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Matter of Public Interest: Paid parental leave in Australia

Senator HANSON-YOUNG (South Australia) (1:10 PM) —I rise today to speak about the need for the government to support Australian mums and dads by introducing a paid parental leave scheme in this year’s budget. For more than 30 years, Australian women have been campaigning for the introduction of a universal paid parental leave scheme and yet, in 2009, the clock is still ticking on whether the Rudd government will act on this vital issue of workplace support for working families before the May budget this year.

Members of the chamber would know that today I moved a second reading amendment to the Fair Work Bill 2008 calling on the government to bring forward amendments to its industrial relations legislation to provide for paid parental leave in this year’s budget—and, surprise, surprise, both the government and the opposition voted it down. I did not include any number of weeks; I did not include any stipulation. All I said was that the government needed to include paid parental leave in workplace entitlements. Where is the commitment to Australian families? Where is the recognition of the benefits of a parental leave scheme to mothers, fathers, children, families as a whole, the economy and businesses? Only last month the Productivity Commission handed down its final report to the government on paid maternity, paternity and parental leave, and yet we are still awaiting a formal response from the government on a proposal for 18 weeks. We are still waiting for the government to release the commission’s report into the public domain so that we too can see what the recommendations were.

Blaming this lack of commitment on the current financial crisis is an excuse that is starting the wear thin. It seems to be the excuse for inaction on everything these days. It is not good enough for the government to continue to hide behind the economic downturn in order to delay a decision which is vital to supporting working families. We all acknowledge the impact the financial crisis is having on the economy and on what people are spending. Yet we have just seen two stimulus packages pass through parliament in the last six months with not a single thought going towards helping new parents balance their work and life commitments. If you wanted people to go out and spend money, helping parents with new babies would have been a good way to do it. Babies are expensive.

Despite our strong record on educating women, Australia—shamefully—has one of the lowest levels of workforce participation for women in the OECD, ranked 23rd out of 24 countries, which further cements our push for a paid parental leave scheme to be introduced under the new industrial relations framework currently before the Senate. According to the National Foundation for Australian Women’s submission for the Productivity Commission’s report into parental leave ‘the lack of a national system of paid maternity or paid parental leave is widely recognised as a factor adversely impacting on Australia’s potential for increased female workforce participation’. Paid parental leave is a basic pillar of workplace attachment and is cost beneficial for both workers and employers alike. According to employers, the cost of replacing staff—including recruitment and skills acquisition—appears to be at least $10,000. The cost is higher for more highly skilled and higher salary positions, further highlighting the need to include any paid leave support for working parents in our workplace relations system. It is and should be a workplace entitlement, not something seen purely as a welfare issue.

In 2007 Australia recorded its highest ever number of registered births, with over 285,000 babies born into our community that year. My daughter was one of those statistics. Yet year after year we have seen this important issue either ignored or delayed by subsequent governments, and time and again we have heard excuses made. It is now time to bite the bullet, take leadership on this essential workplace entitlement and act to support working families, working mums and dads, and invest in the healthy lives and education of our youngest generation—an investment that is worth it and that should not be viewed purely as a cost.

While I congratulate the individual initiatives of companies such as Myer, ANZ and Coles for leading the way by introducing paid maternity leave for their female employees—highlighting how far we have come in this debate—it is time for the government to take leadership on this issue and finally provide mums and dads with the support they have been calling for for decades. The Prime Minister himself said six months ago that it was ‘time to bite the bullet’ on paid parental leave; well, it is, and the time is now.

It is interesting to note that, while we have seen the rates of availability of paid parental leave grow in both the public and private sector in the 2002 to 2007 period, the fact that public sector employees are still more likely than their private sector counterparts to have paid parental leave available to them again points to the need for governments to support parents and their children through family-friendly policies and to take the burden away from businesses. It is a role of government to provide this support. The Productivity Commission’s own inquiry into paid parental leave found that the proportion of women who took paid maternity leave in the period 2003 to 2005 was 75 per cent of mothers working in the public sector and only 25 per cent of mothers in the private sector. It is a government responsibility. Kevin Rudd must bite the bullet.

Legislating for paid parental leave provides much needed financial assistance and security to Australia’s working families by offering long-term productivity benefits to the Australian economy, as well as allowing parents time off to bond with and nurture their child in the first weeks of its life. It is such an important investment in the children of the future. 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, of course, essential bonding. A number of unions, including Unions NSW, the Community and Public Sector Union, the National Tertiary Education Union and the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Union, are also calling for six months paid parental leave at a minimum. The ACTU are running a campaign for paid maternity leave, and we ask that this campaign focus on the need to deliver this now, not in a staggered, staged or phased-in process.

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

On Sunday, to coincide with International Women’s Day, I launched the Greens Mother’s Day card campaign, calling on the Prime Minister to implement a government-funded paid parental leave scheme in the upcoming budget. Mothers around the country are sending a message to this government that it is time to commit to investing in the future—the future of their children, the future of our communities and the future of our economy. At an estimated cost of $500 million, according to the Productivity Commission’s 18-week proposal for paid parental leave, what is the delay? We know it is affordable. We know that Australian families want it. What we are asking for is the political will.

A recent YWCA survey was sent to all MPs asking whether paid parental leave should be included in this year’s budget. Only 32 MPs responded; however, 18 out of those 32 agreed that now more than ever it is time to bring in a paid parental leave scheme. I wonder how many of those 18 or 32 members were sitting in this chamber when both Labor and the Liberal-National coalition voted against the introduction of paid parental leave. Belgium, New Zealand, Luxembourg and Japan have all managed to provide support for working families, and yet here we are, well into the 21st century, still awaiting a decision from the government.

Labor’s own platform, agreed to at their 2007 national conference, clearly stated:

Labor believes that it is economically and socially responsible for governments to assist mothers with the financial costs associated with the birth of their children. In particular, mothers need to be able to spend time with their newborn babies and have time to recover from childbirth.

Labor will aim, over time, to introduce a paid maternity leave scheme for all mothers with no cost burden to small business.

How much longer are Australian mums going to have to wait? Considering part of Labor’s success at the last election was to go to the electorate with a commitment to introduce, over time, a paid maternity leave scheme for all mothers, it is really disappointing to see that every excuse under the sun is being used to avoid making an announcement on the issue and taking that step.

As I have mentioned many times before, we all acknowledge the dire state of the global economy, but this is the time that we need to be supporting our working families. This is the time when mums and dads with new babies need cash in their pockets to cover the enormous cost of a new baby. It is time to include a paid parental leave scheme in this year’s budget. It is time to acknowledge that paid parental leave should be and must be a workplace entitlement. The government must stop dithering on support for working families and introduce a paid parental leave scheme in this year’s budget. Of the OECD countries, only Australia and the United States do not have such a scheme. Kevin Rudd could beat Barack Obama to the game. Let us see Australia do something before the US does.

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