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Wednesday, 16 June 2010
Page: 3415

Senator JACINTA COLLINS (9:32 AM) —In my speech last evening on the Paid Parental Leave Bill 2010 and the Paid Parental Leave (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2010 I was highlighting the key intentions of this Rudd government scheme which are to enhance the circumstances for women who have a workforce connection and to facilitate that by continuing employment choices into the future. This scheme does not take away from women who choose to stay at home but seeks to enhance conditions for those who seek to continue working. This is an area where Australia’s performance has lagged well behind most other economies.

I would like to highlight the issues around the alternative policy proposal put forward by Mr Abbott where women at home may feel there is a differential in circumstances and payments—and much of this varies depending upon tax circumstances, how many children are in the family and such matters. If you look at the coalition’s scheme, you will see a very stark difference between families who might seek to maintain an employment connection and those where the mother chooses to stay at home. Under Mr Abbott’s proposal, taxpayers, average mums and dads whether they are working or not working, will fund the scheme that will pay very large amounts to some women on very high incomes. Some fortunate members of the community with a workforce connection will receive payments of up to $75,000. This coalition scheme will be a burden on the taxpayer.

I highlight that the government has listened to the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry and will be looking at dealing with these objects as part of this bill. The other objective of this scheme is to improve the work and family balance and pay equity issues. The government’s scheme is not the only element of the total picture. There are new provisions in the Fair Work Act that seek to enhance what is available to maternity leave and to facilitate better connections to the workforce for mothers taking additional leave or more flexible work arrangements when returning from leave. These are some of the measures introduced by the Rudd government which complement paid leave. Because they are within the Fair Work Act is not a reason to say these measures cannot be complementary or cannot work together.

I think it is a furphy to suggest that the payment for leave should be within the Fair Work Act and indeed, as was suggested by Senator Hanson-Young and by the opposition, that the entitlement aspect of both schemes should match or be equivalent to each other. I was somewhat astounded to hear, particularly from the opposition spokesperson, Sharman Stone, that the coalition thought the eligibility criteria should match. It is unclear whether this is a new policy or a new policy flank, because once again the coalition have failed to consult. Any suggestion that the longstanding provisions for access to unpaid leave should be changed and that any woman who is eligible for paid parental leave should also be eligible to return to their employment is an interesting concept, and one that has not been flagged with the employers. I will be very interested to see how they respond to that notion.

Why Mr Rudd has suggested that the Senate should get out of the way of this proposal is that, through the Productivity Commission and countless years of consultation and debate, we have a scheme that was built on consensus that finally introduced in Australia prudent, funded and sensible proposals. Instead, now, particularly from the opposition, ideas are being thrown in without consultation. The suggestion is that that they are simply seeking to destroy the consensus.

The final comments I would like to conclude with focus on the issues between the two schemes. As I said, the Rudd government’s scheme is prudent, affordable and fair both for families and for business. Mr Abbott’s scheme is economically irresponsible and will cost $2.7 billion a year. It has been universally opposed by business groups who say it will hit jobs at a time when business is recovering from the impact of the global financial crisis. Those businesses can be expected to pass on this additional cost of the great big new tax on employers which will cost working families more through higher taxes at the supermarket and at the petrol pumps as well as gas and electricity charges. According to the Business Council of Australia, big business is already doing the heavy lifting on paid parental leave as most of their members already have fully paid parental leave arrangements in place averaging six to seven weeks. The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s Chief Executive, Peter Anderson ,says the proposal is an ‘unfair impost which will not be well received by Australian employers.’

This is where the opposition has been in absolute denial. Last week, at the debate I was referring to last night, the opposition spokesperson, Sharman Stone, suggested she had heard of only one employer who was complaining about the coalition’s scheme—only one employer. Yet here we have, from the quotes I have just referred to from the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Business Council of Australia, instances essentially saying ‘Please don’t destroy this consensus that has been developed to finally introduce sensible, prudent and fair arrangements.’

Under Mr Abbott’s proposal, offsets will be provided for businesses already paying parental leave, so there is no net gain, so to speak, because some businesses will simply be able to offset or absorb the payments that will be essentially taxpayer funded. This will result in employers having their current parental leave entitlements absorbed into Mr Abbott’s proposal instead. Working families will be looking at Mr Abbott’s sudden conversion, however, to the cause of paid parental leave and comparing it to his inability to declare Work Choices dead. He keeps coming back to it, supporting a return to elements of it. So on the one side we have Mr Abbott refusing to declare Work Choices dead and on the other side we have Sharman Stone suggesting that we are going to improve workers’ access to leave entitlements in a way where they have not even consulted business.

Before I conclude on this point, I should say the other area is another recent plank in the coalition’s policy area here is access to childcare support. Last week again, Sharman Stone—plucking ideas out of her head—suggested that if you were receiving parental leave then you would not have access to childcare support. Once again, she has not thought through this idea. Countless working families have more than one child in the period before school who, if they lose access to their childcare support, are going to be seriously financially affected. Again, I think the opposition has just plucked another idea out of the head and said that if you are getting paid leave to be at home you should be a full-time mother—this is Sharman Stone’s language—and you would not have access to childcare support. I think many working families rightly would query whether that means for one child, for two children, for three children—what are we talking about here? The potential loss of support for families receiving childcare support for their second or third child could be enormous. Once again, this plucking of ideas out of the head by the opposition has not been seriously managed and has not been competently demonstrated.

This is why people look at the opposition’s proposals and say they are just not real. Yesterday, Sharman Stone suggested that if Mr Abbott became Prime Minister their scheme would be in place within 12 months. This is simply just not real. They have not got the details of what they would propose. Senator Hanson-Young suggested last night that what the government was dealing with might not be gospel. I am sorry, but that is more of a reflection on what Mr Abbott says and whether it would be gospel truth or whether, once again, we are dealing with phoney Tony.

Families—let me conclude—need certainty from 1 January next year. They will be able to access paid parental leave because the Rudd government has introduced the Paid Parental Leave Bill and it will become an act. The government’s paid parental leave scheme is fair, balanced, economically responsible and, unlike the Liberals’, does not involve a big new tax on employers. For 12 years in government Tony Abbott refused to deliver a paid parental leave scheme. Now he wants to hit business with a big tax that will hurt Australia’s economy. Families have been waiting too long for paid parental leave and only the Rudd government has delivered it. The Senate should get on with the consensus that has been built around this issue and make this bill an act.