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Paid maternity leave for working women - accept no imitations

By Paul Norton - posted Wednesday, 19 May 2004

The federal government claims that its maternity payment of $3000 to all new mothers will “mimic” the effect of paid maternity leave. Previously, Labor claimed that its proposed baby-care payment would “deliver” on its commitment to paid maternity leave for all working women. The reality is that both are welfare schemes that fail to provide the key thing statutory paid maternity leave would deliver: the right of all working women to return to the same job and career path after child bearing, with income support at no less than the minimum wage during their period of leave.

Why do Labor and the Coalition prefer a maternity dole to the workplace entitlement of paid maternity leave? Part of the answer could lie in their acceptance of spurious arguments about the need for “equal treatment” of different categories of mothers. These arguments hold that statutory paid maternity leave - as proposed by the Human Rights & Equal Opportunity Commission, the ACTU, the Women’s Electoral Lobby, the Greens and the Australian Democrats - would inequitably favour working mothers over full-time homemakers, and mothers briefly absent from work over those taking longer breaks to care for their child. Such reasoning distracts attention from the central issue of equality between women and men, and overlooks the most serious existing inequity between different categories of mothers.

The Prime Minister is reported as stating that paid maternity leave would only benefit women who return to work after childbearing, and therefore would be unfair to those who don’t. What this overlooks is that new mothers who want, or need, to return to work are penalised by not having the employment protection which maternity leave provides. New mothers who don’t want to return to work are, by definition, not penalised by not having a job to go back to. The Labor and Coalition schemes of “equal” maternity welfare therefore maintain the existing inequitable penalty on most working mothers.


This faux egalitarianism is a sub-set of the general argument that equity must be maintained between mothers in paid work and full-time homemakers, summarised in the call by one newspaper letter-writer in 1998 for “full fiscal equality between working women and stay-at-home mothers”. This is effectively a call for poverty traps to be an official goal of public policy. Expressed more neutrally, the implicit principle involved is that the tax and transfer payment systems should be designed so that mothers not earning a market income should be as well off financially as mothers earning a market income. This is never proposed for any demographic group other than mothers of dependent children, for obvious reasons. When have you ever read an argument that governments should provide men and childless women, unemployed through no fault of their own, with “fiscal equality” with their employed counterparts? Work pays better than welfare because there are limits to what public finances can afford, and because it is generally accepted that work is better than welfare – except, it seems, for mothers.

At this stage the homemaker lobby will claim that homemakers’ unwaged work should be properly valued and remunerated, and that this is the moral basis for “full fiscal equality” with working mothers. The flaw in this otherwise compelling argument is its assumption that working mums don’t do the domestic and caring tasks performed by stay-at-home mums. Most of them do, on top of their paid job. Thus there is no moral basis for “fiscal equality” between mothers working a single day at home and those working a double day at home as well as in the market.

A third pseudo-egalitarian argument is that a statutory 14 weeks paid maternity leave, as proposed by HREOC, would only benefit the minority of mothers who return to work within 14 weeks of childbearing, and thus be unfair to the majority who wish to take longer absences from work. Insofar as the argument has a point, it is as part of the case for more maternity and other parental leave. A full-fledged Scandinavian suite of statutory parental leave and income support for both parents can’t be introduced in one hit, so the way to proceed is to introduce the HREOC scheme – or the more generous 18 weeks leave scheme proposed by the Greens - and then extend it over time. This would mean accepting that, in practice, not everybody can benefit from improved parental leave all at once. But to argue on this basis against adopting the HREOC or Greens scheme as a first step is to argue that, if the government can’t help everybody immediately, then in the name of equality the government should not help anybody, ever. This is the egalitarianism of fools.

The real inequality between different groups of women which the maternity leave debate must address is captured, in a back-handed way, by the rhetoric of conservative Labor blokes who counterpose middle-class “femocrats” against “working-class women”. The absence of statutory paid maternity leave in Australia means that paid maternity leave is currently limited to a minority of women in unions strong enough to win this entitlement, or employed by enlightened organisations who’ve granted it voluntarily. Such women are usually getting better pay and conditions all round than the less fortunate majority. In other words, paid maternity leave is currently a femocratic privilege of women in the professions and academia, rather than the right which it should be for women working in factories, shops and routine office jobs.

So the time has come for women and men who want genuine equality in Australian society – and equality between women and men in particular - to redouble our efforts to win statutory paid maternity leave for all working women. As a contribution to the campaign I suggest the following slogans:

  • Paid Maternity Leave – A Right Not a Privilege
  • Paid Maternity Leave – Because Work Is Better Than Welfare
  • Paid Maternity Leave – Accept No Imitations
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About the Author

Dr Paul Norton teaches and researches in the Department of Politics & Public Policy and the Australian School of Environmental Studies at Griffith University.

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