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Thursday, 16 October 2008
Page: 6282

Senator CAROL BROWN (6:35 PM) —I rise to speak tonight on the recent release of the Productivity Commission’s interim report Paid parental leave. As a mother of two young children who has been fortunate enough to have accessed paid maternity leave in the past, I know firsthand just how important it can be for those crucial first months of a child’s life—both for the development of the child and the proper recovery of the mother. Apart from allowing new mothers the grace to reskill, albeit rather quickly, in the practical realities of parenthood, paid maternity leave takes some of the pressure off new parents and, to a certain extent, allows them to just be that: parents. However, as the report details, at present a significant number of parents, particularly new mums, do not enjoy access to paid maternity leave. The report notes that only around half of working mums, and even fewer working dads, are currently eligible to access paid parental leave arrangements.

Indeed, for some time the debate regarding paid parental leave entitlements has been, and continues to be, plagued with constant undertones of doubt, with persistent questioning of why new parents should have access to such a scheme. We all know that argument well—that if couples choose to have children then it should be their sole responsibility to support them. Let us consider for a moment the practical realities facing new parents in the present day, in which the demands on new parents, particularly young mothers, have arguably never been greater.

Working mothers today, as I am well aware, more often than not find themselves in a constant state of strain, trying to juggle the demands of work with the responsibilities that come with parenting, not to mention the ever-increasing weight of social expectation that all new mothers should be able manage all of this with a smile on their face and bounce back instantaneously. The reality is that, at present, an increasing number of mums are sleep deprived and running themselves ragged just to keep up.

A long-running study by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, Growing up in Australia, reveals that full-time working mothers are spending only four hours less per day with their young children—working at least 7.5 hours a day then, on top of that, squeezing in almost the equivalent of another full day’s work outside work hours to take care of their children. In the end, whether we want to admit it or not, something has to give, and the government recognises this.

When taking office last November the government pledged to do what it could to take the pressure off working families. So far we have introduced a number of family based policy initiatives in the areas of early childhood learning, child care and workplace relations that are aimed directly at alleviating this pressure. These include increasing the childcare tax rebate from 30 per cent to 50 per cent, the introduction of more flexible unpaid parental leave options in our new National Employment Standards and the investment of $533.5 million over the next five years to provide universal access to quality early learning programs for 15 hours a week—just to name a few. Indeed, as the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, highlighted earlier in the year, the government’s new approach to family policy has been to put children at the centre of policymaking and not on the margin.

The introduction of a national paid parental leave scheme lies at the heart of such an approach, with a plethora of evidence suggesting that babies benefit physically, socially and mentally from having at least one of their parents home with them for the first six months of their life. That does not even take account of the benefits for parents when they can have that time at home with their newborn babies. Therefore the release of the Productivity Commission’s draft report Paid parental leave: support for parents with newborn children represents a logical and practical step in the right direction, both in terms of reconceptualising the work-home debate and moving toward providing both parents and children with the support they need.

As the interim report into paid parental leave highlights, such an approach to family policy is much needed and long overdue, as your typical working family now features a working dad and, more often, a run-off-her-feet working mum. The report notes that roughly 285,000 children were born in Australia last year. Of these, 175,000 were born to mothers who were in the paid workforce prior to giving birth, with at least 80 per cent of these mothers intending to return to full-time work. Further, it notes that women’s participation in the paid workforce is at a historical high, particularly in the key reproductive years age group, between 24 and 34 years. Workforce participation rates in this bracket increased from around 45 per cent to 70 per cent between 1978 to 2008. However, our birth rate currently hovers around 1.81 babies per woman.

Another report released by the Australian Institute of Family Studies earlier this year, titled Fertility and family policy in Australia, reveals that most couples would actually like more children but lack the confidence in their ability provide for them. The handing down of the Productivity Commission’s interim report could not have occurred at a more crucial time. With a government now in power that is committed to instituting socially responsible policy, the tide is beginning to turn—the interim report is testament to this. The report recommends the introduction of a paid parental leave scheme which provides 18 weeks parental leave for new mums, which can also be shared with their partners, and an additional two weeks exclusively reserved for new dads.

The commission is now inviting public comment on the recommendations until 14 November and is due to hand its final report to government in February 2009. The commission will be holding public hearings around the country, starting from 10 November. The National Foundation for Australian Women, and Security for Women, with the support of the Commonwealth Office for Women, will also be holding consultations in each state, including my home state of Tasmania. I understand that the public consultation in Tasmania will occur on 10 November. I strongly encourage people to get involved and have their say about the possible shape of our nation’s future paid parental leave scheme.

Whether the commission’s current recommendations represent the final recommendations they hand to the government next year or not, the handing down of the report has effectively shifted the debate from not if but how a paid parental leave scheme will operate in this country. Not so long ago—just over two years ago in fact—things were not so progressed under the previous government, with the former Treasurer boasting, ‘Have one for mum, one for dad and one for the country,’ whilst all but completely ignoring the demands on new families. Indeed, for 12 long years, those opposite ignored the needs of Australian families and failed to act when it came to the practical realities faced by mums and dads around the country.

While the former Treasurer was encouraging Australians to go out and have more children for the health of the future economy, those opposite neglected the most basic needs of Australian families, whether in relation to the provision of affordable child care or a fair and flexible workplace relations system. Indeed, the failure, by those opposite to even acknowledge the issue of paid parental leave for 12 long years has left Australia as one of only two countries in the developed world without a paid parental leave scheme.

For far too long the needs of Australian mums and dads have been ignored. At the last election we made the commitment to the Australian people that we would address this neglect, beginning with the reintroduction of the concept of flexibility and choice back into the workplace—and that is exactly what we intend to do. Our new National Employment Standards will deliver that flexibility and choice, giving mums and dads a choice to sequence their unpaid maternity and unpaid paternity leave to have a parent at home with a newborn child for the first two years of a child’s life. At the last election we also pledged to ask the Productivity Commission to conduct an inquiry into a paid parental leave model for the country and, as I have said, the interim report represents the first real step forward on this issue.

For far too long Australian mums and dads have been forced to choose between their work and home lives, often having to pit the priorities of one over the priorities of the other. For far too long Australian families, particularly mothers, have had little or no choice when it comes to deciding how best to approach the first few months of their child’s life. The government understands this and, unlike those opposite, understands just how critical the issue of paid parental leave is to promoting a healthier and more productive work-life balance for Australian mums and dads.