It takes more than money to raise a child

Baby Rabah, Flick image by BadrNaseemTony Abbott surprised almost everybody on International Women's Day by announcing a parental leave policy of six months at full pay, up to a cap of $150,000 a year. The scheme would be funded by a 1.7 per cent tax on the 3200 Australian businesses that have a taxable income above $5 million.

According to Marian Baird, Professor of Work and Organisational Studies at Sydney University, Abbott's plan would 'catapult Australia from having no scheme at all to probably being the best scheme in the world'. So why am I, a passionate believer in the necessity of paid parental leave, not rejoicing?

Partly because the political chicanery of Abbott's u-turn sticks in the throat. But even more dispiriting is what the last week has revealed about the limits of debate in this country.

Commentary on Abbott's proposal, from all sides of politics and the media, has circulated around its economic feasibility. Those against warn of the impact on business, on growth and investment. Those in favour counter that a generous package will lift female participation rates in the workforce.

It is a stark example of how political debate and the wider cultural conversation has been reduced to the basest economic element; a coarse winnowing which prizes financial profit and discards every other concern. The same shrinkage happened last year with climate change and the ETS. The economics of any issue are assumed as its fundamental truth, and the only real question is whether it gives us more money in our wallets or less.

The attitude that children are only of concern and benefit to their parents permeates the reaction to Abbott's proposal. Take these comments from Chamber of Commerce and Industry spokesman Peter Anderson: 'The major beneficiaries of a paid maternity leave scheme, the employees, get off scot-free. They pay nothing, but the employers who are far less beneficially rewarded through this scheme end up carrying the full cost.'

This calls to mind Margaret Thatcher's notorious 'there is no such thing as society' remark. The employees are the major beneficiaries? Shouldn't that be babies, the children and adults they become, and the society they create?

Parental leave is first and foremost about babies being cared for, and allowing parents the time and money to properly do this caring. Secondly it is about allowing parents to maintain links with the work force, for their own financial and professional benefit, and for the benefit of the economy as a whole. In the discussion about paid leave, these priorities are routinely reversed.

If we dislodge financial profit from its presumed pre-eminence, what are we to make of Abbott's scheme? His call to extend the length of paid leave is positive, but let's not get too excited. A six-month-old cannot walk, cannot talk. They may be able to sit up if supported, but they are not exactly independent beings. So don't be seduced by promises of six months as though after that period baby-care is done and parents can get back to turning the wheels of the economy.

It makes no sense to advance parental leave in isolation as Abbott has done. For children and parents to really benefit from paid leave a suite of connected policies is needed, including job guarantees and flexible work practices. Equally significant is reform of the childcare sector so that carers are paid properly, and the ratio of carers to babies adequately reflects the needs of young children.

The proposed payment of full salary up to $150,000 is insupportable. No one needs that amount to live on in Australia, and it is unconscionable that a woman wealthy enough to be earning that wage would continue to do so while a woman making much less will be further marginalised. Is the wealthy mother better, is her mothering worth more?

A flat rate is both more feasible and fairer. The developed countries with the most successful parental leave schemes balance a universal wage with longer paid leave time, such as Sweden and Norway which both grant 16 months of paid parental leave (significantly, with a minimum of two months to be taken by the father).

What no politician is talking about, and what is certainly harder to legislate for, is a social transformation that sees individual success in broader terms than linear career advancement, and counts national achievement in terms other than money-making.

This is a change starting to be seen in individual families. Fathers who say no to their dream job because of the hours it would consume and stress it would generate. Families who down-scale their budgets so that it is possible to live on two part-time or one full-time wage. Mothers who put professional satisfaction on hold while their children are young, reimagining the traditional model of career trajectory to one that it is more harmonious with child-rearing. The shared acceptance that parenting young children necessitates a different, slower rhythm of life.

And perhaps this is exactly what the economists, beavering away over their spreadsheets late into the night, don't want us to realise. Because it is likely that some parents will discover a world away from work, taking fresh enjoyment in their family, pleasure in their rest, and a new appreciation of everything else that had been lost in the frenetic pursuit of career goals. They simply might not want to buy so much stuff anymore.

We are still very far from resolving the complex relationship between children, parents and work. And in searching for new models, sometimes stumbling and other times succeeding, we desperately need more than dollar signs as our guideposts.

Sarah KanowskiSarah Kanowski is a writer, and a producer and broadcaster with ABC Radio National. 

Topic tags: sarak kanowski, paid paternal leave, $150, 000, Marian Baird, Peter Anderson, parenting



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Existing comments

I too questioned the need for giving to those who have and being rather parsimonious with those who in most need of assistance to be able to spend time with their new babies. A flat rate seems fair - and what about the mother not working at the time?

Patricia Ryan | 16 March 2010  

Sarah is short-sighted in relying on criticism of Tony Abbott to advance the cause of paid maternity leave.

Tony Abbott is a good man working in the political arena.

The politics of this matter dictate that a good person, advancing the good of the arguments around paid maternity leave, must be as wily as he can to keep the subject alive and in our faces as the election draws near.

Kevin Rudd, in his (and the ALP's) vacuous treatment of the issue are attempting to cloud the issue by upping the budget deficits in order to make paid maternity leave a burden on both the economy and on our culture.

Tony Abbott's political nous has succeeded in putting a monetary value on live births, a foundational step in achieving what Sarah and I'm sure, other parents want and need.

Surely Sarah can recognise that an equity value on live births is necessary language to re-engage the whole of a community in once again valuing the roles of parents and parenting in the overall 'health' of our economy and society.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW | 16 March 2010  

I agree with you! This article expresses many of my own thoughts. One thing I would add though: it is an outrage that carer's pensions are means tested much, MUCH more tightly than the proposed paid maternity leave schemes, yet the job many close relatives of children and indeed adults with disabilities is many times even more demanding than that of a young parent. Carer's allowance is pitiful ($100 a fortnight) and many carers sacrifice working because it's just too difficult on so many fronts.

Mango | 16 March 2010  

Why so hard on Tony? He strikes me as someone who genuinely wants to make a difference. His only cynicism seems to be directed towards political correctness and spin. And let's face it, the message has to be simple to be heard. To get parents to change their attitudes (by actually experiencing parenting rather than doing so by proxy, i.e. the use of child care) will result in real change, not one imposed by the dead hand of a bureaucrat. Let's not get this bogged down in regulation!

Ian Robertson | 16 March 2010  

Why so hard on Tony? When Abbott was Employment Minister he made no attempt to introduce a paid parental leave scheme, in fact he said in 2002: ‘Compulsory paid maternity leave? Over this government’s dead body, frankly.’

This new scheme was announced without consulting the Coalition party room or shadow cabinet. Is this the mark of a deep policy commitment? More like a politician chasing women's votes anyway he can.

Ruth | 16 March 2010  

This is an equity issue. The opposition is proposing that a wealthy woman could be paid $75000 for caring for her own child for 6 months. Why can't all mothers have that?

People would say that it would cost too much to give poorer workers and unemployed mothers that benefit. Should they be forced back into the workforce asap?

How about paying all mothers (regardless of marital status or employment status) the same benefit. Remove all the other child care, tax and pension payments and just let the parents choose whether to care for the child or to use the money to pay for child care.

Amy | 16 March 2010  

Tony Abbott will cost "Big Business" Millions with paid Maternity leave...BUT...he saved them "Billions" by voting out the Carbon Trading Scheme. Truly Machiavellien, at the expense of our children...

John M Costigan | 16 March 2010  

I really enjoyed this article! It is refreshing to read something that does not glorify the dollar and place short term economic performance above everything else.

As a married man lokoing to start a familiy soon the proposed plans are of particular interest to me. One that allowed for fathers to be at home with wife and child for a little while would certainly be the front runner. But this doesn't seem to count in Australia. Family is no longer prioritised by government of any political party, but rather business and noisy lobby groups. Have a look at the nations demographics and make policy that supports the average family!

Set things up so that both parents don't have to work in order to achieve what most Australians took for granted only a few years ago. Why has it got so hard in the last decade to get ahead and have a life at the same time?

Luke Watts | 16 March 2010  

Contrary to Fr Mac Andrew, I think Sarah's article doesn't rely on criticism of Tony Abbott, including only a single assertion of his "political chicanery" (which neatly balances - or cancels out - Father's assertion of his wily "political nous").

Rather the article canvasses the merits or otherwise of his proposal. In extolling Tony Abbott's attempt to put a monetary value on babies, in my view, Father has completely missed the point of Sarah's plea that parenthood and childcare cease to be reduced to mere economic equations. His reference to "equity value" appears to have no bearing and makes no response to the major equity flaw in Tony Abbott's proposal which both Sarah and other contributors have pointed out: namely that the already more well-off will be paid more than the needy and disadvantaged. This flaw would exacerbate existing structural injustice and hardship.

Stephen Kellett | 16 March 2010  

Rather a small minded debate all round I'd say in sharp contrast to the excellent and sensitive nature of the debate when the Productivity Commission was putting together its report on the issue (wonderful leadership from the Commission itself...)
People we can do political debate right here in Australia. Why do we so easily slip into Lowest Common Denominator mode?

Margaret | 16 March 2010  

ALL mothers WORK it is whether they are paid for the work (real work) of mothering that ought to come into the equation. I challenge any woman with children in the paid or non-paid workforce to say that her efforts in raising the next generation of taxpayers is not work. For years I have asked my friends to put in a claim to Taxation Department as a primary producer (that is what a mother is) and ask for the benefits they get!!!!

Rosemary Keenan | 16 March 2010  

If tony abbott becomes the prime minister (I hope so no) he will not implement those changes, he is following john howard false promises like the GST and others, tony is just talking to get voters, for him and his party, liberal party never cared about the lower class and let's face they never will, just compare the inequality between people in these days and tony will rescue all these pleeease. Give me a break.

Roberto Monterrosa | 16 March 2010  

"we desperately need more than dollar signs as our guideposts."

Until we Australians accept the irrelevance of "dollar signs" to the development of a whole person - and a "lucky country" - we will continue to propagate a society that is limping along bound up by the cycle of have-nots and inequality; a society that has failed to recognise that the children are the "kernels" of our tomorrow!

Bravo Sarah!

Jeantait | 16 March 2010  

I never ask a mother does she work, but I do ask whether she goes out to work. We seem to value both children and parents' contribution to our society less and less. Children are always the future and parents should be supported in educating them. Parental leave of any kind should be one more small step in a journey that is proving to be very, very long and fragmented.

Margaret McDonald | 16 March 2010  

I agree with the points made in Sarah Kanowski's article. Witnessing the daughters of my generation grapple with the complexities of motherhood and paid work, much remains to be done to ease the dilemmas of parenting and work.

The Government is seeking to introduce legislation that works towards an equitable solution. Tony Abbot belongs to a party that had eleven years to introduce such legislation. He has taken political opportunism to a new high - or is it a new low? - by suggesting an alternative that tries to make the Government's legislation look mean, but whose outcome will disproportionately benefit the wealthy.

Patricia Russell | 16 March 2010  

As a matter for history, I recall that the first major institution/business to publicly adopt paid maternity leave was the Catholic Church - first the Australian Catholic University and then, Catholic Education bodies, then other agencies of the Church.

It takes time to engage political bodies and then for them to engage the general populace. It depends on what is being put forward.

In this case it seems that the issue has multi-layers.

Feminist agendas, bagging one or other political parties, sledging according to what pay a woman recieves or doesn't and of course the 'committee wars' - how should we go about doing it, are just some of the things at play.

Surely, for a political leader as Tony Abbott, a Liberal to boot, risking the scorn of those who are of a one track mind on the issue, willing to approach from the angle of making maternity leave the responsibility of both government and big business, deserves to have more support.

"And in searching for new models, sometimes stumbling and other times succeeding, we desperately need more than dollar signs as our guideposts."

Sarah illustrates her limiting agenda with that last phrase about dollar signs.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW | 17 March 2010  

If it is parental leave, are men entitled to it, too? It is all too often women who "put professional satisfaction on hold" through accessing parental leave and re-entering the workforce part-time. I agree with you that dollars should not always be our prime concern in these issues, but I am interested in the dollar cost to women of bearing the main responsibility for child rearing in Australia. Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA) states: "Employed mothers with dependent children are much more likely to work part-time than employed fathers with dependent children - 57 per cent of employed mothers work part-time compared to only 5 per cent of employed fathers.

Women with dependent children are much less likely to be employed than men with dependent children.

Women’s lifetime earnings are significantly affected by having children– in 1986 a woman with secondary education and two children was likely to earn $510,000 less over her lifetime than her childless counterpart. By 1997, women were twice as likely to return to the workforce when their children reach preschool age as they had been in 1986. Consequently, the lifetime earnings gap had narrowed to $172,000."

I'm glad to see that the gap is narrowing and to see that further research is being undertaken - the Diversity Council of Australia
has commissioned the consultancy KPMG to commence research into pay equity called 'Gender Pay Equity and Productivity in Australia: Finally, A Dollar Figure'. I will be interested in this dollar figure, that's for sure.

Melita Smilovic | 17 March 2010  

The debate needs to be reframed in terms of the risks of not having universal paid parental leave. The physical and psychological health of babies, mothers, fathers and the broader community is impacted in the long and short term.

One example is low breastfeeding rates which are directly effected by an early return to work for low income and casual workers. This means babies are at an increased risk of hospitalisation in their first year of life. Respected studies show links to an increased risk diseases such as diabetes, obesity, gastro-intestinal illnesses, ovarian and breast cancers. These are a few of the risks attached to only one area effected by a lack of parental leave. These are the types of costs that need to be emphasised.

I would include the continuation of superannuation payments as family responsibilities mean that many women struggle in retirement. Different work patterns mean many women will retire with outstanding education debts. Mothers who are unemployed or between jobs, whether through youth, study or socio-economic disadvantage are also excluded from the scheme.

Labour disappointed many women with the delayed introduction of their scheme, and Abbot naturally is taking advantage.

Michal Teague | 19 March 2010  

Finally 6 months (the minimum recommended time for breast feeding if possible) maternity leave is being aimed at. All sorts of health advantages occur if a child is nursed this long. This means if the Mum can stay home this is the best option for the child. Not always possible though. I was disappointed at the salary arrangements - 20 to 25% of salary goes on work expenses (fares, clothing, bought meals, etc.) So how about full wage if on minimum wages, gradually cutting back the proportion as the wage increases and a maximum payment of $45,000 less 20% over the 6 month period. This should happily cover any mortgage payment.

Desirably Mothers or Fathers would be home at least two work days a week until the child is 3. You'll never get that time back and the evidence seems to be that full time creche is a stressful lifestyle for small children.

Mary Hoban | 19 March 2010  

We're enjoying my husband's voluntary unpaid parental leave at present.
The thing which convinced me of the need to request for the maximum time we can take from mortgage repayments was seeing a video from the library by Lawrie Lawrence 'Teaching your baby to swim'. He places the father in the role of bathing the baby, and how peace or tension in the father's body can be felt by the baby at this time.

We don't know of anyone else who has availed themselves of it yet.

The laws came in at the beginning of this year.

Louise Jeffree | 30 March 2010  

Hi, I'm just dropping by and I would like to say that your articles are informative masterpieces; it takes a lot of hardwork, talent and effort to publish something like this online. I hope you can keep up the good work and continue to provide more reliable and accurate information on the Internet. I will be coming back more often. Cheers and more power to you.

fiverr | 14 June 2011  

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