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Wednesday, 16 June 2010
Page: 3418

Senator XENOPHON (9:42 AM) —The incorporated speech read as follows—

There’s no doubt that the Paid Parental Leave Bill 2010 and the Paid Parental Leave (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2010 are a landmark for all Australians. Until now, Australia and the US were the only two OECD countries without a legislated paid parental leave scheme. So we should be very proud that we have finally, albeit belatedly, reached this point.

Sweden was the first country to introduce paid parental leave in 1974. Since then, countries across Europe, the Americas and Africa have introduced varying forms of paid parental leave schemes, the majority providing for between three and six months leave. In his submission to the Productivity Commission’s 2009 inquiry into Paid Maternity, Paternity and Parental Leave, Dr Andrew Scott, Senior Lecturer at RMIT University, stated that Sweden, along with Norway, Denmark and Finland, is regarded as one of the most economically efficient nations in the world by the World Economic Forum. What is interesting, as Dr Scott points out, is that all four of these Nordic countries have the world’s highest labour force participation rates for women, and all four of these countries have substantive paid parental leave schemes in place, and have done so for years. So there is no question that the benefits of statutory paid parental leave extends beyond direct positives for families; it also helps the wider economy in the long term.

Today, women make up around 45.7 percent of Australia’s workforce, around half of those on a full-time basis, and this scheme will improve retention and long-term attachment of women to the workforce. Ultimately, paid parental leave must be about encouraging women to return to work after they have had a child; giving a woman the comfort of knowing she will be able to take 18 weeks off to nurture her newborn, during which time she will supported by the government on the minimum wage. Furthermore, the government’s Paid Parental Leave scheme will work in addition to schemes already in place within some businesses.

The Paid Parental Leave scheme will be extended from 12 weeks to 13 weeks. Combined with the 18 weeks to be paid by the government, this will mean that parents who have worked for Westpac for at least 12 months will be able to access 31 weeks of paid parental leave from January 2011. Retail giant, Myer, provides 6 weeks parental leave at full pay for employees who have been with the company for at least 18 months, which will mean a total of 24 weeks leave once the government scheme comes into effect. And car manufacturer, Holden, gives women who have worked with the company for at least two years, 14 weeks maternity leave. Add that to the government’s Paid Parental Leave scheme and there are eight months for a new mum to spend at home with her newborn.

The government’s scheme will benefit those who are already able to receive paid leave, and will benefit those who may not otherwise have this option available to them. Research by the Australian Institute of Family Studies shows that women are inclined to return to work faster if provided with scheduled time off work in the first few weeks and months after the birth of their child. Experts agree that the first few months of a newborn’s life are crucial. It is a time for parent and child to bond; to nurture and be nurtured.

I know there are those who say this bill is still not enough—that the scheme should be for 26 weeks, not 18 weeks; that it should include superannuation; that it should be a percentage of salary, not set at the minimum wage; that it should include all women, not just working women. But, regardless, we can all agree that it is a start. It is a significant step for Australian parents. And it is something women—and men—around the country have been waiting for.

Let us not pretend this is just a woman’s issue. This affects men as much as women, because if a mother is restricted it also restricts the options of the father. We should be very proud that, for every baby born after midnight on 1 January 2011, his or her parents will be supported in their decision to take time off work. A 2008 report by the Australian Institute of Family Studies found that about five per cent of women return to work within weeks or days of leaving hospital. If you ask me, a woman returning to work within days of giving birth cannot be a good idea, not for her baby’s wellbeing and not for her own health.

The longitudinal study also showed, specifically that of those mothers who returned to work within three months of giving birth, 44 per cent was due to a lack of paid maternity leave, while over 45 per cent said it was because of lack of money. In these instances, thank goodness this scheme will assist these women with support for 18 weeks on the minimum wage. Indeed, although paid maternity leave schemes in the private sector have certainly been on the rise in recent years, over half of employed mothers still do not have access to paid maternity leave in any form. According to the Productivity Commission, these employees often resign when they have a baby, or if they remain employed, take a shorter time off work to care for their babies than other employees.

An estimated 290,000 babies are born every year, to around 280,000 mothers. Of those, Treasury expects 148,000 mothers—and some fathers—will take up the Paid Parental Leave scheme. Others will opt for, or will receive, the Baby Bonus and Family Tax Benefit instead. Under the Paid Parental Leave scheme, parents will receive just under $10,000 while they take care of their newborn in his or her first 18 weeks of life.

Juggling a family with work is not easy—and going from two incomes to one is harder still. But this scheme gives parents the freedom to choose what is best for them and their baby, and the space and time to bond with their child, while being supported on a base wage. It is important to remember that while this scheme will mainly benefit women—mothers—it will also help fathers in some instances who choose to be the primary caregiver. And there is flexibility in this scheme to allow for parents to decide between themselves what works for their family and their child.

There is no question stay-at-home mums have it tough as well. No one questions the dedication and commitment of women who choose to be full-time mums, and the challenges these women face on a daily basis—some might even say it is even harder than working in an office. For these women, the Baby Bonus and the Family Tax Benefit are applicable, while paid parental leave will encourage working women to return to the workforce.

While I believe this bill is significant and something we should all be proud is finally here, I do believe there is one key feature missing—superannuation. On average, women, once they reach retirement age, have less in their superannuation than their male counterparts. This is because women, on average, earn less income during their careers and of course, they take more time out of the workforce than men. It is estimated that a typical woman will have 35 per cent less in her superannuation fund at retirement than a typical man. So it is crucial that we do what we can to help women save for their retirement while they are taking small periods of time out of the workforce to become mothers.

However, I acknowledge the position of the government and the Productivity Commission as to why superannuation has not been included within the scheme at this stage, and I look forward to the review of this legislation in two years’ time when the global financial crisis is no longer applicable as a reason not to include super under the scheme.

At this time, I note the amendment that will be moved by the Australian Greens for the review to begin in 18 months, rather than after 24 months, and to be completed within three months, rather than 12 months. May I indicate at this stage that I will support this amendment —and I believe that the review will also be an opportune time to assess whether the scheme should be extended beyond the 18 weeks. It will provide us with the information required to adequately review the legislation in 18 months time so we can continue to improve it for Australian parents.

This bill does not present a perfect scheme. But it is a start, a good start. This bill puts Australia alongside almost every other country in the world when it comes to having a mandated paid paternity leave scheme in force. I applaud the government for making this significant step for Australian families. I look forward to this scheme being introduced and I expect there will be improvements made to it in the years to come.