By EVA COX, University of Technology, Sydney
Into the strange mix, we can throw the business sector, which also opposes the contentious Abbott scheme.
The business excuse is that it is paid out of a new levy on business – their view is obviously self-interested – but the motives of the conservative Liberals are less clear.
Paid parental leave draws justifications and criticisms from various quarters. At a basic level, it is difficult to oppose a payment that ensures mothers the time off work required to bond with newborns.
This is obviously a health issue. But if the rationale behind the move is to ensure that lower income families have the money to allow the mother to take that vital time, then we’re drifting into the realm of welfare policy.
The more radical basis for arguing for parental leave is to set up it up as an ongoing workplace entitlement. Feminists have long argued for parenting time to be recognised as a legitimate employee entitlement, like holiday pay, sick pay and long service leave, as part of a wider effort to normalise parenting in workplaces.
Interestingly, Tony Abbott’s pitch for his version of paid parental leave is closer to the feminist angle than the health or welfare justifications. He has designed a payment that meets so many traditional feminist demands. This is not just an argument about the needs of children – important as these may be – but the value women workers bring in improving productivity via greater participation. Recognising parents’ role in workplaces fits this model.
The campaign by feminists and others to introduce a paid parental leave scheme has a long history. An initial victory in the late 1970s put in place the right of employees to take up to 12 months unpaid maternity leave if they had 12 month continuous services with the same employer.
This change was disappointingly not followed by a leave payment, despite various campaigns, reports and even interventions by the Human Rights Commission.
The last major effort to introduce a paid parental leave scheme was driven by Pru Goward. It recommended 14 weeks paid maternity leave in a scheme similar to the current Gillard plan, except it was to be paid up to and not at the minimum wage level.
This was not acceptable to the Howard government as it was linked to paid workers and didn’t cover women at home. The Howard answer instead was a A$3000 baby bonus paid to all mothers, soon rising to A$5000.
After ejecting Howard in 2007, the Rudd Labor government referred the issue to the Productivity Commission which produced yet another version bearing considerable similarities to Pru Goward’s model.
The government accepted and introduced this and by 2011, it was operational. Parents are now entitled to 18 weeks pay but can no longer claim the baby bonus and some Family Tax benefits.