and I think that is an important consideration. But it is not just about World Health Organisation recommendations; all of us in this place should understand the critical importance of the early years. With respect to the importance of child development, the research continues to emphasise that fact. Increasingly, we are being provided with research that the first three or four years of life are a period when a baby and toddler's brain grows to about two-thirds its full size, evolving in complexity at a greater rate than it ever will again. This is the period during which key learning takes place. But this learning is more than just first words, first steps, colours and numbers. The emotional lessons that we learn as babies and children, at home and at school, shape the emotional circuits in our brains that we carry with us for life. The roots of empathy can be traced to infancy. Developmental psychologists have found that infants feel sympathetic distress before they even realise they exist apart from other people. The most basic lessons of emotional life are laid down in those intimate moments, those intimate exchanges between parent and child. The reassurance of feeling emotionally connected provides children with their core emotional outlook and capability, equipping them with the resilience they need to tackle the challenges of life. This attunement that a parent develops with a child in these vital first months shapes the child's emotional expectations about relationships, in all realms of life, for better or worse.

I make that small diversion not to suggest that these things are not happening in the homes and families around Australia—because of course mothers, fathers and parents are living this everyday—but simply to say that we can place no greater importance on the development of maternal and paternal bonding. It is not just a feelgood concept; it is something very real and something that governments must make sure they invest in. For we that have had families and young children at stages of life where we were under financial stress, where it was always very difficult to manage the bonding and the time that you needed with young children with all of the other particularly financial pressures that you found yourself under, a measure such as the coalition's scheme that says, 'Twenty six weeks at your existing wage and, please, take the time to build that bond with your baby,' would have been welcome. And, remember, often women in these situations have other toddlers at home as well and they will also enormously benefit by having mum and dad spend some extra time with them.

Sometimes people say to me, 'Why should certain members of society get a paid parental leave entitlement at a higher rate than others?' I simply answer by saying this: we should not see this as a welfare payment or a handout; we should see this payment as analogous to sick leave, long service leave or annual leave entitlements that you might receive in the workplace. It is something that is just paid at your normal rate and that you access when you need to in the normal course of your working and family life. It is there for you to make use of. It is not something that the rest of society is giving you. It is not a welfare payment; it is not a benefit payment; it is a recognition by government that, in order for parents to properly take the time to bond with their newborn children and set themselves up for those expensive early years, they do need to have parental leave from the workplace. Employers are not in a position to fund all of this. Not only that, but the last thing we want to see is employers stepping back from employing people who are in their child-bearing years because of the cost that they might incur when mothers step out of the workforce to have children.

Our scheme is a stark contrast to Labor's scheme, which is cobbled together, is underfunded and, most importantly, does not recognise superannuation entitlements. The coalition's policy recognises just how critical this is for the long-term future welfare of women. By incorporating superannuation into our paid parental leave scheme we demonstrate our commitment to ensuring that women are not financially disadvantaged later by taking the time to start a family. We recognise that on average women retire with approximately 40 per cent less money in the bank than men. By including a mandatory superannuation contribution as part and parcel of our paid parental leave scheme we can help redress this imbalance and ensure that when the time comes for women to retire they have a superannuation balance that will provide them a respectable standard of living. I cannot emphasise that enough. I meet women in their 50s in small towns in my electorate struggling on very small superannuation entitlements because they have taken this time out of the workforce to have families. Look at the contribution they have made to those small towns: they have raised fabulous children, they have been fabulous community members and they have been part of the fabric and the life and soul of the community. And now they are struggling with not enough to keep them in their retirement. It is something that we should be concerned about. Our approach is a long-term, practical one; Labor's is little more than a flash in the pan.

We sought to reduce red tape for business, with the administration of the Paid Parental Leave scheme resting with the Family Assistance Office, where I understand it rests now but is due to be sent back to employers after the end of this financial year. We do not want to see individual businesses do that, but Labor is determined to strangle businesses in more red tape by making them the paymaster for the scheme. We instead want to provide small business with the opportunity to use the Family Assistance Office as their pay clerk for paid parental leave.

Small businesses are struggling under this government—many are stressing day by day as to how they will remain viable—yet Labor is still insisting they fulfil the role of pay clerk, further imposing red tape and forcing small business owners and operators to spend valuable time on paperwork instead of on their businesses. We know that small businesses do not have the same capacity for infrastructure and investment in their HR divisions as, say, Coles and Woolworths. The government has seen sense on this particular measure, ensuring that the Dad and Partner Pay is administered by the Department of Human Services. Yet Labor fails to concede that it would be far easier if this department were to have responsibility for the administration of all parental leave payments.

Making the Family Assistance Office the default administrator of the Paid Parental Leave scheme is unquestionably practical. It alleviates the pressure on small business but allows for an opt-in should a business decide to fill this role. The government is yet to convince me of its offbeat reasoning as to how small businesses assuming the role of paymaster fosters a bond between employee and employer. That is a bridge too far in terms of an argument.

The coalition has made this undertaking to reduce red tape and, if the government had any understanding whatsoever of small business and the struggles they face on a daily basis, they would support our amendment. Alas, though, if I am to consider the past record of those opposite, I will not hold my breath.

What is needed is a parental payment leave system that is easy to administer, that does not have additional burdens on business, that adequately provides for Australian families and that gives mothers and fathers the right amount of time to truly bond with their newborn babies. If we reinstate the Family Assistance Office as the default paymaster for all businesses, we can also reduce the red tape burden. As a coalition we present a very strong package of policy in this area for the people of Australia to consider. (Time expired)