Thursday, 2 September 2021
Paid Parental Leave Amendment (COVID-19 Work Test) Bill 2021; Second Reading
[by video link] I rise to speak on the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (COVID-19 Work Test) Bill 2021. The Greens have always been strong proponents of a just and equal paid parental leave scheme. A strong parental leave scheme allows for positive health, wellbeing and bonding between parents and children. It reduces the gender wage gap, it increases the number of women returning to the workforce and it supports long-term economic security for women. I foreshadow that I will be moving a second reading amendment on what's needed to ensure best-practice paid parental leave—that is, 26 weeks of paid leave, with six weeks reserved for fathers and partners, to encourage more equitable sharing of care. We need superannuation contributions to be paid on parental leave and we need to remove income provisions that discriminate against families where the birth mother is the higher income earner, because we're not in the 1950s anymore and it does happen these days.
More equitable sharing of paid parental leave between parents helps strengthen the relationships with children, and research shows that it fosters a more equal division of caring responsibilities in the long term, which would be very welcome. Yet despite measures allowing dads and partners to take parental leave, only one in 20 do so. By contrast, the experience in many Scandinavian countries demonstrates that dedicated 'use it or lose it' provisions for both partners are the most effective way to encourage shared care, and the Greens support that approach. I note that workforce participation of mothers is considerably higher in countries that have both a strong paid parental leave scheme and available, affordable child care. We need free, universal early childhood education in this country and we need it now.
To go to the provisions of this bill, we support the extension of the work test rules in light of the ongoing COVID pandemic and in light of the Morrison government's vaccine rollout failure. To be eligible for the Paid Parental Leave scheme a person has to demonstrate that they have worked for 10 of the previous 13 months prior to the birth or adoption of a child and for at least 330 hours within that period. Being unable to meet that work test simply because you are unable to work because of the pandemic should not disqualify parents from accessing the Paid Parental Leave scheme. Many families will have worked out how to make their budget stretch, especially in the current environment, to maximise their time off with their new baby. Losing the leave that they'd counted on being able to access because the pandemic has robbed them of their hours or their whole job would have a devastating impact on so many families, potentially leaving them nearly $15,000 worse off.
After the Greens raised this issue, the government moved to address it during the first wave of the pandemic, which we are grateful for. This bill now extends that safeguard, given that we're still in this godforsaken pandemic because of the aforementioned failure to build proper quarantine facilities and properly vaccinate the population, including children and young people. But, back to this bill, I acknowledge that provision 36AA, added by the government last night, recognises that other special circumstances should be taken into account where a parent can't meet the work test because life has intervened and unexpectedly prevented them from working. I note that this could include women needing to take time off because they're escaping family or domestic violence. It could include someone who needs to take leave during their pregnancy to attend hospital with their spouse or child struggling with a serious illness, or it could include a parent who can't work, because their workplace was destroyed during a bushfire. Many of those special circumstances could eventuate and have eventuated. This amendment recognises that a rigid application of the work test ignores those unexpected circumstances, which can completely throw your plans, through no fault of your own. The amendment gives welcome flexibility to take account of special circumstances and prevents families going into the birth of their child with the unexpected loss of parental leave on top of whatever other trauma has prevented them from meeting the work test. We support that amendment.
I note that we will also be supporting the amendment proposed by Senator Griff to fix the discriminatory impacts of the parental leave income test where a birth or adoptive mother earns over the threshold amount. It's an issue that we've raised a number of times previously, and, as I'm sure folk realise, paid parental leave is currently available where a birth mother's income is less than $150,000, irrespective of her partner's income. Paid parental leave entitlements can be transferred to a partner whose income is less than $150,000, but, where a birth mother's income exceeds $150,000, neither she nor her partner is eligible for paid leave. In practice, this means that, where a mother earns, for example, $55,000 and her partner earns, say, $155,000, the family will be eligible, but, where the tables are turned and it's the mother who's earning the higher income, the family wouldn't be eligible for paid parental leave. As a family, the collective income is the same, but the options to navigate paid leave and shared care arrangements would be very different. It shouldn't be that way. It is a modern world. Despite the fact that this government wants to keep us in the 1950s, we are not in fact in the 1950s anymore. The government has previously acknowledged this disparity in the income test and has committed to finding a solution. But, as is so often the case with this government, there has been an announcement but no follow-through. We commend Senator Griff for bringing forward this amendment once we get to the committee stage, and we flag that we will be supporting it.
With that, I note that I have foreshadowed a second reading amendment. I think that there is one already before the chair, but I shall move my second reading amendment when the time comes.