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Tuesday, 15 June 2010
Page: 3328


Senator HANSON-YOUNG (6:21 PM) —I rise to add my contribution to the debate on the government’s Paid Parental Leave Bill 2010 and Paid Parental Leave (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2010. This is a historic day in this chamber: all three of the major players in this place are committed to some form of paid parental leave and are also committed to seeing that some scheme is up and running by the end of this year. I say this, however, with some disappointment that the legislation as it is before us does not provide enough support for parents and is not the best possible scheme that, if we had been able to work together, we would have been able to put in place from the word go.

While I have stated on the record before that the Greens will not be blocking the government’s attempt to introduce a statutory paid parental leave scheme, it is incredibly disheartening that this legislation is anything but a true reflection of what paid parental leave should be—that is, of course, a workplace entitlement. I am not the first person to voice concern over the direction the government has taken with its paid parental leave scheme and, sadly, I do not think that I will be the last. For more than three decades, men and women around this country have been lobbying governments of all persuasions to provide a paid parental leave scheme as a basic workplace entitlement, and I must say that the recent debate around this particular issue has been an interesting one.

Arguments such as, ‘This legislation is only a starting point and we can lobby the government to improve it once it becomes law’ have perplexed me, because we have waited 30 years already. It is 30 years since the unpaid provisions were given as entitlements to women for maternity leave. Thirty years on, we are now talking about the need for the true support of providing a paid parental leave scheme. I would hate to think that we would have to wait another 30 years in order to improve it when we could be doing that right here today in this place. We now have commitment from all sides that a government funded paid parental leave scheme is something that this parliament must deliver. It is surely the best opportunity that we have had, with all sides now saying that this is something that we should do and that this is something that we are committed to. Well, let us deliver it.

We should be able to improve and fix some of the most fundamental flaws within this legislation so that when it does pass we will be able to say that we did our very best to provide a good scheme. Of course this can be built upon in the future, but let us use the opportunity we have today to make sure that we get the best legislation that we can now. Why, after decades of inaction, would mums and dads out there not want us to come together and ensure that we get the best possible scheme in place simply because the Prime Minister has said today that the Senate should just get out of the way? Frankly, the Senate should not just get out of the way. The Senate is here to work with the government of the day to ensure that we improve pieces of legislation and that we make sure that any law enacted is in the best interests of all Australians. And, as the Senate committee process has shown, there are flaws in this legislation that must be fixed.

While I will come to some of the major concerns over the implications of this legislation in a few moments, one thing I would like state upfront is that 18 weeks is simply not enough. It is not enough when you compare it to international standards and it is not enough for all of those people and organisations, trade unions included, who have been fighting for this for decades. Eighteen weeks is nowhere near where comparable countries are at, when you consider that Sweden offers 47 weeks, New Zealand offers 28 weeks, Finland offers 32 weeks and even the UK offers 39 weeks. The fact is that Australia is still behind the eight ball, as we are not only introducing a scheme only now but introducing a scheme that is far behind those of our international counterparts and is not giving that basic support that families deserve.

The Greens have not been a lone voice in our push for six months paid parental leave. We believe that six months should be the minimum. It is the minimum set down by the World Health Organisation. There is strong support throughout the community for the introduction of a 26-week, six-month scheme. The National Foundation for Australian Women, Save the Children, the YWCA, the Commission for Children and Young People, the World Health Organisation, the Public Health Association, the Australian Breastfeeding Association, Unions NSW and the Community and Public Sector Union are all advocates for a six-month, government funded, paid parental leave scheme—and that is what we should be passing here this week in this place.

Given that women around Australia have been fighting for paid parental leave to be enshrined as a workplace entitlement for decades, this hard work must not be in vain when it comes to ensuring that the best possible support is provided for Australian mums and dads. Let us not use this as an opportunity to simply whack each other over the head politically. Let us use this as an opportunity to work together and get the best possible scheme. It is simply a cop-out for anybody to suggest that the will is not here, because the will certainly is here in this place, and that is what I think is so exciting about this debate tonight. It is also such an opportunity that we should be taking it with both hands and using it rather than squandering it simply because the Prime Minister’s comments this morning reflected that the Senate should simply roll over and not do its job.

I am sure that many in this chamber recognise that the idea of paid parental leave is not a new concept in this place. My South Australian colleague former Senator Natasha Stott Despoja, a staunch advocate on this issue, introduced Australia’s first paid maternity leave scheme back in 2002, and I introduced the first paid parental leave scheme last year. It was a 26-week, six-month scheme plus superannuation at the minimum wage. That was the best compromise that I could come up with then and it is the best compromise that I believe we could come up with here in this place this week to ensure that parents get the support they need, that we enshrine this as a workplace entitlement and that we give the support that new mums and dads should be entitled to, of course ensuring that women have a connection to the workforce and are not discriminated against or disadvantaged simply because they have ovaries yet are also workers. Let us ensure that the legislation that we pass here this week is one that offers six months leave plus superannuation and that it is a workplace entitlement.

Both of the pieces of legislation that have been before this place already, introduced by Natasha Stott Despoja and by the Greens—with the third being the government’s—recognised that taking time off from work to have a baby should be seen as a basic workplace entitlement and that, just as when on long service leave or sick leave, employees should continue to accumulate superannuation payments. That is a stark difference between the two previous bills introduced into this chamber and the government’s scheme as laid before us today—superannuation is not included in it. Surely, after all the independent studies, Senate inquiries and the recent Productivity Commission report into the feasibility of implementing a paid parental leave scheme, there is enough evidence out there supporting paid parental leave enshrined as a workplace entitlement rather than simply being a welfare handout. That is type of scheme that we should deliver.

Unfortunately, despite all the rhetoric from the government about supporting women to maintain their connection with the workforce and boost workforce participation—the exact words used by the government—this piece of legislation fails to accurately provide any entitlement to take leave and is a slap in the face for all those who have been advocating for a paid parental leave scheme to be viewed as a workplace entitlement. You can say it as much as you want. The reality is that this stand-alone bill does not provide a leave entitlement. It does not amend the Fair Work Act. It is not a workplace entitlement. Only in name is it a paid parental leave scheme not in reality.

This is the first fundamental flaw within this bill and the fact that it is not a paid parental leave scheme in the true sense of the term is concerning. Regardless of the spin, regardless of the fact that we want something through and we want to provide support to parents, it is very difficult to see how this scheme will be expanded or improved upon if we do not get the fundamentals right at the beginning.

Nowhere in this bill does it guarantee an eligible employee an entitlement to take leave, or the guarantee to even get their job back at the end of that leave period. Although the government may be spruiking this legislation as a historic recognition of the importance of maintaining women’s workplace attachment—an important aspect to any genuine paid parental leave scheme, and one of the key reasons advocates around the country have fought so long for some type of scheme—we know that this particular bill is nothing more than a dressed up version of the baby bonus.

This was my concern from the start. I said it 12 months ago when the government first announced this scheme and, unfortunately, it still stands. A true paid parental leave scheme would have been administered through the Fair Work Act, not simply through the Family Assistance Office. What I cannot work out is this: if unpaid parental leave provisions are contained within the Fair Work Act and if this Labor government truly recognises paid parental leave as a workplace entitlement, why would you create an entirely new act to contain only pay provisions and not leave provisions? This concern was articulated by Professor Andrew Stewart during the course of the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry. He said:

I think there is no question; it is a social security entitlement. In fact it would be better titled the ‘parental leave pay bill’ rather than ‘paid parental leave’. That may seem a matter of semantics but I think it is fair to say that most people in the community would understand the concept of paid leave to mean you have a right to leave your job and come back to it.

This flaw still remains within this piece of legislation, which is why it is important that the Senate is able to fix it and amend it. It is important for the government to accept that as well, and important for the opposition to accept that. It is all very well and good to have the opposition say, ‘When Tony Abbott gets elected’—if he does and they are in government. It is all very well and good for them to say, ‘When we are in government we will put in a bigger, better scheme.’ The reality is that here tonight we have the Labor Party, the coalition and the Greens all saying: ‘We want paid parental leave. We want a good scheme. Let’s get it up.’ The opposition should be supporting our amendments to ensure that it becomes a leave entitlement and a six-month scheme, including superannuation—as of course should the government. If that is a scheme that the opposition wants then it should be supporting the amendments that we have circulated.

The issue of leave entitlement is just one of the many problems that the government has created for itself by drafting this bill. It fails to take into account the key concept of any paid parental leave scheme. The fact is that the legislation before us is nothing more than a parental payment. As to the credence of the argument that it discriminates against stay-at-home mums: what a ludicrous argument that somehow stay-at-home mums should get a workplace entitlement. Of course they should not. If they are not at work then they do not get the entitlement. They get another form of support. And that of course is through the baby bonus. But because the government has drafted this so poorly and not ensured that this is a workplace entitlement, it leaves that door open for criticism from those people who do not want to accept that women need to be supported—working women in particular—and not be discriminated or disadvantaged simply because they are in the workforce and are the people who have babies. They need that time off; they need to recover from childbirth and spend time with their newborns recovering and bonding. That is why a paid parental leave scheme that is a workplace entitlement is so important. There are other ways that we can support stay-at-home mums. There is the baby bonus—the system that we have. Maybe some things need to be fixed with that, but this is not the place to talk about that. This bill is meant to be about a workplace entitlement. The problem for the government is that, actually, it is not. That is why there is this criticism.

Another concern that was raised throughout the committee process was how this proposed scheme would interact with existing entitlements that an employee might already have. A number of witnesses expressed concern that the bill in its current form does not explicitly state that the government’s paid parental leave payment is an addition to any existing employer funded scheme. The government are saying: ‘This is a top-up scheme. We know it is not enough. We know it is only 18 weeks. We know it is only at the minimum wage for 18 weeks. We know it does not include superannuation. But it is all going to be okay because this is on top of what other scheme you may be entitled to.’ But it does not say that in this piece of legislation. It does not say that at all and that needs to be addressed.

Again, it is important for the Senate to work through these issues, fix the legislation and ensure that these issues are dealt with. The fact that Minister Macklin’s second reading speech said that she believed that this would be seen as a top-up, yet it is not in the legislation, indicates that it was an oversight or that the government does not want to see that in legislation. Either way, it will be interesting to see how the government responds to our amendments to ensure that this is seen and acknowledged as an addition to existing payments and not one that replaces or is simply absorbed by existing schemes.

Another ramification of not ensuring that paid parental leave is a basic workplace entitlement is that it would fail to ensure that, just like with long service leave or sick leave, employees would continue to accumulate superannuation payments. This is a really important aspect of any workplace entitlement and a really important aspect of dealing with the retirement income gap between men and women. We know that one of the biggest factors contributing to that gap is women taking time out from the workforce to have babies and raise their kids; and, in order to address that, any type of paid parental leave scheme should include superannuation. There is clear evidence that women struggle to ensure sufficient superannuation for their retirement, and this would be a clear, simple, good place to try to address that.

This comes from a government who have said that they are committed to better superannuation savings and a stronger culture towards supporting superannuation. Let us see that work for mums as well as for everybody else; because, under this scheme, it is not included. Superannuation must be included in any type of paid parental leave scheme. It should not be the case that superannuation is good for everyone else—but bad luck if you are a mum.

The Greens will be seeking to remedy this situation in the committee stage. We have an amendment relating to superannuation entitlements and requiring that superannuation is paid. While I do not necessarily expect the government to support that amendment—they clearly could have put it into their own legislation—I do expect that the opposition, who have said that they support superannuation, will support this amendment. Not only do I think that women should not wait another 30 years for an increased and better scheme; I also do not think we should wait for never-never when Tony Abbott is possibly one day elected as Prime Minister. We have the opportunity today to make this scheme a better one. Let’s make it happen. I say to the opposition: if you believe that superannuation should be included, make sure you back the Greens amendment. I would, of course, like the government to do the same. If their rhetoric is anything to go by, there is no reason why they would not back it.

On a final point, we need a review into this legislation. Whatever form it is in when it eventually passes, it needs to be subject to a review. We need to be able to analyse what impact it has on families, what impact it has on existing entitlements in workplaces and what impact it has on the retirement savings of individuals. While the government have said that they expect to run a review within two years of the scheme being up and running, let’s see that legislated for. Based on the past promises of this government, I am not prepared to take what the minister has said as gospel. If we are fair dinkum about making sure we have a good scheme, and if we are fair dinkum about making sure that we can improve it, then we need to know where we can do that and where the pros and the cons in the scheme are so that we can tweak it. That means that a review must be part of the legislation that we pass; so, of course, the Greens will be moving amendments to that as well.

In conclusion, I want to reiterate the Greens’ utmost support for a paid parental leave scheme that offers support to working families and to mums around the country who have waited too long. For those who, 30 years ago, fought for paid maternity leave provisions, to now see their daughters and their granddaughters being able to take advantage of a scheme like this would be such a wonderful thing. But let us make sure we use the best opportunity that we have before us to make sure that it is a scheme that is worth it and that we are not waiting another 30 years to try and fix it. Let us get it in place now and let us ensure that it is the best possible scheme it can be and use the opportunity of tripartisan support.