Paid Parental Leave - 25/02/2020

25 February 2020



I rise today to speak in support of that amendment and as part of the debate on this bill, Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Flexibility Measures) Bill 2020. Labor supports these changes to paid parental leave, which will make it more flexible for many families to use the scheme as it suits them. This is a good thing.

I wanted to begin by reflecting on the introduction of Australia's first paid parental leave scheme, which was under the Labor government, the Julia Gillard government, and the then social services minister, Jenny Macklin. It is one of Labor's great legacies that we have delivered for this country and something we're very proud of.

At the time when paid parental leave was first introduced in 2011, we were one of only two OECD countries—the other being the United States—that did not have a state provided paid parental leave scheme, so it was about time that we got one, and it was a very good thing. When the scheme was first introduced there were four very distinct objectives of the scheme. These were looked at at the time by the Productivity Commission, and the scheme that was introduced was very similar to what was recommended by that process. These four objectives were: to allow primary carers to take time off work to care for the child after the child's birth or adoption; to enhance the health and development of birth mothers and children; to enable women to continue to participate in the workforce; and to promote equality between men and women and the balance between work and family life. Each of these objectives is very important in its own right, and the scheme serves those objectives. I would like to talk a bit more about that.

Since it was introduced, in 2011, over 1.2 million families have used the scheme. That is almost 150,000 parents each year who have benefited from the Paid Parental Leave scheme. Importantly, at the time it was introduced, many women in Australia had no access to employer funded leave either. This is something that continues. Many women in particular industries and, in particular, lower paid work have no access to anything from their employers. Women in casual work, seasonal work and low-paid jobs are particularly disadvantaged with no access to any paid leave when they have a child. This disadvantages them in two key ways. When they have their child, they have no financial support at a time when they need to take some time off to recover from having a baby and to raise and bond with the baby. Also, in many cases, they find it very hard to return to the workforce; they actually have to leave those jobs. So one of the key objectives of introducing the scheme was to support those women who had no access to support at that time.

An evaluation that was conducted at the time showed that it sparked a conversation with employers and, for the first time, many employers introduced their own scheme in response to the government scheme being introduced—either to augment the 18 weeks provided by the government or just generally introducing their own scheme. And this has continued on since then, which is a great development.

The gender pay gap remains a problem in Australia. Despite the Treasurer's contention in question time in September that it had closed, it does in fact continue. Female workers in Australia still earn 14 per cent less than their male colleagues. It is a fact that the gender pay gap in Australia has remained stubbornly higher over the past two decades, with any minor changes being widely attributed to the ending of the mining boom. If the Treasurer and the Prime Minister were genuinely serious about fixing the gender pay gap, they would oppose cuts to penalty rates. The vast majority of workers who had their penalty rates cut are women and the cuts to penalty rates are exacerbating the gender pay gap, not just making it harder for women to pay the rent and cover the bills.

But paid parental leave is also an important part of this. There are many reasons why we have a gender wage gap in Australia and why women face disadvantage in the workplace more generally. As I said, there are many reasons, and those are all things that we should look at. But I do believe that one of the key reasons that inequality continues in our workplace is that it is still primarily seen as a woman's role to take time off to care for children. I feel that we will not really address this gap until it is seen as normal for both men and women with children to take time out of the workforce—be it leave they take after the birth or adoption of a child or the part-time work that can continue in the years after that. I really think that paid parental leave begins that process early.

Labor's scheme also provides dad and partner pay, which is two weeks of leave for dads to take after the birth of a child. And paid parental leave can be exchanged between both parents so that the father can take some time for the primary caring. I think the sharing of this role is not just beneficial for equality in the workplace. For generations, men have missed out on that wonderful time with children in those young years because they have primarily been at work and women have primarily been in the home. I think both men and women have a lot to gain through the better sharing of that role. We are seeing that happen more and more. Many fathers I know who have either gone part-time or have taken full-time leave to be with their children say it is the best thing they have ever done for the relationship with their children and their partners. So it is wonderful thing and, as a nation, I think we could be doing a lot more with paid parental leave to enable that sharing of the roles.

One particular issue that has been raised with me by some of my constituents is the fact that there is a means test of the mother—$150,000 a year. It is quite high. In the case where the mother exceeds that amount but the father does not, they can't actually transfer that leave over to the father because they themselves are not eligible. Whilst there are obviously very good reasons for that means test, I think it is something that could be looked at in terms of enabling fairer sharing between both genders and not assuming that the male partner is always the higher earner.

Paid parental leave signals to employers and the Australian community that parents taking time out of the paid workforce to care for a child is part of the normal course of life. I think this is one of the most important objectives of the scheme. It also enables women to continue participating in the workforce. As I said, many women were faced with the choice of just leaving their job. This enables them to keep in contact with the employer, which is another important aspect of the scheme. And it also goes some way towards addressing the gender pay gap at retirement age, where we see a third of women facing poverty. Again, perhaps the major cause of that is the time taken out of the workforce to raise children over the course of a woman's career.

This bill will enable mothers and families to split their paid parental leave entitlements into blocks of time over a two-year period with a period of work between. Currently the scheme only allows paid parental leave to be taken as a continuous 18-week block within the first 12 months after the birth or adoption of the child, and then only when the primary carer has not returned to work since the birth or adoption of the child. This bill will change the rules by splitting the 18 weeks of paid parental leave into a 12-week paid parental leave and a six-week flexible paid parental leave. The 12-week paid parental leave entitlement will only be available as a continuous block but will be accessible by the primary carer at any time during the first 12 months, not only immediately after the birth or adoption. The six-week flexible paid parental leave period will be taken at any time during the first two years and does not need to be taken as a block.

In practice, this will mean families can split their entitlements over a two-year period with periods of work in between. And, as with the current rules, the primary carer can be changed during this time. It is likely that the most common use of the increased flexibility will be parents returning to work part time and spreading their flexible paid parental leave over several months. This is a really positive change. However, as I said, we could be doing so much more with paid parental leave in this country. Some of the other countries around the world provide much longer leave, better paid leave and, importantly, sharing between fathers and mothers. There is more leave provided for fathers or a 'use it or lose it' policy where there is an amount of leave that must be taken by the father.

Another important issue with paid parental leave is that the current scheme provides 18 weeks. The Productivity Commission had recommended that, for the health of the mother and the child, it is ideal that the mother take 26 weeks off work. Eighteen weeks was based on budgetary constraints at the time and the idea that many women had other leave they could access. Increasing that at some point would be a great thing we could do for families in this nation to enable women to have a full six months of paid parental leave home with their children—and for fathers to have leave is a great thing. Another issue is that there is a gap in superannuation when women come to retire because of the time they take out of the workforce to raise children. Attaching that to paid parental leave is another thing that could one day be considered.

I want to reflect again on the fact that without Labor having introduced this we still would not have a paid parental leave scheme in this country. We have one that many families—almost half of new mothers—are benefiting from, and that continues to grow. It's wonderful to see dads increasingly taking more time off when their children are born and also going part-time. I know in my own family, this is something that my husband and I had always wanted to do, planned to do, when we had a child so that we could both share the time looking after them. And it has been a really wonderful thing, a real richness, for men in their lives to have that one-on-one time with their child that perhaps in generations past they didn't have. As I said, we support these changes.