In announcing last year’s federal election, the Prime Minister
nominated "how we better balance work and family
responsibilities" as a key issue for his Government and a top
domestic challenge. The Prime Minister was right in naming this issue as
significant, but the policy approach that has followed is disappointing.
The Coalition’s First Child Tax Refund, or Baby Bonus, offers only a
low level of real support on the birth of a first baby and is biased
towards higher income earners. It seems an unusual approach to take, given
that clothing, food and goods for babies cost the same whether you are on
a high income or a low one.
Families also have to wait until the end of the financial year before
they receive it through a tax refund. The Australian Democrats believe the
Baby Bonus is an ill targeted and inequitable scheme.
During the election, the Democrats proposed a national paid maternity
leave scheme. In the months since, in contrast to the controversy the Baby
Bonus has generated, it has been heartening to see the issue of paid
maternity leave gather momentum at an industry, union and community level.
Even more heartening is the Prime Minister’s weekend endorsement of
paid maternity leave, despite early scepticism from his Government. It was
somewhat ironic to see one member of his ministry describe paid maternity
leave as "middle class welfare" when the Baby Bonus is so
clearly biased towards those on higher incomes.
Of course, workers with families need more than paid leave: parents
also want secure part-time work; accessible, reasonably priced child care
and flexibility in their jobs, but the Democrats see a national system of
paid maternity leave as integral to work and family policy. It should be
pointed out also, that we see paid maternity leave as a workplace
entitlement, rather than a solution to the country’s declining fertility
Only about a third of Australian women have access to any form of paid
maternity leave. Most are in the public sector or work for large
employers. The chance to stay at home with a new baby should not be
confined to the well-paid in big workplaces. Paid maternity leave should
be a right for Australian working women - not a privilege.
Through a Private Members’ Bill, I have introduced Australia’s
first legislation to establish a system of paid maternity leave. With
Australia only one of two countries to not have such a system in place, it
was time to act.
The Democrats’ legislation proposes 14 weeks, Government-funded leave
at the rate of the minimum wage, or if the female employee usually earns
less than this, at their normal wage. There is also flexibility for this
to be topped up through additional payments or periods of leave, locally
negotiated between employer and employee. We estimate the cost of this
program at around $352 million a year.
In developing this legislation, I consulted extensively with employers,
unions, community and women’s organisations. It was widely agreed that
small business could not afford the added cost of providing paid leave to
their female employees, hence the role for Government.
I have had strong support for the Democrats’ model and via a Senate
committee hearing into my Bill, some excellent ideas have been put forward
about how we can further improve the legislation.
Many larger companies in Australia now recognise that it makes more
sense to retain employees that have young families rather than lose
experienced and valuable workers. Businesses cannot afford to lose the
talent, expertise and productivity of working women, just because they
decide to have a baby.
As business and the wider community increasingly recognise the value of
paid maternity leave, the onus is on all of us to continue the debate
about balancing work and family, to ensure the Government understands why
paid maternity leave is an essential part of the mix. It is more than
politics - we all benefit from the creation of the next generation – not
just in terms of tax revenue and productive work.