Paid parental leave side-steps the real issue

Phoebe Moore

The Federal Government’s Paid Parental Leave Scheme seems more of a political football than a serious issue for women and families across Australia.

It may be a historic win for Australian women, but instead political attention is fixated on the specific legislation trapping the scheme’s success. 

Australian mother of three, Elizabeth White is a single parent who struggled without government financial support during the birth of her first two children.

“For some reason the public continues to ignore the critical nature of payment scheme for women like myself … we don’t have a husband to financially support us so I had to save up during each pregnancy to survive after the birth,” she said.

“It was particularly upsetting to be an Australian when we were so conspicuous among developed countries for not offering a statutory paid parental leave scheme,” says Mrs White.  

When the Government launched the Productivity Commission’s Inquiry Report into Paid Parental Leave, Australia was shown to do nothing but fall short of acceptable global standards.

According to the study, only half of working mothers were eligible for paid parental leave as part of arrangements privately negotiated with their employers.

Sydney Mother Loraine Esther, did not have the guarantee of job security when she decided to have a child.

 “I did want to stay at home with my little Harry, but to be honest, having the independence of working was just as important but I lost that opportunity [because] my boss would not let me take time off to give birth so I quit,” she said. 

Minister for Families, Jenny Macklin believed such standards were unacceptable by global comparison.

“Australian women had a lower labour force participation during child bearing years than women in other countries, with almost one fifth of mothers in paid work resigning instead of taking leave,” she said.

The 2011 Save the Children State of the World’s Mothers’ Report compared government maternity support in 158 countries and ranked Australia as the third worst country in the world, after the United States and Macedonia.

To put this into perspective, mums in war-torn Afghanistan and poverty-stricken Bangladesh were better off than Australian mothers.

So why has it taken Australia so long to take action?

The issue of ratifying a national standard is not one of global pressures since Australia has signed international policy agreements to abolish legislative discrimination on the grounds of maternity leave.

The problem centres on the non-binding ruling of these agreements, and Australia’s tendency to be selective in its adoption of specific articles.

While previous Australian governments have long pushed the issue aside and left it to public debate, there has been an enduring call for many years from the Australian Council of Trade Unions to introduce a statutory scheme.

Mrs Esther was one of the women who tirelessly battled alongside the unions.

We had to fight so hard for financial maternity security to allow mothers time to bond with their babies, without the stress of returning to work,” she said.

“After 30 years of campaigning we won the right to unpaid maternity leave in the private sector in 1979, a maternity allowance in 1993 and the Baby Bonus in 2005.”

Anyone with knowledge of political history knows the Howard Government essentially used the $5000 Baby Bonus as a political ploy to throw water on the fire.

According to the Productivity Commission, the Baby Bonus was a short-term solution and the groundwork for parental leave.

The scheme is now considered a monetary answer that does not invest in the retention of skilled female staff, ease their transition back to work or teach businesses to support mothers after child birth.

Single Mother, Mrs White insists the Baby Bonus did not encourage a return to work.

“The Baby Bonus eased financial pressure but did nothing to ease me back to work,” she said.

An automatic system of taxpayer-funded paid leave was considered an imperative to encourage community norms to comprise the view that having a child and taking time out for family reasons is an acceptable progression in the work force.

Rebecca Ray, Janet C Gornick and John Schmitt compared the parental leave policies in 21 countries to assess the generosity and gender ethics comparatively. They confirmed once again that Australia has set an embarrassing precedent on the implications of policy design for gender equality.

According to the researchers, Australia’s poorly designed parental leave scheme reinforced traditional tendencies for “women to bear a disproportionate burden of child care responsibilities, which in turn payed both a short- and a long-term penalty in the labour market.”

To make matters worse, Australian fathers were offered no government protected period of leave which for decades injured the probability that those fathers would continue their engagement and involvement in child care needs.

Researchers from the Melbourne Institute of Family Studies , Elliot Fan and Pushkan Maitra released a report that strongly argued the necessity for women to move away from the Howard-era view of stay-at-home mothers and move towards contemporary realities of returning to work.

Mrs White faced community scrutiny for not spending more time at home and abiding by the traditional motherly role.

“I remember people asking me why I wanted to return to work and I felt like screaming at them BECAUSE I WANT TO!” she said.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions spokesperson, Sharan Burrow said Australia needed to be brought into line with international standards of parental leave.

“It was a reality that Australia must introduce new national values to bring Australia in line with international standards and provide women paid leave to protect maternal and child health development,” Ms Burrow said.

Medical researchers have long advocated for a leave scheme to suppress health concerns, brought on from financial stress and workplace inflexibility.

Both the mother and the child are at risk when there is little personal interaction within the home for the first few months of infancy.

The survey evidence gathered by the 2011 International Perspectives on Work Family Policies: Lessons from the World’s Most Competitive Economies, shows that paid leave following childbirth has the potential to improve infant and child health by making it affordable for parents to stay at home and provide the intensive care newborns and infants require such as vaccinations and check-ups’.

With the absence of national standards, Australian women had little choice but to return to work because the once-off Baby Bonus cash payment did not cover the household expenses, the cost of living and a mortgage.

The 2010 Longitudinal Study of Australian Children documents the presence of parents during early childhood and explores this impact on the child’s medical, social, economic and cultural wellbeing.

Statistically the study shows the employment rate of mothers increased quite rapidly during the first year of the child’s life, from 55 per cent of Australian mothers with a 3 to 5 month old child unemployed, then only 31 per cent unemployed with a 6 to 8 month old.


Marie Coleman, the chair of the Social Policy Committee, National Foundation for Australian Women, says women now represent just under 50% of the Australian workforce and there is visible public contention for returning to work too early. 

Newspoll questioned Australian residents across the time frame of 2009-2011 with the results consistently showing support for a paid parental maternity leave system to be more than 70 per cent.

But has the scheme legislated by the Gillard Government hit the nail on the head, or has it simply taken a huge step forward for women but a side step to appropriate action?

The scheme successfully captures the diversity of families in the twenty-first century by extending eligibility to a broad range of family types: conventional couples, lone parents, non-familial adoptive parents, same sex couples, and non-parental primary carers in exceptional cases.

But when the Paid Parental Leave scheme was announced, 20 women wrote to the Senate committee claiming it to discriminate against stay-at-home mothers who choose not to institutionalise their family into childcare facilities.

There is an obvious financial increase between the $5000 upfront Baby Bonus payment and the almost incomparable $10 000 paid parental package, which is composed of weekly payments of $589.40 at the minimum national wage.

Leader of the coalition, Tony Abbott jumped on the bandwagon to suggest the Paid Parental Leave scheme was a cheap trick which had impacted severly upon the Federal Budget.

“It has destroyed the Federal Budget and is just another anchor to use helicopter money to buy voters,” he said.

In retaliation, the Coalition proposed their extravagant Rolls Royce leave scheme that turned out to be a PR disaster, when the fine print revealed the plan would be funded by increasing prices on groceries, petrol and electricity.

For Loraine Esther, enough is enough.

“We simply cannot afford for party politics to destroy a right which we [Australian mums] have already waited long enough for,” she said.

“Let this be not a question of what is wrong with the policy but an answer to solving a problem to include everyone. Australian mums deserve better than a side step.”

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