BILLS - Paid Parental Leave

BILLS - Paid Parental Leave Main Image

28 February 2024

Australia has a paid parental leave scheme that federal Labor is very proud of putting in place. It's a scheme that supports Australian families regardless of marital status or the gender of parents. It's flexible, fair and positive. But, as we know, it requires continual improvement. This bill, the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (More Support for Working Families) Bill 2023, does just that. It gives families access to more paid parental leave, provides parents flexibility in how they can take that leave and encourages parents to share care and support amongst the family. It's good for parents, good for kids, good for employers and good for the economy.

Reflecting on my own life: when my son was young I had just left the Senate, and I didn't qualify for paid parental leave because of the income that I had had the previous year. But I was delighted that my son's father, who I'm not married to, was able to take that paid parental leave himself. I can see from my own experience, therefore, the importance of having flexibility embedded in the scheme. I'm glad to see that more mums will now qualify; it was in fact discriminating against mums because if they had earned too much money it had implications inside the policy scheme for who was able to take time off with their children. The better interchangeability of this scheme among parents is really important, as is increasing the length of the payment from 20 to 26 weeks, increasing the period reserved for each parent from two to four weeks and doubling the period where parents can take paid parental leave at the same time from two to four weeks. It's terrific to see that, starting in the middle of this year, two weeks of additional leave will be added till we reach 26 weeks.

I'd like to see us continue as a nation to lift this scheme and make it better for families. I was listening to the radio this morning talking about the declining birthrates in Japan and Korea. Australia addresses its declining birthrate largely through migration, but if you look in other countries where there are better paid parental leave schemes they can have a positive impact on people's decision to have children and on employers' ability to retain and attract staff.

One of the issues I raise in the context of this debate, that intersects with it, is more around the industrial relations rights of people who are pregnant. If you get a job with an employer, you don't start trying to get pregnant because you haven't accrued the right to return to your job yet—so you will delay ending using the pill, or whatever, and you will delay starting a family so that you are confident you've got a job to go back to.

For many people, falling pregnant doesn't happen all that easily and they find themselves in the position where they've been in a job for three years, they're still not pregnant but they don't want to leave that job and end up with another employer where they have to spend a year in the job to have the right to paid parental leave or even the right to unpaid parental leave, which is the right to return to the job that they left. In these kinds of examples, Madam Acting Deputy President, you can see real barriers, as discussed in some of the other debates we've had this week, to gender pay equity, because women have a more limited ability to be mobile in the workforce.

In this context it's really good to see that many major companies in Australia are now doing away with the need to wait a year to accrue the right to return to your job post your pregnancy. It's no longer legal for a prospective employer to ask someone if they intend to get pregnant, but we know that discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace is rife in Australia. From the work of the Human Rights Commission we know that, alongside disability, it is one of the most frequent forms of discrimination that people experience.

When we look at the issue of government sponsored paid parental leave, it's really important that we look holistically at what we need to do as a country to better support women to take paid parental leave, to take leave so that they can have a child. That's because there's a cost in this space if you end up waiting until you're financially secure enough to think, 'Okay, I can survive for 26 weeks on just the minimum wage,' or, 'I've got a partner who can support me during this period.' If you wait all that time to say, 'Right, my ducks are lined up; I can now take time out of the workforce to try to get pregnant,' and so make that decision at 35 or 36, then actually you are much more likely to need reproductive technology to get pregnant. So we really do need to look holistically at the kinds of expenses we have around paid parental leave. I, for one, believe you should be able to choose the age at which you fall pregnant, but, sadly, that is not the reality of life. People need to consider the biological window for falling pregnant and, at the very least, be mindful and aware of the consequences of making a decision to delay parenthood. I was very privileged to be able to have a child at the age of 42—my beautiful son is now nine—but it was an expensive road of IVF, especially had I not had the workforce security et cetera. I would like to see women able to make better decisions, in the context of their family, as to when and how they are going to have children.

Seeing paid parental leave move to 26 weeks and seeing people being able to make well-informed, positive choices about their family formation, the structure of their household, their working life, their relationship with their partner in terms of who works and who stays home, and their time together with a new child is critically important. But it is also critically important in the context of our industrial relations scheme and the rights that attach to that so that we're not discriminating against women in the workforce in unintended ways. I draw on the example I gave before, of women delaying having children because they need to spend time in a particular job for a particular time to acquire the right to return to that job, for the sake of job security.

In addition, if women are delaying having children, I don't think it would take much maths, really, to go away and look at the level of IVF cross-subsidy, which is probably around $2,000 a cycle at the moment—I'm not entirely sure what it is currently. If you have three or four IVF cycles and also look at your own out-of-pocket costs, it doesn't take long to do the maths and ask whether we can we actually look at having a paid maternity leave scheme that really helps women make decisions around how they want to create their family at a time in their life where they can make the most of their fertility window without worrying about whether they will have a job to return to, and without worrying about how they're going to pay the mortgage and keep a roof over their head; and in full knowledge that they will keenly return to the workforce if they want to, and will keenly seek to maximise their workforce participation if not with the employer that they return to after their maternity leave then with a new employer. I would really like to see pregnancy discrimination and paid parental leave looked at in a much more integrated way in our nation.

I very much support this bill because it is a very good step in the right direction. Businesses, unions, experts and economists all understand that one of the best ways to boost productivity and participation is to provide more choice and more support for families and more opportunities for women. I commend the bill to the Senate.