Senate debates

Monday, 15 March 2010


Work-Life Balance

10:09 pm

Photo of Jacinta CollinsJacinta Collins (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Last week we celebrated International Women’s Day and today, as the Special Adviser to the Deputy Prime Minister on Work and Family Balance and Pay Equity, I had the honour of awarding the winners of the National Work-Life Balance Awards. Firstly I would like to acknowledge those national award winners. The standout national winner was a construction company based in Victoria called Probuild Constructions. Also winning were Minter Ellison in Perth, the Playgroup Association of Queensland, Norwest Childcare Centre Pty Ltd, Landgate, and Take A Break Away, an ACT small business award winner. I should also note the special commendations that the judging panel issued to DASI from Victoria, the Transport Accident Commission of Victoria, Woodside Energy, the Wrigley company and Sageco Pty Ltd.

These awards give me a chance to highlight that the Rudd government has introduced a number of policies to help women balance their work and family life and thereby improve the standard of living for them and their families. Let me go through some of those. With the changes introduced with the Fair Work Act, Labor established a special bargaining stream for the low paid that will benefit many women in low-paid sectors such as cleaning, child care and the community sector. Also we introduced a new right to request flexible working arrangements on return to work so that new parents can request to extend parental leave by a further 12 months or they can request part-time work arrangements to better suit their needs. We have also established a process for a pay equity test case—under the new, more generous equal remuneration provisions of the Fair Work Act—for the social and community services sector. This case was lodged by the ASU last week. These changes have occurred on top of improvements to childcare support with increasing the childcare tax rebate to 50 per cent.

Of course, the most important step has been in giving the opportunity for women to re-enter the workforce with the introduction of Australia’s first paid parental leave scheme. The government will soon introduce legislation so that from 1 January 2011 eligible employees will receive up to 18 weeks of taxable payments paid at the level of the national minimum wage. Mr Tony Abbott sought to gain some cheap points today on this scheme in question time. I think it is important to review some of what has occurred in relation to paid parental leave and the posturing that has occurred from the other side. Mr Abbott would have us believe that he has had a road to Damascus experience. He is now advocating six months paid maternity leave funded by a great big new tax on employers. Or is his maternity leave just his way of giving us women more time to think as we do the ironing? Mr Abbott’s scheme appears to have been a thought bubble which occurred to him when he was doing the ironing—well, maybe not the ironing; perhaps he was stacking the dishwasher. On the other hand, the Rudd government’s paid parental leave scheme was the outcome of extensive discussions with employers, unions and family groups and came after a year-long Productivity Commission inquiry. Mr Abbott’s proposal—policy on the run, drafted in haste, perhaps on the back of a beer coaster—will have adverse consequences for Australian working families, and I will come back to some of those later.

Mr Abbott’s recent comments on what housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing sent his Liberal colleagues scurrying for their ironing boards. The member for Sturt, Chris Pyne, was quick to point out that he does his own ironing. Senator Brandis went one further—he claimed not only that he did his own ironing but that he was very good at it. He even offered to do the ironing of others. There is dedication to the cause.

Photo of Kerry O'BrienKerry O'Brien (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Has he done yours, Brett?

Photo of Jacinta CollinsJacinta Collins (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am coming to that point. I am not talking about throwing yourself on the grenade for your leader; I am talking about the act of doing ironing for others. Perhaps Senator Brandis might be prepared to do Senator Mason’s ironing. I leave that to him. He says his rate is much cheaper than his usual working rate. I am afraid that, when it comes to ironing, I am right there with Erma Bombeck, who had a 30-year career writing humorous newspaper columns in America about, as she described it, ‘the perils of raising children and training husbands’. She once said about ironing: ‘My second favourite household chore is ironing, my first being hitting my head on the top bunk bed until I faint.’

Mr Abbott and I have longstanding differences of opinion in some areas; work and family life balance is one of these. He thinks it is impossible in public life, believe it or not, to genuinely balance work and family life. He thinks it is impossible to combine these in public life. I think it is not only possible, or that we should be doing more to make it possible, but that it is desirable if we are to have balanced politicians. By now it is probably very clear to Mr Abbott that when it comes to ironing he stepped on a landmine with his comments. Ironing is one of the most hated chores and the most contentious issues to domestic harmony in the household. In my own home life, large amounts of energy and time are devoted not ironing but on strategies to minimize or avoid it.

Let me run through a couple of those strategies. Firstly, hang out the washing immediately—do not let it partially dry or the creases will set. Secondly, let gravity be your friend, and take some care in how you hang it. Thirdly, once dry remove the items from the clothesline and take a little care in how you fold them—hopefully, while they are still warm. Lastly, give a quick run over with the iron if you need to beyond that.

On the other hand, if you are a climate change sceptic who thinks climate change is rubbish, and you can afford not to worry about your carbon footprint, there are a couple of strategies that are just right for you. Dry everything in the clothes dryer. That is guaranteed to virtually eliminate ironing altogether, as well as a large portion of the Amazon rainforest. Secondly, hang your washing in the bathroom and take a long hot shower, allowing the steam to make your clothes crease-free as well as depleting the local water reserves. However, the holy grail of avoiding ironing is a system I saw in the Australian film called the Boys are Back, which involves moving the washing machine out into the backyard, under the Hills Hoist, and getting the kids to get dressed for school directly from the clothesline. It is probably a bit extreme, and I am sure my children would not much appreciate it. The final strategy I would highlight, which I am practising today, is to wear clothes that do not need ironing. It is a little bit easier for women, I think, but I am sure you can get shirts that do not require ironing. Senator O’Brien has pointed to the fact that he can.

With ironing 101 out of the way I would like to return to the issue of Mr Abbott’s parental leave proposal, which he announced without consulting his coalition parliamentary colleagues—another example of Mr Abbott’s crash or crash through approach to everything. In fact, I predicted that fairly quickly after becoming Leader of the Opposition Mr Abbott would choose to lead with his chin in one policy area or another. It is much to my own regret that he has chosen to do that on such an important and historic public policy proposal as this one, with paid parental leave. Mr Abbott’s proposal is for a paid parental leave scheme funded by a great big new tax on employers. Well, that was last week. This week Deputy Liberal Leader Julie Bishop is saying that the great big new tax is only temporary; it will be replaced by taxpayer funding of the proposal. So now we are talking about public spending. Can you imagine that people earning up to $150,000 a year will have their parental leave fully paid, at their normal income, at taxpayers’ expense? Ordinary working families getting by on a third of that amount or less will be forced to pay more tax to fund these higher earners—or higher prices. But what seems to have been missed, apart from about the first day of reporting on this issue, is that under the proposal as we currently understand it some people will get less than the scheme that is proposed by the government because they work part time. They may only work part-time and earn an income less than the national minimum wage. Under Tony Abbott’s scheme they will get less—and they will be blocked from the existing baby bonus scheme as well. Details about eligibility have been missed by the opposition with their sloppy policy approach. We still have seen no details about how they propose this scheme might work. (Time expired)