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Thursday, 11 March 2004
Page: 21437

Senator KIRK (5:23 PM) —I rise to speak this afternoon on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Paid Maternity Leave) Bill 2002, which is a private member's bill presented to the Senate by Senator Natasha Stott Despoja. At the outset I would like to congratulate Senator Stott Despoja on her commitment to this very important issue over a long period of time and congratulate her on bringing it before the Senate and to the attention of the government and the wider electorate. Work responsibilities are increasingly threatening most families' abilities to provide the kind of family life they want. However, very few of us today have the luxury of being able to choose not to work, and this is the case for many, many Australian women in the community. The question of how to bridge the work-family life divide is one of the great political debates of our time.

We have heard today that the Prime Minister, Mr Howard, suggested that this issue was his third term barbecue stopper, but it has been more than just a barbecue stopper for ordinary Australian families. For most families in the Australian community, this work-family life issue has been a topic for discussion over almost every meal, not just the occasional barbecue. People in this place and elsewhere in the community have waited a very long time for the government to actually go some way towards providing Australians with a real solution to this problem.

The Prime Minister first raised expectations of significant reform in this policy area as early as 2002, when he described balancing work and family as the most important social issue facing Australia. Since then we have seen very little. Although we have had a cabinet-level policy review and the release of the Sex Discrimination Commissioner's plan for a government-backed universal scheme providing 14 weeks paid maternity leave up to the level of the minimum wage, we have had from the government—from the Prime Minister and his ministers—no concrete new policies whatsoever over the past couple of years. All we have seen from the Prime Minister and his senior ministers—including the Treasurer, Mr Costello; Mr Anderson; Senator Minchin and Mr Abbott—is public attacks on paid maternity leave proposals. In these public statements the government have said that paid maternity leave will not provide a cure-all solution to work and family problems, including support for stay-at-home mothers. There would not be many people in this place who would disagree with that. Of course we agree that paid maternity leave is not going to provide a cure-all. Supporters of paid maternity leave have never suggested that. They have always been open to the fact that paid maternity leave is only one of the aspects of balancing work and family life that needs to be given attention to.

Of course, there are a range of other measures in addition to paid maternity leave that would provide choice for working parents at different stages of their lives. Some of these other benefits would include more flexible working hours, secure part-time employment rather than the increasing casualisation of the employment market that we see at present, extended or even unpaid parental leave in some circumstances as well as emergency family leave and, crucially, more affordable child care. It is certainly the case that paid maternity leave is not going to be the cure-all, but it is certainly a good place to begin, and it has been the focus of public debate for at least the last 12 months or so.

The balance that needs to be found between work and family cannot just be addressed on one side. Women in particular should not have to choose between adequate income and adequate time with their families. Recently released ABS statistics show that one-third of working new mothers returned to work less than 26 weeks after having a baby. This includes 12 per cent of employed new mothers who returned to work after less than 13 weeks. This is only about three months after the birth of their baby. Of course, as we have heard, the reason for these women returning to work is not necessarily because they want to get back into the work force but because they have to in order to survive—to earn an income for their family and to sustain the standard of living they were accustomed to before they had their child.

For women in households where there are couples, 54 per cent of mothers with children under two are in the labour force. More than 50 per cent of mothers have returned to the labour force, yet they have children under the age of two. Over the 25-year period between the years 1976 and 2001, the proportion of mothers of children under 12 months old who were in the labour force more than doubled from 17 per cent to 36 per cent. This represents the changing nature of the work force and the changing demographics. These are things we need to become aware of and so develop appropriate policies to meet the changing nature of the work force. It is the case that at any one time around one-third of mothers are outside the labour force, but they are not necessarily the same women who have permanently exited paid employment. In fact, the latest ABS data suggests that only 17 per cent of mothers of children under six have not returned to work.

So, because of the statistics that I have cited, I think that those people out there who seem to have difficulties with paid maternity leave need to acknowledge that it is just one of the many policies that provide important grounds on which to build a range of more family friendly policies. We on this side of the chamber would like to see Mr Howard, now that he has confirmed his long-term leadership ambitions, take the opportunity, sooner rather than later, to act to end what has effectively become this government's work and family policy paralysis.

I now turn to what Labor has announced publicly. As was made clear by other speakers, including Senator Collins, in the chamber earlier this afternoon, Labor's policy is not publicly available as yet but we have laid out a number of the principles on which our policy will be based. To reiterate them, it is the case that Labor are committed to 14 weeks paid maternity leave. We want Australian families to have more financial options available to them in balancing work and family. We are of the view that it is not unreasonable for workers to come back from parental leave and then seek a part-time job. It is not unacceptable to give casual workers greater security, and of course with this job security workers and parents are better able to look after their families. It is not unreasonable in our society to have workplace flexibility: job sharing and allowing employees to plan their hours and their holidays around the needs of their children. We do not want people to have to choose between being a good parent and being a good employee. In a society such as ours, you should be able to do both with the support of the government and the community.

As many speakers have acknowledged in the chamber today, Australia is one of the few countries in the world where paid maternity leave is left to separate enterprise bargaining or workplace agreements. Perhaps inevitably, this has led us to a situation where the highest incidence of paid maternity leave is recorded amongst managers, administrators and professionals. In fact, I have here some Australian Bureau of Statistics survey results, dated November 2001, and I will mention this afternoon some of the statistics as to where the highest incidence of paid maternity leave is recorded. For managers and administrators, 65 per cent is the figure that the ABS found in relation to paid maternity leave in those occupations. For professionals it is 54 per cent. So you can see from these figures that women in the higher echelons of the work force are the ones who are benefiting from paid maternity leave insofar as it does exist.

The lowest incidence of paid maternity leave was, not surprisingly, recorded in the following occupations. Among elementary clerical, sales and service workers, only 18 per cent of women have access to paid maternity leave benefits. In the case of labourers and related workers, just 21 per cent have access to paid maternity leave. The ABS survey also found that access to paid maternity leave was higher the greater an employee's length of service with an employer. This means of course that it is going to benefit those people who have been with a particular employer for a longer period of time, whereas those women who have perhaps been with a particular employer for only a short time are not going to benefit from these schemes.

The ABS survey also found that a higher proportion of part-time employees were without leave entitlements, 64 per cent, as opposed to full-time employees, of whom only 12 per cent were affected—that is, they were without leave entitlements. So it is pretty clear from these figures that many low-income women would have no current eligibility for any form of maternity leave. Also, there is little likelihood of these women gaining it through enterprise bargaining. It is these types of women, people in the low-income brackets and in the occupations that I have mentioned, who are going to benefit substantially from any successful proposal for paid maternity leave.

As we have heard today, the Prime Minister has continually promised that paid maternity leave is still on the table, but it seems to me and to many of us on this side of the chamber that he really is just trying to sweep the issue under the table. The lack of support from the Prime Minister is not new. I believe Senator Collins cited an example of a comment the Prime Minister made publicly as long ago as 1986 when he was Leader of the Opposition. At the time he described some proposed changes for federal public servants relating to maternity leave as `plainly ridiculous'. He also made it clear at that time that a coalition government would consider scrapping maternity leave for public servants. More than a decade later—15 years or more—the Prime Minister still has not got the issue right. He still has not realised that time has moved on, society has changed and there is this need for paid maternity leave in our work force.

Also, as has been mentioned, since the coalition came into office they have introduced the baby bonus. A number of people have talked about the regressive nature of the baby bonus. It is pretty clear to people that this baby bonus scheme is skewed towards wealthier women in our society. These women receive more of a bonus than lower paid women and it is dependent on one parent giving up their work. On average, the baby bonus delivers just $10 a week to a family on an average income and, again, it is on the condition that one parent remains outside the work force for five years. The baby bonus, resulting essentially in the loss of one wage with a pittance for compensation, is a very poor cousin to a system of paid maternity leave.

Unfortunately, Labor has indicated that it thinks the Democrats' paid maternity leave bill is—like the government's baby bonus scheme—an inadequate attempt at solving the work-family life balance, as good as its intentions are. As Labor senators mentioned in their dissenting report—I was not a member of the committee but this is clear to me from the dissenting report to the inquiry—the concerns of Labor senators were whether or not a workplace relations bill was the appropriate vehicle for the introduction of a paid maternity leave scheme. There was also concern about eligibility for paid maternity leave being restricted to only working mothers, the lack of sufficient support and consistent access to paid maternity leave for women employed in state governments and, finally, the funding of the proposed maternity leave scheme.

Despite much talk by the government on work and family, as we are all very aware and as we have seen today, the government has made no clear commitment whatsoever to the introduction of any form of paid maternity leave. On the other hand, the Australian Labor Party has committed to the introduction of a paid maternity leave scheme and also to a comprehensive work and family package for Australian families. Labor has committed to introducing paid maternity leave as part of a package of work and family measures so that women in particular do not have to choose between their job and raising a family. The government's objections to paid maternity leave reflect its failure to understand the pressures facing Australian families who want children, who want a family, but who cannot afford not to work.

Paid maternity leave is, as I have said throughout the course of my remarks today, just one of a number of work and family measures. By itself it is unlikely to offer a solution to the multiple pressures that people will face in deciding to make the commitment to having and raising children. It is, however, a step towards bridging the gap between women's desires and women's realities. It is also a step, I believe, towards shaping the kind of society that we want to live in here in Australia—not one where high private costs deter even those who want children from having them but one where government policy enables families to combine work and family life and to avoid the either/or choice of being a good worker or a good parent. I would like to end with a simple quote from the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Pru Goward, that really sums up the basis of this debate. She said:

It's time motherhood received the respect and support in Australian society it deserves.

I am very pleased to have been able to contribute to this debate this afternoon and, again, I commend Senator Stott Despoja for her continued interest in this matter.