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Sun Herald - By Invitation Only: Parents want help, not hot air

TODAY is Mother's Day in the United Kingdom. As working mums there take time out for a relaxing Sunday morning with their children, they do so knowing their Government recognises mothers' roles in the workforce and the value of paid parental leave.

In Britain, all female employees can expect 39 weeks' paid leave upon the birth of a child. No such luck here in Australia. Here, paid parental leave is guaranteed only to those in the public service, or who are employed by a private employer visionary enough to provide such a scheme.

Australia remains one of only two OECD countries without a government-funded paid parental leave scheme enshrined in federal law. It's a dishonourable distinction we share with the United States. Having said that, a number of US states provide a paid leave scheme, meaning 50 per cent of American women are covered.

The Federal Government recently squandered the perfect opportunity to legislate for an Australian paid parental leave scheme. The Fair Work Bill has been debated in the Parliament over the last fortnight in the name of, well, making work fairer. I moved an amendment to the Bill calling on the Government to provide for paid parental leave in the upcoming May Budget.

The Government did not support this move, meaning that its Fair Work Bill was put to the Parliament with a glaring omission: provision of paid parental leave.

More than 30 years of campaigning by feminists, unions, academics, business and health organisations means the community is well aware of what working parents are missing out on.

Mothers need time off work after having a baby to recover from the birth, establish breastfeeding patterns and bonding, and nurture their child in the first weeks of its life. Providing parents with a financial safety net and guaranteeing workplace attachment in this period makes an exciting yet challenging time less stressful and more enjoyable. At present, many families are forced to "pay" for their parental leave by saving up holidays, sick leave and long service leave - or to quit their jobs altogether.

This isn't good enough - paid parental leave should be recognised as a workplace entitlement. It is not a welfare issue.

The Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, admitted last September that it was "time to bite the bullet" on paid parental leave. But since then, Mr Rudd and his Government have done nothing but backpedal.

The excuse of the global financial crisis is wearing thin. Two stimulus packages amounting to $52 billion have passed through the Parliament in the past six months without paid parental leave getting a look-in. One would have thought that now, more than ever, would have been the time to invest in helping new parents balance their family and work commitments.

Despite our strong record on educating women, Australia - shamefully - is ranked 23rd out of 24 OECD countries for female workforce participation. This, coupled with the highest birthrate in 21 years, suggests paid parental leave is sorely needed. Yet year after year, we have seen this important issue either ignored or delayed by subsequent governments.

So, at an estimated cost of $900 million for the Greens' proposed 26 weeks paid parental leave scheme, what is the delay? We know it is affordable. We know it is valuable. We know families want it. What mums and dads are asking the Federal Government for now is the political will.

Another federal budget must not go by without the inclusion of paid parental leave. The benefits to families and the economy are too great to ignore. It is an investment for the whole country that will build healthy, happy communities. It cannot be viewed purely as a cost.

As Australian mums are treated to breakfast in bed this Mother's Day, on May 10, here's hoping that it is their final one without a paid parental leave scheme and on Budget day two days later, the Rudd Government gives them something fantastic to celebrate.

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young is a Greens senator for South Australia, the party's spokeswoman on paid parental leave, and proud mother of a two-year-old.

By Invitation Only is a space for people of influence to have their say. Edited by Kerry-Anne Walsh.

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