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Wednesday, 10 June 2020
Page: 2558

Senator STOKER (Queensland) (13:39): I rise today to speak in support of the Morrison government's Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Flexibility Measures) Bill 2020. It will provide more flexibility for Australian working mothers and fathers and their families to access paid parental leave at a really important time in a new child's life. Flexibility in this field is really important to help families, and it's something this government has in mind in every single one of its measures. Self-employed and working families in particular will benefit greatly from these measures. The bill aligns the incentives for working women to keep doing what they're doing to keep the economy going and to build a better future for themselves and for their families.

These amendments will allow the mothers of newborn or adopted children to use an initial 12-week period of paid parental leave before taking up the remaining entitlement of six weeks at any time over the course of two years following the birth or adoption of a child. At present, without this bill having been passed, the parent who takes paid parental leave has to take it in a block of 18 weeks. You can't tailor it to work part time, for instance, or take a block of time that is completely at home and then ease yourself back into work by picking up days on an increasing basis as you get closer towards the end of that 18 weeks worth of time. You can't decide to do occasional blocks of work or decide to do work here and there, either to keep your skills fresh and maintain professional registrations or, if you're self-employed or in small business, to keep relationships with clients alive and keep the work coming through the door. These changes will provide so much more flexibility to allow people to be able to adapt this period of paid parental leave to better fit with their working life.

Nobody's here to say that professional women are the most vulnerable in our community. Of course there are many women who need a hand. But one thing that professional women often say to me, particularly those who are self-employed or have small businesses of their own, is that the inflexibility of the existing arrangements for paid parental leave make it very difficult for them to maintain their businesses and take a period of time in which they are focusing on their family. So, by providing this flexibility, we can help to provide even more ways to improve women's workforce participation. That was one of the outcomes of the Women's Economic Security Package that was released in 2018. It's worth noting that in the pre-COVID period one of the accomplishments of this government was that women's workforce participation rate was at an all-time high. There's been a little slippage during the COVID period, but this government remains committed to doing everything it can to maximise women's ability to make these kinds of contributions to their families and to the broader economy.

These amendments are on top of the government's changes to the work test in the Paid Parental Leave Act in October last year which already made a number of improvements from that block-like status the bill had when it was initially implemented. Once this bill has been approved by parliament, though, as I hope that it will be, parents of children who are born on or after 1 July 2020 will be able to exercise this new and more flexible option. The remaining six weeks of leave will be able to be used flexibly at any time within two years of the date of birth or adoption of a child in blocks that are as small as a day at a time. It means that, should a woman or a parent decide to go back to work and even do a little work before they get to that 18-week period, they won't face the cut-off of the rest of their paid parental leave.

Nearly half of new mothers in Australia access paid parental leave and, of those, it's expected that about 4,000 will choose to adopt these more flexible arrangements. Time will tell, of course, once it's implemented, but it's expected that there will be a number of women in that category—in the order of 4,000. These changes support thousands of working women who cannot afford to leave their business for 18 consecutive weeks. When you're employed in arrangements where you can't, for reasons of project management or continuity for clients, take leave for a period of 18 consecutive weeks, these arrangements allow better collaboration between the demands of the business or the client and the needs of the family. It should be the case that we are willing to work together as parents, as employees, as business owners and as employers to try to make family life and work life gel together as best as is possible.

Currently, if a parent returns to work before they have received their full entitlement of parental leave pay, they just lose eligibility for the remainder of the payment. So I'm really delighted to see this proactive approach from the coalition in supporting expectant parents to do the very best they can, particularly those in small business and in self-employment. We know that lots of women choose to work in small business, particularly as small business owners or in self-employment, so that they can manage the flexible nature that they require for caring for their families. It'll ease the transition back into the workforce for primary care givers, and that is a really wonderful thing.

At the moment, to care for your newborn, taking 18 weeks off in a block is required if you wish to access the entirety of the payment. If you must take it all in one go, it can amount to a pretty significant blow to your ability to continue to provide the support that your business needs. It can really harm a self-employed person's ability to bounce back when they decide to come back to work full time. It's one of the biggest impediments for women in the profession from which I came—that is, for young women at the bar. If we want to see women rise to a position of being equally briefed and equally senior in the legal profession—in the bar—then this will make an enormous difference. I understand they're not the neediest people in our community by any stretch, but, if we want to see women rising to equal levels across the economy, that's just one example of a place where women will benefit greatly from having this flexibility. At the moment, they face the requirement to fully disengage from their business and then build it up from scratch again when they return from leave, not to mention the fact that they have all of their usual business expenses to cover during that time too.

The flexibility will allow women to choose to return to work and, in something that is quite exciting, transfer the remaining part of the paid parental leave to their partner, who can take on the role of primary carer. What I love about this is that it encourages both parents to share the wonderful opportunity that exists to bond with a new child as well as to manage the impact on work life, on careers and on businesses of taking time off. To the extent that, when people talk about a gender pay gap, that gap is attributable to the decision of women to take time off to care for children, anything we do to encourage the more equal sharing of not only that opportunity but also those costs is a way that we can help to make sure that we're giving women real choice and also men real choice about the things that they want to live out in the valleys of their lives. That involves, oftentimes, helping them reach their ambition of spending some time as a primary carer and sharing the impact on work-life with their wife or partner.

Alternatively, of course, women may choose to use their remaining paid parental leave to support their part-time return to work or to gradually increase the amount of work they're doing to help gradually transition their child to the arrangements for going back to work. So you could take three days per week of paid parental leave and choose to work on the other two, or vice versa. Any arrangement would do. The beauty of it is that it can be tailored to the circumstances of the individual. Choice is what we're all about. It shouldn't be the case that governments decide from afar when you can and can't care for your child. It shouldn't be the case that governments tell you, as an employer, what you can and can't do in terms of the arrangement you and an employee might like to make for that person's return to work. Choice and flexibility are about making these challenging times in everyone's lives work for everyone.

I'm really excited to see a greater uptake of leave by secondary carers who might not have had that opportunity to spend quality time with their children. When I had my first child, one of the wonderful things we were able to do as a family was to have my husband take a period of parental leave while I went back to work. It was an enormous blessing for him. It inducted him into a way of parenting that he wouldn't have risen to quite so quickly if it had not been for that period on his own, and it meant that he and our daughter have a beautiful bond that has endured for the entirety of her life. I hope that continues. That great start that comes from a father getting to make a choice to spend some time with their children is something that shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. Indeed, it should be encouraged. It has been a wonderful thing for our family. While I acknowledge that it isn't something everyone can make work, for those who can and for those who want to have that as a part of the choices their family make, why should bureaucracy stand in the way? Let's make this flexible. Let's make it work for all families and for all families' priorities.

I know how important it is to make it viable for women to return to work after having children, as do all of my colleagues in the Morrison government. Everyone's circumstances are different. You might be employed part-time or full-time; you might be self-employed, which creates lots of complications when it comes to fitting in a period of leave for children; or you might be a small-business owner. We want to make sure that people who are managing all of those responsibilities—and particularly those who don't have the support of an employer in their structures to help them through this time—have the flexibility they need to be able to adapt and change and make it work for their circumstances. So I'm really keen on this bill. I think it's going to very much improve the arrangements for women in this situation.

There are around 300,000 births in Australia every year. Nearly half of all new mothers access paid parental leave. It will be wonderful to see more small-business owners have the opportunity to keep their business alive while bonding with their new child. It will be great to see self-employed women continue to progress in their careers whilst enjoying this joyful time of life. And it will be brilliant to see more fathers and partners who may not be the person who delivered a child nevertheless get the opportunity to form that really tight bond that endures so beautifully throughout life when these special opportunities and the space that is created with this time are seized and dived into head-on.

This is a wonderful bill. I commend it to the Senate. I only hope that even more than the predicted 4,000 women are able to make it a part of the choices they and their husband or partner make when it's time for them to consider the role that rearing children will play in their family.