Marie Coleman from the National Foundation of Australian Women has spent multiple decades campaigning for all women to have access to a decent paid parental leave (PPL) scheme but she now faces the painful prospect of those hard-won gains being snatched away from up to 80,000 Australian women.
Ms Coleman, who has spent years lobbying various Prime Ministers, including John Howard, Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott on maternity leave, believes the federal government’s Fairer Paid Parental Leave Bill will have serious consequences for women and their families if it is passed.
She says she is “deeply, deeply unimpressed” by the government’s approach and believes Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull should look for savings elsewhere.
“Clean up the administration of family day care and the cesspit of the private sector VET-FEE HELP,” Ms Coleman said.
“If we have to save money – and I firmly believe we should save money – I don’t believe we should be putting the health of babies and months at risk by this extremely vindictive measure.”
The Bill’s beginnings were far from auspicious. Witness the unedifying spectacle of then Treasurer Joe Hockey delivering the Abbott/Hockey budget, telling the nation’s women on Mother’s Day that they were a pack of freeloaders, “double dippers” and rorters, while conveniently forgetting the wives of senior politicians – including his own – had (legally) been doing exactly that.
The new Bill aims to overhaul the current PPL scheme, ushered in under Labor’s Paid Parental Leave Act 2010, where new parents are entitled to 18 weeks of PPL at minimum wage, which is $11,826 per household, regardless of whether they also received PPL from their employer. Those earning more than $150,000 are not entitled to government-paid PPL.
The original aim of the scheme was to fit together both sources of PPL where possible and to move towards giving women 26 weeks with their babies, the World Health Organisation’s target. The Productivity Commission reported in February 2009 that the evidence was incontrovertible that 18 weeks PPL was valuable and it found 26 weeks desirable.
The new Fairer PPL Bill 2016 stipulates:
- No paid parental leave from the government if a person receives PPL from their employer which is equal or more than the national minimum wage
- Parents will no longer be able to receive employer-provided PPL as well as the full amount of parental leave pay under the government’s PPL scheme
- Parents who get no employer-provided payments or receive less than the total amount of parental leave pay under the PPL scheme will get a top-up
- Employers will have to opt in to administer government payments. Employees will be paid directly by the Department of Human Services, which will cost the government an extra $7 million over five years
- Minor amendments will include more generous backdating provisions so parents have more time to lodge a claim in certain circumstances
The government says the new scheme will save $1.1 billion and it could come in as early as January 2017.
Although a 2015 senate committee report recommended the 2016 Bill proceed, Labor and Greens senators on the committee wrote dissenting reports.
The Committee’s final report stated: “It is also clear … that this Bill will not lead to any reduction in the length of parental leave taken, or any reduction or removal of employer funded PPL entitlements.”
The new bill’s impact
Disagreement has raged about how many women will be affected and who will suffer if the new measures are introduced.
Social Services Minister Christian Porter has argued that more than half of the 90,000 of the families who are currently eligible for PPL will not be affected by the changes. He has also made a point of saying that it is not fair that high earning women can access both schemes.
But Ms Coleman said: “Christian Porter is far too fond – as were Hockey and Morrison – of talking about women on $140,000. This is a piece of fluff from the minister.
“He’s failing to recognise that his own department’s figures show very clearly that they’re going to be a huge number of women whose yearly income is around $40,000 who are going to lose $12,000 and I hope women rise up like a huge terrifying army.”
Dr Sue Williamson, an academic with the School of Business at UNSW Canberra, who specialises in gender equality in the workplace, said the percentage of women on high incomes who were able to access both schemes was “really small.”
“The vast majority of women earn average minimum wages. There’s just not that many women who earn $150,000,” Dr Williamson said.
“I think it’s a way of trying to sell changes to the policy but it’s a distraction, a red herring. The people who are mostly going to be impacted are women on low incomes.”
She said that even industry groups and the Australian Chamber of Commerce had supported leaving the PPL alone and said that it was working well, particularly by helping to drive women’s workforce participation.
The Community Affairs Legislation Committee report on PPL contains a submission from Department of Social Services (DSS) – Mr Porters’ own department – which says that 45,000 families will be partially affected and 34,000 families would no longer be eligible for government funded PPL if the Bill passes.
This equates to 47 per cent of families who were previously eligible for both payments who will be affected. One-fifth would lose their eligibility entirely.
The DSS table is further complicated by the reporting of media income for women and the median income of both partners together. Women on $43,000 (combined $108,000) will lose part of their PPL and the second group, where women earn an average of $73,000 (combined $149,000) will lose their right to government PPL entirely.
Shadow Minister for Social Services Jenny Macklin told ABC radio yesterday (Monday): “We are talking about people who work in retail. They might work for Woolworths or Myer. They might work in McDonald’s. The vast majority of women who are going to be affected by Mr Turnbull’s attack on pregnant mothers are women who are working in retail and hospitality.
“What this will mean is a very, very difficult choice for working mothers. Either they will have to cut short their paid parental leave to go back to work because they have to pay their bills, and that will of course mean they have to spend less time with their babies, or they decide to stay at home and of course that means they will be thousands of dollars worse off.”
She said many firms had their own paid parental leave scheme on top of the government’s scheme, “that gives these mothers reasonable, not too generous paid parental leave and we want to make sure they can keep it.”
Ms Macklin called the current PPL a “modest scheme by international standards.”
Dr Williamson agreed and said Australia still lagged behind many European countries. The UK has a much more comprehensive system, as do most of the Nordic countries.
“Europe is basically looking to increase PPL and Australian is winding it back. It just seems like an easy budget saving and it’s just not very imaginative,” she added.
Ms Coleman believes that the Bill could have major consequences for a childcare system already buckling under the pressure of intense demand, high childcare fees and labour shortages. It is pressure aggravated by the fact that more staff are mandated to care for children under two than other age groups.
She said: “This country has a spectacular paucity of childcare for children aged under 18 months. Who is going to look after all these 19-week babies? If you’re going to make these cuts, get the childcare sorted out first.”
She is “unimpressed” by the government’s insistence that it must reduce government-paid PPL in order to fund childcare, “this government hasn’t succeeded in doing anything so far in improving childcare.”
Women in the public sector
Ms Coleman says most women in the public sector are working in low paid jobs, such as nurses, teachers or ambulance workers, “These women are going to suffer very severe cuts, many of them work on a part-time basis anyway.”
She said it was “an outrageous attack” on women working in both the public and private sectors who did not earn anything like $70,000.
Sue Williamson agrees that most women who work in the public sector are not paid particularly well. She said that 56 per cent of women employed in the Australian Public Service were APS 5 or lower.
“It’s not a bad income but it is these women who are going to miss out. They will lose their government paid PPL. They will lose time with their babies and have to go to work.”
Ms Macklin said she had received an email from a nurse working nightshift who was already pregnant and concerned about the possible cuts.
“Forty to fifty thousand of the women who are going to be affected by this cut are already pregnant. They included nurses and a whole range of people who are going to be affected because of this government’s attack on working women.”
It has also been argued that women in the public sector have traded better PPL in the past for pay rises. Dr Williamson said that PPL in the public sector appeared to have plateaued and was not mentioned much any more during APS bargaining, whereas private sector companies were offering increasingly generous benefits, something she could not see changing any time soon.
Who has the numbers?
While the government is obviously keen to push the Bill through, the Greens and Labor have vowed to oppose the Bill’s progress in the Senate but the numbers are likely to rest with the nine crossbenchers.
Pauline Hanson’s bloc of four senators and Senator David Leyonhjelm appear to support the government’s changes while Derryn Hinch is undecided but is more likely to throw his support behind the government. It will be the Nick Xenophon Team who are likely to provide the deciding vote and prove critical to the Bill’s passage. The party is understood to still be considering its position.
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