A belated, qualified victory for working mothers
One positive feature of the dying days of the Howard Government was the cross party work among female MPs.
Sisters were doing it for ourselves - uniting on issues ranging from stem cell research to the removal of the restrictions on RU486; from changing the foreign aid funding criteria to seeking to ensure transparent advertising of pregnancy counselling.
We co-sponsored bills and held meetings, did the numbers and organised media.It was a rare but enjoyable and mostly successful example of networking among women of different parties, all driven by a commitment to issues affecting women. However, we were unable to attract overt cross-party support on the issue of Paid Maternity Leave (PML).
Not because support wasn’t there. Even after the occasional feisty exchange in the Senate on the topic, I had women of both major parties speak to me privately about their support for my Private Member’s Bill which provided for a national scheme of Government funded PML.
It is nearly seven years to the day that I tabled Australia’s first paid maternity leave legislation: for 14 weeks Government-funded leave at the minimum wage and allowing for employer top ups.
Finally, the Federal Government is using this model as the basis of its Paid Parental Leave scheme announced today and I know my bills (tabled on May 16, 2002 and in September 2007) will provide a legislative basis for the scheme.
Today, I am very proud of the part that my party played in achieving Paid Parental Leave, particularly Paid Maternity Leave for Australian women. It is a reminder of the influence of minor parties on policy and politics.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to an 18 week scheme paid at the minimum wage but I wish it had not taken so long. I had hoped by 2009 that parental leave would be an accepted entitlement and that we would be debating longer timeframes, not whether or not it would be implemented at all.
In some respects, this scheme is still a delayed and half-pregnant version of what is required – as it does not begin for years and it will be means tested – however, it is an important start and one the Democrats helped achieve.
A generation of children have reached adulthood while my legislation has sat on the Senate notice paper so the slow movement of this debate has been frustrating. The eternal shame of successive governments has been the lack of paid leave for Australian women on the birth or adoption of a child. What does this say about Australia’s resistance to reforms that benefit women and children?
We remain one of only 2 OECD countries without some form of paid leave on the birth of a child and two thirds of women have no access to maternity leave.
PML ensures women maintain their workplace attachment (including superannuation and taxation); and business don’t lose productive employees.
There is an obvious biological imperative for PML: mothers can spend those vital weeks with their newborn, and it recognises the physical demands of the latter stages of pregnancy, birth, recovery from birth as well as the establishment (where possible) of breast-feeding.
I updated my legislation in September 2007 to reflect changes to Workplace Relations law over the years and to incorporate feedback from a Senate inquiry into the bill.
The legislation provides 14 weeks Government-funded paid leave at or around the birth or adoption of a child for all eligible women, at the level of the minimum wage. If they earn less than this (eg. part-time or casual workers), the pay would be at their average wage.
Fourteen weeks is a minimal period by international standards, many developed countries have moved to extend the period of payment. This has always been my preferred outcome in the mid to long term but I did not believe it would take so long to get the debate going nor to get a policy in place.
Those critics who attacked my model as minimalist must surely be wondering how we will get 26 or 52 weeks into law?
- Natasha is a former Senator for South Australia 1995-2008 and an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Adelaide.
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