The federal government’s paid parental leave (PPL) proposals are an attempt to capitalise on a negative stereotype of over-indulged public sector workers, says an academic.
Treasurer Joe Hockey announced plans in the May Budget to make it much more difficult for women to benefit from both their employer’s PPL scheme and the government’s 18-week PPL scheme. It’s a move the government has said would save $1 billion over four years.
Sue Williamson, lecturer in Human Resource Management at UNSW Canberra, believes that Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s plans to overhaul maternity leave is another shot across the bow at public sector workers and appears to be relying on the view some Australians have of lazy, molly-coddled public servants.
“I do think it’s a real possibility that people won’t care because in a lot of feedback that has come through there’s a stereotype that public servants are well paid, their working conditions are too good and [they] access a high level of paid parental leave, so why should they access both schemes?” Ms Williamson said.
But Ms Williamson believes the government has misjudged the majority public opinion and will struggle to get its policy over the line. The Senate is likely to vote on the proposals in mid-August.
“I think the government has underestimated the community sentiment that this has created and they probably thought that people wouldn’t back the PPL scheme and it would go unnoticed by the Australian population,” she said.
“They weren’t prepared for the backlash by unions, women and employment groups. I think it’s an example of policy on the run that hasn’t been though through properly.”
There have been indications that the proposed changes to PPL is an ambit claim, designed to be scaled back to apply only to public sector staff.
A pre-Budget Liberal party media release called: “Our plan to get the budget under control”, pledged to end so-called “double dipping” by public servants on parental leave but made no mention of women working in the private sector.
Of course, this statement was made against the backdrop of Tony Abbott’s rolled gold PPL scheme, which would have given women six months PPL at their full replacement wage; capped at $75,000 and later wound back to $50,000 before being jettisoned completely.
The document said: “Commonwealth and State public sector employees will be given a choice of using their existing schemes or using the new Coalition scheme. The overwhelming majority are expected to choose the new Coalition scheme”.
But working women no longer have the option of choosing the Prime Minister’s generous scheme and Australian Public Service workers are forbidden from negotiating on PPL during enterprise bargaining due to new rules enforced when the Prime Minister’s flagship maternity scheme was slated to proceed.
They are caught in a double bind with some commentators noting that public sector employees have bargained away some conditions and pay increases to secure the very leave entitlements which are now under attack.
A further indication that public sector women are in the government’s crosshairs was provided during a surreal interlude for media questions at a post-Budget media conference in May.
When Mr Abbott was asked if the government was considering making the “double-dipping” prohibition applicable solely to public servants he replied: “Well, yes we are”.
“The point I keep making about this year’s budget is that it’s measured, responsible and fair and what’s fair about Commonwealth public servants getting two lots of paid parental leave from the taxpayer?” he said.
The Prime Minister’s office later said Mr Abbott had misheard the question and there would be no change in the Budget policy, i.e. it would apply to private sector workers as well.
Ms Williamson says Mr Abbott’s comments might have been “an intentional slip” to start planting the issue in people’s minds and she believes it is a real possibility that PPL for women working in the public sector was the target all along.
Another key area of concern about the new policy is how the numbers stack up: who will the new policy actually effect and where is the evidence to prove it will save $1 billion?
Under the proposals, the government has said that 27 per cent of women (around 45,000) a year will receive a partial government payment because they have some form of employer paid parental leave (PPL) which is less than the government scheme while 20 per cent (around 34,000) women a year will lose the government PPL completely as their employer scheme if more generous than the government’s. About 50 per cent of women will be unaffected as they don’t have any employer PPL.
Social Services Minister Scott Morrison has said that of the 80,000 women who currently received an employer PPL, 60 per cent work in the public sector.
Ms Williamson, along with fellow academic Professor Marian Baird who spoke to Government News last week about the parental leave changes, are puzzled by the origin of these statistics.
Doing the sums is surely critical to understanding the policy’s impact on women, their partners and families but also essential for calculating the savings it might produce over the coming years.
Ms Williamson feels a parliamentary inquiry should be held to thrash out precisely these issues and she is concerned that the statistics have not been adequately backed up publicly by data on who is currently accessing both schemes.
“It’s a mystery. I have tried to locate these figures. Without the figures to say who is taking maternity leave at the moment it’s really impossible to know. We really need to know who is accessing it, what is their wage level, whether they’re public or private sector and what industry they’re in,” she says.
Government News approached the Australian Public Service Commission recently for statistics on who was accessing its PPL and their income band was but was told it did not keep this information and each department or agency should be approached individually for maternity leave statistics. A major stumbling block is that there are 18 federal government departments and 199 government agencies, ranging from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency.
A complete picture would also necessitate data on who has accessed PPL from state government departments and agencies and local councils as well as information from the private sector and Department of Human Service’s figures on how many people have accessed the government’s universal PPL.
There have been signs that the government is trying to minimise apparent signs of the disruption to lower income families the policy could cause, particularly when combined with proposals to stop Family Tax Benefit B when the youngest child is six (it currently stops at 16).
In a recent interview with Laurie Oakes the veteran journalist asked Mr Hockey who would be likely to be benefitting from both schemes. The Treasurer answered: “in many cases it’s mostly people who go on parental leave that earn more than $90,000 a year.”
Ms Williamson says around 45 per cent of women in the APS earned under $90,000.
“I’m mystified where the government has got its figures. We really need to see them publicly. They would’ve done winners and losers,” she says.
The federal government introduced a universal government-funded PPL in January 2011 under Labor, which paid up to 18 weeks of PPL at the national minimum wage – currently $640 per week – immediately after the birth or adoption of a child.
Women who work in the public sector normally get between 12 to 14 weeks paid parental leave (around 87 per cent of public sector employers offer this) and they are also legally entitled to claim up to $11,500 under the government’s universal PPL scheme.
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