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Wednesday, 16 June 2010
Page: 3451

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) (12:05 PM) —The government will not be accepting the requests seeking to extend the scheme from 18 to 26 weeks. Clearly that would be quite a different proposition and would more than double the cost of the scheme. The estimated cost would be at least an additional $300 million a year to fund the extra eight weeks of the minimum wage with the same offset in savings. But we have made it clear that this is a foundation proposal. We have worked very hard to build community support for this. The reality is that Australia has talked about this for many, many years. Senator Hanson-Young is right to point out that parental leave arrangements have been in place in other countries for many years and that many are more generous than this. It is equally true that during all that period when they have had those schemes we have had nothing. She undervalues the importance and significance of this reform.

We have put in a lot of work to build community support and to assure employers about the efficacy of the scheme and that it will not place unfair imposts on them and the management of their business, which has always been a major argument used against us going down this path. The Productivity Commission’s final report supported the compelling evidence of child and maternal health and wellbeing benefits when mothers can take at least six months off work, but the report also noted that a paid parental leave scheme does not need to cover the full six-month period. It estimated that an 18-week scheme would enable most primary carers to spend six months exclusively caring for their baby.

The scheme is expected to increase the average length of leave taken by employed women after childbirth by around 10 weeks. Currently, working mothers take an average of 37 weeks leave after childbirth but around one-third return to work within less than six months. Obviously, these 18 weeks of funded parental leave can be taken in conjunction with or in addition to employer provided maternity leave and other employer provided leave. It is possible to extend the period people have off work but this parental leave introduces a very significant social reform in this country’s history. It is overdue, but this government has made that commitment. We have negotiated with industry and other constituent groups with an interest in the subject and we have brought something that is feasible, that is practical and that is broadly supported.

While many will argue for 26 weeks, 38 weeks or 49 weeks, and I understand all those arguments, we think this is a very important initiative. It is one where we have built community support and, quite frankly, political support because it was not until recently that the opposition endorsed such a move. It was not one they were prepared to support while in government. I am not trying to score political points but that has been the reality. Recently, the now opposition have got to that point of accepting the rationale for such a scheme. We are grateful for that political support.

We think that this is a good basis for the nation to move forward. We think we can make this work in the interests of all Australians and of all parents who access the scheme. It would be good if we could get this in place. We can always have the arguments about how we might be able to fund a scheme that provides more leave. But we have done the work, we have done the consultation, we have built community support and we have built political support. It is an important social reform and I would urge the Senate to reject this amendment and accept that this is an important foundation step and that we ought to focus on the positive not on the future agenda that perhaps some may have for the scheme. Let us get this in place. Let us get it right and let us make sure it works for parents in this country.