Senate debates

Monday, 18 March 2024


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

10:46 am

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak to the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (More Support for Working Families) Bill 2023. This bill implements the second tranche of the government's paid parental leave reform announced in the 2022-23 October budget. It follows changes commenced on 1 July 2023 to make the scheme more accessible, flexible and gender equitable. This legislation is even better news for families struggling with the cost of living and juggling all the expectations of a modern life. I spoke in this place during the debate on the first tranche of these plans. It was, after all, a proud Labor policy that we took to the last election.

The Albanese government is committed to Australian families and to the Australian workforce as our country evolves. Industrial relations policy changes must take into account our changing world and the demands on our families, which is why this policy expands paid parental leave to 26 weeks by increasing the total number of weeks by two weeks each year starting on 1 July 2024 to reach 26 weeks on 1 July 2026. This is a landmark policy, and I'm proud to be part of a Labor government that is setting the standards for paid parental leave entitlements. It is wonderful to be part of a political party which thinks big and implements policies that change the lives of Australians for the better such as sick leave, Medicare, superannuation, the NDIS, the NBN, cheaper child care, just to name a few, and now the extension of paid parental leave.

The bill will increase the number of weeks reserved for each parent on a 'use it or lose it' basis, reaching four weeks in 2026 and will double the number of weeks parents can take concurrently, reaching four weeks in 2025. The bill also includes a minor technical amendment to ensure access for fathers and partners who do not meet the work test requirements but who would have if their child had not been born prematurely. This provision is already in place for birth parents. This historic change commences from 1 July 2024 and applies to births or adoptions from that date.

Over 180,000 Australian families are expected to access paid parental leave each year. What this means to families is everything. It will help them to juggle work and caring responsibilities with greater ease, and this is exactly what governments are supposed to do. Governments are supposed to make laws to create a better and fairer society. The expansion to 26 weeks is the largest investment in this scheme since it was introduced in 2011. Crucially, this investment will increase support for both birth parents and partners. Up to 22 weeks of leave will be available for one parent, which is up from 18 weeks, with four weeks reserved for the other parent, which is up from two weeks. Single parents can access the full entitlement, which is great news for single mums and dads across the country. We understand that women lose out financially where caring responsibilities are concerned, so we're acting decisively to level the playing field and help the women of Australia. As well as increasing the reserved period to encourage shared care, which is crucial for women's economic equality, the bill gives families more flexibility by doubling the period parents can take concurrently, from two weeks to four weeks.

The Albanese government's reform reflects our commitment to improve the lives of working families, improve outcomes for children and advance gender equality. The government's 2022-23 October budget measure was informed by sustained calls from a wide range of stakeholders across the country to improve and expand the scheme, particularly to encourage shared care, so we stand by this important policy reform and are rightly proud of it. I'm really proud to be part of a government that supports gender equality and supports women to thrive personally and professionally. Women—particularly women of my generation—often retire with not enough super. We know this. If we can level the playing field at different times in women's lives while they have the major caring responsibilities, we will do something about it, and this bill is another step towards trying to level that playing field.

This bill is crucial reform. It's great for families and great for women, but it's also great for our economy. It's good for productivity in the long term, and it's good for future generations. As I said from the outset, it's crucial for families, it's crucial for women, and it's crucial for children and our economy. The Albanese government understands that paid parental leave is vital for the health and wellbeing of parents and their children. We understand that investing in paid parental leave benefits our economy and we know that, implemented correctly, paid parental leave can advance gender equality, which is core business for our government. We know that our policy of providing superannuation on paid parental leave is going to be so much better for Australian families and so much better, in particular, for women. It just stands to reason: superannuation is the cornerstone of a better retirement, if it is supported and if you make your contributions.

Businesses, unions, experts and economists all understand that one of the best ways to boost productivity and participation is to provide more choice and support for families and more opportunity for women. This is why the paid parental leave reform was a centrepiece of our first budget. We invested half a billion dollars to expand the scheme to six months by 2026. This is the largest investment in paid parental leave since Labor established it in 2011, benefiting over 180,000 families each year in this country. Once again, this crucial piece of policy was introduced by a Labor government. When the community is looking for reform to improve the lot of women and children and families in this country, you can always rely on a Labor government. But, as I said from the outset in this speech, this policy initiative reflects the Albanese government's commitment to improve the lives of working families, support better outcomes for children, and advance women's economic opportunity.

Together our changes strike an important balance of increasing support to mums, encouraging dads to take leave and providing family flexibility in how they structure their care arrangements. So many more men are staying at home and being home dads. We respect this. We understand that care arrangements are more flexible than they used to be, and this is supported through this legislation. When my husband was a home dad, it was a long time before it was made easy by having paid parental leave. But I was fortunate enough to have a husband that was prepared to take on the major role in caring for our children once our youngest had started school and I was able to return to the workforce.

This paid parental leave bill is revolutionary in the way it's going to assist women and families. What we need to do as a government, as do all governments, is have policies that provide flexible and agile opportunities for families to be able to return to the workforce while managing their responsibilities as carers. As a nation, it's critical that our Paid Parental Leave scheme supports modern Australian families. This is why we have devised a scheme that is flexible and fair and that drives positive health, social and economic outcomes for both parents and their children. The bill encompasses all of these ideas and commits resources to Australian families.

Crucially, the bill provides more families with greater access to more paid parental leave, provides parents flexibility in how they take their leave and encourages them to share the care responsibilities, which I think is essential to creating that very strong family unit. This bill is good for parents, good for kids, good for employers and good for the economy. It's great for my home state of Tasmania—and if it's good for Tasmania, then, of course, it's good for the nation. I commend the bill.

(Quorum formed)

10:59 am

Photo of Fatima PaymanFatima Payman (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (More Support for Working Families) Bill 2023. This bill represents a major step forward for gender equality and the economic advancement of working families. Under the current Paid Parental Leave scheme, working families can access up to 20 weeks of government funded paid parental leave. Two weeks are reserved for each parent, leaving 16 weeks for parents to share and utilise however they see fit. This bill will increase paid parental leave by two weeks every year until it reaches 26 weeks from 1 July 2026. This means parents will have access to a full six months of paid parental leave by mid-2026. When the scheme reaches 26 weeks, four weeks will be reserved for each parent on a 'use it or lose it' basis, as we heard from Senator Helen Polley earlier, with a further 18 weeks available for parents to utilise as they see fit and as fits their arrangements. Coupled parents will also be able to take four weeks of paid parental leave at the same time, which is an increase of two weeks from the current scheme. Under the new scheme, single parents will be entitled to the full 26 weeks of paid parental leave.

This bill represents a total investment into paid parental leave of $1.2 billion by the Albanese Labor government. I'm so proud to be part of a government that is committed to investing in working families, the backbone of our Australian economy. Approximately 180,000 Australian families who will receive paid parental leave each year are set to benefit from a fairer, more generous scheme that will boost productivity, increase workforce participation, advance the equality of women, support maternal health and wellbeing, and give families extra flexibility. As is evident, the bill is better for families, better for women and better for our economy. It is enthusiastically supported by both the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Council of Trade Unions. It is the latest instalment in a series of Labor reforms designed to improve the lives of Australian families.

As Minister Rishworth said, it was a Labor government that created Medicare, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and the National Disability Insurance Scheme. It was a Labor government that introduced no-fault divorce, the single mothers benefit and the child support system. And it was a Labor government, the Gillard government to be precise, that introduced paid parental leave in Australia. The Albanese Labor government is committed to strengthening our proud legacy of paid parental leave through this bill. For working families in my home state of WA, I know just how important an extra six weeks of paid parental leave will be. When I speak to families at their doors, they often tell me how hard it is to juggle caring responsibilities. This bill will provide much-needed relief whilst ensuring that Aussie kids get the best possible start in life.

I also want to emphasise the impact that this bill will have on working women because we know that women often take on a disproportionate share of unpaid care. Workplace equality and the economic security of women are key priorities for the Albanese Labor government, and I commend the social services minister, Amanda Rishworth, for her work on this bill, noting that this is the largest expansion of paid parental leave since the conception of this scheme. A key objective of the expanded scheme is to encourage more fathers and partners to take leave to ensure that parental duties are balanced and shared more equally and that women can return to work after starting a family.

We know that it's not easy. This bill is critical to ensuring that the transition back to work is as seamless as possible. Flexibility for families is central to this scheme, enabling parents to structure their caring arrangements in a way that best suits their needs. However, it is also important to note that the extent of paid parental leave should not be limited to the entitlement provided by the government. Australian employers also have a complementary role to play by providing their own schemes. All employers should be encouraged by the leadership of our government on this issue and deliver or expand their own schemes. It is definitely a welcome sign that the proportion of Australian employers that are funding their own paid parental leave schemes is increasing, and it is critical that this trend continues not only for the long-term health and happiness of Australian families but also for the significant economic benefits generated by paid parental leave.

I also want to take a moment to highlight the government's recent decision to pay superannuation on the Paid Parental Leave payment from 1 July 2025, which was a key recommendation of the Women's Economic Equality Taskforce. Paying super on paid parental leave is critical. It's critical because it will normalise parental leave as a workplace entitlement and reduce the impact of parental leave on retirement incomes. Parental leave should not be treated any differently to annual leave or sick leave when it comes to super. This measure and the expansion of the Paid Parental Leave scheme highlight the Albanese Labor government's commitment to address gender inequality. This is underpinned by 10 measures we have taken.

Count with me: our investment in women's health and safety; our investment in cheaper child care; Labor's tax cuts, which will deliver a tax cut to all women taxpayers; the amendments to the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012, to enable the Workplace Gender Equality Agency to publish the gender pay gap data of employers with 100 or more employees; making gender equality an objective of the Fair Work Act 2009 through the 'secure jobs, better pay' reforms; supporting the private sector action to embed gender equality in pay, leadership and opportunities, including in emerging industries like clean energy with the 'Equal by 30' campaign on women in the clean energy sector; prioritising action on gender segregation of the labour market by recruiting and retaining more women into trades and other occupations through apprenticeship supports, fee-free TAFE places and targets in the Australian Skills Guarantee; including gender equality as a national priority in the National Skills Agreement; expanding eligibility to parenting payments for singles so that single parents, who are overwhelmingly mothers, can access increased support until their children are 14; and finally, No. 10—we've reached it—improving the child support system to ensure timely collection of child support owed to parents, who are, again, overwhelmingly women, and help prevent debt among low-income parents.

The theme of this year's International Women's Day was 'Count Her In'. I'm so proud to be part of a government that champions the economic inclusion of women, because we know that, when women are empowered and given equal opportunities to succeed, they thrive. I particularly want to commend the Minister for Women, Katy Gallagher, for launching the government's national gender equality strategy, Working for Women. The strategy outlines the government's vision for gender equality. It will ensure that Australia is a place where people are safe, are treated with respect, have choices and have access to resources and equal outcomes no matter their gender. The strategy outlines a path to make progress towards this vision over the next decade, with a focus on five priority areas: gender based violence; unpaid and paid care; economic equality and security; health; and leadership representation and decision-making.

When it comes to women's economic equality and security strategy, gender gaps are driven by patterns of work and care, women's overrepresentation in part-time, low-paid and insecure jobs and barriers to career advancement. Australia's industry and occupational segregation also contribute to gender pay gaps. Women tend to study or train in areas that attract debt or require unpaid placements to qualify, creating inequality from the start of their careers. Women led businesses or startups also attract less investment, restricting their ability to drive entrepreneurial initiatives in Australia.

To achieve gender equality, there needs to be a sustained reduction in the gender gaps for pay and retirement incomes. The government can use its levers to create safe, secure and flexible workplaces, support equitable access to education and skills building and remove disincentives and inequities that perpetuate occupational and industrial gender segregation and sustained pay and wealth gaps. We still have a long way to go to address gender in equality in Australia, but I know that the Albanese Labor government is on the right track. The economic security of women is and will remain a key feature of our government's economic plan—as it should. Expanding paid parental leave is a much-needed reform and critical step forward for economic inclusion. It is a reform that is not only good for women but good for families and good for the economy. I commend the bill to the Senate.

11:10 am

Photo of Malarndirri McCarthyMalarndirri McCarthy (NT, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Indigenous Australians) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank all those who have contributed to this important debate on this bill, the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (More Support for Working Families) Bill 2023. I note the Community Affairs Legislation Committee has examined the bill ahead of Senate consideration. Delivering their report on 5 February, the committee recommended the Senate pass the bill. I was very pleased to see strong support for the bill from a diverse range of family, employer and community groups; unions; gender experts; and economists. I acknowledge that in the committee's report and this second reading debate some of the crossbench have called on the government to further invest in PPL.

I am proud of the strides our government has made since coming to office, and we know there is more to do. The government recently announced we will pay super on PPL from July 2025, which will help normalise parental leave as a workplace entitlement like annual and sick leave and reduce the impact on retirement incomes. We also know gender pay gaps at retirement are primarily driven by gender pay gaps in working life. Investing in paid parental leave is one part of the government's multibillion-dollar and long-term agenda to support women's economic opportunity.

It's worth remembering the government payment is a minimum entitlement designed to complement leave provided by employers, who also have a key role to play. Data collected by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency shows the proportion of businesses providing their own paid parental leave has increased over the last decade. Nearly two-thirds of employers offer their own entitlement, up from fewer than half a decade ago. This positive trend demonstrates that employers increasingly see themselves as having a role alongside government in providing paid parental leave, recognising it is a workplace entitlement rather than a welfare payment. We absolutely want to see this trend keep growing.

The comments we have heard from the opposition and some of the crossbench about removing the employer from the equation risks undermining recent progress to normalise PPL as a workplace entitlement. The Productivity Commission recommended the employer role to promote workplace retention and gender equality. In considering potential administrative impact, the Productivity Commission found that, in any given year, only four per cent of small businesses would need to administer PPL for an employee. Subsequently, an independent evaluation of the PPL scheme, conducted by the University of Queensland over a four-year period, found employers generally experienced a few difficulties in administering the payment and costs were very minimal in terms of both time and money.

Administering the payment is a reasonable contribution from employers, who significantly benefit from the government providing PPL to their employees. Each year, the government spends around $460 million to provide PPL to employees in small businesses. Moreover, two recent Senate committees heard compelling evidence from women's groups, family advocates, economists and unions about how the employer role in administering PPL is important for promoting gender equality. These groups have expressed significant concern with the idea that small businesses shouldn't have to administer the payment. The ACTU said this would be a huge backward step for gender equality. PPL 'should be perceived as a normal feature of employment arrangements' rather than welfare. Jess Rudd from The Parenthood said: 'Parents will lose the umbilical link to their employer or have to go through Centrelink. I've run a small business. I'm all for cutting red tape, but this is just bad policy.' Dr Angela Jackson, a leading economist, said 'it would be a really retrograde step' and 'while it might small time administrative gain for small businesses, the long-term competitive disadvantages will hurt them as a sector. It'll certainly hurt the women that are working for them, and it will hurt the broader economy.'

The government shares the view of the Productivity Commission, women's groups, family advocates, economists and trade unions. Paid parental leave is a workplace entitlement that should be administered by employers. Governments, businesses and unions should be working together to ensure paid parental leave entitlements are as strong and inclusive as they can be. I commend the bill.

11:15 am

Photo of Jacqui LambieJacqui Lambie (Tasmania, Jacqui Lambie Network) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak to the amendment to the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (More Support for Working Families) Bill 2023. Tasmanian lost another shopfront today, a much-loved shop in Hobart called The Spotted Quoll. My office spoke to the owner this morning and she told us 'I feel like the government is working hard to put us out of business.' Five million Australians are employed by small businesses across the country. Small businesses account for 40 per cent of all business and are the backbone our nation's economy. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 400,000 small businesses closed just last year and 7,000 of them were in Tasmania. There are 2.5 million small-business owners in this country and they are doing it really tough. Forty-three per cent of them aren't even breaking even. If the government can ease their administrative burden, they should.

I support paid parental leave. It is a great thing. These amendments to paid parental leave give small businesses a choice. The Commonwealth is picking up the tab but, as it currently stands, the administration of the scheme will fall on small business and that is so unfair. Small businesses do not have human resources departments. They neither have armies of accountants on their payroll nor do they usually have lawyers. In fact, the average number of staff they have is just three. If these changes to paid parental leave go through, and they should, they will put more red tape on the doorsteps of small-business owners once again. By the way, this is a scheme that small-business owners have no control over. They can be penalised for not properly administering it and that will put a heavy burden not only on their businesses but also on them personally.

Frankly, small-business owners are no different to other Australians. They are trying to run a small business, trying to do the right thing, they have family commitments of their own, and we're burdening them. Small-business owners will be penalised and held accountable for something they have no control over, which is really bad. As the owner of The Spotted Quoll told my office this morning, 'It feels like the government doesn't give a damn about us.'

Now the government can show they do care. These amendments will give small businesses a choice: they will be able to administer the scheme themselves or hand over the administration to Services Australia, which has 35,000 staff. This will give those small businesses who can't afford the additional burden of paid parental leave a way out. The workers will still get their paid parental leave, but small businesses won't have to administer it. That is all they are asking for. Social Services are great at this stuff. They have been doing it for years. They are already doing it.

I just want to know why the government, when it has the opportunity to cut red tape, is continually putting more and more red tape over them. Why? My question to you is: don't you like small business? Small businesses employ a lot of people and they just want to know why you won't give them a go. It is really unfair. We must give small businesses the choice to opt in or to opt out. We must not place another heavy burden on small businesses.

I acknowledge that the government has agreed to commit $10 million to help small business assist in the administration of this scheme, and I would like to acknowledge my fellow senator David Pocock and his team for working so hard to strike a balance between supporting workers and protecting small businesses from administering this scheme. I'd also remind Australians that it is what a strong crossbench can deliver. My office will continue to work constructively with the government, but they need to hear this message loud and clear, once again: small businesses already have way too much red tape on them; they don't need any more. You are driving them into the ground, and it is not worth it. Otherwise you're going to see the unemployment rate go up, and you're up for election in about 13 months time. That won't look pretty. They don't want the burden, so why put it on them when you have a department that already delivers the system? Why can't you pick this up? There is no excuse for not picking this up. Give them the choice to opt in or opt out. We're not asking a lot. Stop putting the heavy burden on small business, because, quite frankly, they've had enough, and they're doing it tough enough. I don't want to see any more small businesses driven into the ground because of the actions of the Labor government. They've had enough.

Like I said, you go on about having jobs for the country. I'll tell you what: you can eliminate a lot of jobs really quickly if those small businesses close their door. You may want to remember that, because they are the backbone of this country when it comes to business. They are it. We will continue to work hard with the government, but, seriously, the common-sense action would be to let them opt in and let them opt out. We're not asking for anything else. That's all we're asking for, and that's all small business is asking for. They're not asking for much at all.

Photo of Penny Allman-PaynePenny Allman-Payne (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

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