Maternity leave: why progress depends on values
When Tony Abbott announced his paid parental leave policy on Monday, I – like many of those at the International Women’s Day celebration hosted by Manly Council – was taken by surprise. For the 15 minutes before he took my place on the podium, I had been speaking about the challenges Australia faces in creating a society that better values children, and in particular the need to better support the critical dual contribution of mothers in exercising their skills within the workplace and nurturing the next generation of Australians at home.
Much has been written this week around the pros and cons of Tony’s policy, most of it scathing and very little of it constructive. What impressed me were his opening remarks that seem to have been lost amid the frenzied discussion his announcement generated in the media.
Having been associated with the infamous statement back in 2002 that compulsory paid maternity leave would be introduced ‘over this government’s dead body’, I was heartened to hear Tony’s admission that he had since learnt, from research and a variety of sources close to him, the critical importance of the early years and the attachment of mother and baby in laying the foundations for the social and economic future of the nation.
Moments before, I had concluded my address by quoting Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank (and also a visitor to Sydney that day), who suggested that his greatest challenge over the last 30 years was in ‘changing the mindset of people’. To be witness to such a powerful example of this in action was fascinating to say the least.
And yet, as is so often the case in this country, the politics of the situation has since obscured the inherent value I took from that day – the importance of moving to a paradigm of evidence-based policy that puts the wellbeing of our children and families firmly at the centre.
It is no coincidence that those countries that have adhered to this principle and that have implemented the most generous paid parental leave policies (such as the Nordic countries) are those that exhibit the highest rates of educational achievement, health and wellbeing within their population. A powerful lesson for a country such as Australia, where almost half of the working age population are deemed by the Council of Australian Governments Reform Council to be functionally illiterate in meeting the demands of work and life in a modern economy.
Big business has vehemently defended the importance of maintaining international economic competitiveness in criticising their role in the proposed policy, but this neglects the simple fact borne out by evidence that a strong economy depends on a strong society, with the family unit at its core.
If we were serious about laying the foundations for a prosperous Australia, supporting parents to provide quality early childhood experiences for their kids would be the most logical and cost-effective place to start. We might see different groups recognising paid parental leave policies as a critical imperative, a shared responsibility, rather than a burden that is continuously passed around in deciding who should foot the bill.
And we might even begin imagining a situation where, as in Sweden, business and government work together to provide an unparalleled 16 months paid parental leave, of which at least 2 months is set aside for the father to become more closely involved in raising the child.
When the global financial crisis hit, taxpayers (through government) were forced to foot the bills resulting from the excesses of the business world because it was ‘for the good of the nation’. Why is this situation any different? Australia is facing a social crisis that has its roots in poor early childhood and family experiences, played out every day in the shocking stories of abuse, bullying and the appalling revelation that suicide is now the number one killer of Australians under 35. According to the preliminary findings of Australia’s inaugural national values survey conducted by the Barrett Values Centre, people have identified a significant gap between the current and their desired societal values, and have reported a high level of ‘entropy’ indicating widespread disillusionment and a desire for social change.
Such a change is generational, and must begin with demonstrating how we as a nation value children, through the policies that support working parents, through the values that we seek to live by, through the duty of care that schools have in providing safe environments to learn, and through the willingness of all organisations and institutions to contribute their time, talent and dollars in creating a more caring and cohesive community.
As research has made clear, no-one at any level of society – rich or poor – benefits when a significant proportion of the population faces a situation where having the time and resources to raise children becomes a luxury, not a necessity.
If we have learnt anything from the global financial crisis, it is that the values that led us into that situation need considerable reassessment. We need to follow the lead of Nelson Mandela’s assertion that ‘There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than how it treats its children’ and begin to change the mindset that fails to see the interconnectedness of the multiple social and economic challenges we now face.
This means elevating the discussion above the personalities and politics that encourage a piecemeal, partisan approach to progress, so that we might concentrate instead on the longer and infinitely more valuable journey of putting children and families back at the centre of our national agenda.
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