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Community Affairs Legislation Committee

BRAUND, Ms Claire, Executive Director, Women on Boards

COLEMAN, Mrs Marie, Chair, Social Policy Committee, National Foundation for Australian Women

HEWITT, Dr Belinda, Private capacity

MacDERMOTT, Dr Kathleen, Member, Social Policy Committee, National Foundation for Australian Women

PAGE, Ms Samantha, Chief Executive Officer, Early Childhood Australia

RODGERS-HEALEY, Dr Diann, Director, Australian Centre for Leadership for Women

Evidence from Ms Braund and Dr Rodgers-Healey was taken via teleconference—

CHAIR: I welcome the new witnesses. Do you have any comments to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Dr Hewitt : I am Associate Professor in Sociology at the University of Melbourne.

CHAIR: I confirm that everyone has received information from the secretariat regarding parliamentary privilege and the protection of privileges. Dr Rodgers-Healey, would you like to start with an opening statement?

Dr Rodgers-Healey : Thank you very much. Founded in 2000, the Australian Centre for Leadership for Women is committed to women's advancement and gender equality through a range of national leadership developments and recognition programs as well as research and publications aimed at identifying and challenging systemic barriers for women—maternal leave policies being one of these. It is clear that the evolution of maternal leave policies in Australia has been slow in comparison to other countries and that it is influenced by rather than being the influencer of international developments in this area. Nevertheless, it can be said that the intent to protect maternity at work and take into account the needs of workers with family responsibilities in terms and conditions of employment has enlightened its evolution.

With the proposed Fairer Paid Parental Leave Bill 2016, I believe that this trajectory will be reversed. That seems to have also emerged in the views of the signatories to ACLW's online petition on the proposed changes to the bill. The focus of my statement is to draw the committee's attention to the key themes that reverberated in this petition, which, despite running for only 17 days in October and November 2016, accrued 617 signatories, including 20 state and national women's organisations, 525 women and 72 men. The themes that have emerged strongly echo my views and feelings to reject the Fairer Paid Parental Leave Bill 2016.

The current government funded PPL scheme offering 18 weeks at a minimum pay is currently one of the least generous schemes across the OECD's average of 54 weeks, and the proposed changes will render the scheme inadequate to give many parents the option of taking the WHO and Productivity Commission's recommended 26 weeks of leave to bond with and care for their newborn baby.

This scheme indeed framed a multitude of comments, for example: 'Being in the paid workforce is not discretionary for women; it is essential. Therefore with only minimum paid parental leave, they are forced to return to work before the child is old enough to benefit from childcare services. Good nurturing is the foundation of the nation and is compromised by any reduction in time a mother spends bonding with her baby.'

The government funded PPL scheme stated that the parental leave pay can be received in addition to other entitlements, including employer provided parental leave. Saying to mothers that taking their legitimate government entitlements and their employer parental leave payments is double dipping is sexist, discriminatory and has no basis with the original policy direction being promoted as a workplace entitlement and not a welfare benefit. Comments about double dipping resoundingly echoed that it was outrageous and completely misrepresents the nature and design of the scheme.

It was also said that negotiating their own workplace entitlements should not disadvantage women from accessing the government scheme. Suggesting that this is double dipping is akin to suggesting parents who send their children to private schools are also double dipping as the government subsidises this too.

There was a strong sense of anger and frustration about the amendments. A number of comments stated that the PPL is every mother's right of workplace entitlement and not a social benefit, and is essential to achieving both parenting and careers.

While the assisting policy aimed to encourage gender equity and in some way reflected an understanding of the widening wage gap between women and men after the birth of their first baby and in bringing business on board, diminished perceptions that maternity is a liability, the proposed changes usher in a withdrawal of commitment to continue to progress gender equality through the PPL as employers will look at providing other additional leave entitlements to attract and retain employers. These comments also reverberated in the themes that came through. There were more than 20 pleas to just stop moving forward with these amendments.

In conclusion, I feel that it must be noted that maternity protection is a fundamental human right and an indispensable component of work family policies and gender equality. It is crucial to promoting maternal and child health in the short and long term, and we need to enhance frameworks to reflect this reality and demonstrate legislatively this valuing of women and children in Australia. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. Ms Braund. did you want to make a statement also?

Ms Braund : Yes please. Thank you very much. We appreciate the opportunity to present to the committee on this issue. I will not go into great detail, because of course you have read our submission. It does reflect our longstanding position on paid parental leave that we took to the former Treasurer Scott Morrison in 2015 and which we had further endorsed by 50 per cent of the 1350 Women on Board's members who responded to our survey on the matter. We have some 22,000 in our network.

We thought that was quite instructive that we had something close to 700 members respond in favour of our proposal, because they do represent a cohort, you would argue, of the more-highly educated, better remunerated professional women. They tend to work for larger employers and they are therefore more likely to receive both the government and employer paid parental leave schemes. In fact 25 per cent of the respondents said they received both schemes.

In effect, this cohort is likely to be in the group that receives less PPL under our proposal for a combined employer-government contribution similar to that proposed under the bill, but with some key provisos that reflect many of the excellent points made in other submissions as to the importance of PPL, and certainly reflected in the submissions of all of the persons in the room today and Diann Rodgers-Healey, whose submissions I have all read. For us, there are non-negotiable provisos in order for Women on Boards to accept the broad provisions of the bill, and they are as follows.

We think there is a real opportunity for, and we support the idea of, an employer paid parental leave scheme being topped up by the government. So, in effect, were you to have currently 18 weeks of paid parental leave—were you to have, say, 14 weeks offered by a large bank or something like that—you would then get the additional four. However, we do base that on the following key proviso that we think the government should legislate for a minimum 26 weeks paid parental leave, which of course as all of the women around the table will tell you, is the accepted global standard and one which we as an OECD country are not meeting. That minimum 26 weeks PPL could be reached incrementally; we are suggesting perhaps January 2019 as the start date for that.

From that period as well, we think that four weeks of paid parental leave should be set aside for partner leave on a 'use it or lose it' basis. That follows the Scandinavian model, which of course has been highly successful, involving partners—and nine times out of 10 they are male partners involved in the very critical early stages of rearing children. Of course, you would have to make exclusions for single parents, because we do appreciate that not all children have two parents and that not all women are left in the circumstance where they have either a male or female partner. However, that is generally a very small number of people, so you could make that exclusion.

We think that superannuation should be paid on government paid parental leave entitlements. Interestingly—as an aside, and not in my submission—I have just had a lunchtime meeting with a start-up super fund, which is in fact looking to target specifically women for superannuation. One of their key marketing points is that they will not be charging fees for women who are on parental leave. In other words, they will freeze the fees on any of their superannuation for that. So you can see that the industry is starting to innovate, and it is possibly time that the government did that as well.

As paid parental leave is an employee entitlement, we strongly support that it is an employee entitlement: it is not a welfare payment. It should be administered by employers through normal workplace channels. I note the excellent points that the National Foundation for Australian Women's submission made in relation to this matter, so I will not reiterate those.

In taking the approach that we have, which we think is a hybrid approach, we do recognise where the government is trying to move to with this in terms of savings. However, we also recognise the fundamental and critical importance of parental leave and paid parental leave to the economy and also to the welfare of children, who of course are our future workers. We are seeking to ensure that parents who do not have access to employer-provided paid parental leave, which is in fact quite a large percentage, are treated with more equity than is currently the case and that they will benefit through the rise to 26 weeks and other arrangements that we are proposing in order to support the government's proposal of a top-up.

Currently, we believe that this large group is treated with less equity than those who form the basis for Women on Boards membership, who generally work for large employers who pay parental leave. It is not the case, we believe, of robbing Peter to pay Paul, as some may argue, but to share existing resources for the benefit of all working parents. I do accept that this is a slightly different position, and we are proposing some modifications, but we do think that were the government to take just the existing bill as it were it would be a somewhat retrograde step. However, we are trying to say that we understand why they might be doing this and proposing that if they do things such as moving to a 26-week paid parental leave provision that it will significantly soften the impact of the proposed bill.

I am happy to take questions, and I did make some more details on the survey available in my submission. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. We will now go to the National Foundation for Australian Women.

Mrs Coleman : This is our third submission to the government in relation to changes to parental leave legislation. Our interest in this goes back to the fact that we were in a position to obtain an undertaking from the then Leader of the Opposition, Mr Rudd, that, were he elected to government, he would refer the matter to the Productivity Commission. So we have a continuing interest in this matter. Our view is flowing from the original Productivity Commission report that we were prepared to accept what the commission put forward at that time as a good first step, but by no means something which we would regard as either optimal or where we should be aiming. You will recall from your own reading, which I am sure you made, of the Productivity Commission report that the commission discussed the issue of 26 weeks, indicated that they thought it was unlikely that they could get to that immediately, but that many people would have some form of personal leave owing to them which could build on the 18 weeks that would be part of the government scheme. I might add also that one of the things which we were able to persuade the government of the day to do was to put objectives into this legislation. I would put it to you that the current proposal is not consistent with those objectives.

This is a scheme, as proposed in this bill, to prevent any improvement. No employee would bargain for a week's additional leave when the government would respond by removing a week's additional leave. No sane employer—and I trust that most of them are sane—would offer a week's additional leave when the government would respond by removing a week's leave from the so-called foundation. You will have heard a great deal about proposals about costs and savings in terms of child and maternal health and will have seen in the Productivity Commission report findings concerning the overall benefit to employers and to the economy of building on, not of cutting, the current provision. Further, we contend—and we have set this out in our submission—that the proposed costs and savings that are set out in the explanatory memorandum for the bill are misleading.

Let me summarise by saying—and I would like to put this on the record—our position is that this bill is a badly designed, short-term savings measure that is harmful to women and to their children, and it is being sold to the public by overestimating savings—that is, $700 million in tax, ongoing employer involvement—underestimating the likely costs to the economy and to the government, particularly in relation to child care, and grievously misrepresenting mothers by citing one-sixth of one per cent of women as the rationale for required savings, implying rorting. I would have to say that suggesting a policy change on the basis of data, as has been done, citing the example of a parent earning $140,000 and receiving an employer supplement in addition to the PPL scheme, is meretricious. As the Centrelink data shows, the ministerial example is based on a population carefully wedged between the 0.59 per cent of women earning more than $140,000 and receiving PPL and those completely ineligible for the scheme due to the income cap. Were we living in the United States, I feel sure that the ministerial statement could have been described as an alternative fact!

Good policy is not based on one-sixth of one per cent of an entire population. This example of government misdirection is characteristic of the treatment of facts that makes the public extremely sceptical of the political process. It is really quite disgraceful. The data shows that the women most affected will be those in education; health; the police force, as we heard earlier today; and people working for not-for-profit organisations. On average, they are women earning between around $900 and $1,200 per week or between $47,000 and $64,000 a year, and on average those women will lose between 7.7 and 12.8 weeks of PPL under the government's proposals. This is not a fairer scheme, as the title asserts. The Commonwealth payment is not, as the government has claimed, a foundation payment since it cannot be built on. No employer will build on a foundation that is designed to take away from the bottom any leave that is added at the top. Our suggestion to this committee is that, in the interests of Australian women and children and families, this bill should be rejected.

CHAIR: Dr MacDermott, you are covered by Mrs Coleman's comments?

Dr MacDermott : Yes.

CHAIR: Excellent. Dr Hewitt and Ms Page, who would like to make a statement?

Ms Page : I would. Thank you for the opportunity to appear. I am the CEO of Early Childhood Australia. We have been providing a voice for young children for over 75 years. We publish the Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, and we have over 5,000 members across Australia, including both individuals and organisations committed to the vision that every young child is thriving and learning. Just to clarify, we define 'early childhood' as from birth to the age of eight.

I am delighted to have with me Associate Professor Belinda Hewitt, and I will invite her to introduce herself now.

Dr Hewitt : I am at the University of Melbourne, but I was one of the senior researchers involved in the paid parental leave evaluation. I understand you have had two other people who were involved with that evaluation here earlier today. Sam has invited me along to speak to some of the evidence from the evaluation.

Ms Page : You have our submission, and you will probably note that it is blessedly brief. Our interest in this inquiry and, indeed, in paid parental leave is on behalf of the infants who are impacted, and that is the perspective that we are talking to you from today. We certainly, as stated clearly in our submission, believe that paid parental leave is good for babies. It delivers significant health and mental health benefits not only in those important first months of life but across the lifespan by assisting to embed early attachment and establish breastfeeding where that is possible and desirable. It provides financial security for new parents and makes it not only possible but normal for one or both parents to take time out of the workforce to focus on parenting. We suggest that Australia should be increasing and extending access to paid parental leave to support the development of close bonds between parents and infants in the time following birth and during the first year of life.

Dr Hewitt : To speak to some of the evidence that came out of the evaluation, what we were finding is that in the first six months after birth, which is the core time for establishing breastfeeding, mothers who would normally have returned to work at one, two or three months of their babies' age actually went back at four, five or six months of age. You have this shifting of that 18 weeks further along, which then provides them with a lot more opportunities to continue on with breastfeeding.

Interestingly, we did not find major significant differences between mothers who did not have paid parental leave compared to those who did, but we suspect that is because a lot of mothers anticipate returning to work and stop breastfeeding a month or so prior to returning to work. There were not big differences in that first six months. However, in the second six months, between six and 12 months, we noticed there was a big gap. At six months, there was quite a higher proportion of mothers who continued breastfeeding after they had received paid parental leave. It does seem to have made a bit of difference.

Also, we did the evaluation very early on after the scheme had been introduced, and I feel like behaviours change more slowly in response to policies than the immediate aftermath of an introduction of a policy. Some behaviours around these things may have changed since then.

Ms Page : You have heard from many others during this hearing that the World Health Organization supports the implementation of six months paid parental leave, and we believe very strongly that Australia should be working towards that goal of 26 weeks. We still have one of the weakest paid parental leave systems amongst developed nations, and we particularly are concerned that babies are absent in the objectives of the policy. They were not—as I was talking to Associate Professor Hewitt about before this—really the focus of the evaluation. It is quite costly and time intensive to measure outcomes on babies, but we would like to see the impact on infants been given more policy priority in the future.

We do note, as discussed, that paid parental leave provides mothers with the capacity to continue breastfeeding for longer and we do believe that while we saw small effects in the evaluation, it would grow over time, particularly if there was more information available to support mothers to do that. It is quite a difficult time with a baby. We have good take-up of breastfeeding in the very early months, but we tend to see a sharp drop-off as mothers start preparing to return to work. We would like to see more support given to mothers to continue breastfeeding for as long as they can and to be supported through that transition back to work.

The evaluation did look at the impact on babies in terms of immunisation, breastfeeding—which we have talked about—and reported illnesses. We would like a more thorough approach in future to look at the attachment between parents and the baby, levels of stress and anxiety, and at what point babies are better able to make the transition into formal child-care services. Early Childhood Australia's membership is largely early childhood services. We believe they are good quality and babies can thrive in those settings. However, there is no reason to rush them in. What we would like to see is parents supported to stay at home as long as they can and then supported in the transition into formal services as they return to work.

Dr Hewitt : Just to follow up on that: one of the things we did note with the evaluation—because, as Sam just pointed out, we were quite limited; we were basically funded to do a survey, and you cannot adequately pick up child development issues, child attachment issues and other infant health issues with a survey. It is something that requires a lot more in depth, like nurses and other people going in and doing that sort of stuff, so we basically could not do that. So what we had to do was ask mothers about their children and how they felt about their children. One of the things that did come out of this, and we think it is related to delayed entry into child care, is that mothers who had used PPL were far less likely to say that their child had experienced an illness that lasted a week or more in those first six months and 12 months of life. I think it is basically giving them that extra time. Those six months meant that the children had built up their immunity, and, even when they did attend child care, they were far less likely to get ill, to get sick. So that was one benefit that definitely came out.

The other thing is that there were some significant improvements in mothers' health as well. They were very small, but they were notable. Even though they were small, the point I would make is that we are talking about 160,000 families per year who receive this. If you take a small health change and apply that to 160,000 people, it actually has significant benefit, not just for those mothers but for their children and for their families as well, because we all know how grumpy mothers can get when they are tired and stressed. So, just by giving them that little bit of extra time, there were significant improvements in their health.

I think that, by scaling back the scheme and reducing the time off that mothers have, you are going to reduce those health benefits. It has to happen at some level. We are basically talking about reducing the scheme for about half of those mothers, so you are going to find that those health benefits will become tailored back.

The other thing I would like to note too is that women's perceptions of their relationship satisfaction improved as well. So we are talking about a holistic, whole-family wellbeing here, and this is the environment that the children are being brought into.

The one other little thing that I would possibly add—I have not seen it come up in any of the previous statements or any of the media or even in the bill itself, not that I could find, anyway—is that, when we did the evaluation of the scheme, a lot of mothers who had employer-paid entitlements took them before they had their baby. What is going to happen to those mothers? Where I am, at the University of Melbourne, you are allowed to take up to six weeks prior. Do I then only get 10 weeks after or 12 weeks after? Older mothers like me are far more likely to have complications and need to have that extra time off. What is going to happen to those mothers? I think nobody is talking about before. Ninety-six per cent of the women in the evaluation took at least one to four weeks off prior to the birth of their baby. How is that going to be handled?

Ms Page : We are looking at this from a holistic perspective of federal government policy. My previous role was in family relationship services, where the government is investing quite considerably in strengthening families and trying to reduce separation. I think these policies should be seen as connected. We are also very concerned. We hear anecdotally that parents will do a lot to try to extend their time at home with babies by using up every bit of annual leave and long-service leave and anything else they have available to them, which might sound very laudable, but it means they are coming back into the workforce with nothing and are not able to take a break in that critical transition back into work, when babies often get sick. If they are going to child care particularly, that is very likely. They have limited opportunity to fall back on leave that should be available to them for that.

Based on all those considerations, ECA supports any measures we can take to extend the duration and coverage of the existing scheme. We think that would provide children with better opportunities, and we would like to have the importance of early attachment, breastfeeding and infant wellbeing considered as higher priorities in this policy area. We do not agree with the key proposition in the bill of reducing access to paid parental leave.

I would just clarify, though: we do not oppose the proposed administrative changes to the way that the scheme is managed and the application of time limits. Those are fine; it is the core proposition of the bill that we disagree with. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, everyone, for your opening statements.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: My first set of questions relates to the alternative model that has been put forward by Women on Boards. Just so I can make sure that my understanding of the proposal is clear: you are still looking at a co-contribution scheme where the government continues to top-up paid parental leave, beginning at 18 weeks and then extending out to 26 weeks over three years—is that right?

Ms Braund : Basically, yes. Basically, we are saying that we should wind up with a period where we have 26 weeks. The average provided by an employer, in terms of the commercial space—well, a lot of employers are providing that eight to 10 or 12 weeks. Some of the banks have gone to 14. We are then saying that what should happen is that you should get your employer contribution and then the remainder at the government rate. Let's say that your employer pays you 14 weeks—excellent! You then receive 12 weeks at the government rate; in other words, up to that 26 weeks.

Of course, you would also have to factor that partner leave in, and you could fiddle with that. We are just proposing to make that part of the 26 weeks. That would be fantastic, if you made that on top of the 26 weeks—that might be a bridge too far! But I think that is really where we need to be heading. We need to be heading towards getting to that magic 26-week number as a baseline. I think we are all in agreement that that is really where we need to be heading. And then we need to start thinking about partner leave.

My concern also is that this is not just about mothers. We keep framing it around mothers; it is actually about parents. I am very conscious that I always use the term 'parents', because we keep talking endlessly about mothers. The problems with not getting mothers back into the workforce of course are endless, in terms of reduced wages, reduced superannuation and gender pay gaps—all of the attendant matters that come which seem to act as a penalty for having children and which we in Australia do not seem to address particularly well. Some of the Scandinavian countries understand much more critically the importance of keeping people working within the economy, both to keep it moving and also to keep the income flowing in for those particular females, because of course a large number of people wind up divorced in later years.

That is a longer term and bigger issue, which is why I do not always focus our submissions—because other people do that particularly well—on the importance of maintaining those connections with children. I support that, but I do think it is very important, and WOB thinks it is very important, that we actually do that from the perspective of parents.

But, to answer your question: yes, we are proposing a total of 26 weeks with the 'gap', as I suppose you would call it, between your employer contribution and the other contribution funded by the government. Of course, if you were somebody who worked for a small business that did not have any PPL then we think you should get the full 26 weeks—you and your partner paid for by the government. They are really the people who are losing out now—people who are not getting paid parental leave. As I said in my submission, a very large percentage of the Women on Boards network are in a fortunate position where they have reasonable employer contributions to paid parental leave, plus they are able to access the government paid parental leave. A number of them made comments to the effect that they were concerned that there was in fact quite a large cohort of women who did not have the advantage of this. I suppose it comes back to something of an equity issue.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: In your submission you state that by implementing this proposal it would reduce the forecast savings for the government by about 25 per cent. Do you have any modelling—

Ms Braund : That was a few years ago, so that may well have changed. Ruth, who is the chair of Women on Boards, took it to the Treasurer, and that was two years ago. That may have changed.

As I said, and as Marie Coleman pointed out, this issue has now been here three times. Just when we thought we had got somewhere with paid parental leave, we are back on the agenda again. As I said, you would have to do some more modelling around that. Within that three-year provision, which is why we are giving the two to three years, we are saying that we should move to the 26 weeks—that is, you might not be able to bring it in within the next budget but you could certainly phase it in. Certainly across those three-year periods, you might wind up where you are now, but the reality is you would still gain the incremental increase to that magic 26 weeks, which is really what we are focused on—trying to move to that magic number of 26 weeks—which sets us at a reasonable global standard.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: Just to clarify, the estimated reduction in savings was given to you by the Treasurer based on their modelling?

Ms Braund : No. As I said, there are plenty of numbers around this. Ruth is also a member, incidentally, of the National Foundation for Australian Women social policy committee and has been for quite some time. We make many joint submissions and very much, in general, support the NFAW's work. The work that she did on that—and she is unable to be here today, otherwise she would be able to make some specific comments about that—took it on the numbers that were out there at the time they were put out in the public domain through WGEA through the department, and through the ABS as well. The numbers vary. I do note the numbers across various submissions versus the numbers in the department submission also vary. So it is a little difficult to get a total handle on it. They were not provided by the Treasurer.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: On notice, would you be able to provide an update to that estimate?

Ms Braund : Yes, I will be able to get you the update to the estimate. I would have to go back to Ruth, who is not available today, so I can give you more accurate information.

CHAIR: Just for the information of witnesses who take questions on notice, we are going to have a deadline of close of business on Monday, 6 February.

Ms Braund : That is fine.

Senator KAKOSCHKE-MOORE: Do any of the other members of the panel have any feedback on the model that has been proposed by Women on Boards?

Dr MacDermott : Everyone agrees 26 weeks is the target. The issue is if you contemplate being an employer and the government says to you, 'We're going to have a scheme that will meet 26 weeks paid parental leave, how many weeks do you want to pay?' they are going to say, 'No, why should I?' They are not silly.

Mrs Coleman : It is worthwhile noting that, as we put in our submission about using WGEA data, that since the dramatic statement on Mother's Day in 2013 that women were double-dippers—a Mother's Day statement of incredible sensitivity—there has been no growth in the numbers of employers offering top-ups and an actual fall in the number of employer weeks provided from 10.5 to 9.7. I think that speaks for itself.

Dr MacDermott : If you are going to have a scheme, you need to have a scheme with the government paying to a thing and then employers topping up on that. You cannot do it the other way because employers will not come to that party.

CHAIR: A legislated minimum as opposed to—

Dr MacDermott : Yes, and that is the scheme we have now with fixed basics and employers topping up.

Ms Braund : We also have to take into account that in 2013 the number of reporting entities was also significantly lower than it is now with WGEA. So the number of reporting entities is now significantly greater than it was in 2013. They have actually built that database. I also noted that as well. It has not been a huge fall; it has been static; it has not grown. But then they have brought on a lot more people within the database in that three-year period. I just note that in terms of when we are talking about the statistics of it not having grown. A lot of those people would have been in that smaller group where they were targeting the people in the 100 to 500 group. Do not forget that they form a large percentage of the companies in Australia in terms of the business sizes.

Dr Rodgers-Healey : I think what Claire has proposed, from an equity point of view, is excellent because there are so many women who do not have access to the top-ups. If, Claire, your scheme is about making it compulsory that 26 weeks is offered as a baseline for every woman then I am all for it. I do note, though, that employers see the top-ups as a way to attract employees, so it is a competitive advantage for them. That is perhaps a problem from their perspective in terms of not being able to use it in that way. But I agree. I think 26 weeks is something that should be legislated for all women to have access to.

Mrs Coleman : I should say, in terms of the other aspects of the WOB proposal, that obviously we all agree with the fact that this is parental leave. It is not solely about mothers. We clearly agree with the proposition about setting aside four weeks for partners on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. There is no dispute about those.

Dr Rodgers-Healey : And we agree about the superannuation.

Mrs Coleman : And we are totally in agreement about the superannuation. These are all agreed propositions.

Ms Braund : I think that is a good point—and I could not hear you particularly well. We are really about building consensus around this, and that is why we have been particularly careful in how we have framed this, because of—as I said—all the excellent work and the excellent submissions and the many organisations whom we have supported and continue to support in terms of the work they actually do. Were they trying to make this, 'Let's try and build a consensus position to go forward from,' with this bill, because it has been backwards and forwards; it has been contentious—there were some extremely unfortunate statements made back in 2013 about people double dipping and all this kind of thing which were not helpful. But I do think that, if we can build a consensus and build a solution out of this, that is as opposed to, 'Let's just defend our rights,' or, 'Let's just carry on with what we have.' The whole idea behind it, the original idea, which was actually to try and build on something when the Labor Party brought it in too, has been widely supported. So I see this as a very intelligent way both for workforce engagement and to improve women's and men's and parents' access to affordable, paid parental leave. That is why we have proposed something that we hope the committee will take on board and think about when you make your recommendations.

Mrs Coleman : Could we add to that. We are not in dispute, Claire. What is disturbing to me is the production of policy changes of considerable magnitude with no evidence whatsoever led of proper modelling, in advance, to produce reasonable information about what the distributional impact is likely to be. I would urge that any change which is brought about to this legislation is preceded by a proper and public process of analysing the policy implications. It might be more prudent, indeed, just as the government has recently sent the NDIS back to the Productivity Commission, to ask the commission to have another look at this before it is cut.

Ms Page : From the perspective of Early Childhood Australia, we did not include in our submission to this inquiry a detailed proposal about an alternative approach. The policy objective I think we all have consensus on is to help parents have that 26 weeks with their new baby, if a government scheme at the minimum wage could be topped up by employers. A lot of families could not afford to take the full 26 weeks at a minimum wage. What we think would potentially work better would be for the government scheme to stay at the minimum wage and allow employers to top up towards full wage replacement.

We did not support it when the government was proposing a full wage replacement public scheme, because we thought that was incredibly expensive and that families would get a lot of support in the first six months and then drop off a cliff. But we would support a combination, which is effectively saying we think double dipping is the way to go, in that we think the public system should support those who do not get any employer support, and then employers could top that up. That would still provide an incentive to employers to offer that as an additional benefit to employees and be competitive in the marketplace. We would see more families then able to take that extended time. At the moment, even if the government scheme were extended to 26 weeks just at the minimum wage, that would not be sufficient for many families to meet their financial commitments. So, a combination of the two would be ideal, and we would be very happy to provide some more thought on that. I think there is a lot of consensus between the groups at the table, but we did not include it in our submission because we did not see that as the focus of this inquiry.

CHAIR: Excellent. Thank you.

Senator DASTYARI: Thank you so much for your contributions. I just want to see if I understand the evidence you have given today. You are saying that this legislation is not in the interests of the child, the mother or the family and that this legislation will not save the government as much money as it is claiming to in the long run because companies will change their behaviour as a result. Mrs Coleman, you made the observation, 'Here we are again', because it has already been defeated twice before. You also said that the modelling has been poorly done and it is questionable to begin with.

Mrs Coleman : I would say that, to my knowledge, there has been no modelling.

Senator DASTYARI: There has been no modelling? Okay. Why are we here then?

Mrs Coleman : It is for the pleasure of your company!

Senator DASTYARI: It was a rhetorical question! It just seems that, if it is bad for the kid, bad for the family, bad for the mother and it is not going to raise anywhere near the amount of revenue that it is being purported it will raise, who will benefit from this legislation?

Mrs Coleman : That is an imponderable. I am not a politician.

Senator DASTYARI: Let me reword that then. Do you see anyone benefiting from this legislation?

Mrs Coleman : I do not think there will be any real benefit to the budget. Frankly, I think that is a fantasy. I have yet to see that most employers want to sever the connection administratively with their employees. I have a nagging midnight horror of letters going out to women, six years after they have been on maternity leave, telling them that they have been overpaid. I do not think there is any indication in the budget papers or the explanatory memorandum that the costs of having the administration of the scheme taken over by Centrelink have been properly assessed. I do not believe it is a very useful bill.

Senator DASTYARI: But, Mrs Coleman—and others, if you want to jump in—maybe I am misreading this legislation. Again, my understanding is that this is just a repeat of the 2014 and 2015 pieces of legislation. If there has been a variation to those pieces of legislation and we have had those debates in the chamber, I am not aware of that. Going back to the earlier incarnation of this legislation, it seems to me to be nonsensical. If I am an employer and I am providing you with a benefit and the government will provide you with that benefit if I stop providing you with that benefit, why on earth would I continue to provide that benefit to you?

Ms Braund : The answer is that, at the minimum wage, you will not retain the sort of people in your organisation that you need to retain. They will, quite frankly, jump ship to organisations that are offering a better deal. You have seen that across the corporate sector with companies like Caltex bringing in its baby bonus—and with the banks. The minute one bank goes up a week, the next bank goes up a week and the next bank goes up a week. It is a competitive process.

Senator DASTYARI: But that is at the higher end. What we are talking about—

Ms Braund : But they are the major employers. They provide quite a lot of employment. You have to remember that a large percentage of employers—in fact, well over 50 per cent, because they are at the smaller end—do not provide any paid parental leave, because they are small businesses. The reality is that it is not going to impact them either way, to be quite frank, and the impact will be all back on the women.

Senator DASTYARI: So the point you are making—and I want to get this straight because I think it is a fair point—that, in order for those in the more competitive space to retain the types of employees they want to retain, they would need to compete in that kind of a field.

Ms Braund : Yes.

Senator DASTYARI: We heard evidence a bit earlier today from representatives from lower income sectors. I am not sure if you had the chance to listen in earlier today; it would be completely understandable if you were not able to. You are saying that those sectors largely do not provide it anyway, but if they did provide it then it would be at that lower level. They are not as competitive.

Ms Braund : Yes. It is mainly small businesses, you have to remember—and so a lot of rural businesses, for example, that do not provide any paid parental leave. Of course, all of the government does, the universities; they have been providing it for many years. But it is the business sector in that sort of 0 to 200—and that is not a universal statement, but I think everybody around the table would agree. The lower down the scale you get in terms of the number of employees and turnover, the less likely you are to provide an in-house paid parental leave scheme, and the more likely you are to rely on a government-paid parental leave scheme, as opposed to providing one internally. It is when you get to 1,000+ employees, and certainly with the big organisations at 10,000, 20,000 and 30,000, that you then start to kick in, in terms of what is offered. Because of course, your employees' opportunities and benefits change significantly when you get into a company of that scale and size. That is a more sophisticated offering, I suppose you would say—it has other downsides, but the offerings tend to be more sophisticated. And so women will tend to go with organisations—particularly as they have more children and things get more complicated—where their skill sets are sought. And talent is always sought after. They will tend to go to organisations that offer better, shall we say, conditions and more intelligent offerings around things like child care.

Senator DASTYARI: One last question, which is a follow-up question. Ms Braund, am I getting this right—I am not necessarily saying this is my position, I am just asking the question, perhaps posing as devil's advocate. You are saying that those sectors and areas where it is more competitive are sectors where there is higher pay, higher levels of skill—that is where there is that greater competition in retaining women with a certain level of skill, and where there is a kind of competitive environment. I was saying, why would an employer provide a service that the government will provide if they do not? And you are making the observation that it is because of the pay differential. Would it be a wrong assertion to say that—appreciating that, for women in those circumstances, that opportunity may still exist—they would tend to be the people who are higher paid, have more resources, and have a stronger bargaining position to begin with? And are people on lower incomes, with less negotiating power when it comes to the workplace but who have these benefits, those that are more likely to lose those benefits?

Ms Braund : It is complex. Because of course, big organisations like banks have people who are up the tree and people who are down the bottom—

Senator DASTYARI: Fair enough.

Ms Braund : You could not universally make that assessment. Do not forget that the people who have bargained the conditions at the top end—they will flow to everybody within the organisation. So it is difficult to say that. It is certainly true that we would have more women in senior leadership roles at the top. I would suggest that the conditions are generally better, all within the organisation, and that has been reflected in a number of research papers across various different things. However, when you are talking about people in the public sector, that middle-paid area as I would typically call them; again, quite often the government is quite generous in itself in terms of paid parental leave offerings—or not generous, but at least it is sort of trying to get up to some kind of standard. The people I am really concerned about are the large percentage of people who do not have any paid parental leave, because their employers are not required to provide it. And so as we rise into the 26 weeks—which is why we are trying to shift the delay off the 18 weeks—that would have a big impact on women and men who currently can only access the 18 weeks, and prior to that could not access anything at all. I work for a small business; I had no paid parental leave and my youngest child is seven. I am not complaining about that, I am just making the point. As a small-business person, you have no choice but to go straight back to work. There is no other option. And so it is really that very large percentage of women, who work for those employers, that I think we really have to start to think about—which is why am not as concerned about my cohort of women, shall we say, who are okay and can negotiate their own. We are actually more concerned about the bottom end.

CHAIR: Okay. Thank you very much.

Dr MacDermott : Can I comment on that briefly if we have time?

CHAIR: You may, briefly.

Dr MacDermott : I understand the incentive value of adding parental leave on, but under the model that is proposed, if I understand it properly, an employer would have to pay 19 weeks paid parental leave to add one week on top of the existing 18 weeks, and no employer is going to do that. They may redesign their schemes to have a return to work bonus or something like that but that is all they can do. And, as I understand it from employers, they are very concerned that even a redesigned return to work bonus would be somehow counted as paid parental leave and they would be punished for doing it.

Ms Page : I just asked Dr Hewitt quietly, because I did not know, whether the evaluation of the paid parental leave scheme had made any such recommendations as reflected in this bill, and her answer was?

Dr Hewitt : Basically—and this is what the discussion has been for the last 10 minutes or so—we found that women who did get employer paid leave got between six and 18 weeks. With the 18 weeks that they were also getting from the government, that took them into that 24- to 30-week zone, so they are hitting that zone. We also found that their health and wellbeing were significantly improved above and beyond the other mothers' as well and they were getting genuine health benefits. So I think the core question here is—

Ms Page : Which flow on to babies. I am just going to make that point.

Dr Hewitt : Which flow on to babies. So the core question here is: how do we bring the rest of the mothers, who are only getting 18 weeks, up to the 26? Rather than reducing the mothers who are actually getting what they should be doing, how do we get the others up? That should be the core question here.

CHAIR: Thank you all very much for your contributions this afternoon and your submissions.