House debates

Monday, 15 February 2021

Private Members' Business

Paid Parental Leave

6:31 pm

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

I move:

That this House:

(1) notes that:

(a) there are around 2.6 million families with dependent children aged under 15 in Australia;

(b) Australia has one of the least generous paid parental leave schemes in the OECD;

(c) the McKinsey Global Institute found that in Australia, participation in early childhood education is lower than the OECD average and costs over 40 per cent more than the OECD average; and

(d) perinatal discrimination is the top discrimination complaint in Australian workplaces;

(2) acknowledges that:

(a) Australia lags behind other developed countries in the provision of best practice, evidence-based policies that support families and children; and

(b) there is significant economic benefit to Australia from increasing female workforce participation, gender equity and outcomes for children; and

(3) calls on the Government to:

(a) increase health and wellbeing support for parents and children by amending parental leave legislation and providing for a year of paid parental leave to be shared by both parents;

(b) lower the cost of early childhood education for all families; and

(c) improve access to paid carers' leave for parents of sick children.

The motion outlines the need for a comprehensive approach to the reform of Australian parenting policies. Today, The Parenthood group and Equity Economics released a report titled Making Australia the best place in the world to be a parentan ambitious but important goal. The report highlights the economic and social benefits of the policy proposals, including an estimated increase to GDP of 4.1 per cent, or some $166 billion, by 2050. And if we can get female workforce participation up to the same level as male participation, GDP would increase up to 8.7 per cent—some $353 billion.

There are 2.6 million families in Australia with dependent children under the age of 15. In Warringah, we have 20,000 of those families, and many have told me of the need for a more supportive approach and that there is a disincentive to return to work due to the costs of child care and the discrimination experienced in the workplace. A more consistent and supportive approach to parenting strategy in Australia is required to address these concerns. From my own experience with young children, starting my career as a lawyer and then at the New South Wales bar, it was already incredibly frustrating that conferences to exotic overseas locations, holidays and ski trips were all tax deductible, but the real everyday cost of child care was not. It was, and remains, so high. The tax system is not gender neutral and it's time our system caught up with the 21st century and the reality of working parents.

COVID-19 threw into stark relief the inadequacy of the current policy suite at supporting families in Australia. Parents across the country were homeschooling their children. Many struggled without access to carers' leave and were without access to child care. The government intervened to provide temporary relief through free child care, which was welcomed by many parents, but it was a minefield, and some providers, for example, were unable to afford the rent or staff required to stay open in many areas. There is a lot of complexity around this area, but if we've seen one thing it's that the COVID recession impacted the jobs of women and female-dominated industries far more than the jobs of men and male-dominated industries.

The budget response last October to this pink recession was unfortunately a very blokey budget, and it was heavily criticised. It's now clearly squarely on the agenda for the Prime Minister and the government to address this in the May budget. In preparing the May budget, I urge the government to consider The Parenthood report, which delivers a blueprint for a comprehensive Australian parenting strategy post-COVID. The tools for achieving this include universal health and wellbeing support for parents and children through pregnancy and early years, and a parental leave scheme that provides one year of paid leave, to be shared equally between parents.

Australia has one of the worst rates of participation by fathers in parental leave. We need this to improve, and we need sufficient parental leave, across both parents, to ensure that it is not one parent—generally the woman—who is disproportionately disadvantaged and disincentivised from returning to the workforce. And we need free and high-quality childhood education and care for all families, and of course flexible and supportive workplaces with universal access to paid carers leave for sick children.

So, paid parental leave is something that's very important. Australia has one of the least adequate parental leave schemes among OECD countries. The average length of paid parental leave among OECD countries is 55 weeks, while Australia has 18 weeks. Paid parental leave in Australia is granted to one parent, the primary caregiver, whereas in other OECD countries it can be shared. More-equitable paid parental leave schemes are important because they will encourage fathers into caring roles, improving their long-term bond with children, improving participation in unpaid work in households and creating an appreciation of the work involved in raising a child. It will also provide primary carers with the opportunity to return to their careers sooner and more sustainably.

Child care is commonly viewed as child minding rather than the early education of children, and that needs to change, because some great gains can be made. We need an attention to women in the next budget, and I would encourage the Prime Minister to have better female representation on the Expenditure Review Committee to ensure an equitable budget.

Photo of Andrew WallaceAndrew Wallace (Fisher, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the motion seconded?

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

I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.

Photo of Andrew WallaceAndrew Wallace (Fisher, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Indi. I give the call to the member for Ryan.

6:36 pm

Photo of Julian SimmondsJulian Simmonds (Ryan, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm very pleased to rise to speak about this motion today on family support, and I thank the member for Warringah for putting it on the Notice Paper, because it is so important to talk about Australian families and the important things the government is delivering for them. I do disagree with the member for Warringah on a very important point, and that is that I think right now Australia is the best place to raise a family. Where else would you rather be? It disappoints me so often that Labor and Independent members are willing to talk down Australia and Australian society in terms of the opportunities we give to Australian families and to our kids and that we are delivering for them.

I've lived my whole life in the Ryan electorate, and I now raise my young family there, so it's something I can talk about from personal experience, along with the other 39,000 families who live in the Ryan electorate. They gave me the honour of representing them in this place, and I made a commitment that I would look out for the families in the Ryan electorate and across Australia in the work that we are able to do. So it is a great pleasure to talk, in response to this motion, about the significant efforts the Morrison government is making to ensure that the opportunities for Australian families are significant and to ensure that families are kept healthy and safe. There is certainly no place you would want to be other than Australia, particularly in this past year, through COVID.

But it's not just about keeping you healthy and safe, although that is important. Brand new medicines are being listed on the PBS every week—life-changing medicines for Australian families—that are possible only because of the Morrison government's commitment to the financial discipline that simply couldn't—

Opposition Member:

An opposition member interjecting

Photo of Julian SimmondsJulian Simmonds (Ryan, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'll take the Labor member's interjection. He says the PBS is bipartisan. But they couldn't do it. Labor members couldn't do it. They had to stop listing medicines on the PBS. Labor actually stopped listing life-saving medicines because of financial constraints. What an indictment on their government, that they couldn't achieve it. This government, the Morrison government, does achieve that for families. We have been able to put record amounts of funding into frontline mental health support services as well, such as Kids Helpline—things that are practical improvements in families' lives—and to give them the support they need, particularly at this difficult time.

The Morrison government is also making important strides in increasing flexibility in the workplace for families. Last year the Morrison government passed the Paid Parental Leave Act 2020, which delivered just that—greater flexibility when it comes to the parental leave system. Before this bill was passed, paid parental leave could only be taken in a continuous 18-week block within the first 12 months of the birth or adoption of a child. Now, these new measures allow families to split their parental leave entitlement into blocks of leave, with an initial period to be taken in the first 12 months and the remaining six weeks to be taken at a later time within two years.

These measures are designed to change what are traditionally viewed as social norms and encourage secondary carers to take parental leave. More importantly, they give families choice. That's what the Morrison government believes in and what I believe so passionately in—that families know what is best for them, that they know how to give opportunity to their kids. We're about enabling them to have that choice—not telling them how to raise their family or the manner in which they should do it but providing as much choice as we possibly can. We all know what a juggling act it is to be a parent. We see many private companies now responding to the changing needs of parents, particularly mums, providing more benefits above the minimum standards as well.

There is this time as well, with COVID. Any family's life is stressful with the added pressures of restrictions and lockdowns. Many workers have had their employment interrupted, which would have been an issue for the parental leave test period. So as not to place further financial stress on families, the Morrison government has amended this test for a limited time so that parents must have worked 10 out of 20 months, not the previous 13 months, so that they won't be disadvantaged when it comes to taking this important leave. Again, it shows how this government is about supporting parents, particularly in paid parental leave, and giving them the choices they need to best raise their families. I'm very proud of what the Morrison government has achieved to support Australian families and what it is continuing to do and will do, with the vaccine rollout and other measures, to support the 39,000 Ryan families. I will continue to be a loud voice for them in this place.

6:41 pm

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

I thank the member for Warringah for bringing this important motion to the House, speaking to the report by The Parenthood and Equity Economics called Making Australia the best place in the world to be a parent. That means making Australia the best place in the world to raise a child would make it the best place in the world to be a child. Just think about that, if our nation was known for that.

Too many Australian parents with children under five are caught in a trap of inadequate paid parental leave, lack of affordable high-quality learning, perinatal discrimination and myriad other social and economic barriers to workplace participation and, indeed, the full enjoyment of family life. Too many Australian children are suffering because of this. In the first five years of life children's brains are wired to learn quickly. Early learning helps to amplify their natural skills and abilities and to prepare them to thrive in later years. Children who attend early learning services are 33 per cent less likely to be developmentally vulnerable when they start school than those who do not attend early learning services.

Since the introduction of universal access to preschool in 2009 Australia has made progress in the proportion of children enrolled in a preschool program in the year before school. But most of our peer countries in the OECD already provide at least two years of preschool and have done so for decades. Countries in our region are rapidly ramping up access to two years of preschool, framing this as a necessary investment in human capital and future productivity—countries in our region, right next door to us. Investing in an additional year of preschool is really the next big policy opportunity for Australia.

Rural children and families are hit by these failures even harder. Noting that early childhood care and education is a private-public market and that our government has continued to encourage parents to shop around to ensure they are getting value for money—well, when there's one provider within 50 kilometres, if you are lucky, it's pretty hard to shop around. UNICEF has ranked Australia 32nd out of 41 nations for child wellbeing in 2020. This is shameful and it needs to change, and we can make it change.

I know from my experience both as a parent and as a frontline worker, as a midwife, the kinds of stresses that parents face. There are parents at the emergency department in what we call the witching hours, between six and midnight—stressed, uncertain, seeking support, worried about a child who they might need to stay home from work tomorrow to look after. I know that we can get better.

The report published today by The Parenthood and Equity Economics provides the solutions, and they're straightforward and compelling. What we need here is action. We know from this report that we need significant investment in four key areas.

We need universal health and wellbeing support for parents and children, through pregnancy and the early years. Gold standard care requires access to mental health support through ongoing access to screening, telehealth and continuity of care throughout pregnancy—and that's something I happen to know a lot about. We know that continuity of midwifery care in this nation is only available to a handful of families right across our system, yet, if they receive it, we know it's good for mothers, good for babies and good for families: they're less likely to have an operative birth, they're less likely to have a preterm birth and they're less likely to have low-birth-weight babies, and they have higher satisfaction and earlier onset of breastfeeding.

We know that mental health challenges are severe and concerning for both mothers and fathers, and we know that fathers are very unlikely to seek help. The transition to parenthood makes them vulnerable to experiencing anxiety and depression for the very first time in their life. A paid parental scheme is important for both parents. I've studied and undertaken research in Sweden, where there are 480 days of parental leave which can be shared. So, yes, we've made a beginning, but we've got so much further to go. We know that women who get more parental leave than the government system have better mental health, and, if the women have better mental health and the fathers have better mental health, we know that the children will do better, too.

Free and high-quality early childhood education and care for families are crucial. We should be increasing our childhood education for these young children. Finally, we need flexible and supportive workplaces, with universal access to paid carers leave. As we've seen during the COVID pandemic, we need flexible workplaces that allow parents to work from home in a blended model, if they can.

I commend this motion to the House, and I encourage the government to step up to the plate on improving access to these services.

6:46 pm

Photo of Matt ThistlethwaiteMatt Thistlethwaite (Kingsford Smith, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for the Republic) Share this | | Hansard source

I wish to congratulate and thank the member for Warringah for putting this very important issue on the agenda here today. It's an issue that is seeing a constraint on Australia's economic development and a constraint on the development of families in our community as well.

Australia's Paid Parental Leave scheme was introduced by Labor and started on 1 January 2011. When the scheme was introduced, Australia was one of only two OECD nations that didn't have a national scheme of that nature, with the United States being the other. In 2021, the current Paid Parental Leave scheme is up to 18 weeks at the minimum wage, and it's below the OECD average of 50-plus weeks leave. Australia now ranks fourth among OECD nations for some of the highest childcare costs in the world.

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 part of the usual course of life and should be supported by government. It also enables participation of women in particular in the workforce. A high workforce participation rate is important in the context of an ageing population and the economic recovery from the impact of COVID. It helps to address the gender pay gap as well, particularly for those women on low and middle incomes who have less access to employer funded parental leave.

The gender pay gap remains a big problem in Australia and has remained stubbornly high over the past two decades, with only minor changes widely attributed to the ending of the mining boom. If the Morrison government were genuinely serious about fixing the gender pay gap, they would oppose cuts to penalty rates. The vast majority of workers who have had their penalty rates cut in this country have, unfortunately, been women working in itinerate work in the hospitality and retail sectors. Those cuts to penalty rates are exacerbating the gender pay gap by making it harder for women to earn a decent income and to pay the rent and cover their bills.

Paid parental leave is also meant to promote equality between men and women and the balance between work and family life, yet the shortcomings in the current approach are impacting constituents not only in my electorate but across the country. One example is Catherine. Catherine is the main income earner in her household, but she is unable to receive paid parental leave support because her income is too high, yet if their roles were switched and her husband was earning the same salary then Catherine would be entitled to the benefit. It's because the current test is based on the mother's income, not the overall household income. That is not only hampering that particular family's earning capacity and ability to support their family and grow it but also a handbrake on our economic development. With gender roles now less defined and double income the norm, is it the best approach to be helping working families if we have this impediment built into the system?

This is particularly the case given that increasing childcare costs are also locking many Australian parents out of the workforce. We've seen in the recent Productivity Commission report on government services in 2021 that almost 300,000 Australians are not in the labour force because they are caring for children, and the number of parents saying they are not working mainly due to the cost of child care has skyrocketed by 23 per cent. This confirms that the cost of child care is prohibiting Australian parents from working the hours that they want. With the Morrison government itself predicting fee increases without CPI for years to come, the hits will keep on coming for Australian families.

It is clear that there is a problem in this area, and that is why Labor has developed its plan for cheaper child care—to support those working families to work the hours that they can and want to support their families. That's why we will scrap the $10,500 childcare subsidy cap which often sees women losing money for working an extra day's work; lift the maximum childcare subsidy rate to 90 per cent; and increase the childcare subsidy rates and taper them for every family earning less than $530,000 a year. Importantly, the ACCC will be tasked with designing a price regulation mechanism to ensure that the costs are kept down. It's important that we support families to work the hours that they need to support their family as it's growing. But the current system is an impost on that, because working that extra day is often impaired by the way the subsidy works. That's why Labor's plan will deal with this issue.

6:51 pm

Photo of Graham PerrettGraham Perrett (Moreton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Education) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm pleased to speak on the motion moved by the member for Warringah which acknowledges the benefits to Australia from increasing female workforce participation, gender equity and outcomes for children by lowering the cost of early childhood education for all families. Sadly, women in Australia continue to take on the lion's share of family and caring responsibilities. Australian women do almost twice as much unpaid household work and caring work as men—and I'm making this speech here in Canberra while my wife Lee is in Brisbane with our children. Hopefully, she isn't listening to the Federation Chamber at this time. Of course women's career paths are often negatively impacted by pregnancy and caring responsibilities. Affordable care for Australian children is crucial. Without it, many parents, most often the mother, are forced to give up or turn down work.

We are just two and a half years into the coalition's childcare system—the one the Prime Minister dubbed a 'once-in-a-generation reform' and that he personally promised would make child care more affordable. Sadly, ABS data shows that, for parents in Brisbane, child care is now more expensive than when the Morrison system was introduced. The Morrison system has done the opposite to what Prime Minister Morrison promised. Families are struggling and yet the 2020 budget had no plan for child care. Families are being crippled by ever-increasing childcare fees. They've seen an increase of 7.2 per cent in just one year—and, guess what? Wages aren't increasing at 7.2 per cent. In fact, wages are flatlining.

We know that having more women in the workforce is better for the economy. A recent Productivity Commission report confirmed that the cost of child care is prohibiting parents from working the hours they want. The report revealed that almost 300,000 Australians are not in the labour force due to caring for children—all that potential. More than 90,000 of these parents say that they are not working mainly due to the cost of child care. The boost to our economy from reduced childcare costs has been modelled by KPMG and the Grattan Institute. That modelling revealed the boost to our GDP from increased workforce participation was at least $7.5 billion and up to $10 million. So it makes sound economic sense to reduce childcare costs. Every family with young children in my electorate of Moreton knows that the high cost of child care is a hit to household budgets and a brake on women's workforce participation—all that potential being untapped. It's also a huge hit to our economy as a whole.

This motion notes that Australia has one of the least generous paid parental leave schemes in the OECD generous paid parental leave schemes in the OECD. Parents, both mothers and fathers, should be able to take time off to look after their newborns without having to worry about how they can pay the rent. Since the coalition have been in government, they've tried to slash paid parental leave five times. The coalition have called mothers rorters, double-dippers and fraudsters.

Labor actually understands how important it is for parents to spend those early weeks with their child. You don't get that time back. It's good for the babies and it's good for the parents' wellbeing too. When in government, Labor implemented the first national paid parental leave scheme and introduced dad and partner pay. From opposition, Labor blocked the coalition government's attempt to slash paid parental leave. As a dad and as a former teacher, I know how important those early years are in a child's life. It's important to have those days and weeks after the birth of a child to bond and for babies and parents to settle in. It's important for parents to have access to good-quality, low-cost child care so they can get back into the workforce when they are ready.

Unlike this government, Labor, under Anthony Albanese, has a plan to bring down the cost of child care and keep it down. Our cheaper child care for working families policy will scrap the $10,560 childcare subsidy cap, which often sees women losing money from that extra day's work, will lift the maximum childcare subsidy rate to 90 per cent and will increase childcare subsidy rates and taper them for every family earning less than $530,000. Labor will ask the ACCC to design a price regulation mechanism to shed light on costs and fees and drive them down for good. With the aim of implementing a universal 90 per cent subsidy for all families, the Productivity Commission will conduct a comprehensive review of this crucial sector.

It's time that working families were rewarded. We value the family. It's time that we put that extra reward in there. It's time that second household income earners, who are usually women, were encouraged, rather than discouraged. That's the current set of arrangements engineered by Prime Minister Morrison. It's time that second household income earners were encouraged to work more and contribute to our economic recovery after the pandemic. It's time to fix the coalition's broken childcare system.

Debate adjourned.