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Monday, 6 March 2023
Page: 10

Senator BARBARA POCOCK (South Australia) (11:00): I rise to speak to the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Improvements for Families and Gender Equality) Bill 2022 and to add my support to the widespread support that exists in this chamber, including that of my Greens colleague Senator Waters. The Greens will be supporting this bill, because it represents a step—a modest step, but an important step—in the right direction. But much more needs to be done.

Twenty-one years ago, in 2001, I sat at the back of this chamber as a staffer, near the senator who introduced Australia's first private member's bill on paid parental leave, Senator Natasha Stott-Despoja. At that time Australian women were, alongside those in the US, the only women in the OECD not to get a paid rest when they had a baby, 100 years after the ILO said that they should. Anyone who has carried and fed a new baby, been sleep deprived for months and recovered knows how essential that rest is. If Australian men had babies we'd probably lead the world on paid parental leave, just as we led the world on the eight-hour day in 1856 and set a decent minimum wage at Federation. We were international leaders in creating a working man's paradise—a white working man's paradise, it's important to note—but that paradise did not extend to mothers. And we are not yet a working woman's paradise.

Sadly, it was not until 10 years after that first private member's bill that this parliament finally enacted paid parental leave, in 2010, with leave of 18 weeks at the minimum wage and an additional two weeks added later for partners on a 'use it or lose it' basis. Eleven years on, we've been overtaken by the rest of the OECD yet again, with the average period of paid parental leave now around 52 weeks in the OECD and close to full-replacement wages in many places. Australia now has one of the poorest paid parental leave schemes in the developed world, and we're now stuck at an inadequate 18 weeks paid leave with two weeks for partners at minimum wage, without superannuation—a pay cut for so many people at a crucial moment in a family's life.

While I welcome some parts of this bill, including strengthening the 'use it or lose it' provisions and the government's commitment to incrementally increase paid leave to 26 weeks by 2026, these provisions are too little and too slow to effectively support Australian parents. This is why the Greens are seeking to amend the bill to increase paid parental leave to 26 weeks, now. Australian parents should not be left waiting for the government to increase the entitlement by a miserly two weeks a year until it reaches 26 weeks in 2026, a rate that is still well below the OECD average and below best practice.

At the jobs summit and the select committee on work and care, an inquiry that I've had the privilege of chairing over the last eight months, and at the inquiry in relation to this bill, Australians and organisations from across the country—parents, women, unions and employers—were united in a call for paid parental leave and for a greater increase. Indeed, the ACTU, whom Senator Ayres has referenced in his comments, calls for a pathway to 52 weeks. I urge the government to support our amendment to increase paid parental leave to 26 weeks immediately and to create a pathway to 52 weeks paid leave to bring Australia in line with international standards.

Women in our labour movement—Sally McManus, Michele O'Neil, many leaders—stand alongside and on the shoulders of this parliament as they push to ask for more, to play catch-up on this important workplace provision. I also call on the government to support the Greens amendment to add superannuation to parental leave. Recent data shows that women retire with much less, nearly a third less, savings in their super than men, and we know that periods of paid parental leave and part-time work on return from leave have been a contributor to this gap. Yet last week Katy Gallagher told Australian women that they need to wait longer until the budget can comfortably accommodate paying women's superannuation on top of parental leave.

We have costings that tell us that we could do this tomorrow for the sum of $200 million. It's a small proportion of the budget, and it's something that will make a difference to many, many women in Australia. We don't have to wait. We can afford to do it now. It's time the government took action to reflect on its priorities and recognise that supporting women's economic equity is an overdue investment in the future of Australia. There's powerful evidence that improving paid parental leave in these ways will do many good things. It will increase women's participation in paid work. It will address skill shortages. It will increase GDP. It will improve children's development. It will improve relationships between couples and between kids and their parents. It has a very positive effect on men's health. It will help address gender inequality.

I want to finish with a story from the Select Committee on Work and Care inquiry. We heard from many individuals around Australia who look for a decent period of paid rest at the time of birth, with both parents looking for that kind of opportunity. We heard from Suvi, who lives in Sweden and has a 13-month-old daughter. Based on Sweden's parental leave policy, Suvi is planning to take a total of 16 months paid leave, and her partner is taking seven months paid leave. The first 390 days of that leave are generally paid at 80 per cent of a person's income, up to a cap.

Suvi said the best thing about this policy is that she won't be financially disadvantaged for caring for her child and can return to work part time. She has appreciated having that time after a very difficult birth; a start with her daughter; the chance to see her daughter grow and reflect on her life and work after a busy period through the pandemic; and to share that leave with her partner. She said that policies like this have created a family-friendly and caring-friendly culture in the workplace for both parents and at all levels of the workplace. This helps explain the much greater sharing of domestic work that we see over the life course in countries with good, lengthy periods of paid parental leave paid close to ordinary earnings and free child care, an arrangement which, together with paid parental leave, gives kids and their families a much better start, and is associated with a much narrower gender pay gap.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of benefits in countries like Sweden in terms of what they're paid parental leave policy delivers. At a work and care inquiry hearing, James Fleming, the Executive Director of the Australian Institute of Employment Rights, explained that Sweden's parental leave policy, along with affordable child care, has helped Sweden to achieve much higher rates of women's workforce participation and higher gender equality on many metrics than Australia. The institute calculated that, if Australian female labour force participation increased to match that of Sweden, overall labour force participation would increase by more than four percentage points, increasing GDP by at least six per cent, or as much as $100 million.

Suvi's story and the broader equity and economic advantages Sweden's work and care system delivers is possible for countries like Australia. Those supporting increased paid parental leave—and they are many—know we can afford it. We can afford to increase the length of leave, and we can pay superannuation on it. Rather than give a $9,000 tax cut to the very wealthy and each of the 227 politicians in this building through the stage 3 tax cuts, we can direct the $254 billion to the parents and the kids who need it most. We should set aside those tax cuts and instead improve paid parental leave and take other measures that will help Australian families deal with the cost-of-living crisis, including providing free, quality, accessible early childhood education and care.

At the Jobs and Skills Summit, and through evidence presented to the work and care inquiry and to this bill, Australians and organisations from around the country, and parents, women, unions and employers, were united in the call for a paid parental leave increase and improvements for Australian parents, especially mothers. No-one opposed it. It's time to act. We can afford it and, for the sake of our kids, parents, women, workplaces and economy, it's time we did it.