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Wednesday, 16 June 2010
Page: 3428

Senator BIRMINGHAM (10:22 AM) —It is a pleasure to rise to speak on the Paid Parental Leave Bill 2010 and the Paid Parental Leave (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2010, and to follow some distinguished and admirable comments from many of my colleagues in this place from all sides of the chamber on this very important issue. I do not intend to take long in my remarks today; however, I do want to associate myself with this debate and particularly with the remarks of my colleagues on this side of the chamber—especially those of Senator Fifield, who introduced our concerns about this proposal whilst acknowledging that it is a step, at least, in the right direction.

Senator Fifield rightly highlighted concerns around the uncertainty surrounding the implementation of this proposal—the ‘trust us’ approach of the Rudd government that has been shown to be so flawed so many times before. He highlighted concerns about the impact on business and especially the impact on small business: the administrative impact, the cost impact, and the potential for double the payroll tax impost. Those are real concerns, and they are concerns that need to be addressed and considered in a debate such as this one.

Of course, at the heart of this are the measures relating to the assistance for families. The fact is that we have contrasting policies now on this issue from the two sides of the chamber, and it is a delight and a pleasure to know that we have reached the stage that we have of contrasting policies, both of which are a step forward. But they are in contrast, and they provide real and marked differences: the difference between the 18 weeks of support that the government is offering and the 26 weeks that is the international standard, which the coalition believes is reasonable and should be pursued; and the difference between a minimum wage payment and a real wage payment providing an actual, real, genuine income stream for families at the time when they most need it. These are fundamental differences and they are differences that obviously we will take through to the next election.

I join with others in challenging the government to improve their scheme, to make it better, to make it more reflective of the model outlined by Tony Abbott and this side of the chamber. But, if they reject that, we will take any step forward—rather than take no step at all—and that at least is what they are offering.

I do want to reflect on some of those who have brought this debate to this stage, because it has, as many have reflected, been a long debate—one spanning many years, many ministers, many senators, and many public policy advocates outside of this place. They have all done an outstanding job in raising awareness of the need to provide this type of practical assistance for Australian families, for working families—to coin a phrase; it is a phrase that has been used so often in this place—and, in particular, to provide a better form of choice for many Australian women and to make sure that they are supported in the family and workplace choices they make in their lives.

I look back to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s 1999 pregnancy and discrimination report, Pregnant and productive, which investigated some of the discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy and the management of pregnancy in the workplace. It started a process that has led us ultimately to this debate today, and I am sure will lead to subsequent debates to improve the proposal that is on the table. That report recommended the inclusion of a review, by HREOC and the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, of funding options for a paid parental leave scheme.

That work was continued under the Howard government by HREOC, the department and, in particular, the government’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner at the time, Pru Goward—who, I note, is now the member for Goulburn in the New South Wales parliament and the shadow minister for community services and for women. Then Sex Discrimination Commissioner Goward presented several options for extending paid maternity leave in the report Valuing parenthood in April 2002. That was followed by a final report, Time to value, later that year. Those were the types of policy development processes that have laid the foundations for the broad acceptance of the policy that is being undertaken today, and I want to pay particular tribute to Pru Goward for her work in all that she did in getting us to that point.

I also want to acknowledge some before us in this place who have championed the issue, and one in particular: our former colleague, a former senator from South Australia, Senator Stott Despoja. Natasha Stott Despoja was an early advocate for, and she long advocated, paid parental leave options. Indeed, she, on behalf of the Australian Democrats, developed a proposal, for the 2001 election, relating to paid parental leave, and tabled the first legislation specifically seeking a paid parental leave scheme in May 2002. At the time of tabling that bill, then Senator Stott Despoja said:

Action on this issue simply requires a commitment to get things right for Australia’s working women and their families. We do not need more deferral strategies—more costings, options and talk. It is time to act.

From talking to Natasha when she was in town just the other week, I know that she is delighted that—although eight years have passed since she made those remarks in this place—it is, finally, indeed time to act, and that action has ensued on this very important issue. She wishes that the scheme were more than is proposed—many of us wish that—but she acknowledges the steps that have been taken. I know she would have been delighted, had she still been in this chamber, to make a thorough contribution to this debate—to argue, I am sure, for improvements that she would have been passionate about. But she would at least certainly have welcomed this step forward.

So I want to pay tribute to the many people—on all sides of the chamber and, especially, outside of parliament—who have carried this public policy debate forward. This will be a positive step forward. It will help many of Australia’s families. It will help in terms of our economic productivity in the future. It should not be seen just as a welfare measure or a social policy measure; it should be embraced equally as an economic and productivity measure that will allow Australian families to maximise their productive place in the workforce.

In closing, I again urge the government to consider the very significant improvements that the coalition advocates—improvements which would make a good step forward a great step forward and which would ensure that we get the best of benefits for Australian families and for the Australian economy into the future.