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We've got a new PM. Will we soon have an effective Paid Parental Leave scheme?

So we have a new Prime Minister, does this mean we’ll see ‘another’ change in Australia’s Paid Parental Leave policy?

There has been as many changes in Australia’s Paid Parental Leave (PPL) policy as there has been Australian Prime Ministers in recent years. A bit of two steps forward, one step back.

Australia was very late to the party on paid parental leave.

Thirteen years ago in June 2002 when many were lobbying the Howard Government to take Australia into the 21st century on PPL and women’s participation in the paid workforce, Tony Abbott famously dismissed their calls as “a radical women’s agenda” saying, “Compulsory paid maternity leave? Over this government’s dead body frankly.”

Five years ago Australia and the United States were the only two countries in the developed world that did not offer a publically funded Paid Parental Leave scheme.

Four years ago, Australia finally entered the world stage on PPL offering women with salaries under $150,000 access to 18 weeks’ paid leave at the minimum wage, with no super, but available on top of any employer leave they may also have had access to.

Two years ago Abbott, just days out from the 2013 Election, announced to the women voters of Australia: “Every working woman in Australia will secure six months’ leave on full pay plus super for each baby born after July 1, 2015 under an Abbott Government.”

The Abbott Government (now Turnbull Government) was elected and July 2015 has come and gone but there is still no six months full pay plus super in sight.

Today the Fairer Paid Parental Leave Amendment Bill 2015 is before the Australian Parliament and if passed a year from now close to 80,000 new mums and dads will lose thousands of dollars in paid parental leave and Australia will take a gigantic step backwards cementing our position at the bottom of the developed world when it comes to PPL.

The Senate Committee, chaired by Liberal Senator from the ACT Zed Seselja, was tasked to review and provide feedback to the Parliament on the Bill. Their recommendation? “The committee recommends that the Senate pass the Bill.”

Great.

So how have we found ourselves here on the PPL roller coaster ride that, let’s be frank, is making a lot of us pretty sick? Many commentators in favour of the current plans to end the so called ‘double dipping’ argue that this is about making the scheme fairer – targeting those who don’t have access to employer leave. Mind you, these changes won’t increase the amount of leave that those without employer leave can access; it will just take away the leave that thousands of other parents depend on.

However, the claim is that the change will have minimal impact on those it affects because these are wealthy women from wealthy families – they can simply afford to forgo the government’s paid leave.

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There are two major flaws to this argument of ‘fairness’.

1. A nationally paid parental leave scheme is not and never should be a welfare or safety net payment.

2. These changes will undeniably have a dramatic impact on those it will affect.

As Elizabeth Broderick said in her recent address to the National Press Club, paid parental leave is not a welfare payment, it’s about decreasing the gender inequality that permeates our paid workforce.

Rachel, one of our Parenthood members who fronted the recent public hearing held by the Senate Committee looking into the proposed Fairer Paid Parental Leave legislation said:

“It was the great promise for women of my generation, encouraged to build a career, but when we get here the system is still set up for the 1950s.”

Is she right, ladies? Of course she is.

Women, we’re the only ones who have the equipment to produce the army of a workforce needed to support our aging population. Whether you’re a CEO of a Fortune 500 (rare I know) or a teacher or a retail worker, there is no denying the fact that as a woman you need to take time out of your employment to have a baby. It’s just a fact.

Therefore, paid parental leave, at its core, is about recognising that us ladies no matter who we are or where we work should not be disadvantaged financially or otherwise simply because we’re the ones who give birth. Further, a good paid parental leave scheme also recognises that taking extended time, about six months or so, is needed in order to give us the time to bond, to breastfeed and to establish a healthy start in life for bub.

And so enters Australia’s current PPL scheme — designed to kick Australia into the 21st century on paid parental leave. It was designed to provide a minimum of 18 weeks and encourage employers to provide a top up to allow for wage replacement and extended time to help as many mums (and dads) get to the six months target or more. It was designed to be improved upon and it was designed to create an incentive for employers who didn’t offer PPL to make a start – even if it was only one or two weeks.

This incremental approach to overall entitlements to PPL is an efficient and effective mechanism for sharing the responsibility of PPL between employer, employee and government. And it’s been working – 50 per cent of the employers in Australia now offer paid parental leave to their employees. This is a significant increase from 2002 when only 39 per cent of employers provided paid leave. Employers offering PPL are big business, small business and of course the public service — I think this is important to point out that it is not just an employer of the bigwig bureaucrats in Canberra but is also the employer of our teachers, nurses, doctors, healthcare workers, ambulance officers, police and members of defense force.

Women across a variety of professions are going to be hit and hit hard.

Women across a variety of professions are going to be hit and hit hard by the proposed changes – they will see thousands of dollars they depend on taken away diminishing the time they want and need to spend with their babies.

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Results from The Parenthood’s national survey of close to 1500 Australian parents revealed that the vast majority of parents who have accessed government leave and their employer leave have done so in order to be able to afford extending the time they are able to spend with their newborns. Take away the government paid leave, you then also take away the time these mums have to spend with their babies.

The current scheme isn’t unfairly benefiting a few, it is making a significant difference to the many in their ability to afford extending the time they have to bond, to breastfeed and to get ready to return back to work. The consequences of this attack on PPL will be profound and long lasting. For the vast majority of women, it will mean being forced back to work sooner than otherwise planned – increasing stress during an already stressful time, decreasing the likeliness of continuous breastfeeding, affecting the health and development of bub and an increased cost to families and government by forcing more families to find childcare sooner and, therefore, for longer.

Malcolm Turnbull has spoken about a need for economic vision. So it would seem awkward then, when Australia already has the least generous PPL scheme in the developed world (bar the USA who don’t have a national PPL scheme yet), he would want to go backwards.

Abbott’s original promise of six months at replacement wage was surely an improvement to Australia’s PPL but at a time when it costs close to $30,000 for childcare, this becomes a question of timing and priority. It doesn’t matter how long you can afford being off work if you then can’t afford going back!

But just because we asked for a focus on the affordability and availability of early learning and care before looking at a more generous PPL scheme didn’t mean we were giving the green light to taking a sledgehammer at our existing PPL scheme!

Paid Parental Leave is not a welfare measure – it is not about providing a safety net. This is about gender equality in the workplace, this is about improving the long-term financial security and independence of women and fundamentally this is about helping Australian parents give their children the very best start in life.

Time to get off the PPL roller coaster and get on with the job of making PPL better, not worse.

Turnbull has promised the Australian people he’ll do a better job than Abbott – well here’s his chance – stop the stripping back of our PPL scheme!

Oh and give us a Minister for Women who is actually a woman! Cheers.

Jo Briskey is the Executive Director of The Parenthood, Australia’s leading parent advocacy and campaigning organisation. The Parenthood is currently campaigning against the current move to strip back Australia’s PPL scheme. If you’re interested in joining The Parenthood’s campaign to put a stop to the cuts proposed to PPL, click here.   

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