Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Flexibility Measures) Bill 2020

10 June 2020

I rise in support of the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Flexibility Measures) Bill 2020. This bill amends the Paid Parental Leave Act 2010 to introduce measures to make parental leave more flexible. The bill allows new parents to split the 18 weeks of public paid parental leave into a continuous 12-week paid parental leave period to be taken in one block and a six-week flexible period that can be taken at any time during the first two years. These changes will apply to children born on or after 1 July in any way that fits the needs of individual families.

There is no doubt that the changes in this bill are important reforms for families and will provide much-needed flexibility as they navigate a return to work for the primary carer. The changes as proposed should assist new parents to maximise time with their young children—a very important consideration. Also, these changes will support self-employed women and small-business owners who may not be able to leave their businesses for 18 consecutive weeks. The changes demonstrate a more contemporary understanding of how modern parenting and work interact, and I commend the government's efforts to make Australia's parental leave scheme more flexible and to better support working parents and families. However, it also represents a missed opportunity by this government to review the legislation underpinning the scheme, which is now 10 years old.

We all accept that support for working parents is crucially important to a number of social and economic outcomes, including gender equality, economic security for women and increased workforce participation for women. Improvements in any of these areas ultimately lead to better economic outcomes for the nation as a whole. However, we also know that the Australian Paid Parental Leave scheme is far from best practice when compared with similar jurisdictions, particularly in Scandinavia and Canada.

One area the government has failed to correct is an inconsistency in the scheme which penalises breadwinner mums and stay-at-home dads. This is because the eligibility for the government's 18-week parental leave pay is tied to the birth mother's income, except in the cases of adoption and fostering. So if the birth mother earns more than $150,000 the family cannot qualify for parental leave pay, even if her partner earns under the cap or earns nothing at all. Where the birth mother earns less than $150,000 she can access the parental leave payment regardless of how much her partner earns. A woman can transfer her entitlement to parental leave pay to a partner, but only if they both individually earn under $150,000.

This is not a debate about the cap. This is not another class war. But it embeds discrimination and sexism in the paid parental leave system. At the moment, high-earning women are penalised for being high earning, as if this were something unusual. Surely the same threshold should apply to all parents, male or female? The inequity means that two families on the same combined income would be eligible if the man were the higher earner but not eligible if the woman were the higher earner. This is very much unfair, and that is why I've proposed an amendment that does away with this out-of-date part of the scheme.

The department, in offering up an explanation of the inequity, was reported as saying:

Parental Leave Pay is primarily intended to help support mothers to take time out of the workforce to care for their newborn or recently adopted child, to enhance the health and development of the child and to allow time for the mother to recover from the child’s birth.

I would hope that most of us here would agree that the view of mothers as the only primary carer is outdated and this is a rule that penalises breadwinner mums and stay-at-home dads. It is the legacy of a scheme designed 10 years ago, when the notion of stay-at-home fathers was very much an afterthought. The number of stay-at-home fathers grew to 80,000 in 2016, based on the latest census data, which was up from 68,500 in 2011. It makes absolutely no sense to stick with a system that penalises family units that consist of stay-at-home fathers and breadwinner mothers.

Modern parents don't define themselves as primary or secondary and neither should the legislation that supports and regulates their family life. By supporting this amendment the Senate will bring the PPL scheme into the modern era. This change is inevitable, if not now then certainly in the future.

The amendment circulated in my name is framed as a request, because it amends section 54 of the act expanding the parameters of who can make a claim for paid parental leave. It has been fully costed by the Parliamentary Budget Office and the cost is relatively minor, an estimated $27.3 million over the forward years. Those costings have been provided to government, the opposition, the Greens and the crossbench with plenty of time to consider them. I would hope that this chamber can support my amendment to remove this inequity, and if it is not successful then a future government will undertake to enact this reform and remove the unintended discrimination from the paid parental system once and for all.

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