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Paid parental leave policy is missing actual leave

The Government needs to come clean on what its Paid Parental Leave Scheme really means for working families, starting with its name.

It’s a great irony that an initiative called Paid Parental Leave does not actually give anyone an actual right to time off work after birth.

In fact, if an employee has been working for less than 12 months, they have no guarantee they can return to their job if they take leave.

All the Government’s scheme does is entitle employees to a payment (18 weeks at the minimum wage) even if their employer won’t give them their job back.

A payment, but no leave? That sounds suspiciously like the baby bonus, by a different name. Like so much of the Rudd Government’s ‘reform’ agenda, to quote Keating on Costello, this scheme is “all tip and no iceberg.”

Let’s not forget Paid Parental Leave has been on the agenda for women’s groups and unionists for more than thirty years.  Recognition of Paid Parental Leave as a workplace entitlement has been at the heart of this movement. Yet, it’s missing from the Government’s plan.

Given the unpaid parental leave provisions (52 weeks) are protected by the Fair Work Act, why is it that the Paid Parental Leave provisions do not have this status? The Government is basically saying to working Mums and Dads, “she’ll be right, the boss’ll look after you.” Bizarrely, ACTU President Sharon Burrow has bought this line and is encouraging the Senate to pass the legislation without amendment.

The Government is taking Mums and Dads for a ride and the Greens won’t stand by and let them be sold a lemon. There are serious issues in this legislation that we have a responsibility to address.

For instance, where’s superannuation in this payment? The Rudd Government has talked a lot about bridging the retirement gap between men and women. How can they hope to achieve this objective if super is not even part of parental leave? Surely, this is yet another way of short-changing working women.

Recognising paid parental leave as a workplace entitlement is essential, and would ensure that just like long service leave or sick leave; employees would continue to accumulate superannuation payments.

It’s clear the Government is approaching this as a social welfare payment, rather than a workplace entitlement. Evidence from the Senate Inquiry, given by Government bureaucrats, clearly stated it was a payment scheme with no commitment to leave entitlement.

Labor’s Bill for a mere 18 weeks sets Australia apart from other countries with Paid Parental Leave. While Sweden’s scheme offers 47 weeks, New Zealand offers 28 weeks, Finland offers 32 weeks and even Spain offers 27 weeks, the best our Government can offer, after decades of public debate, is four months.

The Government has a unique opportunity to provide a scheme that is aligned with the World Health Organisation’s standard (minimum 6 months), that is universal and integrated into Australia’s industrial relations regime. This is why working parents need six months plus super. Unfortunately, the Government’s plan doesn’t come even close.

Despite the deficiencies in the Bill, the Senate is being asked to simply roll over and give the Government’s plan the tick of approval, without any attempt to improve it. To simply surrender this opportunity to get the right scheme in place, would be to squander the legacy of all those who have been fighting for this issue, for so long.

The Senate owes it to those dedicated women and men to produce the best legislation possible. Most importantly, Australian parents and babies need a better scheme.

The Greens won’t block the Government’s legislation, but we will try to improve it and the least the Government can do is come clean about its deficiencies. Rather than trying to sell this as the Paid Parental Leave scheme it promised, Labor should admit its offering a pale imitation in this half-way house.

Maybe then, we in the Senate can have an honest, sensible discussion about how we can improve it and get a fair system in place for working Mums and Dads.

First posted at The Punch

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