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Wednesday, 16 June 2010
Page: 3430

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Senator FIELDING (Leader of the Family First Party) (10:29 AM) —I believe we should be increasing the assistance we give to families with children, because having children is expensive and families need all the help they can get. But the Rudd government’s Paid Parental Leave scheme goes about doing this in the wrong way. The scheme is a long, long way from perfect. Instead of having a policy that benefits all families, such as the baby bonus, the government has come up with a scheme that discriminates against parents, depending on how they choose to raise their children. It is a scheme that places higher value on mothers who leave their children in child care, to quickly return to the workforce within a few months after having a baby, and devalues mothers who want to spend more time at home looking after their children. It is a policy that gives money to prisoners and prostitutes but ignores stay-at-home mums and the important unpaid work that they do. Mums who stay at home and look after their kids will be about $2,000 worse off because of the decision than those mums who rush back to the workforce.

Clearly put in this context, this policy hardly seems a fair policy at all, especially to stay-at-home mums. Under the Rudd government’s Paid Parental Leave scheme, mothers will be required to have worked 10 of the last 13 months before giving birth in order to be eligible for the payments. Because of this work test, thousands of stay-at-home mothers will miss out on these payments. This work test is unlikely to affect too many mothers having children for the first time, but what about those mothers who are having their second or third child or, like my mother did, who have 16 children? The Productivity Commission has noted that only 51 per cent of all mothers are engaged in paid work 18 months after giving birth. Many parents like to have their children close together, often two or three years apart. The government’s strict eligibility criteria will now force many parents to delay or decide against having more kids. How can anyone consider this to be sensible policy?

Under the proposed Paid Parental Leave Bill 2010 and related bill, mothers will now be faced with the following scenario after the birth of their first child: (1) rush back to work after only a few months so that they can get 10 months of work time under their belts and still qualify for paid parental leave for their next child or (2) stay at home and look after their newborn and miss out on thousands of dollars in assistance as a consequence. How fair is this choice? What about stay-at-home mums? The government’s policy is designed to discourage women from staying at home and looking after their children during their important formative years and intent on getting women into the paid workforce to help stimulate the economy and increase the tax revenues available for the government. I have no problem with businesses offering a paid parental leave scheme, because it makes economic sense for them to offer attractive incentives to their staff to encourage them to return to work, and ultimately business is about increasing the bottom line. However, profit-making should never be the one and only consideration of the government. If that were the case, no government would ever pay pensions to the elderly or disabled and rural communities would be even more underfunded than they already are. A government’s responsibility is to govern in the best interests of all Australians, not just a select few. A government must also consider the social cost of every policy, not just the economic cost.

Numerous studies show that there are enormous benefits to children who are cared for by their parents and given personal attention rather than being put in the care of strangers with 50 other children in long day care centres, and it would seem that the Rudd government has failed to properly consider this benefit. I am not suggesting for a moment that women should not want to have careers. I also understand that there are many women who would like to spend more time at home looking after their children but their financial situation makes this next to impossible. Similarly, I am in no way advocating cutting the amount of money that we give to families, rather quite the opposite. I believe we should be increasing the assistance that we give to families with children, because having children is expensive and families need all the help they can get. However, this help should be across the board, not just for those families with mothers in the workforce. Instead, we have the government scheme which enshrines into law a policy which ignores the value of the work performed by mothers who stay at home and look after their children. It makes a judgment call on what is real work and what is not. I do not think any parent who has ever spent a day at home looking after a one-year-old will claim that it was a relaxing day off.

The government’s scheme treats underpaid childcare work as the lowest form of work. In fact, it does not even classify it as work. Most incredibly, even prisoners and prostitutes are valued more highly than stay-at-home mums. It is a disgrace, and this is part of Labor policy. That is right. Under the proposed scheme, a criminal who does paid work in prison or a woman who works as a prostitute can each meet the work test requirement to qualify for government payments, but an exhausted mother looking after three small children at home cannot. It is outrageous. What kinds of values is the Rudd government sending the community when prisoners and prostitutes are more highly valued than stay-at-home mums? It is a disgrace. The truth is that the government scheme does have holes in it, probably more than swiss cheese. Also, unlike the baby bonus which stay-at-home mothers can apply for and which is means-tested based on whether the total family income exceeds $150,000, the Paid Parental Leave scheme looks only at how much money the mother earns. Again, this is further discrimination against stay-at-home mothers by having one set of rules for them and another set of more generous rules for women in the workforce.

The government’s scheme also imposes a huge financial cost on businesses and forces small businesses to wade through even more red tape. It makes employers the paymaster instead of the Family Assistance Office, costing businesses $197 million in the first year alone. It makes no sense to set up the Family Assistance Office to be able to administer these payments and then force businesses to take the responsibility for some of these payments at a huge cost to their bottom line. Family First believes that all payments should come through the Family Assistance Office, leaving businesses without the headache of more red tape and allowing them to get on with running their business.

Another huge flaw in the bill is the fact that people who have late-term abortions would still be eligible to receive paid parental leave payments. That is right. Under this bill drug addicts and welfare cheats can rort the system and get paid parental leave money for nothing. Drug addicts and welfare cheats can get pregnant, then after 20 weeks have an abortion and still pocket the government’s cash. It is absolutely ridiculous and it makes you wonder whether the government is making policy on the run again. This was a loophole which was discovered in the baby bonus legislation, and I cannot understand why the government has been so careless as to make the mistake again and is then too stubborn to fix it up.

A recent Galaxy poll showed that 68 per cent of people thought there should be equal funding for all mothers. I will say that again. A recent Galaxy poll showed that 68 per cent of people thought there should be equal funding for all mothers irrespective of whether they engage in paid work in the workforce or do unpaid work as stay-at-home mothers. This is something the Rudd government clearly has not understood. What is more, hundreds of people signed up to my petition calling for equal help for all mums just a couple of hours after it was put up on my website. These figures are compelling and prove that the Rudd government’s scheme as it currently stands is out of touch with the views of the general population.