Senate debates

Wednesday, 28 February 2024


Paid Parental Leave Amendment (More Support for Working Families) Bill 2023; Second Reading

6:37 pm

Photo of Barbara PocockBarbara Pocock (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

We have buckets of research about the benefits of paid parental leave. Very robust, solid longitudinal studies tell us about the broad range of benefits of best practice parental leave schemes both in Australia and around the world. There are huge benefits for babies, very significant benefits for the life chances of children and enormous benefits to mothers. It assists breastfeeding. It's also very clear that the benefits are there for labour supply and the economy. Australia is a very rich country. We choose to spend public money on submarines—$368 billion. We choose to spend billions on subsidies for fossil fuel companies and tax cuts for the rich. We can choose to support parents, particularly mothers, who often end up taking the biggest financial hit when they raise a child. We can afford to have Rolls-Royce standard paid parental leave in this country.

The Greens are proposing a government paid parental leave scheme of 52 weeks at minimum wage, with employers to top the scheme up to match full-wage replacement. To fall short of this puts new parents in a financially difficult position. It lets down our working families, it ignores the distribution of inadequate and unfairly distributed parental care on families, and it disadvantages women. It's a big engine in the war against inequality, and we need to deal with it.

I chaired the Select Committee on Work and Care, where we heard definitive evidence from stakeholders about the consequences of our inadequate Paid Parental Leave scheme. Our existing scheme promotes and entrenches prevailing stereotypic gender roles: mothers as primary carers; fathers as primary earners. Women account for 88 per cent of all primary carers taking leave, and men only account for 12 per cent. Less than 50 per cent of the largest employers in Australia offer any paid parental leave. We are really dragging the chain here. There's a huge gender division in the distribution of paid and unpaid work in our economy, which necessarily undermines equality between men and women. Caring patterns are established in the first year of a child's life, and they persist over that life, so the underutilisation of parental leave amongst fathers bakes in the gender division of labour in households for years to come.

The skewed distribution of care work leads to reduced women's workforce participation, and time out of the workforce hinders women's career progression, contributing to the dominance of men in more senior roles and the concentration of women in low-paid, part-time and insecure work, and we've seen very extensive evidence of that gender pay gap this week in our public discussion about the gender pay gap. It's so wide in so many of Australia's workplaces and is partly explained by inadequate supports for working carers, most of whom are women.

Labour market segregation and the gendered distribution of care work in Australian households are key factors driving that gender pay gap and the superannuation gap in Australia. The government were patting themselves on the back last week for a gender pay gap of 12 per cent—the lowest on record—occurring on their watch, relating specifically to full-time ordinary earnings, but we should not be celebrating. Let's not forget that the gender pay gap is calculated using just those full-time wages and that part-time wages data is way wider—still 19 per cent. That means that, on average, women are earning over $18,000 less per year than men. Over a whole working life, this is equivalent to women earning $1 million less. The inadequacies of Australia's current paid parental leave system are part of what's behind the problem of this inequity, which we must deal with.

The release of WGEA's gender wage gap data that we saw this week revealed the economywide scale and significance of this problem. Transparency has shed an important light on economic and seniority disparities for women in some of the biggest companies in Australia. The construction, professional services and banking industries recorded some of the worst gender pay gaps, and some in the consulting industry—an industry I'm currently looking at through various inquiries—unsurprisingly have much higher gaps than the average. McKinsey has a median gap between men and women for total pay of 38 per cent, and Boston Consulting Group's gap is 35 per cent, while Bain's is 31 per cent. This is shameful. It's shameful that these companies, which do business with our public sector and receive contracts, are the places where these gaps are unacceptably wide.

After decades of talk about what needs to be done, the action is insufficient. The big four are not amongst the worst offenders, but that is explained in part by the fact that we don't have a total workforce assessment of the gender pay gap in the big four. Partners are not employees. They're very highly paid and they're disproportionately men, and that will shift those figures when we get an overall picture, which we must have. We need the full picture of what's going on in those big four. They've got thousands of partners earning very big dollars, and we need to have a much more forensic examination.

The Greens are calling for business structures to be required to report their data on pay gaps between men and women to illuminate that gap and also to look at the impact of paid parental leave changes. Women deserve fairer paid parental leave. It improves their economic security. It reduces the gender pay gap and increases the likelihood that mothers will return to work after having children. The community sector has long been calling for an expansion of paid parental leave. Delivering a fairer scheme is a no-brainer that benefits everyone: parents, children and the economy.

We know this is possible because lots of countries are already doing it. Countries, including Finland, Germany, Norway, Iceland and many countries around the world, have more equitable and effective paid parental leave schemes. Norway has 49 weeks of parental leave—15 weeks exclusively for one carer and another 15 weeks exclusively for the other, with the remaining 16 weeks to be shared. The experience in other countries puts beyond doubt that more equitable parenting leave, coupled with free child care of high quality, improves women's workforce participation and helps shape the long-term sharing of care work, with really important positive outcomes for our kids.

Another important lesson from international paid parental leave schemes is the importance of reserving a component on a 'use it or lose it' basis for the second carer. We've seen time and again in Scandinavian countries how this provision causes a huge jump in the number of those second parents taking leave and, then, in consequence, over the life of those young kids, a fairer sharing of the care in those households. This is sustained for more than a decade after that experience of being the parent, usually the father, at home, really seeing what it's like to care and building close, strong relationships with those little kids. The reintroduction of a 'use it or lose it' provision in this bill to encourage shared parenting is a very welcome change. We heard powerful evidence in the Select Committee on Work and Care, which I chaired, about the importance of doing things better. Where there is a more equitable take-up of parental leave, women have better paid employment outcomes and children receive better support in the earliest stages of life. It's win-win-win. This is not to mention the improved maternal health and the quality of parental relationships during a time when these things are often strained.

Research from Parenthood found that, if we legislated 12 months of paid parental leave at full pay, with a significant portion of it shared, this would lead to a GDP increase of $116 billion, or 2.9 per cent, by 2025, largely due to the higher rates of female participation and productivity that would result from spending less time out of the labour market. It would also result in an increase in breastfeeding rates of 4.6 per cent and associated long-term increases in labour productivity. Some will point to the cost of delivering adequate paid parental leave, but they ignore that return on investment, and underinvestment in care means labour shortages, gender inequality and more stress for workers, especially for women. We know that if Australian men had babies we would have Rolls-Royce paid parental leave, and the budget would be no hindrance.

Last year, even the government's own Women's Economic Equality Taskforce recommended expanding paid parental leave to 52 weeks and paying superannuation on paid parental leave—and isn't that overdue? That must be in the next budget. They also recommended eventually paying paid parental leave at a replacement wage. The ACTU supports finding that pathway to 52 weeks, and so many community organisations also support it. The Greens will continue to call for reforms that expand support for new parents and address the gender inequity of current childcare patterns in Australia. We are fighting for government paid parental leave to be expanded to 52 weeks, giving parents that full year together between them to nurture and provide for the needs of their kids. We're calling on businesses to top up the government's scheme to bring the rate of pay up to the full replacement rate and for it to be mandatory for superannuation to be paid during parental leave.

This will bring us up to the global standard. It'll deliver justice for parents, better outcomes for our economy and a better start for our kids. We're a wealthy country. We can afford to look after mothers, parents and our kids well, and we can afford to get the administrative mechanisms of paid parental leave right. Forty-one per cent of Australian workers work in small business. It is important that they not be encumbered with new administrative responsibilities at the very moment when their families are under the greatest stress and pressure. There is so much administration you have to deal with when you have a baby. There is so much change in your life. We need small businesses to be part of this system for the continuity of employment and the payment of wages to those workers so that they can be confident of a connection to their employer and their boss and so that their boss can be confident of a connection to them. We need to increase the length of leave, we need to make sure it's administratively sensible, and we need to have it work for the kids of the future.

6:48 pm

Photo of Dave SharmaDave Sharma (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This is not my first speech. I rise to speak in favour of the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (More Support for Working Families) Bill. What we've seen discussed in recent days with the release of the gender pay gap data is that a large contribution to the cause of the gender pay gap is the different amounts of time that women and men tend to spend out of the workforce. The workforce participation rates of women and men tend to match one another until people reach a child-bearing age, at which point women tend to fall behind, and that workforce participation rate gap remains. In Australia, that workforce participation rate gap is about eight percentage points. It's about 62 per cent for women and 70 per cent for men, which is high by OECD standards. One of the most meaningful economic reforms we can pursue is to improve the female workforce participation rate so it matches that of men in the economy. Closing this gap would address one of the three Ps that go to the heart of economic growth: participation, productivity and population. At the moment, most of our economic growth is dependent largely on population growth. We don't have a productivity agenda, but we could have a workforce participation agenda.

What this bill does is make the Paid Parental Leave scheme more generous, increasing it to 26 weeks, and it encourages both parents to take leave. It gives families the flexibility to make their own decisions about how they should share this leave. Around 171,000 parents or claimants accessed this scheme in the last financial year, 2022-23. This scheme is designed to complement—not supplant—employer-provided leave, and in Australia there are about 62 per cent of employers who offer some form of paid parental leave.

Under the present scheme, 20 weeks of paid parental leave is available—this bill will increase that to 26 weeks. Under the present scheme there are two weeks reserved for each partner—this bill will increase that to four weeks reserved for each partner, meaning 18 weeks could be used by either partner. What this bill does is encourage the more equitable sharing of parenting duties. It supports parents and particularly women to re-enter the workforce after having children by retaining a connection and retaining the option to return to work, and, to the extent it encourages fathers to share in the parenting duties, will over time encourage better fathers as well.

However, I do have one concern I shared with some of my colleagues in the coalition about elements of the bill—that is, largely, the administrative burden that will be imposed upon small business in particular. Under the bill as constructed, the secretary of Services Australia pays directly to the employers, and the employers then pass this on to the employees. For a large business or organisation with a human resources department and a payroll department, that probably adds little in terms of administrative burden, but for small businesses in particular—that is, businesses with fewer than 20 employees—who often would not have the systems and business processes to allow them to use or implement such a scheme up until this point, this could impose a significant administrative burden.

In the committee inquiry into the bill there were a number of industry bodies and peak bodies who raised this: the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, for instance, said that having the PPL scheme administered by small businesses or employers on behalf of Services Australia 'imposes a significant administrative burden on small businesses'. The Motor Trades Association of Australia argued that smaller businesses 'should not have responsibility for administering payments on behalf of Services Australia', and a survey of their own respondents—a small-business member survey respondents—said that 86.3 per cent of respondents favoured an opt-in model where small businesses could elect to do this, and in doing so retain a connection with that particular employee, but they would prefer the default option that Services Australia pays this directly to the employee. The Restaurant and Catering Industry Association said:

… the imposition on employees to administer parental leave payments places an additional regulatory burden on businesses to serve as the Commonwealth's 'financial intermediary'. This only provides additional confusion surrounding the role and level of responsibility businesses are accountable for when payments are paid late or incorrectly.

Finally, the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman said:

For many small and family businesses, the costs associated with administering the scheme are magnified as they do not have the existing organisational capability or internal expertise to implement complex processes.

The coalition will be moving an amendment in the committee of the whole process, seeking to remove the requirement on small businesses—that is, businesses with fewer than 20 employees—to be compulsory opted into the scheme. We would like to give them the opportunity to opt out if necessary and allow Services Australia to pay that directly.

Overall, I do speak in support of this important social policy and to a degree and economic policy reform. It will help, over time, reduce the workforce participation rate gap, which should help, over time, reduce the gender pay gap, and which should help, over time, improve our economic performance as a nation.

6:54 pm

Photo of Jana StewartJana Stewart (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm pleased today to be speaking in support of the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (More Support for Working Families) Bill 2023. It's a piece of legislation that is very important to me and to our nation.

When I first entered this chamber in July 2022, I was 35-weeks pregnant. Already the mother of a six-year-old boy, I knew my decision carried a lot of weight, but I entered this place reflecting on the many women who paved a path for working mothers like me. For much of this country's history, our parliament has been unaccommodating for mothers. The Australian parliament didn't have a women's bathroom until 1974. It was in my lifetime that the Parliament House bar was replaced with a childcare centre. The Capitol Hill childcare facility is now used by elected representatives, staff and members of the press gallery. They are very welcome changes.

My hope is for an Australia that destigmatises working parents and changes the way we view the work-life balance and that workplaces that are supportive of their employee's choice to raise a family will become less of a novelty. Less than a decade ago, children were banned from the chamber. In 2016, the Australian parliament changed its strangers rule to allow parliamentarians to bring our children into the workplace. In February 2022, my little Ari made history as the first Koori baby to enter the Senate chamber. He was only the fourth baby on these red carpets. This year, my good friend and fellow Victorian Senator Raff Ciccone became the first father to bring his child into the Senate chamber. In the seven years since the strangers rule was lifted, the chamber has changed so much. Many of us in this place have accepted a new status quo and one that uplifts working mothers and fathers.

The reality couldn't be clearer. When we change the rules, we change our attitudes towards working parents. What we do here needs to pave the way for the rest of the country, but there is always more to be done. That's what the more support for working families bill does. This bill delivers on the second tranche of the Albanese Labor government's plan to reform the Paid Parental Leave scheme, building on the changes we announced in our 2022-23 October budget. Every Labor person in this place, in this government, believes in supporting our working families, encouraging greater gender equality and supporting greater workforce participation.

I've spoken a lot about my workplace, but not the experience so far of working parents across Australia. It is impossible to look at this reform without having a gendered lens. Women, by and large, are still the primary care givers in this country, regardless of whether they are an MP or Senator, work in an office building or on a construction site. Entrenched gender stereotypes frequently frame men as the household breadwinners while women are the stay-at-home mothers. In reality, the needs of every family are different, but an issue arises when the scales are tipped against working mothers. Too often, new mothers return to full-time work only to find themselves denied career progression. Mothers who may want to work full time might be forced to cut down their days in the office because they can't access adequate child care.

Raising the next generation of leaders is important work, but, shamefully, women are often penalised for it when they choose to spend time at home before returning to work. The ripple effects from this cannot be denied. Less pay, means working mothers face greater vulnerability and economic hardship, have fewer assets and less super in the bank when it comes to retirement. Big business, union secretaries, experts and economists know that the most effective way to boost our national productivity is by promoting the economic empowerment of women.

I'm proud to be part of a government, the Albanese Labor government, that puts women at the centre of everything that we do, and nothing is more clear than having a majority of women in caucus for the first time in any government's history. The bill affirms Labor's commitment to gender equality in every Australian workplace by providing more choices and more support for working families. These amendments expand paid parental leave from 20 to 26 weeks, extend the period reserved for each parent from two weeks to four weeks and double the period when parents can take leave at the same time from two to four weeks.

These changes are set to benefit approximately 180,000 families in Australia. It will provide much-needed support to mums after childbirth and empower dads to take on more care-giving responsibilities, because gender should not affect your access to parental leave payments—just like you shouldn't have to worry about spending time with your baby or about money to pay the bills.

When the Gillard Labor government established the Paid Parental Leave scheme in 2011, we knew that investing in paid parental leave would benefit our entire economy and bring Australia one step closer to achieving gender parity. We knew it then and we know it now. Those opposite cannot be trusted to support Australian women. Under their watch, Australia's global ranking in the World Economic Forum's global gender gap index plummeted to 43rd. Since Labor came to government, we have cleaned up the coalition's mess and unapologetically supported women across every workplace in Australia. We've supported working women and reformed traditionally feminised industries, like our care economy. This has included supporting aged-care workers with a historic 15 per cent pay rise, putting multi-employer bargaining on the table for industries like early childhood educators, and from 1 July this year every woman taxpayer will receive a tax cut under Labor. Ninety per cent of women in Australia will be better off under Labor's tax cuts.

The actions of the Albanese Labor government are already yielding life-changing results. In the last year, Australia has climbed 17 places on the global gender gap index, the largest increase since the index began in 2006. We had a record-high participation rate of women, at nearly 63 per cent, in May last year. And just last week, the ABS gender pay gap reached its lowest level in our country's history at 12 per cent. Throughout its history, Labor has been a progressive force for women. It is no surprise to me, looking at this side of the chamber and looking over there, that the Albanese Labor government, a majority women government, has continued to push for the economic empowerment of working women.

As I have already mentioned, when we change the rules to accommodate working parents, we change societal and cultural attitudes towards working parents. Importantly, this modernises our Paid Parental Leave scheme and delivers flexibility for modern Australian families. At the Jobs and Skills Summit and in the employment white paper, the Albanese Labor government heard loud and clear that support for families to balance care is critical to ensuring women's long-term economic equality.

What excites me most about this bill is the opportunity that it will create for Australian women and working families. Not only will it create opportunities for families who will benefit under a bigger and better Paid Parental Leave scheme, but this investment will also promote parenting as an equal partnership while boosting the economy. Data collected by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency reported that 62 per cent of employers offered employer funded paid parental leave in 2021-22. This is an increase from 2013-14, where only 48 per cent of employees saw paid parental leave as a workplace investment. This is a very positive trend, and I hope to see this trend continue to grow as it shows a necessary shift in cultural attitudes. Across Australia, businesses are beginning to recognise they too have a role in providing paid parental leave alongside the Commonwealth. They know that investing in paid parental leave delivers better returns for employers, parents and the economy. This is about making sure that every Australian family has more choice and better support, no matter their needs or how they choose to share care and responsibility.

There will come a day that every person in this place must put trust in the next generation to lead our nation and that the future of this country will rest with them. We cannot control what they will do but, right here and right now, we can make a difference to the quality of life our children have access to. We know that quality time with a loving parent can do wonders for a child's early cognitive learning and development in their formative years. This bill will deliver a paid parental leave scheme that is flexible and fair and will improve social and economic outcomes for both parents and their children. I commended the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (More Support for Working Families) Bill to the Senate.

7:04 pm

Photo of Tony SheldonTony Sheldon (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As we give consideration to the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (More Support for Working Families) Bill 2023, we should look not only at the important changes that have taken place to make it possible for women and families to get fair economic outcomes but also at the context of paid parental leave as an overarching strategy by the government to make sure that we lift and give to women opportunities that haven't been experienced before—and, I'd also say, lift opportunities that haven't been experienced by men as well. I know, as a father, that my wife did most of the caring—that was the arrangement we made—but I think of the opportunities that I had at various points to care for my children in their early years. It gave me a great opportunity to bond with my children that my father and my grandfather didn't contemplate. This is an opportunity to build a more cohesive family unit, and that's one of the things that particularly makes this bill attractive to me. As well as adding the important aspect of equity and fairness, and lifting up opportunities for women, this proposal also gives the family unit a benefit.

When we're looking at issues particularly with the undue pressure that occurs quite often on women, some of the strides ahead we've made include the gender pay gap—which has fallen by 2.1 per cent since this government came to office—and making sure that pay secrecy clauses, that really impact on women, are overridden. Multi-employer bargaining and low-paid bargaining is another area that the opposition say they don't support, and is no doubt one of those areas that they plan on taking out of the industrial relations system. It gives particularly low-paid, largely feminised industries not only a more fair and reasonable bargaining position but more fair and reasonable market opportunities for employees who want to do the right thing. Doing the right thing across the market is the right thing not just for employees but for those companies that want to make sure they have a sustainable workforce. Particularly in feminised industries that have been highly undervalued, that opportunity means we lift many, many women in those feminised industries along with other cohorts of people working in that sector. Gig work is another example where people are disempowered, going to the circumstances many women find in those particular roles in gig work. Much of our economic agenda is targeted to delivering better wages, better conditions and better opportunities for women, and it's good to see that this work is making a meaningful change.

Through the Jobs and Skills Summit and the employment white paper, the government heard loud and clear that supporting families to balance care is critical to ensuring women long-term economic equality. That is why we've introduced this bill to amend the Paid Parental Leave Act—to provide a more generous PPL scheme. The bill will support maternal health and wellbeing, encourage both parents to take leave and give families flexibility to choose how they share and care. The PPL scheme provides payments to eligible working parents and carers, and changes contained in this bill will benefit over 180,000 families each year; that's a lot of Australians that are going to be in a better position as a result of this bill.

The bill will expand the paid parental leave scheme in stages—to 22 weeks from 1 July 2024, to 24 weeks from 1 July 2025 and to the full 26 weeks from 1 July 2026. Reforms will mean that there is an easier claiming process that will allow either parent to be the primary claimant, that parents will be able to take weeks of leave at the same time so they can spend time at home together with their children, and that there will be better access to paid leave for parents whose partners do not meet residency requirements. Under the current measures, if a family wants to share parental leave the birth mother must claim PPL first and then transfer it to the other parent. This is administratively complex and burdensome for parents and can be complex for businesses as well. This degree of simplicity being brought to the system also goes to a point that those who are suggesting amendments for direct payments for small business should be mindful of—that the burdensome administrative complexity has been lessened as part of the frame of this bill.

Dads and partners who meet residency requirements would also be supported to receive PPL in circumstances where the birth mother does not meet the waiting period requirement for newly arrived residents. A total of 1,500 families are set to benefit from this change. It's funny: we talk about figures in this place, but 1,500: is it a great amount, or is it not? I can say to anyone here that if you're one of those 1,500 then it makes a difference to the opportunities it gives to you and your family and to the cherished child. This means that there are 1,500 more families that have been helped by a decision we make here. These are some life-changing, like-developing changes.

The bill also will increase the number of paid parental leave days that a family is able to take together, at the same time, to four weeks. This will increase flexibility for families and support parents to take time off together after a birth. These changes reflect the additional advice on PPL sought by government from the Women's Economic Equality Taskforce and represent the largest investment in PPL since the scheme was introduced in 2011. In preparing its advice, the task force was informed by broad consultation across member networks, briefings from relevant government departments and the commissioning of research from Professor Marian Baird and Associate Professor Elizabeth Hill.

At the committee inquiry into the bill we heard from organisations who were supportive of its objective to empower women and strengthen community wellbeing. The committee received 24 submissions and held a public hearing in Canberra on 23 January 2024. Women's Legal Services Australia, or WLSA, said the bill 'will make the scheme more flexible, accessible and supportive of gender equality, women's participation in the workforce and shared parenting'. The Northern Territory Working Women's Centre said the bill is a 'greatly welcome development in providing support and financial security for families'. The Parenthood, an advocacy organisation representing parents and carers, expressed support for this bill's overdue and welcome reform to the PPL scheme and described it as a 'commendable step towards supporting Australian families'. Ms Helen Dalley-Fisher, Convenor of the Equal Rights Alliance, testified at the hearing that 'the bill will promote women's economic security and women's participation in the workforce' and 'it will also promote redistribution of care work between the genders, which is critical for this bill'.

But all this support for the bill from stakeholders hasn't stopped some of the negativity from those opposite. We've heard from coalition senators this week that changes to the scheme create disputation in workplaces, and this is distinguished because the PPL scheme does not alter existing employer-provided paid or unpaid leave entitlements. This is a critical point. When looking at the exemption of small business in considerations for that amendment, evidence was given by a number of parental gurus about the importance of making sure that for all business, in particular small business, that has a competent employed person who goes on to parental leave, the contact remains between that worker and the employer.

I'm looking forward to further debate about the exemption for small business, because it's an exemption that breaks that connection that's so important in making sure that not only is the person who's on leave engaged but also there's encouragement, desire and a process of constant engagement by the employer. That includes in small business, where it's so essential for those skills to be brought back into the workplace and be celebrated when those workers return to the work environment. The government-funded parental leave pay is a minimum entitlement designed to complement employer-provided leave. That connection is already here, and disconnecting that connection is a dangerous thing, which was pointed out by many of those who gave evidence during the inquiry and a number of groups of small business workforces represented by women's organisations.

According to the Department of Social Services, 61.8 per cent of employers in Australia offer access to parental leave in addition to the government scheme. With this bill, the Albanese government is getting on with the job. The bill goes hand in hand with the government's other measures to improve women's economic security and workforce participation and support gender equality. The first tranche of changes was enacted under the Paid Parental Amendment (Improvements for Families and Gender Equality) Act 2023. Key changes included expanding the paid parental leave maximum entitlement from 18 weeks to 20 weeks by absorbing dad and partner pay; replacing the requirement for the birth parent to claim parental leave pay first; removing the requirement for 12 weeks of parental leave pay to be taken in one consecutive block; introducing a reserved 'use it or lose it' period of two weeks of parental leave pay for each parent; and expanding scheme eligibility by introducing a family income limit of $350,000, which can apply if the person does not meet the individual income limit. In her second reading speech, Minister Rishworth said:

Not only will our changes help families better balance work and care; they will also support participation and productivity over the longer term, providing a dividend for the Australian economy.

When men and women are encouraged to share their caring responsibilities in their child's early years, it means that women can come back into the workforce faster—and so can men, ultimately. The bill will have a noticeable impact on the gender pay gap and the gap in superannuation savings of women later in life. Research from the Australia Institute's Centre for Future of Work highlights that women have significantly less money saved for their retirement. Based on median income data, Australian women earn $136,000 less in super over their working lives than their male counterparts do. Of course, work still needs to be done on making sure that we get a fairer and more equitable system for women in the workforce.

Investing in paid parental leave is vital to the economy, as it helps maintain the participation of women within the workforce. More women getting back into the workforce will contribute to the filling of skills shortages across the economy in large, medium and small businesses—and I emphasise the importance of keeping the connection to small businesses, along with medium and large. We know that if we don't do that it will be a handbrake on productivity. The submission of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry to the committee inquiry into the bill's provisions said:

With such a tight labour market prevailing in the current economic conditions, Australian businesses and communities cannot afford to have more employees leave the workforce.

We in the Albanese Labor government are delivering on our commitment to delivering more support for working families, improving outcomes for children, and advancing gender equality.

7:18 pm

Photo of Jess WalshJess Walsh (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (More Support for Working Families) Bill 2023, a bill that meets the needs of Australian families by giving working people more access to support when its needed and giving more time to parents after the birth of their child. This bill is about more choices, more options and more flexibility when it comes to paid parental leave and the care of young children. This is about parents having greater agency to share caring responsibilities. It's a modern bill for a modern Australia.

From 1 July, two additional weeks of leave will be added each year until 2026. By 2026, new parents will have a total of 26 weeks leave to use—six months of paid parental leave. That is an absolute game changer. One parent can access 22 of those weeks, a month more than under the current scheme. The other parent can access four weeks, double the amount they have now. Critically, parents will be able to take four weeks together instead of just two. For families this time is invaluable. It is more time to recover after childbirth and more time to spend with their child as a family together. It is the ability to give care together for longer.

We know this will improve wellbeing outcomes for families across Australia. We also know that investing in paid parental leave benefits our economy and drives gender equality. We are a majority-female government, the first in history, and gender equality is at the heart of everything we do. We want to encourage and facilitate shared caregiving to provide more choice and more support for women.

Expanding paid parental leave means women can better balance their caregiving and their work responsibilities, but it also means that fathers and partners are supported to take a greater caring role too. We want agency for families to figure out how to do that best. They should have the flexibility to structure their care arrangements. Men and partners should be valued as caregivers too, and parenting can be treated as an equal partnership. When these structures are in place, women are better supported to engage with the workforce, and equality is advanced.

Women's economic equality is top of mind for our government every day. In addition to this bill, we've driven a strong agenda for women. We delivered a historic and life-changing 15 per cent pay rise for Australia's aged-care workforce. We supported a life-changing pay rise for minimum wage workers two years in a row. We've seen a historic increase in the workforce participation rates of women. Women are seeing how working, caring and living can work for them. We've also seen the gender pay gap drop to 12 per cent, the lowest level on record. And, come 1 July, 100 per cent of working women will receive a tax cut, and 90 per cent of working women will receive a bigger tax cut under our plan. There is more work to do, but I'm so proud of what we've delivered so far, and this bill delivers more.

Paid parental leave is a strong Labor legacy that we first established back in 2011 under the leadership of the incredible minister Jenny Macklin, and the Albanese government have worked hard to introduce reforms to now modernise the scheme, to make it flexible and equitable and just to make it more helpful to the families that it aims to support. Just like Medicare, it took a Labor government to establish paid parental leave, and now it takes a Labor government to protect it and to expand it. And that's exactly what we're doing with this bill. I'm proud to support the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (More Support for Working Families) Bill today.

7:23 pm

Photo of Anthony ChisholmAnthony Chisholm (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Education) Share this | | Hansard source

The Paid Parental Leave Amendment (More Support for Working Families) Bill is important legislation that I know so many of my colleagues have been very happy to talk about here today. It's something that I know I myself would have benefited from in my time of being a father. I reflect on what Senator Sheldon talked about as well, in terms of it being a different era from when this was something that had first been brought in.

Obviously the work that the government has been doing to expand the Paid Parental Leave scheme is something that has been a work in progress, but it's also something that I think is recognised now across society as being such an important part of establishing a family. I think that the businesses, the unions and the economists all agree that it's also one of the best ways that we can boost productivity and participation and provide more support to families. If you look at the challenges that we're confronting across the nation, one in particular at the moment is workforce. I spend a lot of my time on duty in regional and rural Australia, and there's not a place you go that isn't having impacts from labour shortages. We know there's a well-publicised teacher shortage. We know there's a constant challenge that has been identified in terms of our health professionals and care professionals. If we can increase the Paid Parental Leave scheme and make it more attractive, we also know that's going to be important for the workforce, and important for productivity as well, so I think it is important from that point of view.

This is the largest investment in the paid parental leave scheme since Labor established it in 2011. It will benefit over 180,000 families each year; that is something this government is really proud of. We understand that it is absolutely vital that this support goes to families, but we also know that, in those early stages of a young person's life, having their family and parents involved in their care is only going to benefit those children as well. I think that is well recognised, but it's important that government, in the policies it puts in place, creates those opportunities to ensures parents have that opportunity across the country.

The bill expands the paid parental leave scheme by increasing the length of payments from 20 to 26 weeks. That's going to make a significant difference to many families across the country. As I mentioned before, 180,000 families will benefit from that each year. When you think about that extra six-week support that will be provided across those 180,000 people, that's going to make a significant difference for them. It is something that will be welcomed by those families, and I encourage people in this chamber to support this important legislation.

We also know that, in the work of the government, in terms of what we're doing in confronting that labour shortage across the country, we need to look at this in the context of the other work we're doing across government—for instance, the work that was released on Sunday by Minister Clare and the work of Professor O'Kane in the Universities Accord process; I'm going to focus on regional areas in this regard. The regional university study hubs are going to be significant. The evidence I've seen, when I have been out in communities that have the existing study hubs in place, is that often in these communities it is the partner of someone who has moved to those towns for work who is raising children and has the opportunity to go and study. When you think about, in those regional towns, the support that can be provided for the next nurse or the next teacher, it's much better if we're already training those people in those local communities. In relation to the evidence, I think about 70 per cent of people who study in a regional town are much more likely to stay there and work there. When you think about those challenges we're facing in health and education, if we are to provide that incentive for those people to study locally they will much more likely enter the workforce in those local communities. That aim we've been building in education, and what we've been focused on through the Universities Accord process, has been to create those opportunities.

I've been to a number of study hubs now where they have a lot of returning mothers who are trying to get back into the workforce after raising children. You can only imagine the impact the increase to the paid parental leave scheme will have for those people. When you look at this in the context of everything the government is trying to achieve, it will add to opportunity for people across the country. Putting my Assistant Minister for Regional Development hat on, it will be particularly welcomed across regional Australia. It is important this legislation is passed, and it is important we work through this in the chamber, hopefully over the next 24 hours, to get it done.

I also think the evidence we've seen in regard to the paid parental leave scheme and its importance for families is that it is providing that real boost for parents to spend time with their babies once they are born. So many of us who have been fortunate to have children have really valued that time. With the current cost-of-living challenges, many people would be feeling the pressure to get back to work and continue to earn money, and I think this is a recognition of that challenge that many people are facing. I think it's something that would be welcomed by so many people in the community.

When you look at what the government is trying to achieve, whether it be on the cost of living, or ensuring that we've got a better system in place for the Paid Parental Leave Scheme, the evidence is the government are listening to people and we are doing our best to implement it—

Debate interrupted.