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Wednesday, 10 June 2020
Page: 2552


Senator PRATT (Western Australia) (13:16): This afternoon I'm pleased to place on record Labor's support for the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Flexibility Measures) Bill 2020. It was a Labor government that introduced Australia's first national paid parental leave scheme back in 2011. When we introduced the scheme, unfortunately Australia was one of only two OECD nations that did not have a national scheme of this kind, the United States being the one other nation.

The purpose of this scheme is, as we know, to provide financial support to primary carers of newborn and newly adopted children. We want in our nation to allow carers to take time off work to care for their children after birth or adoption, to enhance the health and development of birth mothers and children, to enable women to continue to participate in the workforce and to have continuity with the workforce, and to promote equality between men and women and the balance between work and family life.

We know how important it is to enable parents to give their children the very best possible start in life and to try to ensure that the decision to have a child does not come with an automatic and hefty personal and family economic cost. It's important that this scheme provides for two payments, both the Paid Parental Leave and the Dad and Partner Pay scheme. It is through Labor's Paid Parental Leave that we signal to employers of our nation that it is absolutely business as usual, that parents can and should take time out of the workforce to care for a child. We also know that in our nation the spread of paid and unpaid labour is still such that women end up doing more of this unpaid labour. Unfortunately this also means that their workforce participation drops and their super balances are lower, and it contributes to the gender pay gap that we still see in our nation's workforce.

I want to home in, in the context of this debate, on some specific flaws in the government's current approach to paid parental leave. In the context of COVID-19 we've seen women disproportionately losing their jobs as sectors have been rapidly but necessarily paused in the interest of public health. Women have been over-represented in forms of low-paid work and insecure work and are disproportionately affected—but not necessarily protected. They haven't had their incomes protected to the same extent as men through JobKeeper. This is unwelcome downward pressure on the participation rate of women in our nation's workforce. We depend, for our wealth and prosperity as a nation, on a higher participation of women in the workforce, particularly as we see our ageing workforce population beginning to retire. So, the trends of COVID push us in the opposite direction.

We know that the paid parental leave goes some way to enabling more women to participate in the workforce, and some way to addressing the gender pay gap, particularly for those on low and middle incomes who have less access to employer funded parental leave. Since 2011, we can see that the scheme now benefits nearly 150,000 parents each year. Nearly half of all mothers benefit from the paid parental leave scheme introduced by Labor. But, unfortunately, here in our nation it is still the case that women workers earn less than men, to the tune of about 14 per cent. Our nation's Treasurer seems to disagree, using question time just last September to suggest that the gender pay gap in our nation has closed. The Prime Minister has previously suggested at an International Women's Day breakfast that women should rise, but not at the expense of others. If the Prime Minister and the Treasurer were serious about closing the gender pay gap, they could have and should have opposed cuts to penalty rates, because it was well known that women—again—would disproportionately bear the brunt of those changes.

In 2019, Labor supported the government's changes to the eligibility rules for the scheme that extended access to the scheme for women who work in dangerous occupations usually occupied by men or who have irregular employment. Those changes took effect from 1 January, but it has to be said that the slow pace at which these changes came about has meant that too many Australian women and their families have missed out on the benefits of paid parental leave. In 2013, the Australian Jockeys Association publicly identified the access problem and called on the Abbott government to fix the legislation. They had to campaign for many years before this was fixed. We hope this change really will encourage women to consider careers in roles historically dominated by men.

One of the important objectives of this legislation today is to give working mothers and families the ability to split their paid parental leave entitlements into blocks of time over a two-year period, enabling periods of work in between. At the moment the scheme only allows paid parental leave to be taken as a continuous 18-week block within the first 12 months after the birth or adoption of a child, and then only when the primary carer has not returned to work since the birth or adoption of the child. Labor is pleased to see that this bill will change paid parental leave rules by splitting the 18 weeks of paid parental leave into a 12-week paid parental leave period and a six-week flexible paid parental leave period. The 12-week period will only be available as a continuous block but will be accessible by the primary carer at any time during the first 12 months, not only immediately after the birth or adoption of a child. The six-week flexible period will be available at any time during the first two years and does not need to be taken as a block. This is really important, because in practice it means families can split their entitlements over a two-year period, with periods of work in between, and, as with the current rules, the primary carer can be changed during this time. I know Australian families will appreciate this kind of flexibility.

It's most likely that the common use of increased flexibility will be parents returning to part-time work and spreading their flexible paid parental leave out over several months. As I highlighted before, we have very serious concerns about the current operation of this scheme under the impact of COVID-19, with the effect on thousands of families likely to be that they are up to $15,000 worse off. We know that women who've recently given birth are eligible to access the scheme, receiving payment of $740.60 per week for up to 18 weeks. But to get this entitlement they must satisfy the work test: they must have worked for 10 of the 13 months prior to the birth or adoption of a child and for at least 330 hours in that 10-month period. We note the importance of the fact that JobKeeper payments have enabled women to maintain that continuity, but many women who are otherwise expecting to be in continuous work—who have banked on and budgeted for paid parental leave—and who would be working for any other reason other than the impact of COVID-19, are now no longer eligible for paid parental leave.

The government has the power to fix this now. We are going to support the Greens amendments that are before the chamber today. But, importantly, we are going to move our own second reading amendment, and, on behalf of the opposition, I move that amendment now:

At the end of the motion, add:

", but the Senate:

(a) notes that the Government has allowed JobKeeper payments to satisfy the paid parental leave (PPL) work test; and

(b) calls on the Government to use the Minister for Families and Social Services’ regulation making power under coronavirus laws to enable women who have lost their job because of the coronavirus to access PPL, if they would otherwise have been eligible had they not lost their job".

The amendment calls on the government to make this fix now. It has the absolute power within the changes that Labor insisted on when we debated the JobKeeper legislation. The government has the flexibility to fix the PPL scheme under the JobKeeper legislation. There is a much more complicated way of fixing it, which is through the Greens amendment, but the key thing is that the government needs to get on and fix this problem. It is not a problem that affects just a handful of Australian families; nearly 180,000 parents received paid parental leave in the 2018-19 financial year. With these changes, the bill does not increase paid parental leave entitlements for Australian families. The changes in this legislation are modest. We hope they will allow more families to share parenting responsibilities in a way that works for them.

Whilst these changes are welcome, and we are very pleased about them, we want to ensure that these benefits go to all families that otherwise would have been eligible for paid parental leave before the impact of COVID-19. It's high time that the government fixed this. They've been able to fix it since the outset of bringing on this legislation—since the outset of the JobKeeper package, where they would have foreseen that there would be a significant number of families impacted by their ineligibility for paid parental leave because they no longer met the work test. The government has in its toolbox the ability to ensure families are not worse off, and it has no excuse for failing to step in.