Monday, 31 May 2010
Paid Parental Leave Bill 2010; Paid Parental Leave (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2010
I rise to give my strong support to the Paid Parental Leave Bill 2010 and the Paid Parental Leave (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2010, and I commend the member for Solomon on his contribution. The Paid Parental Leave Bill introduces Australia’s first national, government funded paid parental leave scheme, a truly magnificent event to be a part of. I thank the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, upfront, as I will at the end of this speech, because it is quite an honour to speak on this particular piece of legislation—one that I will be telling my grandchildren about, hopefully.
The road to equality has been a long and often difficult one for the women of Australia. Australia did have some early runs on the board. We were one of the first countries in the world to give women the right to vote and to sit in parliament, but progress since has been chequered to say the least. It was not until 1949 that our first female federal cabinet minister was appointed, and up until 1966 women working in the federal Public Service were required to resign when they married. I do not remember that year well—it was the year I was born—but if my mum had been working in the Public Service rather than for hospitals she would have had to resign for the fact that she was pregnant. It was not that long ago.
In the last 50 years much has been achieved for women in terms of equality in education and the workplace, safe contraception and access to childcare facilities. I would like to say this is also true in terms of equal pay but, having been a member of Sharryn Jackson’s House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment and Workplace Relations, I cannot quite say that. If I read from our report, in 2007 women in Australia earned only 83.9 per cent of each dollar earned by males for full-time ordinary time earnings. Prior to 2007 the gap between male and female average earnings remained relatively constant. In May of this year Australia’s gender pay gap stood at 16.2 per cent for weekly earnings and at about 11 per cent for hourly earnings. The gap declined between 1985 and 2001 but has recently increased slightly. So there is not always a progression towards equality but, nevertheless, in terms of contraception, childcare facilities, education and the workplace there has been a lot of improvement.
In 1984 the federal government banned discrimination on the basis of sex. Today more women than men are educated at secondary schools and university and more women graduate from university with bachelor degrees. In 2006 women made up nearly 55 per cent of tertiary students and 47.5 per cent of students enrolled in vocational education and training courses. Forty per cent of Australia’s small business operators are women and 57 per cent of the Australian Public Service are women, with women holding around 36 per cent of senior executive positions. Unfortunately, in the private sector it is a slightly different story: only 12 per cent of management jobs are held by women. In this parliament, even though the Deputy Prime Minister and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition are women, only 30 per cent of elected representatives are women. So more work needs to be done there.
In Queensland, the state climate change minister, Kate Jones, recently became the first woman to have a baby while a member of the cabinet, and congratulations to Kate and Paul. Following in the steps of many others, I note my former campaign manager and the parliamentary secretary at the time, Karen Struthers, who is now the housing minister and the minister for the status of women in Queensland, also has a child. And obviously our own minister, Tanya Plibersek, is also going to repeat that later on this year, so all the best to them.
Paid parental leave is not the final frontier. There is still a long way to go, including wage equality, as I touched on previously, but the bill before the House, in black and white, is a great leap forward. This bill introduces Australia’s first government-funded paid parental leave scheme, and it is long overdue. Almost all modern countries have a paid parental leave system in place—leaving out the United States. To the best of my research, Australia is all alone with, as I said, the United States and Swaziland in southern Africa as the countries without a paid parental leave scheme. Even Sudan and Rwanda are progressive enough to have funded schemes in place. So it is long overdue in terms of looking around our colleagues in the United Nations.
But this does not stop the Leader of the Opposition in his opposition to a paid parental leave scheme. The opposition leader might have recently possibly had a change of heart on paid parental leave, but the reality is he had 12 years in the Howard government, where he served as an employment minister, and he never made any attempt to introduce paid parental leave. When he had the power and the opportunity, he did nothing, nada, not a thing. In fact, he vigorously campaigned against the interests of women, including paid parental leave. That is the measure of the man: what he did when he had the power and the opportunity, not the shadow promises he is trotting out now. In 2002, he told a Liberal Party function in Victoria—I do not know whether these comments were carefully scripted or in the heat of the moment, so I cannot vouchsafe their veracity:
Compulsory paid maternity leave? Over this government’s dead body, frankly.
Does the opposition leader really expect us to believe that he is now going to deliver a paid parental leave scheme if by chance the good people of Australia vote him in as Prime Minister? It is obviously not something that he believes strongly in. In fact, ‘over the government’s dead body’ were the words that he used. The Rudd government, however, is responding to the needs of modern families, while Tony Abbott is responding to results coming out of focus groups which tell him he needs to improve his standing with Australian women. It is certainly pretty easy to give a list of the concerns some of my female friends—not just Labor friends, but female friends—have had about some of Tony Abbott’s comments over the years, but I will not go there.
The Rudd government values the hard work of mothers, whether at home or in a paid job. We have brought in some quite reasonable approaches to support mothers. I note that we brought in means testing of the baby bonus, which is obviously a common sense thing to do. It did cause some concern for one of the voters in my electorate—my wife—because she was pregnant at the time we said it was going to be means tested and it was not a nine-month lead in. It was slightly less than that, so consequently, when my son was born on 19 January, the baby bonus was means tested which, as I say, caused some concern for my wife. She assures she will consider who she votes for at the next election pretty carefully.
Having a new baby on the scene is one of the most enjoyable and rewarding times of anyone’s life, but obviously it is also a very challenging time—whether you are an MP or anybody else. Obviously a new child creates lots of challenges. New parents usually have to adapt to life without sleep and also, more significantly, often life without their normal income, despite some of the ongoing bills and new bills that come with children. That is why the Rudd government supports families through the baby bonus, family tax benefits and from 1 January next year—not very far away at all—Australia’s first paid parental leave scheme.
This scheme is fully-costed and fully-funded by the government, and it does not impose an unfair big new tax on business. As previous speakers have touched on, we are talking about a four per cent differential in terms of our approaches to treating businesses, rising to a two per cent cut to company taxes for all companies, but for SMEs particularly, versus those opposite who are going to slug big business with a two per cent tax to fund their fanciful scheme.
The Rudd government’s paid parental leave scheme gives one parent the financial security to take time off work to care for their baby at home during the early months of their baby’s life. It gives mothers time to recover from birth and to bond with their baby, and any psychologist or person who works in the maternity sector will say that that is the most crucial time, early on, when children do their bonding with mothers and fathers.
This bill provides up to 18 weeks parental leave pay at the national minimum wage to primary carers who have a child or adopt a child after 1 January next year. It is currently $543.78 a week. To ensure greater flexibility for families, parents can nominate when they wish to receive their pay. However, all pay must be received within the first 12 months after the date of birth or the placement of the adopted child. This will help families balance annual leave, their employer provided paid leave and the Paid Parental Leave scheme to ensure it works the best for them. Carers will also be required to satisfy work, income and residency tests. A parent will not be able to work while receiving parental leave pay. However, if agreed with their employer, they may do up to 10 days to ‘keep in touch’ with their workplace, which can then make the transition back to work calmer and less stressful. The government will fund employers to pay their eligible long-term employees and eligible claimants who are not paid by their employers will be paid by the Family Assistance Office. Families who are not eligible or who choose not to participate in the scheme will still be able to access family payments such as the baby bonus and family tax benefit.
This bill provides meaningful support to families but it will also be good for employers. By providing financial support to new mothers, they will keep connected with their workplace, retaining skills and knowledge, and make sure they are ready return to the workplace when they are ready. As anyone who has ever worked in HR would know, the cost of replacing employees is quite significant. So a scheme that ensures employees who are familiar with a workplace are ready, willing and able to go back is a great scheme. It makes good sense for employers. This scheme will help families balance their work and family responsibilities and give Australian families the kind of support almost all other countries take for granted. I thank the minister for families, Jenny Macklin, for introducing such a historic piece of legislation—it has obviously required vision and courage and determination for her to do so—and in doing so I commend the bill to the House.