Monday, 31 May 2010
Paid Parental Leave Bill 2010; Paid Parental Leave (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2010
It is wonderful to get the opportunity to speak to the Paid Parental Leave Bill 2010 and the Paid Parental Leave (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2010, which would introduce Australia’s first public national paid parental leave scheme. A lot of people in this place have said it is historic, and it is. Australia is one of only two OECD countries—the United States is the other—which do not have a comprehensive paid parental leave scheme. It is long overdue. It is fair and just, and it is funded. I would like to thank Minister Macklin, Minister Plibersek and all the other women, in this place and in other places, who have lobbied long and hard for this scheme.
It is called the paid ‘parental’ leave scheme—it is for men and women. But the fact is that it is something for which women have campaigned for a long time and it will apply primarily to women. It is women who have the babies and primarily women who take the leave to stay at home with the babies, so I will direct a lot of my comments to women and the role they play.
It is a good feeling to be part of the government that is introducing this scheme. It was good to see it introduced in a costed, practical way, such that there will not be a big impost on small businesses—which I will turn to—and other organisations. It is a big win, it is popular and it is also necessary. For many years people said we could not afford it and it would be an impost on everybody. There was economic modelling and economic advice saying it was not necessary. For all those years, the advice was that we could not do it, when we know that we could have—it does make me wonder. On this scheme, the government sent a reference to the Productivity Commission. They had time to consider it and they took submissions from a broad range of people and organisations in the community. They came up with a costed model that would work without having all the imposts. I rejoice in it but, my gosh, it has been a long time coming. It makes me wonder why we could not have done it a lot sooner.
I remember the debates—I was part of them—that occurred outside of this place. We were told that this was a contentious issue and that these were not mainstream concerns. I wrote a piece in the Women Lawyers Association’s newsletter talking about issues that impacted on women, including superannuation, maternity leave, ART and RU486. I said that, when we had debates in the community on those issues, they tended to become contentious, they were not seen as mainstream and they were not debated in a rational way—and such it was with maternity leave for a long time. I am pleased that these are now mainstream issues. Having babies, paid maternity leave and paid parental leave are all seen as regular issues—as they always have been. That in itself is a milestone.
When the commitment was made to deliver this scheme, I did have some concern because of the global financial crisis, the global recession. Women often get asked to take a back seat when major events happen—including in families, where we often willingly take that back seat. I was concerned that might happen with this scheme. I am so pleased that we have stayed on track and are introducing it from 1 January 2011. It demonstrates the commitment from the government to support mothers, whether in paid jobs or at home. The baby bonus and family tax benefits will still be available for families not eligible for paid parental leave. We are committed to women who are in the paid workforce and women who are not, and that is a good thing. Those who choose not to participate in the scheme will also be covered.
The scheme is affordable and minimises the impact on employers, particularly those in small business. That should be a consideration at any time, but particularly with the advent of the global recession and the global financial crisis. In my seat of Page there are about 11½ thousand registered businesses that we know of and a lot more that we do not know of. It is important that they can share in the benefit of a paid parental leave scheme but do not have to wear the financial burden of it. They do not with this scheme. To give an overview, this scheme starts on 1 January 2011. People who are eligible can claim from October this year or they can put in a submission. I will not go into the minute detail of eligibility, because people will have worked that out when they apply. In general, it applies to the mother of a newborn child or to the initial primary carer of a recently adopted child. One of the concerns raised was that they should meet the paid parental leave work test before the birth or adoption occurs. They should have an individual annual income of $150,000 or less, be living in Australia and be an Australian citizen or permanent resident. Those criteria apply to many schemes or benefits that one can access from the government.
I campaigned in the lead-up to the decision to introduce the scheme in my local area and talked about it with many local women. I talked with parents, different groups, local small businesses and others. I was clear that it should not be a further impost on small business, but I said that employees in small businesses should be as entitled as anybody else to take maternity leave, paternity leave or paid parental leave. I also publicly supported the campaign, with New South Wales unions, about the ideal and visited childcare centres with them. I also supported the ACTU campaign, which supported the introduction of an affordable scheme. So there was lots of debate. There were lots of schemes thrown up for discussion and, of course, we all wanted the ideal. But it comes with a cost, so we have to be mindful of how it is introduced. I say it will be money well spent. The ACTU campaign was about affordability and accessibility to as many as possible. The scheme was proposed to be shared between the primary carers and adoptive parents and it was costed properly.
I note the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, in her second reading speech thanked a number of people, including Marie Coleman, Heather Ridout and Pru Goward, who advocated a scheme when she was the Sex Discrimination Commissioner. I remember that Senator Stott Despoja introduced a draft bill or a private member’s motion on a paid parental leave scheme. I pay tribute to a whole body of women right across Australia from all sides of politics who recognised it made sense and was something we needed to do. It took time to convince some of our male colleagues in politics that it was something they had to come at, but eventually they did. I have heard other honourable members in here refer to the comments of the Leader of the Opposition, the member for Warringah, that there will be a maternity leave or paid parental leave scheme ‘over my dead body’. It seems as though he has had a change of view. He did come out with something that was not costed, did not seem to be affordable, would be quite an impost and would cost a lot of money. It is not a scheme as such; it was just something he announced. It struck me as rather an erratic approach to policy making, if one can call it that. When schemes such as this are introduced they do need work-up time, they do need to be considered carefully, they do need to have the cost and the modelling tested and we do need to seek input for it from all parties.
One of the other things that are really good features of this scheme is that women in seasonal, casual and contract work, along with the self-employed, will have access to paid parental leave, with most of them having access to it for the first time. We know that 25 per cent of women work in casual jobs. They receive no paid leave entitlements. One of the trends that has developed in modern times is the casualisation of the workforce. It is something that we have to be mindful of and rail against in some ways, because permanent jobs provide security. Sometimes they are essential if one wants to get a loan. But 25 per cent of women work in casual jobs and receive no paid leave entitlements. Under this scheme, for the first time they will be eligible. That is a very good thing.
Eligible families can choose whether to participate in this scheme, depending on their individual circumstances. I said early on in my contribution that there would still be the baby bonus and things like that. People will be able to elect to be with the particular scheme that they want to be with, the baby bonus—except in multiple birth cases, which recognises that is a special circumstance that warrants extra assistance—or paid parental leave.
The notes that are published on the website about the scheme say that the paid parental scheme will have a net cost to the government of $731 million over five years. When you think about $731 million, that does not seem a huge amount for such a significant benefit for and impact on our community. It brings me back to the question of why it took so long when it is not a mammoth amount of money that is being spent. And that is over five years. Going back to what the Leader of the Opposition has said about the idea that he announced on International Women’s Day, when you look at it, the tax increase of up to nearly two per cent through the company tax regime for over 3,000 businesses would cost something like around $3 billion. That does not make sense and shows that it is not a scheme that is costed well and is instead a rather extreme idea.
I would like to reiterate some key points about the paid parental leave scheme. It will start on 1 January 2011. It is funded by the Australian government. It is fair to business and fair to families, which is not something which is always easy to achieve. That is what is aimed for; it is a guiding principle. With this scheme, it works. It will help Australian families balance work and family commitments and it will help employers retain the valuable skills and experience of their staff. Turning to employers, from reading the information that is available about it—and there is quite a good deal of information—it will not be a big impost upon employers. They will not have to do all of the extra work that so often has to be done by small business when changes come in through schemes and systems. They often have to do a lot of that work—like with the GST and a whole range of other things. That is one thing that pleases me, and I know that it pleases small business as well.
Australian families have been waiting decades for this. The time has finally come. The government’s paid parental leave will be able to be taken in addition to existing employer funded schemes, either at the same time or consecutively. The government’s paid parental leave scheme will help employers enhance the family friendly workplace conditions that many already offer. This is an extra for them. It will give families more options to balance work and family by allowing the primary carer, which is usually the mother, as we know, to transfer any unused parental leave pay to their partner, provided that they are also eligible. That is a good mix, particularly with modern life and the demands on modern families. This means that an eligible father can get up to 18 weeks paid parental leave if the mother is eligible for the scheme but returns to work.
The minister, in her second reading speech, committed to monitoring and evaluating the paid parental leave scheme. There will be about $3 million allocated for that purpose. There are two issues that the government committed to look at in the review and the evaluation. One was the superannuation contributions for the period of paid parental leave. I would like to make a comment on that. So often, superannuation is a great thing. It is good that is going from nine per cent to 12 per cent. But for many years it, for a whole range of reasons, did not advantage women as much as men, like a lot of areas. It is one of those issues that we have to be constantly mindful of and working at to make sure that women are not disadvantaged. I welcome the review which will look at that. That is an area that I will watch very closely. I commend this historic bill to this House.