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Thursday, 27 May 2010
Page: 4380

Dr STONE (10:40 AM) —I rise to talk about the Paid Parental Leave Bill 2010 and the Paid Parental Leave (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2010. There is currently no universal legislated right to paid parental leave in Australia. These bills introduce that right for the first time. There should of course have been mandated, paid-for parental leave in Australia for a very long time. We, apart from the USA, are the last society to ensure that all working families have paid leave to assist parents in the workforce, particularly to help with the mothers’ recovery and to make sure we offer the very best possible start for our newborns. Given that it has taken Australia so long and there are decades of other developed nations’ policies and practices for us to learn from, it is astonishing that the Rudd Labor government are asking the working families of Australia to accept such a shambolic and limited paid parental scheme. That is what is before us today in the parliament.

Labor’s policy is so poor that even their own National Foundation for Australian Women, in their submission to the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry into these bills, stressed that Labor’s Paid Parental Leave scheme must only be seen as a first step and must be enhanced over time. This begs the question: why should the NFAW and the ACTU be so cowed and contrite? Who do they think they really represent? They should not be so grateful for just a few crumbs. Why should Australian working women be fobbed off with a small, cheap, one inadequate step at a time policy from this Labor government? Australian families deserve a scheme that is equal to the best there is—that is, which offers them at least six months to bond with their babies, to recover from the birth and to exclusively breastfeed if they can or wish to. But this government is only putting 4½ months, or 18 weeks, leave on the table.

Why should Australian working women be denied superannuation while they are on paid parental leave? The Rudd government know full well that Australian women’s working lives are too often interrupted, given they undertake the vast majority of parenting, and caring for the disabled, the aged and infirm. Stop-start careers or part-time work interrupts continuous superannuation contributions—we all know that—and this erodes women’s capacity to accumulate sufficient superannuation or savings to retire independently. Seventy-five per cent of Australia’s age pensioners are women, because they cannot support themselves adequately in their old age. Labor are happy, apparently, to have this sad situation perpetuated. Their policy denies continuing superannuation to parents taking parental leave.

The second income in an Australian household is now very often necessary to help families buy a home and to meet other costs associated with raising a family. Not all are in the privileged position of being able to rely on a single breadwinner earning sufficient income to establish and maintain the home and lifestyle that most Australians aspire to. As well, ironically, Australia’s women are among the best educated in the world. The majority of our women want to use that education to develop a career so they can fully participate in our society and the economy. So, not surprisingly, over the past 30 years the growth in female workforce participation in Australia has risen steeply, particularly for those of child-bearing age. For example, the participation rate of 25- to 34-year-old partnered women has risen from 45 per cent in 1978 to over 70 per cent in 2008. On average, some 62½ per cent of women giving birth in Australia were in the workforce before the birth and, of these, some 74 per cent want to return to work if they can.

So this mandated paid parental leave scheme is essential for our country, but it has to be a good scheme. Labor’s Paid Parental Leave scheme is not a replacement salary scheme for women who have been in the workforce up to the time of the birth. They are offered only the minimum wage for all. This is what Labor is offering. There is no doubt that many women will do their sums and will not be able to afford to take the leave offered by Labor’s miserable scheme. The government acknowledges this, and so it is including a calculator on its website to help the parent or parent-to-be estimate whether or not they will be better off monetarily sticking with the baby bonus and struggling back to work as soon as they can. This is, of course, a tragic option for mothers of newborn babies and families who want to properly parent those newborns. The choice of baby bonus or Labor’s very cheap and miserable Paid Parental Leave scheme should not be a choice forced on our working families. Labor is perpetuating the situation where too many women regret for the rest of their lives the fact that they simply could not afford to be with their newborn for a suitable period of time because they could not afford to keep paying the bills on a single income or less than they had earned before.

If you read Minister Jenny Macklin’s second reading speech, you will see that she is fully aware that Labor has cheated Australian families of a proper and decent paid parental leave scheme. She has said that she expected, and indeed hoped, that parents would top up her scheme with the privately negotiated paid parental leave schemes that are already in existence across the economy in Australia. This is, of course, a mean and cruel expectation. It, in fact, perpetuates the haves and have-nots—the gross inequalities that have affected parents in Australia for many, many years. It is simply un-Australian.

Some more or less paid parental leave has long been provided by businesses wanting to keep their skilled women staff. This paid parental leave has been offered through workplace agreements or by legislation which, in particular, caters for the very fortunate women in the Public Service—for example, the Maternity Leave (Australian Government Employees) Act 1973. As well, there are state awards and state legislation which ensure that state government public servants and some others have some paid parental leave. Private arrangements for women to access paid maternity leave have, in fact, increased from only 36 per cent in 2003 to 41 per cent in 2005—that is according to the ABS. Over the five-year period to August 2007, the proportion of full-time employees who are entitled to paid maternity leave rose from 43 per cent to 60 per cent. However, for part-time employees it only rose from a very low 18 per cent to 27 per cent. Of course, that is less than half the percentage offered parental leave compared to full-time workers.

In August 2007, the ABS estimated that 45 per cent, or 1.8 million, of Australia’s four million female employees were entitled to paid parental leave in their main job, but access to paid parental leave varied not only according to the hours worked but also according to pay levels. For example, 84 per cent of women earning over $1,200 per week have access to paid parental leave. This has to be compared with only 24 per cent of those on wages under $500 per week being offered parental leave. Sixty per cent of women designated as professionals use paid maternity leave, while only about half that percentage—some 31 per cent—of those designated as intermediate clerical, sales or service workers can access such leave. In 2005, 76 per cent of the fortunate women employed in the public sector in their last main job while pregnant used paid maternity leave, but this compared to just 27 per cent of women employees in the private sector. Eighty per cent of women whose last main job while pregnant was in the public service, government administration or defence, and 68 per cent of those in education departments across the country, used paid maternity leave. There were also higher levels of paid maternity leave access in the finance and insurance industries. But let me stress that in the industries with the lowest proportion of female employees with paid maternity leave entitlements—these were the industries with the lower paid women or part-time women, in accommodation, cafes and restaurants—only 14 per cent had paid leave. In retail, only 21 per cent had paid parental leave.

So access to paid maternity leave in Australia depends at the moment on your pay rates, your skill levels, the hours you work, your industry or occupation and whether you were in the public service or the private sector. This leave varies from two days on offer to 18 weeks. What this government has done is perpetuate that inequality, and the advisers listening to this debate should be ashamed that they allowed the minister to persist with this policy. You should have advised differently.

This is an appalling continuation of the haves and have-nots, because what this government has said is: ‘Yes, we know our scheme is inadequate. It’s very mean and poor. It only offers 18 weeks at the minimum wage, with no superannuation. But you go away and have it topped up by your employer.’ The poor women of Australia, the lower paid, the part-time workers and the self-employed do not typically have those alternative private sector or public sector schemes to top them up and give them a decent period of leave from their workplace. I think that is disgraceful. I think this Labor government should stand condemned and ashamed, and I cannot understand why the ACTU stands by and says, ‘Oh, well, at least we’ve got something.’ ‘Something’ is simply not good enough for Australia’s working families.

I hope that I have made it absolutely clear that lower paid women and those more likely to be in part-time work are far less likely to have a top-up scheme of paid parental leave, and they have to have that top-up scheme, as I have said, to make Labor’s meagre offering affordable. Of course, our coalition will aim to amend this scheme to offer something far better, and our leader will introduce those amendments shortly.

Lower paid women working in hospitality, tourism and retail and the self-employed and contract worker women across the country will inevitably be forced to rely exclusively on Labor’s offer of only 18 weeks of leave while their better paid sisters can add their employer’s scheme on top to give them at least six months leave or an even better salary outcome. How can Labor sustain the argument that lower paid women need less time to recover from a birth, are less likely to breastfeed or are able to recover faster from a pregnancy than better paid women in, say, the Public Service or the banking sector?

The longstanding inequity of access to paid maternity leave for women in Australia has always had impacts on Australia’s productivity and on women’s career development and attachment to their workplaces. Their accumulation of superannuation and savings and ultimately their financial independence have long been affected by the current inequities of access to paid parental leave in Australia. Labor is perpetuating this problem. The coalition will not stand for it.

Labor is introducing only 18 weeks of paid parental leave, to be paid at the minimum wage, for those who have worked at least 330 hours in 10 of the last 13 months. Primary carers earning over $150,000 will not be eligible and the paid parental leave is to be taxed. I have no doubt that Labor’s offer of only 18 weeks of paid parental leave without superannuation and only at the minimum wage will see many women in families dependent on a second income forced back to work earlier than is optimal for the mother and the baby’s wellbeing. That is not what families in Australia expected from any government—although perhaps they thought it was more likely they would be let down by a Labor government. After such a long wait for a mandated universal scheme this is a bitter disappointment.

The coalition’s scheme is world’s best practice. It offers six months of leave at the mother’s salary up to $150,000 or the minimum wage, whichever is greatest, and superannuation is paid—currently this is at nine per cent. We have the same eligibility criteria for access to paid parental leave as has been identified by Labor. We also make sure that women who are self-employed, who are in partnerships or who are contractors are able to participate in this scheme. There will be appropriate eligibility criteria.

In most countries with paid parental leave the parents may decide which parent takes leave or takes part of the leave and claims the income support. However, in Sweden, Iceland and Norway the governments have chosen to structure their paid parental leave to reflect their societies’ gender equity objectives, the benefit to the baby of some early close association with the father and the sharing and diminishing of what would otherwise be the mother-only experience of an interrupted career and superannuation reduction.

Unlike Labor, the coalition also recognises that the father, or non-primary carer, also often wants to have a close bonding experience and parenting experience with their newborn. Often the father has to be encouraged and given an opportunity to assist the mother and to bond with the newborn with special workplace leave arrangements. Hence, the coalition’s scheme includes a two-week use-it or lose-it period of leave. We have to change the attitudes of our society about the needs of parenting couples and their babies. The coalition intends to assist with this cultural change in the interests of ushering in a new era of a more caring, family-friendly and nurturing society.

We know that, along with paid parental leave, we must have greater flexibility in the workplace. We must have businesses understand that, while it may be different to what they have done traditionally, they can and should consider part-time work, job sharing, working from home where it is possible and certainly different workplace arrangements, particularly when a parent is in the early years of having to support their young children. Flexible workplace arrangements of course do not only meet the needs of workers with young children; flexible workplace arrangements enable workers to manage their responsibilities for caring in the community, perhaps for older relatives or disabled children. Unfortunately, under Labor’s new industrial relations regime that flexibility is a lot less possible. We regret that. The coalition will ensure that in the future our workplace relations will foster and encourage more family-friendly workplaces in our country, because, quite simply, nothing else will do.

Labor’s paid parental policy does more than disadvantage the poorer part-time women, who are less likely to have another paid parental leave offer to fall back on or to supplement Labor’s impoverished, meagre and inadequate scheme. Labor has also failed to address the administrative burden that its scheme will add to small and medium sized businesses. We were hoping that the Paid Parental Leave scheme would not upset businesses who may have resisted the notion of giving, particularly women, paid parental leave, knowing that it is often inconvenient when a replacement worker needs to be found.

Unfortunately, Labor’s policy has exacerbated the additional red tape, the administrative burdens and complications. Labor has inadequately consulted with the business sector. Although they had two years from the campaign announcement of ushering in the Paid Parental Leave scheme, they seem to have left the scheme’s administration arrangements to the very last minute in consulting with the states and businesses.

Labor was determined to advance women’s workplace attachment by requiring their employers to still have the paid parental leave wage go through the companies’ books—in other words, to have the worker retained on the payroll. It seems that a company is to receive the government contribution into their enterprise and must churn it through their payroll and out into the community, where the parent is on leave.

Clearly, this arrangement has implications for payroll tax—in some states more than others. And there are other add-on costs when a worker is retained on your payroll. But the minister has failed totally to understand those complexities and she has not consulted with the states in time to make any sense of what businesses are to do or what extra costs they will be up for or, indeed, what concessions might be made for this particular situation. It is no surprise that the business sector is very angry. They have made significant representations to the Senate inquiry expressing their concern and frustration and anger. Even businesses who have long supported their skilled women workers and who want to make sure that they have paid parental leave are disgusted with the lack of proper consultation and due regard to the complexities that this scheme will now add.

They are not placated by the fact that, recognising that there has been a huge stuff-up in this case, they are to be given six months moratorium in terms of these payments being directed through their payrolls and out to the worker who is on paid parental leave. Unfortunately, six months is not all that great a concession to the businesses. They have no idea how to manage after the six months commencing on 1 January 2011, when the full requirements of the scheme commence. We just have to hope that the coalition is returned to government well before 1 January 2011. We have committed to introducing our alternative scheme, which places no such burden on businesses, so that the small and medium sized business sector in particular will not have to personally manage and manipulate the salaries on their way through. We will have the Family Assistance Office manage all that red tape and administrative detail.

What Labor has done in its misunderstanding of what was required in relation to administering such a scheme is exactly the opposite to what this country needs right now when we have skills shortages and an ageing demographic and we also have the right of women to have a fair go in the workplace. Yes, I am concerned that some businesses, knowing what is ahead of them with Labor’s Paid Parental Leave scheme, with all the additional red tape and administration, will look the other way when a woman of child-bearing age presents at a job interview. That is exactly the reverse of the outcome that we need in the introduction of Australia’s first mandated paid parental leave scheme. Realising that, yes, they have mishandled the administration arrangements for the policy’s implementation, the minister has now, I admit, delayed the requirement that businesses pay the parental leave worker for the first six months. I just have to repeat, this is very cold comfort for the businesses out there.

We also are yet to really understand how this Labor program will manage the contractor woman, the woman doing seasonal work, the parent who is self-employed, the farming woman who is in a partnership, perhaps in a business which has not made any income for a number of years but where she has certainly put in the hours of work which make her eligible for paid parental leave. All of that is still a mystery when it comes to this scheme. It should not be a mystery. This government had nearly two years to work out the details and to put those details out into the community for careful consideration and feedback.

Australia has not had a universally accessible and equitable policy providing real choice for the working women and families in relation to paid parental leave. Universal paid parental leave offered to mothers and/or fathers must help to change the culture in the workplace, which currently can discriminate against women returning to work after pregnancy or, indeed, when they ask for paid parental leave. A national paid parental leave policy must assist and engender greater recognition of the public good of parenting and the fact that parenting is an absolute necessity when it comes to the regeneration of any society.

But good parenting is what this country needs and, more and more in our society, good parenting requires a juggling between workplace or workforce commitments and the responsibilities at home. Women take most of the responsibility for parenting and for caring onto their own plate. It is essential that both men and women in the workforce are given special support, that they are given a scheme that makes sense and is, in fact, world’s best practice.

What they have got in Labor’s scheme is something that is meagre. It perpetuates the inequalities which are currently in the workplace and experienced by women every day. I cannot understand why Labor refused to put on the table a far better scheme when they had so many other developed countries’ schemes to consider in detail. They had feedback from the women advocates across the country saying: ‘Please, give us at least superannuation. Make sure that we have at least six months of time away from the workplace when we can bond with and nurture our newborn and recover from the pregnancy.’ That is not to happen with Labor’s scheme. I repeat, it is a meagre, cheapskate scheme which sells Australia’s working families short. To say that it does not matter because women can go away and get a top-up from some other scheme offered privately or by the public sector is to perpetuate the inequalities where unskilled or lower paid women or women in part-time work are a lot less likely to have access to those alternative schemes. What a mean thing to do to Australia’s working women!

I feel quite ashamed, I have to say. As a working woman myself, I want the best for all the women of Australia, and here I stand in this parliament with a piece of legislation like this on the table. It should have been much better. You can be assured that the coalition understands what is right and proper for Australia’s working families. We will be attempting to amend this scheme. On the other hand, of course, we have put it on the record that we understand that half of something is better than nothing at all. So we have said that at the end of the day, if we cannot get our appropriate amendments through, we will wave this impoverished scheme through. But it will a sad day for Australia and Australia’s working families.