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Thursday, 11 March 2004
Page: 21432

Senator MURRAY (5:01 PM) —I am pleased today to stand to speak on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Paid Maternity Leave) Bill 2002, a private senator's bill introduced by Senator Stott Despoja with strong support, obviously, from her party room. I am also pleased to be able to put on the record what I have said privately to both Senator Stott Despoja and the party room over a long period—that is, my congratulations to the senator for the strong, vigorous, persistent, consistent and well-argued campaign that she has carried out in this field. I think it is very much in Australia's national interest that we have this debate. I think it is an important part of social architecture that we should seriously consider introducing.

The coalition, particularly the Liberal Party, often like to describe themselves as conservatives, and within the philosophy of conservatism is a strong attachment to, and belief in, the family. There is nothing more conservative and there is nothing more valuable than children and their nurturing and early support. I would suggest to you that this is one of the most conservative of proposals—small `c'—and I am quite surprised by how vigorously some members of the government oppose it. Those members are often very much small `c', even very much capital `C' conservatives—usually males, and their opposition is a bit disappointing. But it seems to me that their rejection of this is inconsistent with their basic belief. If that rejection were based on cost, I could perhaps understand that because one of the things that conservatives believe they have is a good sense of the value of money. But the cost is not high. The greatest proponent on the government side—and I do not mean the political government side, I mean the administrative government side—Ms Goward, has costed this at a very affordable rate. It is far less indeed than the deal we saw culminate today with the passage of MedicarePlus. So I must say that I found it surprising in my own understanding of the very strong attachment that conservatives have to family and its nurturing.

In addition, we think the social benefits are matched by credible economic benefits, and they are verified by sound international study. It is widely recognised that Australia lags behind the international community with respect to support for women when they have a new child, particularly women in paid work. Australia is one of only two OECD countries without a national scheme for paid maternity leave. Quite often if you are out of step it might be that you are listening to a different drummer, but quite often in international affairs if you are out of step it is because you are out of step. I recall that, during the GST debate, the Treasurer had great delight in pointing out how few OECD countries did not have a consumption tax. We, with equally great delight, point out to the Treasurer how few OECD countries do not have a national scheme for paid maternity leave.

There is a reason for that: it contributes to and delivers very sound social and economic outcomes. Not only are we behind the rest of the OECD in implementing 14 weeks paid maternity leave; countries like the United Kingdom have six months government funded paid maternity leave. So it is not as if we are proposing a very advanced model here. This is a minimalist model, and a very affordable one.

Equally, I say to my Labor colleagues that, although I have not had the opportunity to listen to all that you have said, I understand there have been some concerns about some elements within the bill. Senator Stott Despoja by her own circulated amendments on sheet 4191 has recognised that the bill needs adjustment, and we will accept any amendments that you put to this bill that fall within achieving the broad objective that we are after. It is not good enough just to say, `Not everything in the bill is what we'd like.'

Eighty-eight per cent of Australian women work before having children—that is, work in terms of paid work. I think 105 per cent work otherwise! Yet Australia has one of the lowest employment rates in the OECD for women with two or more children—43 per cent compared to about 59 per cent elsewhere. With all eyes on how to increase labour force participation to offset the ageing population and looming skill shortage, shutting a large section of productive workers out of the labour market is not smart economics. Instead of trying to force people off disability support and making people work longer, the government should be doing its utmost to provide support to mothers so, if they choose to, they can return to the work force. Without pressure to change—and that comes from policy makers such as the people in this chamber—workplaces often do not. A recent University of Sydney study found that 57 per cent of Australian workplaces do not provide paid maternity leave.

While the Democrats have supported enterprise bargaining, recent statistics show that the take-up of family friendly practices is low. While it is pleasing that 42 per cent of federal agreements contain at least one family friendly provision, the majority, 58 per cent, do not. The consequence of not having paid maternity leave is that many women are forced to take annual leave or long service leave, return to their job within a week of childbirth or resign from their job. Senators who know me know that I take an intense interest in matters that affect children and I have been reading the literature. There is a concept known as `affect', which is the relationship that builds between a child and its mother. It is very important to nurture and sustain that attachment at an early stage. It is very important to do it consistently, particularly in the early months of a child's development. If you want to contribute to sound human beings, Australians who get a good start in life, you need them to be attached to their mother in a comforting and sustaining manner early on. This sort of measure contributes to that.

It is low-paid mothers, many of whom are employed in casual or part-time jobs, who are the least likely to have access to paid maternity leave. There has been concern in some areas of business about the potential cost of paid maternity leave, especially to employers who employ many women, especially those in small business. The Australian Democrats think those concerns are absolutely legitimate. Some people are concerned that forcing employers to provide paid maternity leave would lead to greater discrimination against women because they would be less likely to employ women. We take the view that there are some employers who just cannot afford to pay maternity leave at the level that is required. This is a social need and this is a measure which benefits society, and that is exactly why we need government funded paid maternity leave, not employer funded paid maternity leave. Let employers who can afford it add to the 14 weeks we propose. Let employers who can afford it add extra conditions or advantages to the system. But we believe that the basic government system should take the burden away from employers to ensure that all women have access to a maternity payment.

The government's indecision on implementing government funded paid maternity leave is having unintended consequences. According to the ACTU, 15 per cent of employers have halted efforts to implement paid maternity leave while waiting for the government to make a decision on the issue. I should remind the government that this bill is supported by key industry groups such as the AIG, which I deal with a great deal in my portfolios and have a high opinion of, and the Australian Hoteliers Association and, of course, on the employees side, the unions. Government funded paid maternity leave is well overdue. The reason for it is clear: to overcome the disadvantage and inequity women face in the workplace as a result of child-bearing. But it is not a measure just for the benefit of women. It is a measure for the benefit of children. It is the children on which the future of Australia rests. The biological imperative for women to take a break prior to and after childbirth is in the mothers' interest, it is in the children's interest and it is in society's interest.

This measure addresses the physical reality that distinguishes women's workplace experiences from men's on the birth of a child. In this sense, paid maternity leave is a basic and essential workplace measure to prevent indirect discrimination against women who, I am told, can forgo between $160,000 and $239,000 in earnings as a result of their first child alone, depending upon their qualification. Paid maternity leave, therefore, is an employment related measure that recognises, first and foremost, the benefits of at least 14 weeks paid leave for working mothers, their children and their families, along with its contribution to equal opportunity at work, productivity and women's employment security and attachment. We would urge the Labor Party and the coalition in their preparation for the election to support this measure if they are not going to support this bill today. The coalition is clearly committed to opposing the bill tonight. We would like to bring this to a vote and we would like the Labor Party to support it. It would be a great symbol for the women and children of Australia.