House debates

Tuesday, 25 February 2020


Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Flexibility Measures) Bill 2020; Second Reading

4:17 pm

Photo of Steve GeorganasSteve Georganas (Adelaide, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to support Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Flexibility Measures) Bill 2020 with the amendments moved by the member for Barton. Australia's national Paid Parental Leave scheme was introduced by Labor and started in January 2010. When the Paid Parental Leave scheme was initially introduced by Labor when we were in government, Australia was one of only two OECD countries without a national scheme—the other one being the United States. So it was very much needed. In fact, Australia's Paid Parental Leave scheme was one of the most overdue reforms of the last decade. It took a Labor government to introduce a scheme that had been operational, as I said, in every OECD country except for the US and Australia.

We all know the financial stress that comes with welcoming a new child into a family, especially when both parents are working and depend on their wages and salaries for the household mortgage, food, goods et cetera. So we know how important it is and that it supports families especially when a newborn comes into the family. In fact, a good paid parental leave scheme is one of the most important things that we can do to help families. I've always been of the view that we should assist parents when there's a newborn in the family, or when they have a child, to assist them to have time off, to be able to still continue to pay their bills and to do the things that are so important at those early stages. That's why I spoke about this in my maiden speech. I spoke about the importance of helping families, because the world has changed from where we were 40, 50, 60 and 70 years ago, where you had one person working, bringing the income home, and another person staying at home and looking after children and the household.

Today the financial stresses on families are far greater. In most cases both parents need to work; both parents have careers; both parents are doing all they can to support the family. That's why in my maiden speech, back in 2004, I said:

For the sake of parents and their children, it is time that we challenged the dominance of work and the pursuit of prosperity without a purpose. There are too many families whose days consist of getting the children dressed, fed and off to school before going to work for days that are far too long, then picking the children up from day care or after school care, getting the children washed, fed and into bed with a story and then typically falling asleep, exhausted, with no time for themselves, their partners or their families. It is time to give families a balance between their work and time with each other. We need an industrial relations system that recognises the rights of employees to access family friendly work practices.

I went on to say:

It is essential, and I call on my parliamentary colleagues to set an example by supporting family friendly policies for their own staff.

It is so important, as I said, to support families, especially when a newborn comes home. When the Paid Parental Leave scheme was introduced, Australia was one of only two OECD countries—we're a country that has always been progressive and at the forefront of developing new policies; here was an area where we were miles behind. I'm pleased that under Labor the Paid Parental Leave scheme was introduced, starting in January 2011.

The purpose of the Paid Parental Leave scheme is to provide financial support to primary carers of newborn children and of newly adopted children. It allows those carers to take time off work to look after the kids, to care for the child after the child's birth, or adoption in many cases. This enhances the health and development of birth mothers and children. It's a very special time, when you have children. Most people in this place know what I'm talking about. The time when parents bond with their child is a special time; it's a time that you will never get back. Having been a parent myself—I have two boys who are now adults—I look back at those times and many times I think to myself, 'I should have spent more time with them; I should have done more things.' It is a very special time.

This is a really important bill. It's a bill that will enhance these things for the Australian people who have newborns. It enables women to continue to stay in the workforce, for example, and it promotes equality between men and women. Gone are the days when the man was the breadwinner and the woman's role was to be at home. Today we have equality between men and women, and this gives women the opportunity to pursue their careers and to do all of the things that men took for granted for many, many years. The balance between work and family life is important, and we need to enhance it.

This particular bill provides two payments, paid parental leave and dad and partner leave. Paid parental leave signals to employers and to the Australian community that a parent taking a period of time away from the paid workforce to care for a child is part of the usual course of life. And this is what we have to remember: this is part of the usual course of life. When we occasionally get sick, we have sick leave; when we have time off, we get holiday pay or paid leave. This is because we recognise these things as part of the course of life. Having a child is part of the course of life, and to think how, for many, many years, we lagged behind the rest of the word on this. Here in Australia—a country where we've always taken these things seriously—it took a Labor government to bring legislation in that assisted parents.

It also helps to address the gender pay gap, particularly for those women on low and middle incomes who have less access to employer funded parental leave. Almost 150,000 parents a year benefit from Australia's paid parental leave scheme, which was introduced by Labor back in 2011, and nearly half of all new mums benefit from the national Paid Parental Leave scheme. As I said, the importance of this particular bill and the things it does for parents cannot be emphasised enough. Labor supports this bill with the amendments by the member for Barton. I'm very proud to belong to a party that introduced the bill for paid parental leave back in 2011. Back then we were lagging behind many countries. It is an absolute necessity and it helps to address many things—the gender pay gap, women's and men's careers.

The gender pay gap remains a problem in Australia. When you look at the statistics, when you look at all the details and research that have come out and despite the Treasurer's recent contention in question time on 9 September 2019 that the gender pay gap has closed, it is not correct. All the reports still show that there is a huge pay gap here in Australia. Female workers in Australia still earn 14 per cent less than their male colleagues. So if the Treasurer and the Prime Minister were genuinely serious about fixing the gender pay gap, they would oppose cuts to penalty rates. That would be the first thing that they would do. The vast majority of the workers who have had their penalty rates cut through what's taken place in the last few years are women. It is women who are getting their penalty rates cut because they are the ones who work in those industries. The cuts to penalty rates are exaggerating the gender pay gap, not just making it harder for women to cover the bills and many other things but also putting pressure on them when they have children, for example.

The importance of ensuring that we support families, mums and dads, is absolutely crucial to a government which at its core should have the ability to look after families and people. We hear political parties sprout that they are the party for families, that they're the ones that look after your average Australian and the average family or the forgotten Australians, but we are all part of a family. Having a child is part of life. Governments of any persuasion should be doing all that they can to put the support in place for people starting a family. It is important for the bonding of the child with the mother, ensuring that they can concentrate on being parents at that time instead of worrying about the pressures of work and paying bills.

As I said, Labor supports this bill and the amendments that have been moved. I would say it doesn't go far enough. We can look at some models around the world like Germany, where paid parental leave really gives the parent the ability to have real time off to bond with their children and to ensure that everything is in place for those young children to grow up as good, solid adults.

4:28 pm

Photo of Ged KearneyGed Kearney (Cooper, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Skills) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Flexibility Measures) Bill 2020 and to support the amendment moved by my colleague the member for Barton. The opposition supports the bill, which builds on the national Paid Parental Leave scheme introduced by Labor, which commenced on 1 January 2011. On this side, we are very proud of this scheme. You will recall, Deputy Speaker O'Brien, that when the legislation was passed, Australia was one of only two OECD countries, along with the United States, that did not have a paid parental leave scheme—unbelievable, I know. The purpose of the paid parental leave scheme was and is to provide financial support to primary carers of newborn and newly adopted children. This allows those carers to take time off work to care for the child after the birth or adoption; to enhance the health and development of birth mothers, their children and the rest of their family coping with the addition of a new baby; to enable women to continue to participate in the workforce, which is vitally important; and to promote equality between men and women, and the balance between work and family life. It provides two payments: paid parental leave of 18 weeks at the minimum wage for the primary carer, and dad and partner leave of two weeks.

When I had my beautiful twin girls 33 years ago, I was only 23 years old. I was a trainee nurse working shiftwork. Their dad was only 21. He was a chef's apprentice. We weren't actually planning to have children quite at that time, but along they came. I was earning $250 a week as a trainee nurse. My partner, as a chef's apprentice, was earning $180 a week. There was no paid parental leave. I was, of course, entitled to take the year off on unpaid leave, but we could not afford for me to do that, pay rent and support two tiny humans. So we did what a lot of people did; we moved in with my mum. It's not ideal for a young couple. My poor partner had to live with his mother-in-law. She was, of course, a godsend and a wonderful help, and I will always be so very deeply grateful for what she did for us. But at least I had a mum to help. I had five sisters and three brothers to help as well. I had a village. I can't imagine what it was like for families who didn't have that support. I can't imagine the financial strain and pain that such a joyous event can end up causing.

We lived with my mum for 18 months. I went back to work when those beautiful babies were seven weeks old. It broke my heart, but I had to—partly because, if I didn't, I thought I would never finish my nursing training, and partly because I wanted to be independent and have my own family home. Imagine that: working full-time shiftwork as a nurse, studying to pass exams, struggling to keep breastfeeding, getting up in the night to two babies while my husband worked split shifts as a chef's apprentice until all hours of the morning; he struggling, himself, and wishing he didn't have to live with his mother-in-law. But we did it, with the help of the village, and we were able to buy our own home 18 months later.

When my son was born four years later, from memory I had two weeks paid leave. It's hard to believe—just two weeks. When my fourth baby arrived, my beautiful baby girl, I had four weeks paid maternity leave. Again, we managed to scrape by, but I still could not manage to take a full year with no pay. That was way out of our financial remit. We all know financial strain puts enormous pressure on families at any time, let alone when a new baby arrives. The chronic tiredness, the change in routine, the difficulty retaining relationships—it all adds up. Add to this worry paying the bills, keeping the mortgage payments going, and knowing that, like most people, you're only one pay packet away from disaster. You have a perfect storm.

When I was on maternity leave with my son, my husband, who, as I said, was a chef, contracted salmonella poisoning. We all did actually—the whole family; it was terrible. It meant that he could not work as a chef, for obvious reasons, until he had been cleared of the salmonella from his system. He needed weekly tests. Believe it or not, it took weeks and weeks for him to be clear. He ran out of sick leave and neither of us were being paid. We fell into terrible trouble. I picked up some casual shifts here and there as a nurse. My husband had to bring the baby to me in my lunch break so I could breastfeed him. But the casual work was not enough. We had to beg the bank to delay mortgage payments. I had to beg my employer to let me go back to work early. That wasn't easy, because someone had been employed to backfill me, and it wasn't fair to break her contract on my account. We really struggled until I managed to get back to work. For months and months, we had to play catch-up. We were one pay period away from economic disaster.

Paid parental leave is a vital component of a family's survival. Paid parental leave signals to employers and the Australian community that parents taking time out of the paid workforce to care for a child is essential and a part of the normal course of life. It enables participation of women in the workforce. A high workforce participation rate is important in the context of an ageing population. It's crucial to our economy and retaining skilled staff. And, importantly, it helps to address the gender pay gap, particularly for those women on low and middle incomes, who often have less access to employer-funded parental leave.

Almost 150,000 parents a year benefit from this leave introduced by Labor, and nearly half of all new mothers benefit from the scheme each year. The scheme was always intended to be supplemented by bargaining in the workplace, which would allow additional weeks at the workers' usual rate of pay. I'm pleased to say that for nurses in Victoria that now means 10 weeks at full pay—a far cry from when I was struggling with my twins. Any agreement-derived entitlement could be taken either simultaneously with the paid parental leave entitlement or added to the minimum 18-week scheme.

In the last seven years we have fought coalition attempts to absorb bargained outcomes against the scheme entitlement—in other words, to reduce the 18-week payment by the amount received under an enterprise agreement. Scandalously, those on the other side called access to bargained entitlements and the legislated entitlements 'double dipping'—a hard fought for entitlement that came at the expense of bargaining for other things like extra annual leave, carer's leave, shift loadings or some other outcome. Nothing comes for free, and it seems that those on the other side simply didn't understand that. Those much-needed extra weeks were hard fought for, were bargained for and came at a cost. They were not just handed over as a freebie. Thankfully, that legislation was defeated in the Senate. It would have seriously disadvantaged lower- and middle-income workers like cleaners, carers, teachers, nurses and police.

This bill will enable working mothers and families across the nation to split their paid parental leave entitlement into blocks of time over a two-year period, with periods of work in-between. Currently, the scheme only allows paid parental leave to be taken as a continuous 18-week block within the first 12 months after the birth or adoption of a child, and only when the primary carer has not returned to work since the birth or adoption of the child. So this bill will change paid parental leave rules by splitting the 18 weeks of public paid parental leave into a 12-week period and a six-week flexible paid parental leave period.

The 12-week paid parental leave period entitlement will only be available as a continuous block but will be accessible by the primary carer at any time during the first 12 months, so not only immediately after the birth or adoption of a child. The six-week flexible paid parental leave period will be available at any time during the first two years and doesn't need to be taken as a block. These are good changes, and they will apply to children born or adopted from 1 July this year. So, in practice, this will mean families can split their entitlements over a two-year period, with periods of work in-between.

As with the current rules, the primary carer can be changed during this time. It is likely that the most common use of increased flexibility will be parents returning to work part time and spreading their flexible paid period leave over several months. The bill may encourage greater take-up of paid parental leave by secondary carers, allowing mothers to transfer their entitlements to a partner at a time that suits the family, and that's to be welcomed.

We know that this scheme isn't perfect. We know that most schemes around the country are far more generous than ours, and there are good reasons for that. There's lots of medical research to show that it's best for mum and baby to be fully breastfeeding for six months, for example, and many schemes allow for that and pay that at full wages, not just minimum wage.

Photo of Michael SukkarMichael Sukkar (Deakin, Liberal Party, Assistant Treasurer) Share this | | Hansard source

You guys campaigned against it!

Photo of Ged KearneyGed Kearney (Cooper, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Skills) Share this | | Hansard source

I knew exactly that that's what was going to be said—that this was Labor's scheme. But do you know what? We had to start somewhere. That was a different scheme that was making employers fully pay for it.

You know it was a different scheme. Don't be disingenuous. It was completely different, because this is a government funded scheme, and that is what we wanted. That is why this is important—because it's accessible to everybody, not just someone who has an employer or is wealthy enough to pay. This scheme is for everyone, employed or not.

I was there just after the global financial crisis when we were negotiating this scheme—with Sharon Burrow, Heather Ridout from the AiG, and Jenny Macklin pushing for this in the Labor Party. This was an important scheme, but it was a very difficult financial time for the country back then. As I said, it was right after the global financial crisis. But businesses, the government, trade unions and workers knew that it was important to get this up. They really worked incredibly hard to get those 18 weeks. We are proud of that; it was a good start. It was implemented, and we were no longer one of only two countries in the OECD that didn't provide access to paid parental leave. So we are proud of that.

The changes in this bill are good changes, but they are not dramatically increasing the entitlements, they are not making the scheme better, and the gap between us and the rest of the world is widening once again. It's really time that we thought hard about improving this scheme. We support these changes.

4:41 pm

Photo of Helen HainesHelen Haines (Indi, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak in support of this bill. I wish to acknowledge the member for Cooper for relaying her story, her family's story, which indicates so powerfully to this House the struggles that mothers, fathers and broader families experience in raising little babies through to adulthood and trying to combine their work and career. Thank you for sharing that story, Member for Cooper.

So I rise in support of this bill, the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Flexibility Measures) Bill 2020. Allowing families to take six of their 18 weeks paid parental leave flexibly and within two years of a child's birth or adoption is common sense. It reflects the diversity of our modern families, which increasingly feature single parents, same-sex couples and multigenerational care. Paid parental leave is a tangible structural support that helps new parents enjoy the full joys and complexities of family life. It moves Australian society towards gender equality by making possible both a meaningful career and a fulfilling family life. Yet there's still so much the government can do to support the hopes and aspirations of parents while giving our kids the benefit of meaningful quality time and care. With some imagination, and by following in the footsteps of countries which are fully committed to shared parenting, Australia can reap the benefits of increased productivity and happier families.

Families in my electorate know that change is the only constant in raising children. As a former midwife I'm well acquainted with how a new arrival transforms the lives of parents in ways that they could never have anticipated. In Indi, our birth rate is two, significantly above the Australian average of 1.74. In 2017-18, 861 Indi residents accessed paid parental leave, with roughly half that number using the two-week dad-and-partner pay scheme. Paid parental leave supports not just parents but also the people who employ them; and their extended care networks, including grandparents and friends.

But let's start with the parents. More flexibility makes life easier for parents in casual or part-time work. Currently, primary carers must take parental leave in one 18-week full-time block and forfeit the rest if they return to work during this time. And returning to work is anything over one hour, except in certain circumstances. Women make up 70 per cent of the part-time and casual labour market, and taking full-time leave to replace part-time or casual work creates its own challenges—and we have just heard about that. The healthcare and social assistance sector is the largest employer of women of child-bearing age in my electorate, employing 3,427 women, or around 23 per cent of that group. Part-time and casual employment is a feature of this work, and this bill corrects the restriction that might prevent these women taking their full parental leave entitlement. It also allows them to return to work when it suits them, and it supports them to remain in the workforce as mothers.

More flexibility is good for the increasing number of women who run small businesses or who are self-employed. In Indi, our young mothers have their own law firms, or are entrepreneurs, cafe owners or farmers. Their businesses and their customers and employees would suffer if they stepped away from operations for a continuous 18 weeks. The government's amendment recognises that a graduated return to work helps keep these businesses in the black, while giving new parents the space and time for rest and recuperation and to support the health benefits of the child. It's also good for business. Flexible parental leave can support women returning to work earlier in a part-time capacity if they take the rest as paid parental leave. This means employers get their staff back sooner, which supports retention when parents return to work in a greater capacity.

But there is still so much we can do to improve the experience of parenthood. The tired, gendered, stereotypical roles of breadwinner versus homemaker are persist in parenthood in heterosexual relationships, to the detriment of both men and women. This is in stark contrast to the huge strides we've seen in workforce participation and educational attainment. Younger women who have not experienced gender inequality tell me they are shocked to find that it lingers still in parenting. Government policy continues to foster this gendered division of care. We can see this in how leave is structured. As well-intentioned as this legislation is, the added flexibility only applies to primary caregivers. While primary carers aren't required to be the mother, the reality is that mothers take 95 per cent of primary carers leave, according to the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

In explaining this amendment, the government says:

Increasing the flexibility of paid parental leave may encourage greater uptake of parental leave pay by secondary carers, contributing to changing social norms around sharing care and encouraging men to take parental leave.

But while this flexible leave can be transferred to the secondary caregiver, such as a father or non-biological parent, currently this leave is transferred to fathers in only two per cent of cases, according to an ANU roundtable held in Canberra last August. On paper I can see how increased flexibility makes transferring leave between parents more appealing, but I am sceptical that this will be enough to shift the dial to encourage fathers to take more leave.

How do we encourage more fathers and partners to take a greater share in the upbringing of their children? We know that male parents want to take time off and be more active participants in caregiving. While the rate of fathers taking some leave has risen, from 31 per cent in 2004-06 to 49 per cent in 2013-15, this still means that only half of secondary carers, fathers in most cases, actually utilise two weeks of leave through dad and partner pay entitlements. With only two weeks of leave, in heterosexual two-parent families fathers are less inclined to learn how to manage the daily needs of the child and to see themselves as an equally competent carer, and this further burdens women with an imbalance in caring responsibilities. Supporting both parents to take leave encourages fathers to play a more active role in understanding how to care for and soothe their children, and this has positive impacts on children's long-term bonding and developmental outcomes.

Part of the problem with increasing the rate of fathers taking paid parental leave is the continuation of the binary model of primary and secondary carers in the legislation. I consulted with the Women's Health Goulburn North East, a non-government regional women's health promotion agency, on the impact of this bill. They told me that this division: 'reinforces patriarchal gender norms that value women for their reproductive capacity and men for their capacity to earn. This traps families in dichotomous breadwinner-homemaker relationships that prevent them from participating equally in the joys and responsibilities of family life.'

These current arrangements disadvantage men as carers, further embed gender inequality and limit women's career advancement. This serves no-one's interests. Women's Health Goulburn North East continued to tell me: 'the right to participate fully and equally in the joys of family life should be afforded to all parents regardless of gender or familial structure. Removing gendered language also removes the inherent roles and expectations assigned to men as fathers and women as mothers, meaning parents are free to define these roles for themselves based on the needs of their families.'

Leaving it up to the private sector to lead gender equality initiatives has had mixed results. Many workplaces don't give secondary carers parental leave, which means that men must take unpaid or recreational leave, creating further disincentives. Even more don't even ask. At the other end of the spectrum is Telstra, which last year scrapped the distinction between primary and secondary carers, allowing either parent to take up to 16 weeks paid parental leave within 12 months of the birth or placement and to take it flexibly.

The two-tiered model of parenting begins during pregnancy. In my former life as a midwife and later as a researcher, I investigated the experience of fathers in rural Victoria during the antenatal period. I found that, while we talk about fathering as if it were a partnership, a joint experience with the mother, this is not the experience of most people. For instance, when men encounter the healthcare system during a pregnancy, they overwhelmingly report feeling peripheral at least and marginalised or excluded at worst. This is despite data showing that men generally want to be more involved during the pregnancy process. This is a lost opportunity for population health. For example, we do very little to support the mental health of men during their partner's pregnancy and in the early parenting period, despite significant evidence that tells us this is a key period for the onset of anxiety and depression in men. And this is at our cost. Fathers who are healthy, physically and mentally, and engaged with their children are far more likely to have healthy kids and respectful relationships. The evidence of this is now very, very clear.

The government's bill goes some way towards catching up with modern parenting. But there are three things that I can suggest we could do now. Firstly: remove the distinction between primary and secondary carers in the government's paid parental leave legislation. Leave it up to parents to find the balance that works for them. Secondly, and building on the first reform: legislate for shared parental leave. Take a leadership role in removing the unfair bias that persists in many workplaces that prevents or discourages men from taking extended leave. Make sure it's affordable and is accessible to all parents, regardless of their employment status. Thirdly, ensure that the mental health of men is part of the antenatal care picture. Do this by introducing Medicare-listed mental health check-ups for expectant fathers, like the UK did last year. In the longer term, we need a wholesale review of the delivery of pregnancy, infant and early parenting care, to ensure that we are engaging men as equal partners in the parenting experience and debunking gender stereotypes right from the beginning.

In conclusion, I congratulate the government for leadership on this reform and I urge it to think about: what more can we do to advance equality in the home for the parents raising kids today and for the benefit of the generations of Australian children to come?

4:52 pm

Photo of Adam BandtAdam Bandt (Melbourne, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Care is fundamental to our society. Care for each other and care for those who we are bringing up is the fundamental thing that binds us all together. None of us would be here without care. Care, though, is often devalued and, in fact, is taken for granted. It's just presumed that there will always be people caring for other people and looking after each other in their family, looking after those who need help. As a result, much of care goes unpaid.

Care going unpaid isn't necessarily the problem, but the problem is that care goes unpaid, is taken for granted and is often undervalued. Nowhere is this more apparent than the work that is disproportionately done by women in-home. It's often not called work—but it is work. And we need to start treating it as work. Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time with young children will know that it is work. We should start treating it as work in the way that we legislate. We should start acknowledging the role that is often taken for granted—a role not always, but almost always, performed by women—in the care of young people in our society.

Care is also undervalued in the paid workforce, and those areas of work that are often the lowest paid are often those that one would call the caring professions, and they are often very highly feminised—that is, there are, more often than not, more women working in those professions. So, outside of the paid workforce, we don't value care enough—even though it's the fundamental thing without which life wouldn't exist—and, inside the paid workforce, we underpay those who are responsible for caring.

When you then add in work, on top of currently unpaid caring responsibilities, you start to compound the problem, especially for women. In this country people—predominantly women—who are balancing work and raising kids report very high levels of stress and dissatisfaction with the job that they are doing. That's unfair and it's in large part because of the pressure that society often puts on those women, but it's also because we, as legislators, don't provide a supportive framework for people to make those choices. The bind can continue—again, especially for women—for many who are not only trying to juggle work and look after young children but may be looking after their parents as well, sandwiched in the middle, having to care for those above them and care down, and work at the same time.

For a small period of time we offer some kind of support in the form of paid parental leave, but it is nowhere near extensive enough. The measures in this bill take some positive steps, but they don't go towards the fundamental problem. We've got to start looking at paid parental leave as an industrial right, where you take paid parental leave so that not only the individual but the whole family does not suffer financially. That's not the position we are in at the moment, but it's one that we need to get to.

What we also need to do is start giving those people—again, predominantly women—who are trying to balance looking after children with returning to work greater legal rights to have control over their own lives. Part of the stress and anxiety that is felt is due to a lack of control because you're balancing so many things. You're balancing looking after the kids, and perhaps looking after your parents as well, who might be needing help themselves; you're balancing work and you're balancing your home life, but you're doing it all in a situation where, at the moment, you don't have enforceable rights to control your own working arrangements. Yes, there are very good employers; there are some employers who understand this difficulty, and some of those employers go out of their way to include particular measures and rights for women to be able to have control over their working arrangements. But what we don't do is give women anywhere near enough enforceable rights to control their own working arrangements to take care of their caring responsibilities. This is something that I've pushed for for a while.

We've introduced legislation to give parents and carers more control over their working lives and their working arrangements so that flexibility becomes a two-way street. At the moment, flexibility is very often just a one-way street in many workplaces. The employer can demand flexibility, but when workers themselves, especially those with caring responsibilities, want to say, 'I need to change my working arrangements in order to care for children, parents and others in my family who need it,' they very often find themselves reliant not on any legal rights but on the goodwill of the employer. That's something we need to change. We need to start giving those with caring responsibilities enforceable legal rights to demand better working arrangements. That would go some way to dealing with some of the problems that this bill is trying to address.

One of the other things that we need to do is have a rethink about child care in this country, if we want to address some of the problems that this bill is trying to address. Child care has become extraordinarily unaffordable for many families, and the recent reforms from the government have not helped. Not only is there an affordability problem; there's an availability problem. You can find a space, but you might have to go on a very long waiting list, especially for zero to two-year-olds. We've gone some way—and it must be acknowledged that it's thanks to the reforms of the previous government—to increasing the standards, quality and skills of our educators in early childhood education and child care, and they are good reforms. But what we've now got is an affordability and availability problem, and it is a crisis in some areas. We have waiting lists that are very long. Sometimes you might even find yourself a spot in one childcare centre, for one particular day that might match your working arrangements; but then there is not the spot in the same childcare centre, so there are parents who are juggling one child between different childcare centres on different days of the week. As if you don't have enough stress already, you then find yourself dealing with increasing out-of-pocket costs under this government and then you potentially have to hop from one childcare centre to another.

Part of the reason for that is that we don't think about child care in the way that we should. It is a universal service and a universal right. If we were forcing children to jump from one school to another because we didn't have a space for them on one particular day, there would be an outcry. But it seems that it's okay in child care. If we said parents were not able to go back to work because sending their child to school meant they were out-of-pocket, there'd be an outcry. But that's the situation we find ourselves in with child care at the moment. Under the way this government treats child care—it is a problem for the whole family, but it is predominantly women who get impacted by—you have to make a decision about whether you go back for an extra day of work knowing that basically it could all be eaten up by childcare fees. That diminishes the ability of women to make real choices about their lives and about how they want to structure their lives. By and large—and there are exceptions—these are not choices that men have to make. The burden falls on women, and it restricts the choices that women can make in their lives.

In an excellent contribution earlier, the member for Indi said we've got to start looking at ways that we might force a greater sharing of parental leave between men and women—in heterosexual couples—which would be a very welcome set of developments. We've also got to have a look at what child care is doing to the choices that families are making—in particular, the choices that women are making. That's why one of the first things I said when I took up the leadership of the Greens is that part of my goal, part of the Greens' new deal, is to push to make child care free and universally available to parents across this country. That is one way of closing the gender gap in this country.

We went to the last election with a plan that was a step towards free and universal child care that would have resulted in 80 per cent of families being able to get free and universal child care as well as expanding early childhood education to the kindergarten years. But we have to have a goal in our sights. If we are to address the problems that this bill presents, we not only need reform around parental leave and reform to give women more and enforceable rights at work—everyone should get them, but people who have caring responsibilities should have additional rights to demand more flexible working arrangements so that they have more control over their lives. But we need to get serious in this country about treating child care as a universal service. I repeat: if we turned away students from schools, or if parents weren't able to go back to work because they couldn't afford to send their child to a private school, there would be a national outcry. But somehow, for some reason, we seem to think it's okay in child care.

I acknowledge the work of the previous government in lifting the standards and qualifications and skills of our educators in child care. That has made a huge difference. They are very important and welcome reforms. But now we need to go to the next step and say: what do we need to do to the system to ensure that it is free and universally available to everyone so that no-one has to make the decision about not going back to work because they know that if they go back to work that extra day it's all going to be eaten up in extra childcare fees. If the government doesn't think that's a problem, then they are not talking to parents—because that is a very real problem for women.

There are a number of other reforms that could be made to paid parental leave. The member for Indi outlined some very good ideas. I'm also told, for example, if you choose to do above masters level then it's not counted in the activity test. I'm following that up because if that's right then it seems very odd indeed that post-graduate PhD level study is not counted in the activity test. Some constituents have told me that, yes, you get it for a masters but not if you go on to do a PhD. I'm following that up and seeking clarification because if that's right, that is wholly discriminatory. That is a disincentive for women to go on and do high-level post-graduate education. I hope there's been a miscommunication to my constituents about that but, if not, I will go and ask why that is the case. That would be a sensible reform. The activity test needs more fundamental reform than that, but that is certainly one thing that could be looked at.

This bill goes some way towards addressing some problems but, if we want to get to the nub of the fundamental issue to ensure that we have gender equality in this country and that we properly value care inside and outside of the paid workforce, we are going to need change our industrial relations laws, we are going to need change to our parental leave laws and we are going to need an expansion and rethink of the childcare system so it becomes free and universal for everyone. That is part of the Green new deal we'll be fighting for because it will make a big difference to parents right across this country.

5:06 pm

Photo of Zali SteggallZali Steggall (Warringah, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise in support of the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Flexibility Measures) Bill 2020. This bill will amend the Paid Parental Leave Act 2010 to introduce measures to make paid parental leave more flexible. This is needed for modern workers as they balance challenging careers—often self-employed or running small businesses—and raising young children. Previously, workers have only been able to access parental leave in a single 12-month period and this bill be allow workers to take blocks of leave over 24 months. These new measures could increase workforce participation and provide a boon to the economy. It's a step in the right direction and shows that the government is conscious of the barriers women and families still face in the workplace.

In Warringah, there are 38,000 families with children under the age of 13 that will benefit from fixing these issues. We have a high proportion of young working families and many dual-income families. The issues of closing the pay gap and increasing childcare subsidies are ones of primary concern when I speak to families around Warringah. Despite numerous previous efforts, we need to be frank about where we are at. Women still face a 14 per cent pay gap, retire with 40 per cent less super and still account for 68.7 per cent of all part-time employment. Working mums seeking to increase their hours of work still face extraordinarily high effective marginal tax rates. To rectify this we need to increase paid parental leave. The government should consider increasing paid parental leave, not just for flexibility of the leave. According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, it's during the years when many women are balancing paid work with unpaid caring responsibilities at home that the gender pay gap begins and it widens considerably. By increasing the Paid Parental Leave scheme we can increase female workforce participation and decrease the pay gap.

Australians are currently able to access up to 20 weeks parental leave. This is below the recommended amount as suggested by the World Health Organisation of 26 weeks and it is well below OECD average of 55 weeks. A 2013 global study found that increasing the duration of leave not only increased female workplace participation but it also increased female working hours. Both would be huge boons to the Australian economy and would go to the heart of two major issues—saving for super and moving women from pat-time to full-time work. Parental leave itself must be more equitable.

One of the big problems is of course that 99.74 per cent of parental leave is taken by women. We need policies that support men who want to take time off and take care of their children. We should look to examples in other countries, like Iceland and Canada. In Iceland, the male parental leave participation rate is at 45 per cent. Since Iceland introduced its nine months of parental leave with three months dedicated to fathers, its parental leave participation has increased by 50 per cent. That's opposed to the two weeks of leave that Australian fathers are granted under our current policy. It's simply not enough. Other countries mandate bonus parental leave to both partners if, in the initial months following the birth of a child, both parents take their allotted leave. This has had demonstrable and positive benefits on measures of family cohesion and wellbeing, and in countries like Canada it has significantly increased male parental leave participation rates.

Another way to overcome pay and superannuation gap differences would be to legislate increases in childcare subsidy, which commenced in July 2018. The subsidy has been effective in improving workforce participation. It is the main way in which the government assists families with childcare costs. Childcare subsidies work by overcoming the strong disincentives built into the system that penalise women who increase their participation in the workforce. The more that women work, the more they lose the benefit of several allowances, such as the family benefit and the Medicare levy. There are many in my community in Warringah who feel and experience this. It makes little sense, because they still need this extra support when juggling both work and raising a family.

The OECD has reported that Australian parents pay 31 per cent of their combined income towards child care. This is not good enough. We have to do better. The benefits of increasing the subsidy would be disproportionate to the cost. Increased workforce participation has not been specifically modelled for this exact policy, but the Grattan Institute and KPMG have both approximated that similar policies would show an increase in annual GDP of $25 billion to $60 billion. I urge the Treasurer and the government to consider this.

While this bill is a step in the right direction, I look forward to conversations to do more, and I hope this government will introduce more legislation to keep addressing this problem. Many families in Warringah, as well as around Australia, would benefit hugely from further support from this government along the lines outlined. Thank you.

5:12 pm

Photo of Jason FalinskiJason Falinski (Mackellar, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I strongly disagree with the amendment. I rise instead in support of the substantive motion and the bill in front of us, the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Flexibility Measures) Bill 2020. This is a bill which makes changes to the Paid Parental Leave scheme aimed at better supporting working mums and dads to access their payments more flexibly. How could we disagree with this? How could the Labor Party suggest that this bill needs to be amended?

The time between a parent and their child is sacred, and this government will always fight to enhance that time. It is not just this government saying that. Research is now becoming more and more definitive that time parents spend with their children and children's improved developmental markers are highly correlated. As the nature of work changes, our legislation also needs to change. It is estimated that 4,000 parents will take their parental leave flexibly each year following the changes we are making. With around 300,000 births in Australia each year, nearly half of all new mothers and fathers access the Paid Parental Leave scheme. The scheme allows eligible working parents with 18 weeks of payment at a rate based on the national minimum wage which is currently just under $750 per week; it is more than $13,000 over the 18 weeks.

Paid parental leave plays an important role in supporting the health and wellbeing of new mothers and their babies. The Liberal government understands this, and is fully committed in continuing to support mothers and fathers while also encouraging workforce participation. For this reason, the bill introduces greater flexibility to support working parents, especially self-employed parents and small-business owners, who are often unable to afford to leave their business for 18 consecutive weeks, especially when they are the major manager in the business.

I would also like to endorse the comments of the member for Warringah on this bill. Many people in my electorate find that, as they begin to earn more money, they have their allowances reduced, meaning that they question the time that they should spend at work and question the benefit of it, which is of course the opposite of what we are attempting to achieve. This measure will help thousands of new parents who currently return to work before they have used all of their parental leave pay. We don't want new parents, mums and dads, to miss out on the valuable time all parents cherish with their children, especially newborn children.

Under the current arrangements, parental leave pay can only be received as a continuous 18-week block. Within the first 12 months of the birth or adoption of a child, from 1 July 2020 families will be able to split their parental leave pay into blocks over a two-year period, with periods of work between, thus making it easier for those who work for small businesses or are simply unable to take such a long, consecutive period of time off work. Parents will be able to take their remaining entitlement of up to six weeks any time before their child turns two years old and they can return to work at any time during this period. Pending these changes, the government will also make complementary amendments to increase the flexibility of the existing unpaid parental leave entitlements in the Fair Work Act 2009—an act that, frankly, has done so much damage to the workforce participation of mothers and fathers; an act that is so inflexible that we are seeing real wage increases fall to record lows and worker participation reduced; an act that, so desperately, the Labor Party should be ashamed of.

These changes will ensure parents who wish to access their parental leave pay flexibly will have access to a corresponding flexible unpaid parental leave entitlement. Many self-employed men and women and small-business owners will see 18 weeks as a significant amount of time to be away from work. These changes will mean mothers and fathers will be able to take 12 weeks of parental leave pay initially before returning to run their business or go to the workplace. They can then choose when to take the remaining six weeks of their entitlement, at a time which suits their personal needs along with their business needs.

Some parents may choose to use their parental leave pay to support a part-time return to work. For example, after returning to work following an initial period on leave, parents could return to work in a part-time capacity for four days a week and receive a day of parental pay for the fifth day they are not working for up to 30 weeks a year. This flexibility will benefit all hardworking parents who are eligible for paid parental leave to transfer entitlements to eligible partners who take on the role of primary care where it ultimately benefits the family's circumstances. For example, if a mother wanted to take 17 weeks of her parental leave pay to recuperate after the birth of her child and transfer the remaining weeks to her partner, she may choose to take a week off when the child is transitioning into child care at 18 months old.

The bill expands on the important safety net for working families who may not have access to employer schemes. It ensures parents are able to have the time they need and deserve with their child following a birth. The time between a mother and a father and their child is so precious, and the government is making these changes to ultimately protect that time. I commend the original bill to the House and urge the Labor Party to stop playing games with this important reform.

5:19 pm

Photo of Andrew GeeAndrew Gee (Calare, National Party, Minister for Decentralisation and Regional Education) Share this | | Hansard source

The Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Flexibility Measures) Bill 2020 introduces reforms aimed at better supporting working parents and their families to access paid parental leave more flexibly to support choice about balancing work and family. From 1 July 2020 families will be able to split their parental leave pay into blocks of leave over a two-year period, allowing for periods of work in-between.

The changes will help thousands of new parents who currently need to return to work before they have used all of their paid parental leave. Instead of losing unused leave, these families will now have greater flexibility to take their leave at a time that suits the needs of their family. The increased flexibility will also make it easier for mothers who are eligible for Paid Parental Leave to transfer the entitlement to eligible partners who take on the role of primary carer where it suits the family's circumstances. We know that not all families are the same, and this bill makes important improvements to the Paid Parental Leave scheme that give families more flexibility to balance work and caring responsibilities in a way that best suits their needs. I commend this bill to the House.

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this, the honourable member for Barton has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The immediate question before the House is that the amendment moved by the member for Barton be agreed to.