Senate debates

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Matters of Public Interest

Paid Parental Leave

1:15 pm

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I rise today to discuss the Productivity Commission’s draft report entitled Paid parental leave: support for parents with newborn children, which was released a week ago. From the outset I must say that, while many of us who have been talking about greater supports for working families for years were sceptical at the government’s referral of the issue of parental support to yet another inquiry, the initial recommendations and proposed model put forward by the Productivity Commission proved to be quite promising.

Support for working families is a platform of the Rudd Labor government. They went to the 2007 election with it at the forefront of their campaign. While it is all very well and good for this term to be used as a mantra day in and day out, few will be convinced it means anything unless the government commit to a paid parental leave scheme as a budget priority, to prove that support for Australian families is at the top of their policy agenda. The fact that, in 2008, Australia is still one of only two OECD countries without a national paid parental leave scheme is an indictment on both the government and the opposition. While I acknowledge that the issue is at least now on the political agenda, we must not forget the tireless efforts of others in this chamber, such as former Senator Natasha Stott Despoja, who had been calling for action on this issue for years.

Despite the government pledging its support for the introduction of a paid parental leave scheme, the fact that the Treasurer deflected speculation on whether or not this will be part of the government’s second budget in 2009 has raised serious concerns over whether Australian families will have to wait until 2010 for any real proposal to become a reality in government policy—or perhaps we will be waiting even longer. With a $10.4 billion injection of funds into the pockets of families, announced yesterday by the Prime Minister, I can only assume that the government would see the benefit in investing in Australian families through a paid parental leave scheme. What better way to ensure healthy families, healthy children and a healthy economy?

Currently, almost two-thirds of Australian working women have no access to this basic workplace entitlement. And while the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, has assured the public that the introduction of a parental scheme is no longer a maybe but a definite, we are yet to see the facts, we are yet to see the proposals and we are yet to see the commitment. Despite Minister Macklin’s assurance that a paid parental leave scheme will actually become a reality, when questioned about whether the scheme would be a key budgetary measure the Prime Minister and the Treasurer argued, as recently as last month, that the global financial turmoil may force the introduction of any such scheme to be deferred—again.

Let us have a think about what a paid parental leave scheme would offer. It would offer support and investment for our Aussie families, the best start for our kids and happy little Vegemites. Using the financial crisis as an excuse for inaction is simply not acceptable. Surely with the current state of global financial markets and the rising cost of living, support for families would be a given—and it should be a priority for a government who believe that they own the ‘working family’ mantra. It is time for government to stop dancing around this issue and to bite the bullet, providing Australian working families with the support they so desperately deserve. Support for parents in their efforts to care for newborn children is an essential component of any government policy that aims to promote the health and wellbeing of infants.

The Productivity Commission’s recommendation for a taxpayer funded 18-week parental leave scheme with a quarantined two weeks for the father or the partner at an estimated cost of $530 million per annum, puts to rest the debate that any parental leave scheme is economically unfeasible. With the federal government currently sitting on a budget surplus—which the Prime Minister has acknowledged as recently as yesterday should be put back into the community—a government funded paid parental leave scheme is something we can afford and we must prioritise.

While the Greens welcomed the draft proposal announced by the Productivity Commission, we believe that 26 weeks of paid parental leave shared between both parents is what we should be aiming for. This figure is backed by a broad range of stakeholder organisations—from unions to women’s groups and health organisations. The World Health Organisation, the Australian Breastfeeding Association and the Public Health Association all advocate six months paid leave for mothers to be supported through childbirth, recovery from birth and a healthy period of breastfeeding and essential bonding. A number of unions, including Unions NSW, the Community and Public Sector Union, the National Tertiary Education Union and the Liquor Hospitality and Miscellaneous Union are also calling for six months paid parental leave at a minimum.

Every other nation in the developed world, bar Australia and the United States, have some form of paid parental leave for its workers—with Japan offering 26 weeks, Canada offering 28 weeks, Greece offering 34 weeks, the United Kingdom offering 39 weeks and Sweden offering a very generous 47 weeks; yet families in Australia have been left to pay for their maternity and parental leave through the use of their personal holidays, long service and sick leave—or, in the case of casualised workers, which I note are on the increase, they have nothing to fall back on. It is vital that Australia has a paid parental leave scheme that meets international standards and guidelines. Legislating for 26 weeks of paid parental leave would go some way to increasing our standing in the OECD in the areas of social and economic development. We need to challenge other countries with comparable economies that have left Australia years and years behind in the recognition of paid parental leave as a basic workplace entitlement.

We need to address the appalling workforce participation rate of Australian women in the child-bearing age group. Australia is ranked eighth lowest in the OECD, with 72.4 per cent, well behind Sweden, which boasts the highest workforce participation rate of females, with 86.4 per cent. I will remind you that it is Sweden that offers 47 weeks of paid parental leave. We need policies that will encourage and embrace women’s workforce participation. Legislating for parental leave as a workplace entitlement, not a welfare measure, will go some way to protecting working parents from economic hardship as a result of the birth or adoption of a child.

While the Greens will be pushing for a more generous scheme than that proposed by the Productivity Commission, we must also take note of problems that other nations have encountered when incorporating paid parental leave into legislation. A recent report released by Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission suggests that the current legislation and regulations in Britain have had the unintended consequence of making women a less attractive prospect to employers, which has led to calls for better government protection of pregnant workers through the introduction of a parental leave scheme that supports both parents taking time off to care for their children. The Rudd government must ensure that any paid parental leave scheme that is introduced adequately addresses the systemic discrimination and disadvantage women in the workforce are faced with when having children. We do not want to see the unintended consequence of making women a less attractive prospect to employers occur here in Australia.

Paid parental leave is long overdue in this country. While I am encouraged by the Productivity Commission’s initial recommendations, I hope that the government will listen closely to the next round of consultations on the report and act immediately on what is an essential workplace entitlement for Australian families. Paid parental leave should not be viewed as a cost burden by any government that wishes to see itself as a leader in social and economic development. It is an investment that we should embrace and prioritise, as raising healthy children and helping families and parents to provide the very best care for their kids is a responsibility for a government that is serious about building a better future for our country. It should be a priority and a responsibility for a government that is serious about strengthening the opportunities for future generations.

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