Senate debates

Thursday, 11 June 2020


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

10:05 am

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

In my short contribution to this debate I want to acknowledge that the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Flexibility Measures) Bill 2020 is an important step forward for the economic empowerment of women as well as families who want to spend more time with their newborn children. I want to recount a story from my time with my own family over the weekend. Happily, I was able to see my mother on my birthday, which is not a common experience. I also got to spend the weekend with my own children, and one of my daughters spoke to me about a conversation she overheard with a young mum who was very judgemental about women who were returning to work after six months of paid leave. I really hope we are able to leave those judgements and attitudes behind. I believe raising a family is the greatest work of my life and the greatest joy of my life. But 28 years ago, when I went back to work six months after the birth of my first child, it was a choice that involved much negative judgement from many people. I'm pleased to say that we still have a great mother-daughter bond—and in our family there are pretty good father-daughter bonds as well.

This bill is important in the context of that changing discussion over the decades about what it is to be a great family and to be a great parent, whether you're a mum or a dad or part of the extended family—or indeed part of the community that raises great children, for your own personal satisfaction as a human being and ultimately for the benefit of the society and the community in which we live. That is why the flexibility measures in this bill are actually a really important part of it. The bill will indeed introduce far greater flexibility for parents looking to take time off to care for their newborn or newly adopted child and will allow the role of the primary carer to change as well as allowing them to access six weeks of leave to be taken at any time in the first two years of a child's life. The estimations are that this should help about 4,000 parents per annum.

The specifics of the bill change the paid parental leave rules in three critical ways. Firstly, they split the 18-week period of paid leave into a 12-week paid parental leave period and a six-week flexible paid parental leave period. The 12-week paid parental leave period entitlement will be available only as a continuous block but will also be accessible by the primary carer at any time during the first 12 months—not only immediately after the birth or adoption of a child. The complexity of people's lives and the variety of ways in which families manage—families in business, families in uncertain employment, families in between houses, families managing sickness across their family and all of those complex lived realities—requires a system that meets the messiness of life, and this is an important change that will help. The six-week flexible paid parental leave period will be available at any time during the first two years and does not need to be taken as a block. I can just imagine, if I were to roll back 28 years and have that sense of time available to help me manage my return to work and looking after our daughter and sharing that responsibility with my husband more flexibly, that we would have had an even better time being parents than we already did.

The bill attempts to make Australia's paid parental leave scheme—which is among the least generous in the OECD—somewhat more equitable. In 2010 Labor introduced Australia's first paid parental leave scheme. Until that point we were one of only two countries in the OECD, the other being the United States, that didn't have one. It's important to remember that—an important achievement by a Labor government, led by Julia Gillard, to make sure that we ended up with some access to paid parental leave. Under the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments that scheme was not removed, but it did stagnate. Apart from Mr Abbott's wildly extravagant thought bubble that he carried for five years and then dropped, there has been no real sign of change under this government which is now in its third term.

Australia today still has one of the lowest rates of investment in parental leave, and that stands at just one-third of the OECD average investment in parental leave. Sadly, despite the improvements that this bill will bring into play, the OECD rankings show that we are still one of the lowest with regarding the length of parental leave with 18 weeks being our maximum as opposed to the average of 55 in other jurisdictions. In that, our system provides a flat rate instead of a wage subsidy like most developed nations. Given the significant changes that Australians have undergone in recent times in the context of COVID-19, the understanding of a wage subsidy no doubt will be something that people understand in a very different way now than they did before the calendar turned into 2020. Hopefully, this government might see further reform in this area as part of their agenda.

Australian workers on average receive less than half the average wage as a result of our scheme. Experts have described it as a welfare subsidy for new parents, rather than as an economic compensation for foregone income. A paid parental leave scheme is meant to be fit for purpose as it's a complex and incredibly important reform for the first iteration to have not received a significant update for 10 years. So between 2010 and 2020, 10 years of no reform in this space is really a blight on our nation's advancement with regard to how we support parents and families. Nearly half of all new mothers benefit from the Paid Parental Leave scheme—almost 150,000 new parents in total. We are clearly slipping behind comparable nations, and it's the working families of Australia that are suffering.

Currently, the scheme remains, to a degree, inflexible and out of step with modern work and home practices. The bill, as it's drafted, will allow some tangible flexibility for those families in terms of when and who takes that leave, but it still leaves the rate of pay unchanged. Once again I remind people listening to this debate that the pandemic has shown us that work can indeed be more flexible and that it can be highly productive to work remotely, and this bill is actually a timely connector with that growing reality.

The bill doesn't do anything to change another critical element of Australian life that needs review, and that is the ongoing wound, the festering sore, of the gender pay gap in Australia. Nor does it do anything to address the way in which women's work is remunerated in Australia. The best thing this government could do to address this would be to reverse the penalty cuts that it waved through. These cuts disproportionately affected heavily female workforces and indeed they have exacerbated the pay gap. It's appalling in this day and age that women in Australia still earn only 86 per cent of the same pay as men, and reforms of the Paid Parental Leave scheme should take this glaring problem into account.

These are not normal times. There has never been a more crucial time for this government to focus on the economic and practical needs of women. Last month's ABS jobs data highlighted the detrimental affect the COVID-19 crisis has had on women with regard to the scale of job loss. On top of that, women are overrepresented in jobs affected by the ongoing need for social distancing, such as in the retail and hospitality trades and the high rate of casual employment that is a phenomenon in those sectors. Now the federal government is proposing to end its fee-free childcare relief package on 12 July, and childcare centres will lose access to the JobKeeper wage subsidies. This decision by the government absolutely impacts families with new babies that this legislation is seeking to support. This is the anomaly that is this government: taking with one hand and trying to give with the other. It's hard for people to keep up with which government is in place today: one that's looking to help them or one that's going out to hurt them with things like robodebt and the removal of subsidies that they promised would be with us until September. We know that the government's changing policies have a huge impact on families, with many still struggling financially, and childcare fees that are out of their reach are very much a part of the outlook for many families as they look to their personal financial horizon this year.

It's also incredibly concerning that the government has chosen the female dominated childcare sector as the first sector from which remove to the JobKeeper subsidy. Women—indeed, families, but particularly women—rely on child care to be able to work, and women make up 97 per cent of the employees in the childcare sector. You couldn't have more closely targeted a weapon at women than the government has with regard to the childcare sector and the reversal of their promises to support wages and offer wage subsidies. Child care was already unaffordable before COVID-19, and we've only just started to come out of the crisis. The federal Liberal-National parties are already winding back vital support, which will disproportionately impact the same women that the government will crow about supporting with this particular piece of legislation.

If we make child care unaffordable for women and if we make it unaffordable generally for women to go back to work, their ability to participate in the workforce will be curtailed, impacted in ways that have flow-on effects, particularly in regional areas of Australia, like the Central Coast and all of the regions of New South Wales that I support as a duty senator such as the seat of Parkes, the Riverina, Farrer, Hume and, dare I say, Eden-Monaro, where a battle is underway for a decent representative—in the shape of Kristy McBain, a woman who cares about that community—to come to Canberra and stand up for a community that was ignored during the bushfire crisis and is still suffering from the failure to make policies that put people at the centre that is the hallmark of this government.

Paid parental leave acknowledges that having children and starting a family is indeed a very critical part of the normal cycle of life. Undertaking the great challenge and opportunity of becoming a parent shouldn't leave you economically disadvantaged. It shouldn't leave you locked out of the workforce and it shouldn't mean you have to choose between caring for very young children or having a roof over your head. Yesterday, we had dnata workers outside this building, with many women raising their very real concerns about how difficult a time this is for them because of the government's hard-heartedness. If the government can acknowledge that flexibility is needed in this bill—indeed, if they can headline it 'the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Flexibility Measures) Bill'—surely the government can find sufficient flexibility with a signature at the end of the pen of Mr Frydenberg to do the same for the dnata workers to ensure they can receive JobKeeper. That impacts families as well.

Finally, with these sensible reforms, 10 years after the initial delivery of paid parental leave under a Labor government, this government has finally come to the point of updating the current act by introducing a degree of flexibility to provisions that are more in keeping with contemporary Australia. However, I hope in my contribution I have made it clear that far more reforms are needed in this sphere to provide more support for working families and that Australians should not congratulate themselves in isolation but should look to our comparator countries in the OECD and acknowledge that we are far from the mark in terms of proper financial and practical support for people who need the support of this nation to do the best they can in raising their families. We must end the gender pay gap. We must ensure that Australia's scheme is first, not last, in the OECD.


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