A real agenda for work and family
Some time in 2003, John Howard bowed to the bleeding obvious when he formally declared the Work/Family issue to be a barbecue stopper. In the end, though, Mr Howard chose to do nothing to help Australian barbecues run more smoothly.
Indeed, his WorkChoices adventure dramatically reduced the capacity of Australians to balance their lives with the demands of paid work. Leave entitlements were jeopardised, the power of employers to impose particular rostering arrangements was enhanced, and job security plummeted.
At about the same time, Tony Abbott showed similar disdain for working families when he promised that a paid maternity leave scheme would happen over their Government’s “dead body”.
Happily for Australian families, that Government is now a corpse - but the disdain continues in the ghosts that haunt the Opposition front bench.
The difficulty Australians face balancing their work and personal lives is, to a great degree, a product of the highly competitive, globalised society Australia has become. No government is in a position to turn back the clock to a more relaxed time. A government can, however, pursue a suite of measures that helps guide employers and workers in a direction that maintains the dynamism of the modern Australian economy while preserving a culture that nurtures well-adjusted family environments.
The University of South Australia has now published three editions of the Australian Work and Life Index (AWALI). Unsurprisingly, perhaps, all three surveys have found that parents have worse work/life interaction than others. Reflecting their even greater share of domestic and parenting responsibilities, mothers fare worse than fathers; and single mothers fare worst of all. The 2008 survey found that fully 74% of mothers in paid work feel rushed and pressed for time “often or almost always”.
There are patently obvious reasons why governments should consider policies to improve the sense of balance Australians feel in their lives. A community that feels the way the AWALI survey describes is not the future Australia wants or needs, but the dynamics at play are many and varied, and some are controversial. The economic and social imperatives (including such complicated areas as early childhood development) often pull in different directions. The one reliable lodestar for Governments is to give Australians a greater sense of control over their own lives in order to deal with those choices.
The principal economic factor in this area is labour supply or participation. The Intergenerational Report has made it clear that we need to increase workforce participation to counter the challenge of an ageing population.
Generally speaking, labour participation (particularly among primary carers, usually women) will increase if work is able to be balanced with family responsibilities. Australia’s female participation rate, while about 10th among OECD nations overall, ranks much lower for women of child-bearing age. And, as the Productivity Commission pointed out in 2006, that figure overstates Australia’s relative labour supply given that we have one of the highest rates of part-time employment among females in the OECD. The principal social factor, it goes without saying, is the desire to have happy and nurturing family environments for children.
The Rudd Government is working to remove the barriers to workplace participation. Julia Gillard has increased the Child Care Rebate to 50%, paid quarterly. Fair Work includes as one of the 10 National Employment Standards the right of parents to request flexible work arrangements. That entitlement was modelled on UK legislation which has been shown to improve workplace cultures in this area significantly. The reflection of such a right in legislation will, I’m sure, make many workers feel more confident about submitting requests to their employer that would better equip them to discharge their family responsibilities. Such a request might be as straightforward as taking a shorter lunch break in order to be able to leave work earlier to pick kids up from school.
Perhaps most notably, though, the Rudd Government is introducing a paid parental leave scheme to operate from 1st January next year. Our 2009 Budget adopted the recommendations of the Productivity Commission to fund the scheme and legislation will be introduced very shortly.
The provision of statutory, paid leave is long overdue. Australia is one of only two OECD nations, the other being the United States, not to have such a scheme. The Rudd Government scheme is fully costed, fully funded and a clear commitment.
All that is clear about Opposition policy on parental leave is that it is completely unclear. Announcements that aren’t announcements, no costings, no consistency, no commitment. Australia’s parents deserve more than political games.
The significant economic and social challenge of family/work balance responds to practical measures. The Rudd Government is busy implementing those measures. After 11 years of inaction, Australia’s working families are on the way to finding a better balance in their lives.
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