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Wednesday, 16 June 2010
Page: 3425

Senator MOORE (10:10 AM) —I think it is really positive that we can actually agree on something. I am pleased to be able to pick up on Senator Boyce’s comment that we can move forward with support from both sides of the House for this legislation, the Paid Parental Leave Bill 2010 and the Paid Parental Leave (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2010. One of the most pleasing aspects of the debate we are having is that we have people from around the chamber agreeing that there needs to be a paid parental leave scheme in Australia.

Over 25 years ago, I was involved with a group of women in Queensland who were talking about workplace issues. At the meeting—I was a public servant—a number of women came forward and talked about their own workplaces and the situations they faced. One of the strongest issues that came up in that discussion was the lack of any form of respect from their workplace when they chose to have children. They explained that there was no protection for them, there was no paid leave arranged for them and they felt that there was no support from their employers for the very necessary decisions that had to be made about what we know is so important for all families: work-life balance—although the term was not then known.

The really disappointing fact is that, after 25 years of ongoing discussion and consideration and processes being put in place recognising that this is an important issue, during the Productivity Commission inquiry, which went on for an extensive time last year—and many of us followed that very closely—and during the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee hearings on this bill, women were still coming forward telling us exactly the same stories as before. In fact, one of the most confronting aspects of consideration of this bill was (1) the fact that it must happen and (2) the fact that the kinds of stories that women and their partners were telling us at the community affairs committee and the Productivity Commission showed the same pain, the same lack of respect and the same need that was expressed so many years ago.

At one of the committee hearings there was a young woman who told us her story very openly. I want to put on record my respect for Mrs Puriri-Giblin, who spoke to us about her experiences as a new mum with a child that had care needs and her inability to have any support in her workplace as she was working through the very difficult aspects of having a new child and a partner who had lost his employment—and her sense of desolation. She told us her story in great detail. She took us through the fact that there was a need for her to return very quickly to the workplace because there was no paid leave entitlement in her employment. She told us about the struggles she had when she came back to the workplace, including the lack of respect for her need to breastfeed, and the trauma that this caused her relationship.

All of this shows the absolute need we have today as a parliament to say, ‘Yes, we are going to support the introduction of a paid parental leave scheme.’ People want to talk about whether it is a ‘paid parenting scheme’ or a ‘payment scheme’. What it is is a piece of legislation which finally, after so long, respects the rights of mothers and their children, allows them to balance their linkage with their workplace and gives them that time—that period of 18 weeks. There has been lots of discussion about whether that is the right period. During the discussions of the Productivity Commission the period of 18 weeks came up as one that we could introduce in the legislation, and it is being put in place to kick the scheme off. We now have legislation which we can agree to and which will in some way put in place true respect for women who are workers as well as parents, and that is the core aspect.

In the process of discussion many issues came up, and those will come out through the debate we are going to have about proposed amendments, but I just want to touch on a few of them. Certainly one of the key aspects that were raised many times was the aspect of the employer taking on the role of ‘paymaster’. It is a term I do not use very often but it came up consistently during the discussion. I was surprised by that because I thought employers were the people who paid their employees. I did not think it was any different; I thought that employers made payments to employees. No-one seemed to debate that during the inquiry; there was just an overwhelming concern that, when you have an employee who is receiving a paid parental leave entitlement for a maximum period of 18 weeks, there would be some adjustment in the payroll systems of employers so that they would maintain that link with their employees, keep that respectful relationship and continue to engage with the employee who is taking her—mainly her—entitlement to paid parental leave.

I went through with a couple of the witnesses step by step how complex the process would be. Whilst it is another work impost, it is strictly a relationship agreement between the employer and the employee. Certainly we did discuss the fact that there may need to be some adjustment to computer systems and those types of arrangements, but in the overall scheme of a relationship between an employer and an employee it is my firm belief that that is part of the job. As an employer working with an employee, you make payment. You stay in contact. You have that linkage. And that is a relationship which is earned by the employee who is eligible for paid parental leave having an established work relationship. Entitlement to this leave is dependent upon having employment with the workplace over a period of time leading up to making the claim. It is not someone who has just arrived in the job; it is someone who already is part of that employment relationship. So on the issue of whether the employer should retain the job of making the payments, I strongly support that.

How it will operate will, of course, be one of the issues that the implementation team that is being put together by the government to oversight the implementation of this payment will take into consideration. Over the two-year period there will be an implementation team which includes representatives of employers and employees. They will work with the participants to ensure that they will be able to see exactly how it is working. The scheme will take time to be introduced and to settle, as indeed any scheme will, but I think that the issue about the employment relationship should be, most rightly, between the employer and the employee. The government will provide the funding, but the relationship must continue for those workers with the immediate employer. For those workers who have left employment but who have still gained entitlement to the payment, that will be done through the Family Assistance Office, an organisation which has great experience in working in this way and which will be able to provide advice and support for employers along the way.

Another issue was some kind of competition between those people who would be eligible for the paid parental leave and those parents who make the choice to stay at home. It was an issue very strongly felt by people who gave evidence to our committee, but my personal view, and that which the committee put forward, was that what we have here are two separate payments. They are not competing. There is no value judgment about the choices that mothers make in terms of their payment. What we are doing as a government is introducing a Paid Parental Leave scheme for workers who are in the workforce and who, when they choose to have their child, leave the workforce. They are entitled to take up the Paid Parental Leave scheme. For mothers who are making their choice to stay at home, there always will be the baby bonus in place and also the family tax benefit.

It was quite disappointing in many ways that there seemed to be some competition being established—a division between parents, between mothers and between families. That is not the intent of the legislation. There are two separate payments. Indeed, one of the things we will need to do—again, as the scheme is cemented and put in place—is to work out exactly how it operates and to see the different responses that we have when we are talking to women about how it is affecting their choices.

No-one pretends that this scheme by itself will be the solution for all the issues that face families when they are raising children, particularly when they are starting a family, with all the expenses. Many other things have to be put in place as well. We had considerable evidence about the need for family-friendly workplaces and effective breastfeeding processes in workplaces. That needs to be worked on, absolutely. We also have to look at the issues of child care. But this is an important step towards ensuring that women and their families are able to effectively work and continue their linkage with their employment.

It has taken a long time. Many, many people have been involved, and I know we have mentioned, across the chamber, people who have played a role in this area. I particularly want to mention the role of Sharan Burrow. I know that has been mentioned before, but I have worked with her on this issue for many, many years. Ms Burrow in her evidence to the committee talked about the link between employer and employee in this case. She said:

They know that it generates the kind of loyalty and appreciation that you get when somebody feels that they have the backing and the trust that comes with the income security and the job security of paid and unpaid parental leave.

This scheme hopes to ensure that employers and employees will continue to talk and will continue to have a relationship, and, during the process of making the choice to return to work or not, this payment will be some help in making that job a little easier. I also want to put on record my appreciation of Marie Coleman, from the National Foundation for Australian Women, who worked with me consistently through the Productivity Commission process, making sure that I knew what was going on, and my appreciation of all those women and their families over the past very many years, for only 25 of which I have been involved.

This is an important step forward. It is but one step, and we will have to look very carefully at how the review process will operate. But in this legislation there will be an effective review process within two years of the bill being introduced to look at, amongst other things, the exceptionally important issue of superannuation and other issues that may come, to make sure that this bill is a very valuable consideration for all workers and all employers in this country.