House debates

Tuesday, 7 February 2023


Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Improvements for Families and Gender Equality) Bill 2022; Second Reading

6:58 pm

Photo of Carina GarlandCarina Garland (Chisholm, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm delighted to be able to continue speaking about the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Improvements for Families and Gender Equality) Bill because it is a very important bill. From 1 July this year, this bill will deliver six key changes to the paid parental leave scheme in Australia. It will combine the two existing payments into a single 20-week scheme. It will reserve a portion of the scheme for each parent to support them both to take time off work after a birth or adoption, which is really important. It will make it easier for both parents to access the payment by removing the notion of primary and secondary carers, and that is a really significant shift.

It will expand access by introducing a $350,000 family income test, which families can be assessed under if they exceed the individual income test. It will increase flexibility for parents to choose how they take leave days and allow eligible fathers and partners to access the payment irrespective of whether the birth parent meets the income test or residency requirements. These are significant changes that send a clear message that treating parenting as an equal partnership supports gender equality. Our government values men as carers, too, and we want to see that reinforced in our workplaces and in our communities.

This bill is about acknowledging that care is fundamental to all of us in communities, no matter the gender of the person providing the care. It is also an important step in breaking down gender stereotypes that do unfortunately exist and often do harm in limiting possibilities for people to make choices about the kinds of families they build, jobs they pursue and lives they lead. When fathers take a greater caring role from the start, it benefits mums, dads and their children. This is a reform to benefit the whole family. This paid parental leave reform is good for employers, it's good for the economy, and it's good for parents and children. This reform is great for communities right across the country, including my own community of Chisholm.

Unfortunately, Australia has not been tracking that well when it comes to gender equality. We can do so much better. I know that our government wants to do so much better. We've been working hard to deliver more for everyone in our country, including women, and this bill is an example of that. The facts are pretty dismal. Let's have a look at what Australia's situation currently looks like on the gender equality front.

Last year, Australia came 43rd on the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Index. In 2014, we came in at 24th. We have been going backwards. That is really dreadful and shameful, and it makes me really angry. The national gender pay gap stubbornly sits at 14.1 per cent. That's not good enough. The median undergraduate starting salary for women is 3.9 per cent less than men, despite women graduating in greater numbers from university courses. Women's super balances are 23.1 per cent less than men's as we approach retirement age. Sadly, older women are the fastest-growing cohort of people experiencing homelessness, and women over 60 are the lowest earning of all demographic groups nationally. Women's workforce participation lags behind men consistently by eight to nine percentage points.

This is a grim, dismal picture, and, unfortunately, we've lost a decade under the previous government for meaningful forward momentum. Instead, on key indicators, as a nation, on gender equality, we've gotten worse. It genuinely makes me really angry and upset to see that in this country, a country that was one of the very first in the world to give women the vote. There is now a real commitment from our government to change, and we are on the road to improvement. This bill addresses some of the issues of gender inequality in this country.

We're also tackling this problem through our industrial relations reforms that passed the parliament last year. Pay secrecy is no more. Measures for feminised workforces to be properly remunerated are finally coming to pass. Cheaper early childhood education and care also mean we are doing more to boost women's workforce participation. We are a modern government. We value equality. We care about community, from our very youngest people to our very oldest.

Our agenda, as the Albanese Labor government, has been about delivering crucial reforms for a forward-thinking, ambitious, optimistic Australia. The changes to paid parental leave are but one part of that, and a very significant part of that—the work of building a better future for all. I am so pleased and so proud to support this bill.

7:04 pm

Photo of Zoe DanielZoe Daniel (Goldstein, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

The Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Improvements for Families and Gender Equality) Bill 2022 is the leading edge of a step-change for women, families, the economy and for the ongoing pursuit of gender equality in this country. Now that we are here, though, let's make it a giant leap forward, because not many policy levers have this power to bring about the sort of cultural change that's needed to elevate Australia's recent poor record on gender equality. To say it's needed is an understatement.

Once a leader on gender equality, Australia now sits 43rd in the world in the global gender gap index. While ranked equal first in the world for women's education, we rank 38th when it comes to economic participation and opportunity and we have a gender pay gap of 14.1 per cent. Australia has one of the most gender-segregated workforces in the world, and our rate of female part-time employment is almost 10 per cent higher than the OECD average.

The recent women's senior executive census found that progress of women into the most senior leadership roles in the nation's top companies over the last six years has been negligible. In the last year, representation has actually gone backwards. We like to think we're leaders. In this we are not. We can be, we should be and we must be. In fact, Monash University's recent women's health and wellbeing scorecard found that, at the current rate of change, it will take more than 200 years to achieve gender equality in Australia. I don't have the patience for that, nor does my daughter, nor do the women and girls of Goldstein. We can't sit back and wait for things to happen organically. We need to shift our thinking about how we divide up unpaid care work now. Stop looking at the cost; start looking at the benefit.

Women have already been paying the cost emotionally and financially. Systemic structural and cultural factors perpetuate gender inequality in Australia. These things are interlinked. Systemic violence against women too is linked to how they're valued. Until we address workplace and economic imbalances, broader equality will not simply arrive. So much of that inequality is linked to women doing most of the unpaid care work and society not valuing the caring work that women do—paid and unpaid.

As I explained to my 14-year-old daughter recently, girls and boys are born into gendered norms. Society embeds those norms. Gender stereotypes lead to discrimination. Women take on most of the caring responsibilities. As a result, they're under-utilised in the paid workforce. Women make up higher levels of part-time work—gender segregation by job type. This all leads to a gender pay gap, with a lack of women in leadership positions, less superannuation in retirement and, increasingly, poverty for older women—not an attractive snapshot. The penny dropped for my daughter. I don't want that future for her. I want her to dictate the life she leads, the job she wants and how much time she wants to work. I want her to live in a society where unpaid care work is evenly shared and seen as important. I want her to be valued equally to a man.

The Parenthood's 2021 research report Back of the Pack—How Australia's Parenting Policies are failing Women and our Economy found that, compared to global peers, mums in Australia fall behind in work participation after children and never catch up. Achieving a more equitable division of unpaid care between men and women is fundamental to achieving gender equality. This is what the paid parental leave amendment bill sets out to do.

Removing the notion of primary, secondary and tertiary claimant and the requirement that the primary claimant be the birth parent creates greater flexibility, allowing families to decide how they will share the entitlement. The bill combines the previous dad and partner pay with parental leave to increase parental leave pay to 20 weeks. Two weeks of parental leave pay will be reserved for each parent to use it or lose it, to encourage more fathers and partners to access the payment. The use-it-or-lose-it element is a critical piece and will help foster a culture where men's role in care giving becomes accepted and encouraged. The importance of this can't be overstated. Taking time out of the paid workforce to care for a child should be part of the usual course of life and work for both parents, and in Australia at the moment it's simply not.

Currently, 88 per cent of parental leave is taken by women, which takes them out of the paid workforce and, for many women, it is then hard to pick up where they left off. But having a more flexible paid parental leave scheme that encourages men to access it is about more than women fulfilling their work ambitions. It also supports the nation's wellbeing by bonding fathers with their children and boosting the economy. Leveraging women's participation is one of the most effective actions to improve our economy and productivity. The National Skills Commission estimates the need for 1.2 million additional workers across the economy by 2026. A large majority of these roles are in highly feminised industries, such as health and early childhood education and care.

Women are an untapped workforce who can play a vital role in meeting these labour shortages. The Chief Executive Women and Impact Economics and Policy paper 2022, Addressing Australia's critical skills shortages: unlocking women's economic participation, found that halving the workforce participation gap between men and women would represent an additional 500,000 full-time skilled workers with postschool qualifications. The report said that engaging women in paid work at the same rate as men could unlock an additional one million full-time skilled workers in Australia.

I commend the aim of the bill to make paid parental leave more accessible, more flexible and gender-neutral. But the amendments don't go far enough, and they are too slow. These changes—which, in effect, combine existing provisions rather than extending them—will not roll out fully until 2026. I stand here as a member of the crossbench to challenge the government to push for more ambition, to go to 95 per cent—100 per cent—not to stop at 75 per cent. Women must be enabled. The time frame is a failing in this bill and should be brought forward. Three more years of waiting is too long.

We also know from international experience that the key to men taking parental leave is the 'use it or lose it' component for an extended period—that is, more than two weeks. In Denmark, 'use it or lose it' provisions saw a significant increase in men's uptake of parental leave, and men were subsequently more likely to continue shared care of their children throughout the early years. This is the step change that we need. The evidence shows that, as a result of policies like this, workplaces and communities are more accommodating and accepting of sharing the care between men and women.

The use of parental leave by fathers in Australia is very low by global standards. Fathers in Australia take less than 20 per cent of the parental leave that their international peers take and receive just 0.04 per cent of all publicly provided parental leave. Because care patterns are established in the first year of a child's life, this entrenches stereotypical gender roles. According to the World Economic Forum's Global gender gap report 2020, the gap between how mothers and how fathers work, care and earn after a baby is more pronounced in Australia than in comparable nations. We should be encouraging men to take up parental leave, to normalise flexible work and shared care responsibilities and to strengthen women's workforce participation and financial security. And it's healthy for men. When fathers take parental leave, they as well as their children and their partners benefit from stronger relationships.

This is why I favour a nontransferable six-week 'use it or lose it' provision when paid parental leave entitlements grow to 26 weeks by 2026, to encourage greater shared caregiving by both parents and, importantly, to incentivise men to access the leave. I know the government has asked the Women's Economic Equality Taskforce to come up with the best model for the expansion to 26 weeks, which will be legislated separately from the current bill before the parliament. I look forward to seeing where it lands and will hold the government to account on the 'use it or lose it' provision.

I also urge the government to extend the superannuation guarantee to paid parental leave. Paid parental leave is one of the only types of paid leave to which the superannuation guarantee does not apply. When mothers take time out of the workforce to care for their children, not only do they struggle to maintain a meaningful connection to the workforce; they can go for years without receiving any super. On average, women accumulate 47 per cent less super than men. A paid parental leave scheme that includes super will help redress the imbalance. This must happen if we are serious about this.

It's time we stopped punishing women for the burden of unpaid care work they carry. The Goldstein community elected me on a platform of gender equality, among other things, and I will continue to fight for a society where women and men have equal economic and social choices and responsibilities. This bill goes some way to achieving that by shifting gender norms. Next, 52 weeks of paid parental leave to bring us up to par with global leaders in this space. It's time to not only share the load but enable women and girls to take that great leap forward.

7:15 pm

Photo of Alicia PayneAlicia Payne (Canberra, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am so proud to stand here today in support of this brilliant legislation, the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Improvements for Families and Gender Equality) Bill 2022, that will have such a great impact on so many Australian families. This is the first step of us building on our Paid Parental Leave scheme and extending it to 26 weeks by 2026, making it more flexible for families to have more choice in the way they use this very special time in a family's life. I want to thank the Minister for Social Services, the Minister for Women and the Prime Minister for bringing this important bill to the House.

Paid parental leave is a proud Labor legacy, introduced by the Gillard government in 2011 under the former minister for social services and my former boss, the Hon. Jenny Macklin. Back then, Australia was one of only two OECD countries without a national paid parental leave scheme. Labor fixed that. It's a proud moment to be standing here almost 12 years later speaking about the Albanese Labor government's plan to further strengthen and fix the access, flexibility and equity issues in the current scheme.

It is amazing to think there is a whole generation of parents and children—some now almost in high school—who have benefited from the Paid Parental Leave scheme since its introduction. It was a monumental change for Australia. It was good for Australian babies, good for Australian families and good for the Australian economy, and very, very good for Australian women.

The objectives of PPL, as set out in the Productivity Commission's review at the time at which it was based, were dual objectives around maternal and child health but also around women's labour force participation. For many mothers it was the first time they had access to leave of any sort; it was certainly the first government scheme. But to this day many people don't have access to employer funded leave. For some people, particularly those in low-paid work and casuals, this was a monumental change—to be able to actually take that time after having a baby to be at home with that baby to bond with it and to recover. It also increased women's linkage to their workplace, meaning they didn't have to leave their job at the time of having a baby and would remain in touch with that workplace and could return to the job after taking the government funded leave.

Ultimately, it increased participation in the workforce. In her speech introducing the bill, Macklin said:

As a nation, we cannot continue to ignore the barriers to greater participation by women …

The paid parental leave scheme removed one of those biggest barriers. Today, the Albanese Labor government removes even more barriers. We are committing to maximising women's economic equality. This is the legacy of Labor governments—progressive change, a better future for Australians.

This legislation shows Australians the Albanese government is listening to them. Last year at the Jobs and Skills Summit, paid parental leave reform was one of the most frequently raised proposals. Businesses, unions, experts and economists all agreed that reform would boost productivity and participation, and today Labor delivers on those requests.

As the Prime Minister has said:

… a parental leave system that empowers the full and equal participation of women will be good for business, good for families and good for our economy.

I was so proud that our government made paid parental leave a centrepiece of its first budget. This bill will benefit around 181,000 families, including an extra 4,300 Australian families who were previously ineligible but will gain access to PPL for the first time.

As I mentioned, this bill will iron out issues with access, flexibility and equity in the original scheme. One such issue with Parental Leave Pay is the 18-week payment for the primary carer. The eligibility criteria for Parental Leave Pay limits access for non-birth parents, restricts parents' choice about how they structure leave days and transition back to work, and can disadvantage families where the mother is the primary income earner.

In particular, the current scheme provides minimal support for fathers and partners. This bill will expand that access, improve flexibility, encourage shared care and deliver on six key changes. These six changes are: combining the two existing payments, the 18-week Parental Leave Pay and the two-week Dad and Partner Pay schemes, into a single 20-week scheme; reserving a proportion of the scheme for each parent, to support them both to take time off work after a birth or adoption; making it easier for both parents to access the payment by removing the notion of primary and secondary carers; expanding access by introducing a $350,000 family income test under which families can be assessed if they exceed the individual income test; increasing flexibility for parents to choose how they take leave days; and allowing eligible fathers and partners to access the payment, irrespective of whether the birth parent meets the income test or residency requirements.

The changes in this bill send a clear message that treating parenting as an equal partnership supports gender equality. Many of these issues have been raised with me by constituents here in Canberra who have been frustrated by their inability, particularly where the mother might be the primary income earner, to access the scheme when that made the most sense for their family. This addresses that issue, and I'm really proud that we're doing this so soon in our term of government.

I firmly believe that it is only when parenting and taking time out of the workforce to care for children is seen as normal for both mothers and fathers that we will truly address gender equality in the workplace. We are seeing the fruits of that already, as more dads are taking that time off. In my own experience, it was a wonderful thing that my husband's employer provided him with a substantial amount of paid parental leave. I'm very thankful for that. It really enhanced his bond with our children, and it was wonderful in terms of sharing the load of both work and family at that time.

I think the fact that we have always seen the primary caring role of looking after a baby, or kids as they grow up, as the mother's has also robbed fathers of time with their children. I think sharing between both men and women, both parents, is a really important step for families and for our economy, so I'm very proud of the changes in this bill. The shift to a gender-neutral claiming process is also more inclusive and recognises that Australian families are diverse. The government values men as carers, too, and we want to see that reinforced in our workplaces and communities. When fathers take a greater role in caring from the start, it benefits mums, dads and children. When they take that greater caring role from the start, patterns of care are established that continue throughout a child's life.

In addition to benefits for women and their economic equality, there are important physical, mental and social benefits for men and children. We know that, while access to employer funded leave is growing, dads are still missing out, with the majority of eligibility remaining with female employees. Among all employer funded schemes, 50 per cent of women have access, but only 36 per cent of men have the same access. We know that employer provided paid parental leave is more common in female dominated industries. Only half of organisations in male dominated industries offer any form of parental leave, compared with 75 per cent of organisations in industries dominated by women.

It is important that we have a paid parental leave scheme that complements the schemes offered by employers. They should work in unison and it should not be an either/or. At the time of the introduction of the scheme, I think one of the greatest benefits was the signal that this is something the government supports. Many employers took that as a trigger to offer leave to their employees for the first time or to build on what was offered by the government, so that people could build up to having more leave. Offering people that leave for the first time meant that that detachment from the workforce didn't happen to new parents.

Australian men have the second-lowest uptake of primary carer leave in the developed world, and that is something I really hope we will work as a nation to address, because not only is it bad for the economic participation of women but it is robbing fathers of that opportunity and robbing children of time with their fathers. I think that this is really something we are seeing change. Government has a role in providing the policies that will enable the transition to a more inclusive and balanced form of parenting, and I think that is exactly what we are doing here with this bill.

The current scheme does not do enough to provide access to fathers and partners. It limits flexibility for families to choose how they take leave and transition back to work. The eligibility rules are unfair to families with the mother is the higher income earner, as I mentioned. This bill fixes all of these issues. It gives more families access to the government payment, it gives parents more flexibility in how they take the leave and it encourages parents to share care to improve gender equity. These changes, to commence in July this year, are just the first stage of the Albanese government's reforms, and lay the foundation for the expansion of the scheme to a full half-year, or 26 weeks, by 2026.

This was, of course, always the recommendation of the Productivity Commission, who did a report and recommended the scheme. The scheme that was introduced in 2011 was largely based on that. We were always hoping to expand it to 26 weeks. I am really pleased that this commitment has been made, because 26 weeks was recommended as a minimum for maternal and child health, so it's really good that the government scheme will be extended to that by 2026. I'm really excited that this will begin from July this year, and that families will be able to begin to look forward to that extra time with their babies, which is of course such a precious time.

I know that all the parents here in the chamber will identify with that. That is a time where it really would be very hard to have to worry about getting back to work because you might not be able to maintain your job because you took time to be with your baby, or because you can't afford the time. I believe you should never have to be forced out to work because you can't afford to take that time, and that's what the scheme is about—enabling people to take time with their baby, to bond with that baby and to get used to having a child in the family. The important feature of it is to maintain connection with your employer so that women can return to those jobs after their leave.

This is another great Labor achievement, a progressive change that has delivered for the women of Australia and Australian families. The Gillard government had many fantastic achievements with lasting impacts for the Australian people. That's what Labor governments do. That's certainly why I joined the Labor Party—to be part of a party that is about change, that is about reform, that is progressive, that is always looking to the next thing that we can do to improve the lives of Australians. That is what this scheme does.

As I said, before this was introduced in 2011, there were many people who had access to no leave at all. They had to face resigning from their job or having no income after the birth of a child, and that is a very daunting and concerning thing to face at that already quite daunting time for new parents. So I'm really thankful to that great reform of the Gillard government. I'm proud that we are today implementing some further improvements to the scheme and that by 2026 we will be able to provide 26 weeks of leave to Australian families to be with their new babies. This is being looked at currently by the Women's Economic Equality Taskforce as well, who will be coming up with the recommendations around the best way to share that leave between both parents so that we can, as I say, provide families with a better opportunity to balance the way that they flexibly manage their leave.

Debate interrupted.