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Tuesday, 15 June 2010
Page: 3333

Senator JACINTA COLLINS (6:41 PM) —The Rudd government’s Paid Parental Leave scheme is a historic reform for Australia and it demonstrates Labor’s ongoing commitment to supporting working families. As I go along, I will deal with some of the relatively glib criticisms that have been raised to date in this debate, and in the public debate as well, but we need to paint some background history to these proposals.

The government’s Paid Parental Leave scheme was announced in last year’s budget and is fully costed and fully funded into the future—unlike the opposition’s plan, which has no detail, no costings and no time frame. It was cheap politicking by a new opposition leader. The government’s scheme is based on recommendations from the Productivity Commission, which undertook an extensive, year-long inquiry to get the scheme right. Compare this with Mr Abbott’s thought bubble, which has created massive uncertainty for Australian families and businesses—more evidence of him talking first and thinking later, as the opposition’s scheme has evolved.

The government had extensive discussions with employers, unions and family groups about the implementation of this significant reform. The Productivity Commission found that Labor’s scheme would increase the amount of time new parents would have to spend at home with their newborn baby—around six months of exclusive parental care on top of existing entitlements. Under Labor’s Paid Parental Leave scheme, women on low incomes will have greater financial security when planning to have a baby. Around 30,000 working families with incomes less than $50,000 are expected to benefit.

The Productivity Commission found that industries which are female dominated and highly casualised, such as retail and hospitality, have the lowest levels of access to paid parental leave. In 2008, only 17 per cent of women on very low wages had access to paid parental leave, compared with 70 per cent of women on high wages, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. It is simply time to act. Mr Abbott’s proposal, on the other hand, is for a paid parental leave scheme funded by a great big new tax on employers. The Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Julie Bishop, has said that the great big new tax is only temporary and will be replaced by taxpayers funding their proposals.

Under Mr Abbott’s plan, people earning up to $150,000 a year will have their parental leave paid at the full rate at taxpayers’ expense. Ordinary working families getting by on one-third of that amount or less will be forced to pay more tax or higher prices to fund these higher earners. The opposition’s scheme is targeted to high-income families. It does little to help the majority of families on low to middle incomes. This is perhaps why the polls that have been taken in response to these policies show that 40 per cent of respondents still favoured Labor’s government funded scheme, compared with 24 per cent who supported the coalition’s proposal. This is where the opposition has, in my view, been playing politics with serious policy proposals. You did not see serious proposals put to the Productivity Commission by the now opposition. All we have seen is relatively glib criticisms and a limited understanding of the policy debate.

Last week I attended Diversity Council Australia’s debate on paid parental leave, which was coined ‘Not if, but how’ and explored the government and the opposition’s paid parental leave policies and what they mean for women, families, business and the Australian economy. As I described to the audience, the paid parental leave debate is not about ‘if’ or ‘how’ but ‘at last’. Finally we have action which cannot be compromised by cheap politicking or glib criticism as we have heard to date.

When I first came into parliament in 1995, the contribution I made on the Keating government’s introduction of maternity allowance comes to my mind. This allowance was designed to meet half of our international obligation towards providing minimum income support for a mother taking leave following the birth of her child. The intention of the Keating government at the time, if re-elected—which it was not—was to then fund the other half of our international obligation through about 13 to 14 weeks of minimum income support, rather than the minimum wage, for mothers taking leave around the birth of the child. Many years later, the Howard government had introduced the baby bonus, which improved the level of income support available but still did not get anywhere near meeting our international obligations.

Much of the public discussion has centred on issues such as whether stay-at-home mothers will be worse off. The government, in dealing with our amendments in relation to the legislation and the Senate committee report, will touch in part on this issue. The clear objective of this legislation is to improve the circumstances of women and their workforce engagement when they have babies. It is not a debate about women choosing to stay at home or return to work; it is about improving the outcomes for women who remain engaged with the workforce.

I seek leave to continue my remarks at a later time—when I do so I will address in detail some more of those issues.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.