Monday, 31 May 2010
Paid Parental Leave Bill 2010; Paid Parental Leave (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2010
I would like to start my comments in relation to the Paid Parental Leave Bill 2010 and the cognate bill by saying how wonderful it is to be in this place debating not whether we should have paid parental leave but what it should look like. As a mother of three who had two children without paid parental leave and one child with it, I can say from personal experience what a difference parental leave pay makes. I am sure that many families around Australia can tell of similar experiences.
I want to talk about the history of paid parental leave. I think it is important to look back and see how we got to this point today. I want to go back to 1973, when maternity leave for Commonwealth public servants was introduced by the then Whitlam government. It was the first form of paid maternity leave for public servants in this country. What a landmark decision that was. In 1979, the ACTU, the Australian Council of Trade Unions, put forward a test case which allowed for maternity leave to be inserted into federal awards. In 2002, there was a HREOC, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, discussion paper which talked about paid parental leave and its implications for women in the workforce. It talked about the impact of women not having access to paid parental leave on their participation in the workforce and the productivity losses that caused in this country.
We have come a long way since then, thank goodness. Although Australia is one of only two OECD countries without a national paid parental leave scheme, we are here today not debating whether we should have one but debating what it should look like—and I am really pleased about that. The Productivity Commission report, which we commissioned some time ago, has some key points that I want to talk about. In 2007, around 2,000 female employees—or 54 per cent of women in the workforce—had some form of paid parental leave available to them. Some of them had paid parental leave in full-time highly paid work and others were part-time workers. While all employees were covered by unpaid parental leave legislation, not all employees met the eligibility criteria. Around 17 per cent of employee mothers and 15 per cent of employee fathers were ineligible for any unpaid parental leave. Around 72 per cent of mothers in paid work take leave around childbirth. The vast majority of women not taking leave resign from work, and 75 per cent of fathers in paid work take leave around the time of childbirth. On average, mothers taking leave from paid work remain on leave for around 37 weeks. A mother’s leave is usually a combination of several types of leave. The use of leave is normally reflective of the availability of the leave and under what conditions it is paid. Unpaid maternity leave makes up the majority of the leave taken. Most of the leave fathers take is annual leave.
Of mothers in paid work prior to childbirth, 11 per cent return to paid work within three months, 26 per cent return within six months, 57 per cent within 12 months and 74 per cent within 18 months. Casual employees rely heavily on unpaid parental leave and other unspecified types of unpaid leave and are marginally more likely to return to work early and less likely to return in the long run. Mothers with more children are more likely to be outside the workforce prior to childbirth; however, if those women are already in the workforce prior to childbirth, they are much more likely to return to work. So it is important that we have some form of leave that covers parents that want to take leave when they have children. I am particularly pleased that in our paid parental leave scheme, as the member for Corangamite mentioned before me, fathers are included—it is a paid parental leave, not a maternity leave scheme. As a mother of three children, I know that my own husband has taken much leave in the rearing of our children, and he would not have missed that for anything in the world. I am sure that many working families in my electorate appreciate the choice that this Paid Parental Leave scheme offers to parents. It is available to either parent, and I think that is really important.
Our Paid Parental Leave scheme will be available for around 148,000 people each year. It will commence on 1 January 2011, should it get passed by the parliament. It will provide up to 18 weeks parental leave at the national minimum wage, which is around $545 per week, while parents stay at home to look after their baby or adopted child. In addition to full-time workers, as I have said before in referring to the Productivity Commission report, it is important that women working part time, those in seasonal or casual contract work and the self-employed are able to access paid parental leave—many for the first time. I think that is a really important part of our scheme. A mother will be eligible if she has worked continuously for 10 of the 13 months before the birth or adoption of her child and has worked for at least 330 hours in that 10-month period or around one day per week. To meet the needs of contractors and seasonal or casual workers who have irregular work patterns, a person can take a break of up to eight weeks between working days and still be considered to have worked continuously. Paid parental leave will also be available to parents who work in their own family business, such as a farm. Generally, it will be the mother who claims the payment in the first instance, as she usually provides the primary care for the child during the initial months of the child’s life. However, it is becoming increasingly common for the father to spend time as the primary carer of their child during the first year.
The legislation allows all or part of the parental leave to be transferred to the child’s other parent, provided they also meet the eligibility requirements and are the primary carer of the child for that time. The paid parental leave must be taken in one continuous 18-week block within 12 months of the child’s birth or adoption, including in cases where the payment is transferred to the other parent or carer. A person cannot work during the paid parental leave period, although they can stay connected with their workplace through ‘keeping in touch’ provisions. A person will be eligible for the Paid Parental Leave scheme if they have an individual income of $150,000 or less in the financial year before the birth or adoption of their child. This is a generous income test but is consistent with the principle of targeting government support to those who need it most. To apply, a person must be living in Australia and be an Australian citizen or permanent resident.
Families receiving paid parental leave will not be entitled to receive the baby bonus or family tax benefit part B for the duration of their paid parental leave. The government estimates that more than 85 per cent of families will be better off taking paid parental leave. These families will, on average, receive around $2,000 more than if they had chosen the baby bonus. This is after tax has been paid and other family assistance has been taken into account.
Our plan is fully costed and fully funded and is expected to commence on 1 January 2011. We have previously debated in this chamber what form of paid parental leave we may have, but we must not lose sight of the fact that we need some certainty for parents. There are parents or families out there now, planning to have children, and they need some certainty about whether or not the Paid Parental Leave scheme will be in place from 1 January 2011. I urge those opposite to consider supporting our scheme regardless of whether their own amendments get up or not and to not delay its passage through the Senate—or in any other form in the parliament—so that mothers, fathers and families have some certainty as to when the Paid Parental Leave scheme will start.
We have heard from those opposite about their scheme, which I understand includes a 1.7 per cent tax on 3,000 or 5,000 companies at a cost of $2.7 billion. It is six months, often for very wealthy individuals. There is no income test and no payment for stay-at-home parents.