Maternity Leave. Let’s go. Ding ding!

This morning I found myself shouting at my radio. This doesn’t happen very often but in my defence, I was provoked. The target of my shouting was federal Labor minister Chris Bowen who was himself having a barney with Liberal shadow minster Chris Pyne. Radio National’s Fran Kelly was trying to adjudicate. Lucky she couldn’t hear me shouting as well.

It was a polarised debate around the issue of parental leave and who should pay. It was an odd moment where you wonder if you’re hearing right when the Labor minister is arguing against big business having to pay a new tax and the Liberal minister arguing that the rights of women and families need to come first.

Huh? Did I miss the memo that said the major political parties would switch ideologies while I was sleeping? Or the tweet that said the Liberal party would now be spelt with a small ‘l’?

Everyone is talking about Tony Abbott’s proposed parental leave scheme, myself included. I started this week by having breakfast with Tony Abbott (you can read about the lead up to our peace talks here – I’ll be writing a column about how it went down shortly) and so I’ve watched the past couple of days unfold with great interest.

What do I think of this scheme that aims to deliver 6 months paid parental leave at your full salary up to $150K to be paid for by a levy on big business?

I think it’s a game-changer. Whether it comes off or not it’s radical and ambitious and sets a benchmark of 26 weeks instead of the 18 that was originally proposed by Labor.  Some think it’s a shrewd and cynical political move that allows Abbott to reverse his reputation for being anti-women  in an instant. It’s certainly stopped a lot of Abbott opponents in their tracks. If you’re a woman (or man) of baby-making age, it’s a difficult scheme to fault from a personal point of view.

I applaud the time-frame of 6 months and I applaud the idea of the payment being at full wage.  No matter what you earn, your life is always structured around that income. Taking 6 months off is impossible if your maternity leave only covers a fraction of your former income.

Also, I don’t buy the argument by some that “we’d all like to take six months off but what if you don’t have kids?”.

The idea of parental leave is always far too focussed on the parents but let’s acknowledge the fact that the main beneficiary in having your mother or father around to be your primary carer in the first six months of your life is THE BABY.


Make no mistake, parental/maternity leave is not a health retreat. It is not a holiday or a sabbatical. Caring for a newborn is some of the most challenging work you will ever do in your life. An easy ride it is not.

So why do we make it that much more difficult by overlaying economic stress over the top of it due to the fact we are only 2 industrialised countries IN THE WORLD (hello America) who have no formal paid parental leave scheme.

I’ve asked regular Mamamia contributor Julie Cowdroy to do a bit of a snapshot of Tony Abbott’s parental leave proposal and also of the proposal currently being considered by the government. She writes….

Monday was International Women’s Day and Tony Abbott came bearing gifts. Well, pledges and plans anyway. In a surprise announcement (even to members of his own party), Mr Abbott has proposed a plan where women would be entitled to 26 weeks paid parental leave. According to Tony Abbott the plan still needs consultation and proper costing, which will be worked out, and then presented as a formal policy in the coming months.

So, what does this proposed scheme look like? A few details (although, not many) were outlined. Most notably, is that women would be entitled to parental/maternity leave that matches their income at the time of the birth of their child. The rationale is that by continuing their existing salary, they will be encouraged to stay at home for the recommended 6 months after birth. Some say this is perfectly fine and makes sense when parental leave is funded privately, but when it comes to public money, some questions do arise.

Tory Maguire raised this issue on the Punch today.

She says:

“There’s an argument that women on higher incomes pay more tax and therefore should reap higher benefits.


It might be logical, but it’s not fair. If our whole tax system was based on that principal our society would end up totally out of whack.


Women (and men obviously) should be free to negotiate what ever terms they can with their employers – if you can get a generous employer-funded maternity leave scheme based on a higher-than-average income bravo.


But when it comes to a government subsidy, funded by taxpayers, I reckon all parents should be in the same boat. I would be uncomfortable with the government paying me more or less than the woman sitting next to me at work, even if, as Mr Abbott proposes, the scheme would have a generous cap.


There’s already a simmering tension built into both the Government’s scheme, which starts on January 1 next year, and Mr Abbott’s plan, in that it appears to significantly benefit working women.


What we don’t need is a scheme that pits all women against each other in a battle to get the most out of the government.


Caring for a newborn is hard for everyone – regardless how high or low they are on the income scale.”

In contrast to the Coalition’s plan, the ALP’s policy pays the minimum wage to all primary caregivers despite what they are earning in their respective jobs.

Another factor to consider is that Abbott’s plan would be funded by a 1.7% levy paid by businesses that earn more than $5 million per annum. This makes the legislation a potentially contentious issue, which could lead to a parliamentary stalemate (ETS anyone?).

The Rudd government’s plan for a federally funded 18 weeks parental leave scheme on the minimum wage would then be in jeopardy and parents would be no better off until a new agreement was worked out. Australian parents would have to wait even longer than they already have for a new policy. The Rudd government’s policy was expected to begin in January 2011.

Flawed as it may be, it’s better than the current policy of no compulsory paid parental leave. But, as Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick and the Greens have stated, it is a good proposal that needs to be strongly considered to ensure see women do get the recommended 6 months at home.

Here is a snapshot of both plans.



Duration of entitlements

  • ALP: 18 weeks
  • Coalition: 26 weeks

Amount given

  • ALP: Minimum wage ($544 per week)
  • Coalition: Would match individual current salaries up to $150K

Who pays?

  • ALP: Tax-payers
  • Coalition: Big business

Total cost

  • ALP: $260 million
  • Coalition: $2.7 billion

(Crikey have collated different articles and perspectives here )

I have to disagree with Tory Maguire and others who claim that the idea of the payment being at the mother’s full wage is unfair. Why is it unfair? Is it unfair that someone earns more than me, whether I have kids or not? No, it’s just life. There will always be people who earn more and less than me. I don’t buy the lowest common denominator argument when it comes to parental leave.

One area that does need further consideration however, is that of women who are not employed when they have a baby. What if it’s baby #2 or 3 or 4? Do they get nothing? Does that not automatically devalue the work they do?

Whatever happens, I am delighted that this issue is on the public agenda and being debated. That’s the only way forward.

Pregnancy, plans, policies, promises, pledges, parental leave… What are your thoughts? Do you think Abbott is onto something? Which plan do you prefer? Or do you have a proposal of your own? Canberra is listening……


UPDATE 4pm: So why did Tony Abbott change his view?

This clue from an interview with The Australian in 2009:

“….conservatives have had reservations about paid maternity leave schemes because, they think, mothers’ primary responsibility is to their children. The further argument that paid maternity leave (but not sick leave, holiday pay or compulsory superannuation levies) would be an intolerable burden on small business has helped to cast, I suspect, a “blokey” pall over conservatism.

Perhaps more than anything else, this suggestion that mothers in the paid workforce might be shirking their real responsibilities explains why there are so few outspoken conservative women. Only a man could think that working might reduce a mother’s responsibilities rather than add to them.

In any event, the absence of a national paid maternity leave scheme has certainly not ensured that the vast majority of women remain primarily homemakers. Instead, it’s meant that many have not had the children that they might have had but for the lack of better financial support. Far from conceding too much to feminism, a paid maternity leave scheme would make it easier for more women to choose the most traditional role of all.”

More importantly, does his motivation even matter so long as we get a proper paid parental leave scheme?