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Paid maternity leave is a work-related entitlement

By Tania Clarke - posted Sunday, 15 September 2002

The Howard Governments' attempts to de-rail the debate on a national paid maternity leave scheme raises serious doubts about their attitude towards working women in this country.

John Howard and Tony Abbott have been repeatedly sidestepping their response to proposals for a national paid maternity leave scheme by tacking it on to the family assistance package of reforms, that it is proposed will be introduced ``some time in the future''.

John Howard claims that the strategy his Government has adopted is "post-feminist". However what he fails to explain is that Australia is one of the few countries without a national paid maternity leave scheme in place. He also ignores his own ideology - that of freedom of choice.


Such a deliberate strategy which avoids a direct response to a national paid maternity leave scheme is, in the meantime disadvantaging thousands of working women in Australia who are either pregnant or planning to have a child.

Particularly women in private industries such as manufacturing. Most women in manufacturing are greatly disadvantaged because not only are they, generally speaking, low paid but they are also most probably not entitled to any paid maternity leave entitlement at all (only 5 per cent of all certified agreements in manufacturing contain a clause for paid maternity leave).

An urgent and sincere policy response from the Howard Government on a paid maternity leave scheme is overdue. The Howard government has been avoiding the public policy debate for some time now. A debate that has seen employer groups, employers, community organisations, and unions all come out in support of a nationally taxpayer funded paid maternity leave scheme.

The scheme currently on offer and proposed by the Democrats in the Workplace Relations (Paid Maternity Leave) bill is a modest proposal and a major compromise. The scheme proposed would be taxpayer funded guaranteeing women entitled to maternity leave, 14 weeks at the federal minimum wage (which is only $431 per week).

With employer groups, unions and community organisations, in principle, agreeing on the proposal at the recent Senate Committee inquiry into the bill, the real debate on paid maternity leave should focus on how the scheme will operate and whether employers should top up payments to pre-leave earnings through an employer funded levy or through enterprise bargaining. The unions preferred option is for an employer levy.

However, the way things are going, a national paid maternity leave scheme is a long time coming, or as John Howard likes to explain the situation, "it is being looked into".


If the timing of the introduction of the nationally funded General Employee Entitlements Redundancy scheme (GEERS) is any indication, whereby the Howard Government only reacted, before the last Federal Election, to introduce a scheme, after a sequence of major corporate collapses such as National Textiles, Steel Tank and Pipe, Onetel, HIH, Ansett etc, then we may have a long way to go.

It actually makes one think? if there hadn't been a federal election looming, would we have seen the debate on the protection of employee entitlements clouded by a policy reform package titled, "corporate governance and employee entitlements" similar to the "family policy package" deferral strategy being adopted in the paid maternity leave debate ?

The Howard government, by ignoring the national scheme proposals and insisting that paid maternity leave be lumped into the category of ``family policy'' is attempting to re-define paid maternity leave as a work related entitlement into a social welfare payment.

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About the Author

Tania Clarke is the National Research Officer for the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union and has previously been an Associate to Commissioner Lewin of the AIRC.

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