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Thursday, 27 May 2010
Page: 4406

Mr ANDREWS (12:29 PM) —I rise to speak on the Paid Parental Leave Bill 2010 and the cognate bill. These bills seek to legislate Labor’s second-rate Paid Parental Leave scheme, a scheme that is far from optimal and has been rushed. Implementation of this will have a detrimental impact and will throw even more red tape on Australia’s hardworking small-business operators. Let me be clear: I believe that providing meaningful and equitable support to families is of critical importance. Such support promotes healthy families and healthy relationships.

As the Early years report to the Ontario government found, parenting itself is a critical element of early childhood development and must be supported from the earliest possible stage of the development of the child. A paid parental leave scheme would no doubt contribute to that end. Indeed, I had genuinely hoped that the government would have delivered a better, more thought-out and more family-friendly scheme than that which Labor has served up on this occasion. Much has been said about parents and work in this debate, but isn’t it primarily about our concern that our children be raised in supportive and caring environments? The government’s bills fall well short of ensuring that all Australian families are provided flexibility so that parents are able to choose what is right for their individual circumstances, whether they are at home or in the paid workforce.

In her important study, Work-lifestyle choices in the 21st century, Catherine Hakim, a senior research fellow at the London School of Economics, suggests that women are not a homogenous group but three distinct groups with different patterns of behaviours and different responses to policies. According to Hakim:

A minority of women have no interest in employment, careers, or economic independence, and do not plan to work long term unless things go seriously wrong for them. Their aim is to marry as well as they can and give up paid employment to become full-time homemakers and mothers. The group includes highly educated women as well as those who do not get any qualifications.

In contrast, other women actively reject the sexual division of labor in the home, expect to work fulltime and continuously throughout life, and prefer symmetrical roles for husband and wife rather than separate roles.

The third group—

which she describes as ‘adaptive women’—

is numerically dominant: women who are determined to combine employment and family work, so become secondary earners. They may work full-time early in life, but later switch to part-time jobs on a semipermanent basis, and/or to intermittent employment.

In her more recent study Models of the family in modern societies, Hakim confirms her theory by examining work preferences in Europe, particularly Spain and the UK. Her conclusions are reflected in numerous surveys and by family and work choices in Australia.

Based on Parliamentary Library data, we know that about 25 per cent of families with children are headed by a couple with one partner working full time and one partner at home full time; another 25 per cent of families are headed by a couple with one partner working full time and one working part time; about 27 per cent of families have both partners working full time; in six per cent of families neither partner has a job; and 23 per cent of families are headed by a sole parent, of whom about 38 per cent are jobless. The adaptive approach of families to work is also illustrated in the work choices of families with children. Of partnered women aged 35 to 39, 78 per cent of those with no children work full time, compared to 12 per cent who work part time or are not in the workforce. However, only 27 per cent of women with children under 15 work full time, compared to 37 per cent who work part time or are not in the labor force. For those with children over 15, 41 per cent work full time, while 34 per cent either work part time or are not in the labour force.

If this analysis of the choices that parents make about family and work is correct, policies that impact upon the 60 per cent or more of women who are adaptive in their work-family lifestyles are the most likely to provide the choice that families desire. Hakim rightly argues that the role of government is not to favour any of these families. The goal is government neutrality towards all families. These observations suggest that parents should have flexibility and choice in their family and work arrangements. Such choice is not just about the hours worked at any one time but about the arrangements they make over the course of their lives.

While a library of books has been written about the so-called ‘time bind’, to adopt Arlie Russell Hochschild’s well-known title, little has been written about the work-family balance over the life course. The emphasis is on short-term, paid maternity leave, or parental leave, for those in the workforce, but that ignores the reality that parents balance their work and family responsibilities between them over decades, not just a few weeks or a few months after the birth of a child. The life course approach is all the more important with the delay in partnering, the increase in longevity and the ageing of our population.

Labor’s scheme does not sufficiently recognise that parents have different patterns of family responsibilities and paid work over their life cycle. Moreover, the economic circumstances in which Australian families currently find themselves, namely the increasing costs of living and a housing affordability crisis, as well as interest rate rises, have led to more families requiring two incomes just to make ends meet. The length of paid parental leave now available to parents through private enterprise and the Public Service varies greatly from a few days to 18 weeks. Few schemes meet the widely acknowledged ideal leave period of a full six months. The government has chosen not to adopt the internationally recognised standard of six months but has chosen to legislate for 18 weeks, which the Productivity Commission recommended with the strong expectation that employers would top up the leave entitlement to make up the 26 weeks. But that is problematic. This extra time would be made up with annual leave or long service leave paid for by the woman’s employer and would therefore not be available to all working women—for example, those working in casual jobs, who would not have any accrued leave. The bills impose an additional administrative burden on small business, requiring employers to act as paymasters, having to pay the government’s parental leave to employees who are participating. These same small businesses will be liable for state payroll tax for the employee on leave as well as for their replacement.

But Labor’s second-rate scheme is no great surprise. Let us not forget that this is the same government which is pursuing, in part, an antifamily agenda: stripping funding, slashing appropriations and reducing services that assist families to stay together and save marriages. A total of $50 million of family related funding has been slashed in this budget. This same minister has designed a scheme which is so complex that even yesterday evening, when the member for Murray and I received a briefing about this legislative package, the minister’s own departmental officials could not answer simple questions about the operation of the bill. They could not advise, for example, how self-employed mothers would be treated under the proposed new legislation. And while the minister has rushed to get this bill into the House—to get it on the agenda in an election year so she can make up for her failure to look after Australian families—her officials have confirmed the accompanying rules will not be ready until at least 1 October this year. It is, therefore, unsurprising that the government is allowing a six-month moratorium on businesses having to make payments to employees so that these details can be ironed out. But there is no guarantee that this government—notorious for its widespread, costly and detrimental public policy failures—can effectively deliver such a scheme.

The coalition recognises that a paid parental leave scheme is only one part of the role of government in supporting families as they raise the next generation of Australians. Public policy discussions on this issue have been had around the world. Indeed, beginning in the 1930s, Sweden introduced policies that enabled women to maintain their position in the paid workforce whilst having children. The coalition has now put forward its proposed system, which is in stark contrast to Labor’s second-rate scheme. Moreover, we have said that paid parental leave is only one part of family policy and that policy must recognise all parents, whether in the paid work force at a particular time or not.