Senate debates

Thursday, 2 September 2021


Paid Parental Leave Amendment (COVID-19 Work Test) Bill 2021; Second Reading

11:28 am

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Manufacturing) Share this | | Hansard source

I move Labor's second reading amendment on sheet 1441:

At the end of the motion, add ", but the Senate:

(a) notes many families would not need these changes if the Prime Minister had done his job on quarantine and vaccine roll-out;

(b) further notes the Government's delay in providing certainty about Paid Parental Leave rules in relation to both JobKeeper and the COVID-19 Disaster Payment; and

(c) calls on the Government to ensure that families that rely on Paid Parental Leave are not left worse off".

Labor's second reading amendment notes that many of the families in need of this legislation would not need these changes if the Prime Minister had done his job on quarantine and the vaccine rollout. We further note the government's delay in providing certainty about paid parental leave rules in relation to both JobKeeper and the COVID-19 disaster payment. In this second reading amendment we call on the government to ensure that families who rely on paid parental leave will not be worse off.

Labor's proposed amendment to the bill before us today, the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (COVID-19 Work Test) Bill 2021, is an amendment to a scheme that Labor originally implemented and that we have always considered to be one of our core beliefs. We've always fought for the protection and strengthening of parental rights and the ability for people in Australia to be good parents. The purpose of the PPL scheme is to provide financial support to working primary carers of newborn and newly adopted children, so they can take the time off work that they need to care for a child while keeping connected to their workplace. There are two payments available, paid parental leave and dad and partner pay. This, of course, encourages the health and development of birth mothers and their children, and it promotes equality between men and women. But we know that it's still women who account for 90 per cent of all primary carers' leave. The paid parental scheme provides 18 weeks of payment at a rate based on the national minimum wage of $772.55 a week, which is a total of nearly $14,000. To be eligible for PPL, a person needs to work around one day a week or 330 hours in 10 of the last 13 months, and they cannot have had a break from work for more than 12 weeks. Parents who do not meet the paid parental leave work test may be eligible for the family tax benefit.

Last year, in the context of COVID, this parliament changed the rules so that periods on JobKeeper could be counted as work and we created an exemption so that people could remain eligible if they passed an extended work test, with people needing to work 10 out of the last 20 months. The government's amendment came some seven months after the first lockdown in March 2020. That slow response by the government—despite repeated calls by Labor and many community groups for support—created unnecessary anxiety for Australian families. Unfortunately, it also created a family tax benefit debt for those families who considered themselves to be ineligible over the seven-month period. The change to the work test ended when JobKeeper ended in March 2021. It was clear to everyone but the government that the effects of the pandemic were going to last longer than March this year, but still they had no plan for families who were struggling. Melbourne's third lockdown occurred in February and the fourth started in May. Those families had no certainty about passing the government's work test.

If passed, Labor amendment's to the bill will make the period of time spent on the COVID disaster payment count towards PPL and towards the work scheme conditions—the same arrangement as we saw for JobKeeper last year. This time, payments would be made to individuals who live or work in a declared COVID-19 hotspot and are eligible for the COVID-19 disaster payment. We have also been advised that enabling rules will ensure that parents who are relying on state government business support will, thankfully, also be eligible.

Today, without this amendment, parents who cannot meet the work test because of lockdowns will lose access to paid parental leave—hence the urgency of this bill. But, again unfortunately, as we have seen, the government has been so slow to act that the new provisions will be enacted with effect from 3 June this year, because that's when the COVID-19 disaster payment was announced. In this context, with the government confident that they would be able to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, they had decided to cut off eligibility for PPL for those who were forced out of the workplace after JobKeeper expired. They really overrated their confidence to get on top of the pandemic. And here we are with this necessary amendment to this bill, an amendment that we argued at the time should have remained in the power of the government so it could have the flexibility that's now required. It is another late response from a fumbling and out-of-touch government that hasn't been able to keep up with this pandemic. It took three months for the government to, again, be shamed into offering support to families in lockdowns across Australia. This slow, last-minute response has caused unnecessary havoc to Australian families and their financial planning. Is it any wonder that Australia's birth rate continues to decline?

The government needs to be reaching out to all those Australian families who thought they weren't eligible for PPL because of the work test and aid them in applying. For the many parents who claimed family tax benefit in the meantime because of their work test ineligibility, again, they are now likely to have incurred a Commonwealth debt. Many Australian families have been doing it very tough over the last 18 months, and the joy of a new child, or expecting a new child, can be deeply undermined when your household is suffering economic uncertainty.

Not only have families been trying to keep working from home; they've had to raise the next generation of Australians, with confusion and slow action from this Morrison government. The fundamental change to the way people have been working has caused one of the biggest shake-ups to our everyday lives in living memory, and I note these findings from the Australian Institute of Family Studies: from the very first lockdown there was great uncertainty, anxiety and financial stress for families. The report found that, because of this giant upheaval, parents have been struggling to manage. Seven in 10 parents reported they were either actively or passively caring for children while they worked, and women are still five times more likely to take on the primary caring role and be caught in the juggling act between work and raising children. It is mainly women who are using the PPL scheme and thus it is more of a woman's issue, which makes it obvious why this government has seen it as so unimportant and has ignored it for too long. The extra burden caused by the government's lack of planning and slow response to issues like the eligibility test for the PPL scheme was, Labor feels, completely unnecessary.

People who are not living in a Commonwealth declared hotspot but who have been stood down or have lost hours because of COVID are not eligible, and their access for PPL may now be denied. These parents should not be missing out. If the government had reintroduced the national JobKeeper program, they wouldn't be. In an effort to save face over poor handling of this pandemic and to pretend that everything's fine, the government has failed Australian families yet again. These families are still suffering and having to work under the same stresses even if they are not in an arbitrary hotspot, and they cannot be ignored by this lazy and out-of-touch government.

Currently, there are work test exemptions to the work test for women working in dangerous jobs, such as jockeys and women with pregnancy related illnesses. And there was no work test exemption for women who would otherwise meet the work test but for the impact of family violence, including for people dealing with the impact of family violence and escaping domestic violence. So, yesterday in the House, Labor moved a detailed amendment urging the minister to consider taking action to address the significant shortcomings in the scheme. It mirrored Labor's private member's bill, the Fair Work Amendment (Ten Days Paid Domestic and Family Violence Leave) Bill 2020. This is because Labor knows that keeping people safe from the impact of family violence is everyone's business, and everyone must take responsibility and show leadership. Labor is still the front fighter in relation to fixing these issues. In response to this pressure, I'm pleased that the government has finally amended this bill to give the secretary the power to make rules to make someone exempt, something that we suggested needed to happen because of the pandemic as well as these kinds of issues affecting women in a variety of circumstances. We're glad to see that people experiencing domestic violence will finally be able to be exempted, but it shouldn't have had to come down to Labor moving an amendment for this government to have moved on this.

Family and domestic violence is the leading cause of death, disability and illness among women aged between 15 and 44. Two out of every three women who experience domestic and family violence are, of course, in the workplace, so the workplace is a very important component of the government's family violence policy response. Fleeing family violence takes time, planning, effort and resources. It causes upheaval and it can be costly, financially and mentally. We know about the fear and anxiety of having to leave a violent or abusive relationship. I can't imagine doing that at a time when you're also pregnant and worried about how you will be able to afford to have your baby and leave a relationship if you were to become ineligible for the PPL that you were expecting. No-one should have to choose between their livelihood and their safety.

After years of calling for this, we finally have a bill that can make a huge difference to women escaping or dealing with domestic violence by allowing this exemption to the work test and continued access to PPL, and I thank the government for moving on this. We're very glad to see these changes. We know we have to continue to hold this slow and ineffective government to account for the rights of families and women. Strong and supportive parental support in the public system is the key to a progressive and productive society. We will continue to fight for the rights of Australian families in this room and across the country.

11:42 am

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

[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.

11:48 am

Photo of Stirling GriffStirling Griff (SA, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] This bill, the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (COVID-19 Work Test) Bill 2021, amends the Paid Parental Leave Act 2010 to assist people who have been affected by the economic impacts of the pandemic and enables them to still be eligible under the Paid Parental Leave scheme. The lockdowns and restrictions currently affecting many states have affected and are affecting the ability of many people to work. Some have been stood down or have seen large reductions in their work hours, which in turn can affect the ability of working parents to meet the work-test requirements of the scheme.

I am certainly happy to support a bill that seeks to address inequality in accessing the scheme at a time of great hardship for many. However, we also know that the Australian Paid Parental Leave scheme is far from best practice when compared to similar overseas jurisdictions, particularly Scandinavia and Canada. A great deal of inequality is embedded in the act and this needs to be dealt with. One area of inequality is that PPL does not extend to foster parents and kinship carers. These carers may be asked to look after a new baby or toddler at the drop of a hat. They don't have nine months to plan financially or otherwise for this life-changing event. They of course know the possibility is there because they've signed up to this, but that doesn't ease the financial burden.

We know from research that the first two years of life are developmentally very important for every child. They are the vital years during which a child forms secure or even insecure attachment behaviours which go on to dictate how they approach all other relationships in their life. They are the foundation of their future emotional security. Paying foster parents and kinship carers PPL would help a primary carer to afford to take some time off to bond with a new child in the family, whether that placement is for a few years or even a permanent one.

Opponents of this idea will point to the carer payment that foster parents receive, but this is a stipend that is not paid at even close to the level of PPL. More importantly, this money is for the child's care—and keep in mind that the child is often traumatised and has high needs. This money is not designed to sustain a family if the working foster parent elects to do the right thing and take leave. A number of top-tier firms in Australia have acknowledged this inequity by including foster carers in the paid parental leave they offer their employees, and it's time that the federal Paid Parental Leave scheme also ended its discrimination against this group of parents. To that end, Senator Siewert will be moving a second reading amendment on this on my behalf.

Another area the government has failed to correct is inherent discrimination, which penalises breadwinner mums and stay-at-home dads. The eligibility for the government's 18-week parental leave pay is tied to the mother's income except in the case of adoption. This means that if the mother earns more than $150,000 the family cannot qualify for parental leave pay, even if the partner earns under the cap or even if they earn nothing at all. This family unit gets nothing. They are financially punished. But where the mother earns less than $150,000 she can access the parental leave payment regardless of how much her partner earns. He could be earning a million dollars. We would all have to agree that this is manifestly unfair. This is not a debate about the cap. This is not another class war. But failure to correct the anomaly embeds discrimination and sexism in the paid parental leave system. High-earning women are penalised for being high-earning, as if this were something unusual. Surely the same threshold should apply to all parents, male or female?

I would hope that most of us here would agree that the view of the mother as the only primary carer is outdated and that this is a rule that penalises breadwinner mums and stay-at-home dads. It's a legacy of a scheme designed 11 years ago, when the notion of stay-at-home fathers was very much an afterthought. It makes absolutely no sense to stick with a policy that penalises family units that consist of stay-at-home fathers and breadwinner mothers. It needs to change now. That is why I propose an amendment that does away with this out-of-date component of the scheme. It is the same amendment I moved to the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Flexibility Measures) Bill in June last year. It was supported by everyone in this place except for the government and One Nation, who voted against it because of some vague assurances by the government of something of some kind coming down the line. I call on the government and One Nation today to support my amendment in this place and in the other place.

Modern parents don't define themselves as primary or secondary carers and neither should the legislation that supports and regulates their family life. By supporting this amendment, the Senate will bring the PPL scheme into the modern era. The amendment circulated in my name is framed as a request because it amends section 54 of the act, expanding the parameters of who can make a claim for paid parental leave. It was fully costed by the PBO last year, and the cost is relatively minor, an estimated $27.3 million over the forward years. These costings were again provided to government, the opposition, the Greens and the crossbench with plenty of time to consider them, and I would hope this chamber can unanimously support my amendment.

11:54 am

Photo of Anne RustonAnne Ruston (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Families and Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

In summation, the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (COVID-19 Work Test) Bill 2021 introduces amendments aimed at supporting working parents who have had their work affected by COVID-19 lockdowns across Australia to continue to access payments under the Paid Parental Leave scheme. The bill helps to ensure that more parents, particularly women, can be supported to take time off work after the birth of their child through the demonstrated attachment to the workforce. I thank senators for their contributions and acknowledge the intent behind many of the amendments. The government will not be supporting the amendments. I commend this bill to the Senate.

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the second reading amendment moved by Senator Pratt be agreed to.

Question negatived.

11:55 am

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I indicate the Greens' support for that amendment.

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Manufacturing) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] by leave—We of course support our own amendment. I also place on the record that we support the other second reading amendments too.

11:56 am

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] by leave—I want recorded my support for that second reading amendment and the other second reading amendments as well.

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

No worries.

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

At the request of Senator Griff, I move the following Centre Alliance second reading amendment:

At the end of the motion, add ", but the Senate:

(a) acknowledges the vital role that foster and kinship parents play in raising over 44,000 Australian children in out-of-home care by providing a safe and loving environment;

(b) recognises that the Federal Paid Parental Leave (PPL) scheme excludes kinship and foster parents, representing a significant disservice to vulnerable children in the child protection system who are placed with a new family;

(c) notes that research shows the ages of 0-2 are a developmentally vital time in which a child forms secure or insecure attachment behaviours and PPL assists primary carers to spend valuable bonding time with an infant;

(d) further acknowledges a number of top-tier firms in Australia do not discriminate against foster and kinship parents and include them in the paid parental leave they offer to their employees; and

(e) calls on the Government to extend the Paid Parental Leave scheme to foster and kinship parents of children aged 0-2".

Question negatived.

by leave—Could you record the Greens' support for that amendment, please?

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

I've already recorded the support of Senator Patrick and Senator Pratt on behalf of the Labor Party. Senator Griff, I take it that you would like your support of your own amendment recorded?

11:57 am

Photo of Stirling GriffStirling Griff (SA, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] by leave—Yes, absolutely. I also support the other second reading amendments.

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

At the request of Senator Waters, I move the following second reading amendment:

At the end of the motion, add ", but the Senate:

(a) notes that strong, equitable paid parental leave improves the lives of families; and

(b) calls on the Government to strengthen the paid parental leave scheme by:

(i) extending leave entitlements to 26 weeks, with six weeks reserved for fathers or partners to encourage more equitable sharing of care,

(ii) requiring superannuation contributions to be made on paid parental leave, and

(iii) removing income provisions that discriminate against families where the birth mother is the higher income earner".

Question negatived.

by leave—I'd like recorded that we support our amendment.

Photo of Stirling GriffStirling Griff (SA, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] by leave—I'd like recorded that I support that amendment too.

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

I've got the Labor Party's position and that of Senator Patrick already recorded. The question is now that the bill be read a second time.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.