Thursday, 11 June 2020
Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Flexibility Measures) Bill 2020; Second Reading
I'm grateful to have the opportunity to speak on the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Flexibility Measures) Bill 2020 and the subject of paid parental leave. It's an area that Australia could and should be doing a lot better in, particularly when we're compared with similar OECD countries.
Of course, up until the introduction of the Paid Parental Leave scheme by the Gillard Labor government in 2011, Australia was one of only two OECD countries that did not have a paid parental leave scheme, the other country being the United States. And, while the scheme isn't perfect, 150,000 parents a year do benefit from it. Nearly half of all new mothers benefit from the scheme, and this has allowed improvements when it comes to enabling women to continue to participate in the workforce; enhancing the health of birth mothers and children; and also, critically, in promoting equality between women and men. However, it's important to note that we do still have further to go on all of these.
The flexibility measures that we're talking about today will, hopefully, go some way to improve these indicators even further. The flexibility measures in this bill will change the paid parental leave rules by splitting the 18 weeks of publicly paid parental leave into a 12-week paid parental leave period and a six-week flexible paid parental leave period. The 12-week period will still have to be taken as a continuous block, but will now be accessible by the primary carer at any time during the first 12 months. Right now, it has to be taken immediately after the birth or adoption of a child. The six-week flexible paid parental leave period will be able to be taken at any time during the first two years, and doesn't need to be taken as a continuous block. That's going to allow families to split their entitlements over a two-year period, with periods of work in between. The changes are modest but they will, hopefully, allow parents more flexibility when it comes to sharing parenting responsibilities in a way that works for them. Parents will now be able to use the leave when it suits them most, rather than it being entirely prescribed.
In practice, the most likely use of this new flexibility will be parents spreading the new flexible paid parental leave period over a number of months to allow them to return to work part-time. And while these changes are really positive, they are modest. They don't increase paid parental leave entitlements for families. We do need to look at both the quantity and the quality of support that we're providing to new parents in this country, because when compared with other OECD countries we're starting to fall behind. Unfortunately, the bill doesn't do anything to address that or to change that. For example: other countries are quickly increasing the support that they provide to fathers and to partners, both to encourage them to spend more time at home during a child's early years and to increase the flexibility for families as well.
Again, this bill does provide more flexibility, but it's a small step and there are plenty of issues that it doesn't solve which we, as a parliament, need to think about in the context of paid parental leave. One of those critical issues is the persistent gender pay gap in this country. Female workers in Australia earn on average 14 per cent less than their male colleagues, which is an extraordinary figure to be citing in 2020. This has been persistent over the last two decades, and the changes—the narrowing of that gender pay gap—have been really minor. Paid parental leave and providing families with flexibility are major factors in addressing the gender pay gap, but not enough on their own.
With the current COVID-19 crisis ongoing, we're currently relying on so many female dominated industries to keep us safe and healthy: our medical, hospital and allied health workers, our social carers, aged carers and disability carers and, of course, our early childhood educators, who've done such a heroic job over the past few months by continuing to go to work every day to care for and educate future generations and keep Australians at work. On average, all of these groups of workers are paid significantly less than their male colleagues in other sectors and, indeed, within the same sectors. In healthcare services, the gender pay gap is a whopping 32 per cent. So these essential workers need a lot more than just our thanks at this time. What they really need is recognition in their pay packets and the ability to progress their careers with the respect and the recognition that they deserve.
Paid parental leave is an important part of this. It's also an important part of the discussion around workforce participation, and ensuring that women stay in the workforce and in these critical industries. In relation to paid parental leave, a pressing issue raised by my friend and colleague, the federal member for Bendigo, that needs to be addressed is those parents who could miss out due to the COVID-19 crisis, because to be eligible for paid parental leave you must have worked an average of one day a week for 10 of the last 13 months. Right now, across the country, there are thousands and thousands of workers—and we know lots of them are women—who have been stood down from their jobs or have had their industry shut down. If they're stood down for too long, there's a chance that they'll miss out on paid parental leave. If that family loses both paid parental leave and dad and partner pay, they could be in really significant trouble. The government's suggestion that affected families should apply for other forms of income support, such as JobKeeper, is just not the right solution at this time. The last thing that any new parent wants is to have to worry about how much money they have in their bank account. So I'd like to take the opportunity to urge the government to address that issue as fast as possible so that new parents don't miss out.
In conclusion, this bill that we're talking about today, is a step in the right direction. It's small, it's modest, but it's definitely heading in the right direction, and it's going to benefit families by providing more flexible access to the Paid Parental Leave Scheme. By splitting up the 18 weeks of paid parental leave into a 12-week period and a six-week flexible paid parental leave period, families will be able to use their entitlements in a way that is more tailored to them and that suits them. So I hope the parliament continues to engage in a discussion about how to address some of the issues that I've spoken about today and that others have spoken about, including the persistent gender pay gap, recognising our essential female workers and improving the workplace participation of women into the future.