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Is paid maternity leave enough?

By Carmen Lawrence - posted Wednesday, 27 November 2002

The paid maternity leave debate has suddenly become an all-consuming passion for those who comment on so-called women's issues and agonise over falling fertility rates, often to the detriment of the broader debate. While we have committed a future Labor government to introduce paid maternity leave, we have consistently said it is only one - albeit important - part of a larger package to help families balance their working lives. We are also acutely aware of the need to address issues such low wages, affordable childcare, a better mesh between leave, working hours and family responsibilities, and the growing intensification and insecurity of work.

I refer to families deliberately, since paid maternity leave, although a workplace entitlement for mothers, is not just about women. It also benefits their families. The recent debates surrounding paid maternity leave, and whether women should stay at home with baby or go to work without, ignore a new generation of fathers who also want to redefine their work and family roles. Their role is often forgotten or wilfully ignored in the current debate about paid maternity leave, which is increasingly distorted by right-wing commentators.

I think there is little disagreement with the prediction that paid maternity leave is now almost inevitable; that it will eventually occur in Australia, as it has in every other developed country (except the USA). The core question is how best we can target paid maternity leave so that it actually helps those workers who are most disadvantaged by taking time out of the workforce.


A spate of recent reports continue to show what we all know - that Australian working women's lives are becoming more difficult and that Federal government policies are exacerbating the problem. The Howard government's policies have increasingly favoured those on higher incomes, and discriminated against working women. Their industrial relations policies have actually accelerated the erosion of civilised standards for working hours and conditions and have added to the stresses of modern Australian life.

All families deserve support for the choices they make in managing their family lives - whether there is one income or two, whether one or other parent takes significant time out of the workforce, and whether they decide to have children early or later. It is a feature of modern Australia - though not of John Howard's fantasy world - that more and more women are combining work with parenting, and the majority of Australian families are attempting to combine work and family responsibilities in an increasingly hostile public policy environment. The decisions about combining work and family are not idle abstractions. One young woman reported to my office that in a workshop she attended on work and family issues:

the debate was strongly dominated by one senior woman who believed I should stay at home and have babies, and a second senior woman who believed the radical opposite. I don't think that either of them realised for a moment that their arguments were real to the three or four young women in that room.

One could substitute the women in that workshop for the people commenting in the media. As other young women have reported back to us: "the commentary has to stop making value judgements about a woman's choices or way of life because young women no longer feel guilty about the decisions they make in their lives with regard to children and careers." What we need to do is support real choice, offer quality care to children and ensure less stressed families.

John Howard is correct when he has described the paid maternity leave issue as a "barbeque stopper". However, when it comes to action by the Prime Minister and his front bench, it really is a case of all sausage and no sizzle! Nick Minchin, Minister for Finance has claimed that paid maternity leave is simply "middle class welfare". I am amazed at this. If a leave entitlement to have a child is middle-class welfare then what is the baby bonus - a scheme which gives those women who earn most a large tax rebate, but very little to low-income earners? Interestingly, he justified such comments this week by saying that the baby bonus "scheme is one of this government's more enlightened and significant contributions to public policy because it returns to Australian working women some of the taxes that they paid in the year leading up to the birth of their child." I would argue that a government-funded paid maternity leave entitlement would support working women by providing payments as a return on the tax that they have paid, and will pay.

Asked whether he agreed that paid maternity leave was middle class welfare, the Treasurer said that he thought the concept of paid maternity leave being provided by big business and government employers was a good one, and that "those employers that are able to pay for maternity leave give a very valuable service to employees". Apparently this valuable service should only to be available to those women who already have paid maternity leave - which is those women who are placed in generally well paid jobs in the corporate sector or the public service.


No mention either of the fact that employers also receive a benefit. Lion Nathan recently doubled the paid maternity leave entitlements for their employees from 6 to 12 weeks, arguing that it helped them retain talented female employees, would attract more women into their blue collar workforce, and would reduce their costs because the cost of the scheme was likely to be less than the cost of replacing workers.

According to the Treasurer, and the government, paid maternity leave should be an exclusive benefit available to women who work for large companies and governments. Women on lower wages or who work for small business simply miss out. Only 0.7 per cent of Australian Workplace Agreements provide for paid maternity leave, and only 3.4 per cent of all private sector agreements currently contain these provisions. Research by the Australian Centre for Industrial Relations Research and Training (ACIRRT) shows that, overall, there has been a fall since 1998 in the already low percentage of agreements containing paid maternity leave provisions. Figures released this week show a further decline in the percentage from 10 per cent in 1998-99 to 7 per cent in 2000-2001. According to the ACIRRT report, 65 per cent of managers and administrators have paid maternity leave compared to only 18 per cent of clerical, sales and service workers, meaning that well-paid professional workers tend to have these provisions and families under financial pressure miss out - this is clearly not fair. Family friendly provisions cannot be the exclusive province of professional women working in large corporations or the public sector. It must also be available to women working in or running small businesses, and women working in factories and shops.

It is worth examining some of the critiques of the proposal to introduce paid maternity leave - there have been some stunners. The most recent flurry of activity has come this week from a report by Barry Maley, a Senior Fellow with the Centre of Independent Studies1. It formed the basis of a piece by Angela Shanahan in the Australian on Monday2.

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This is the transcript of Dr Lawrence's address to the NSW PSA Annual Women's Conference on 20 September 2002.

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About the Author

Hon. Dr Carmen Lawrence is federal member for Fremantle (ALP) and a former Premier of Western Australia. She was elected as National President of the ALP in 2003. She is a Parliamentary member of National Forum.

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