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