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Speech to the Australian Institute of Family Studies conference, Melbourne.



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Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs

Speech

Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference

09/07/2008

The Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference Melbourne

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Good morning.

Thank you Doreen for your welcome to country - I greatly appreciate being welcomed onto Wurundjeri land. And thank you to Professor [Alan] Hayes [AIFS director] for that kind introduction.

This is a very important conference to be opening. The theme says it all really - Families Through Life. It's true that you can't choose your relatives, but it's also true that families, for most, are a life-time source of strength and support, with us through thick and thin.

I'd like to congratulate the Australian Institute of Family Studies for the tremendously important job it does.

The Australian Institute of Family Studies has been painting a picture of Australian families since 1980 when it was first set up.

The Institute's research provides vital evidence to inform Government policy and decision making about how to support Australian families. As well, it keeps the changing face of Australian families in the public consciousness. It is a well known resource in the community and plays an important educational role.

This is the 10th AIFS conference, and my first as Minister. It's a great pleasure to be here.

Today I want to talk to you about the Government's child-centred approach to family policy.

Children are our most important asset. The Government is determined to make children's interests the driving force of our decision making in family policy.

That's why the Government has asked the Productivity Commission to examine ways the Government can provide better support to parents with newborn children. And that's why we specifically included the needs of children as part of the terms of reference.

Our new approach to family policy is to put children at the centre of policy making, not on the margin.

Of course parental leave and paid maternity leave is about connection to the workforce. We saw from AIFS research released this week that mothers with leave - paid or unpaid - are more likely to return to work than women who don't.

But the issue of paid maternity leave is also fundamentally about what is best for children.

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To me, it's a very simple proposition. It's about what's in the best interests of children. If we want to give children the best possible start in life we know the early months and years are absolutely vital for social, cognitive and physical development. Women who continue to work after having a baby mostly do so because they need the income. We need to give new mothers some breathing space to bond with their baby, to give them a nurturing environment, to establish breast-feeding if they can and to learn how to care for their babies. All so that little babies will get a better start to life.

That's not to say that full-time mums don't need support too. They do. And this Government is committed to supporting all mothers, whether they are in a paid job or at home. We value the hard work of all mothers regardless of whether they are in paid work. That's why we provide support through a range of measures including the Baby Bonus, Family Tax Benefits A and B the Child Care Benefit and the Child Care Rebate.

The Government is about building a modern Australia that recognises the pressures Australian families are under.

Our first Budget provided more help for families with young children who go to child care with an increase in the child care rebate to meet half of a family's out of pocket child care costs.

And for the first time we are helping with the costs of school education through the Education Tax Refund, and for our teenagers the Teen Dental Plan - because we know that as children get older, they cost more and more.

Because that's what a child-centred approach to family policy means.

Giving parents real options to make the best decisions for their children and address the realities of modern Australian life.

The way Australians live and work has changed enormously over the past decade.

Australians are working harder than ever. But they seem to be getting less in return. There is less and less time for the things that give life meaning. Community, family, relationships - these important features of the Australian way of life are becoming less habitual. Working families are struggling to stay above water, trying to cope with cost of living pressures and the demands of work.

One of the more disturbing aspects of these changes involves the place of children in the community. Children are increasingly seen as a burden, as carrying an impossible level of responsibility and compromise. We are at risk of becoming a child-unfriendly society. A place where children are seen as very much a private responsibility, with little profile in public domains like the workplace.

In this inflexible environment, parents in paid work are running themselves ragged trying to keep up with family responsibilities at home and the consuming demands of work. Keeping up with each day can be a feat in itself.

Working fathers are taking an increasingly hands-on role in raising children. But mothers in paid work are still bearing the brunt of the work and family collision, on average still putting in a 40 per cent greater effort on caring responsibilities compared to men.

Working mums are turning themselves inside out. They're exhausted. They feel like they never get the break they need. And they carry the perpetual guilt of feeling like they are doing both their paid and unpaid jobs badly. Coping with the impossible work and family balancing act is a daily challenge.

Some of the strategies working mothers use to cope are revealed in the AIFS's ground-breaking long-term study of Australian children, Growing up in Australia.

The landmark study reveals that mothers working full-time are spending only around four hours less

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per day with their young children than mothers who are not employed. These are mothers working full-time mind you, putting in at least a 7.5 hour day.

The study also reveals that working mothers only slightly reduce time with babies and young children, on average spending around two hours a day less with them than mothers who are not employed.

So where are mothers working full-time finding the make-up time to spend with their kids?

I know that this will not be news to any working parent in the room today. Working mothers rely on going without sleep and sacrificing leisure activities to spend more time with their children.

That's right, going without sleep and giving up personal time out.

Fathers do make up some of the time with children. When mothers work, fathers spend more time with children, although not as much as the time lost from mothers.

Against this unforgiving backdrop of work and family demands, it's not surprising to find that people are having fewer children.

Australia's fertility rate has dropped from a record of 3.5 babies per woman in the early 1960s to 1.84 a decade ago to a record low of 1.73 in 2001. Since then the rate has increased slightly to 1.81 in 2006.

What's very interesting is the Institute's research published earlier this year that revealed that the reason that families were not having more babies was not because they didn't want to. It was because they didn't have the confidence.

The Fertility and Family Policy in Australia study revealed most of the people surveyed actually wanted to have more children. Very few thought that their ideal family would be to have no children or only one child.

But couples lacked confidence in their ability to create and maintain a supportive family environment for children.

Working families want to have more children. They just don't think they can cope.

That's why the Productivity Commission Inquiry is important. Support systems need to address the realities of modern Australian life.

Watching the contributions to the Inquiry roll in has been an invigorating experience.

There has been great energy and enthusiasm and the debate has taken hold in the public mind. From talk back, to current affairs, to the tabloids, it seems everyone is talking about whether Australia needs a paid maternity leave scheme. Australians can't open the newspaper without reading a host of views and opinions on the subject.

There have been 228 submissions to the inquiry. Many from major organisations such as the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI), the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), the Business Council of Australia (BCA), the Australian Industry Group (AIG), and the National Foundation of Australian Women (NFAW) But there have been many more from individual parents and employers.

There have been a range of models put forward. ACCI, BCA and AIG have recommended a Government funded scheme of around 14 weeks, while the ACTU has proposed a Government funded scheme of 14 weeks at the minimum wage level with employer top-ups to meet replacement wage.

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NFAW has proposed, through its so-called 'Perry Plan', 28 weeks paid leave funded through a levy on employers and employees. And last week we read about CEDA's model involving HECS-style loans that families would later repay.

These different models will all be examined closely by the Productivity Commission but the fact that so many people are thinking about different schemes of paid maternity leave is exciting.

It's also been great to see business get involved with the Inquiry. As well as those I've mentioned, the Productivity Commission has received submissions from the Australian Retailers Association and the Australian Farmers Federation to name just a few.

The Government has made it clear that any paid maternity leave scheme will not have an adverse impact on small business. One of the Inquiry's terms of reference is to assess paid maternity leave models for their potential impact on the financial and regulatory cost and benefits on small and medium sized businesses.

We've seen a diverse range of large employers leading the way with Woolworths, Myer, Aldi and Dominos Pizza introducing paid maternity leaves for their staff

It's good business sense. For them, it's about retaining skills and encouraging their female staff to return to work after having a baby.

In their submission to the Inquiry, GM Holden said that their scheme of 14 weeks paid maternity leave, introduced in 2002, "has achieved the desired business objectives".

And it is clear to see why.

In the five year period between 2002 and 2007, 90 per cent of women who took maternity leave from Holden returned to work, compared to the 65 per cent who returned before 2002. The percentage of new female employees hired at Holden increased from 16 per cent in 2004 to 25 per cent in 2007.

These practices are helping business, they are helping women and they are helping families.

I need to declare an interest here. While it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the substance of the Inquiry, or any of the submissions, most people know that this is an issue very close to my heart.

I have been beating this drum since 2000. I was part of the push to include paid maternity leave in the Australian Labor Party platform for the very first time.

By 2004, I had developed the Opposition's Baby Care Payment to give all mothers a fortnightly payment linked to the minimum wage to help cover the costs of having a baby. Within weeks, the Howard Government had re-announced it as the Baby Bonus. The major difference between the policies? Labor's policy was to provide fortnightly payments, giving families regular and secure payments. The Howard Government's was to pay a lump sum.

As you would be aware - in the recent budget we decided to introduce fortnightly payments for the baby bonus to give parents regular financial support after a baby is born.

So I am no disinterested observer in the debate about paid maternity leave.

Of course, there are no simple solutions. And Australians' work and family lives will always involve a series of trade-offs, sacrifices and compromises.

But if we keep children's interests at the heart of family policy debates then at least we will know that we are doing the right thing by all those mums and dads who do their bit by going without sleep so they can spend more time with their kids.

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