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Matter of Public Interest: Paid Parental Leave

I rise today to discuss the release of the Productivity Commission’s draft report entitled Paid Parental Leave: Support for Parents with Newborn Children handed down two weeks ago.

I must say that while many of us that have been talking about greater supports for working families for years were sceptical at the Government’s referral of parental supports to yet ‘another’ inquiry, the initial recommendations and proposed model put forward by the Productivity Commission have proved to be quite promising.

Support for “working families” is a platform that the Rudd Labor Government went to the 2007 election with, and while it is all very well for this term to be used as a mantra day in and day out, few will be convinced it means anything unless the Government commits to a paid parental leave scheme as a budget priority, to prove that support for Australian families is at the top of their policy agenda.

The fact that in 2008, Australia is still one of only two OECD countries without a national parental leave scheme is an indictment on both our current Government and Opposition.

And while I acknowledge that the issue is at least on the political spectrum, we must not forget the tireless efforts of former Senator Natasha Stott Despoja, who had been calling for action on this issue for years.

Despite the Government pledging its support to introduce a paid parental leave scheme, the fact that the Treasurer deflected speculation on whether or not this will be part of the Government’s 2nd Budget in 2009, has raised serious concern over whether Australian families will have to wait until 2010 for the proposal to become a reality in Government policy.

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I can only assume that the Govt would see the benefit in investing in Australian families, through a paid parental leave -- what better way to ensure healthy families, healthy children, and a healthy economy.

And while Families Minister, Jenny Macklin has assured the public that the introduction of a parental scheme “is no longer a maybe, but a definite”, for almost two-thirds of Australian working women who currently have no access to this basic workplace entitlement, the fact that we will not see any movement on this issue until next year at the earliest is shameful.

Yet despite Minister Macklin’s assurance that paid parental leave will be a reality, as recent as last week, when questioned about whether the scheme will be a key budgetary measure, the Prime Minister and the Treasurer argued that the global financial turmoil may force the introduction of any parental leave scheme to be deferred.  Again.

This is not acceptable.  Surely with the current state of the global financial markets, with the rising cost of living, supports for families would be a given.

It is time for the Government to stop dancing around the issue and the bite the bullet and provide Australian working families with the supports they deserve.

Support for parents in their efforts to care for their newborn children is an essential component of any Government policy that aims to promote the health and well-being of infants. 

So with the Productivity Commission’s recommendation for a taxpayer-funded 18 week parental leave scheme, with a quarantined 2 weeks for the father, or the partner, at an estimated cost of $530 million per annum, puts to rest debate that any parental leave scheme is economically unfeasible.

With the Federal Government currently sitting on a $22 billion budget surplus, a government-funded paid parental leave scheme is something we can afford and must prioritise.

While the Greens welcomed the draft proposal announced by the Productivity Commission, we believe that twenty-six weeks of paid parental leave shared between both parents is what we should be aiming for, a figure that is backed by a broad range of stakeholder organisations, from unions, to women’s groups and health organisations.

The World Health Organisation, the Australian Breastfeeding Association and the Public Health Association all advocate six months’ paid leave for mothers to be supported through childbirth, recovery from birth, a healthy period of breastfeeding, and bonding.

A number of unions, including Unions NSW, the Community and Public Sector Union, National Tertiary Education Union, and the Liquor Hospitality and Miscellaneous Union are also calling for six months’ paid parental leave at a minimum.

Every other nation in the developed world – bar Australia and the United States – have some form of paid parental leave for its workers, with Japan offering 26 weeks, Canada offering 28 weeks, Greece offering 34 weeks, the United Kingdom offering 39 weeks, and Sweden offering a very generous 47 weeks, yet families in Australia have been left to ‘pay’ for their maternity and parental leave through the use of their personal holidays, long service and sick leave. 

It is vital that Australia has a paid parental scheme that meets international standards and guidelines, and legislating for a twenty-six week paid parental leave scheme would go some way in increasing our standing in the OECD in the areas of social and economic development. 

We need to challenge other countries with comparable economies who have left Australia years behind in the recognition of paid parental leave as a basic workplace entitlement.  

We need to address the appalling workforce participation rate of Australian women in the child-bearing age group, who rank 8th lowest in the OECD, with 72.4%, well behind Sweden who boast the highest workforce participation rate of females with 86.4%.

We need policies that will encourage and embrace women’s workforce participation, and legislating for parental leave as a workplace entitlement, not a welfare measure, will go some way in protect working parents from the economic hardship as a result of the birth or adoption of a child.

Yet, while the Greens will be pushing for a more generous scheme that has been proposed by the Productivity Commission, we must also take note of problems that other nations have encountered when incorporating parental leave into legislation.  A recent report released from Britain's Equalities and Human Rights Commission suggests that that the current legislation and regulations in Britain have had the unintended consequence of making women a less attractive prospect to employers, which has led to calls for the government to better protect pregnant workers through the introduction of a parental leave scheme that supports and encourages both parents to share the care.

The Rudd Government must ensure that any paid parental leave scheme that is introduced, adequately addresses the systemic discrimination and disadvantage women in the workforce are faced with when having children.  We do not want to see the unintended consequence of making women a less attractive prospect to employers occur here in Australia.

Paid parental leave is long overdue in this country, and I while I am encouraged by the Productivity Commission’s initial reccommendations, I hope that the Government will listen closely to the next round of consultations on the report , and act expediently on what is an essential workplace entitlement for Australian families.

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