Paid leave fans the maternal flame

Baby and motherFew issues continue to generate as much talkback radio, op-ed columns and water-cooler moments as paid maternity leave (and on a lesser scale, paternity leave). While most Australians seem to accept a working woman's right to paid leave, the main sticking point is an economic one: who should foot the bill?

Despite the dust raised by such debate, in the decade of the former Coalition Government, paid maternity leave continued to be the proverbial elephant in the room.

Last month, the Labor Government nudged the elephant ever so slightly towards the door.

Adding to the changes to the family tax benefit system, as of January next year the baby bonus will be paid in fortnightly instalments, paving the way for easy conversion to a paid leave scheme. But the greatest indicator of a political change of heart was the joint announcement of a government-sponsored enquiry into paid maternity leave by research and advisory body The Productivity Commission.

Let's not hold our breath just yet. The commission is not expected to report back before February next year. Yes, despite Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard's sunny assertion that the government is after 'a short-term, focused inquiry', there's an overriding sense of a government stalling for time.

There's good reason past governments have washed their hands of a 'workable' paid maternity leave scheme. As far as policy goes it's undeniably complex and incendiary. 'Uniting all groups is strong support for government funding. But beyond that, the disputes begin,' wrote Sydney Morning Herald columnist Adele Horin last month.

'How much paid leave should women get — 14 weeks or six months? And should they get the minimum wage, full wage replacement, or something in between? Just as important is whether employers should contribute, or whether taxpayers should shoulder the entire cost. And fathers? Do they have to wait?'

The cynic in me would argue that the Rudd Government's push for an inquiry simply responded to the zeitgeist. The Retail Traders Association, a group that has long resisted the concept of paid maternity leave, now supports it. RTA shares its vision for 14 weeks at minimum pay funded by the government with none other than the ACTU.

Who would have thought we'd see the day that traders would sidle up to the union? But such is the capricious nature of the debate.

According to former senior public servant Julia Perry, who drafted the inaugural proposal, relying solely on government funding is wishful thinking. Perry argues that a fair system means divvying the cost between employees, employers and the taxpayer.

The two camps do quietly agree on one issue. The baby bonus would be phased out and the funds reallocated among working women. So it's true what they say. We can't have our cake and a baby bonus, too.

It does beggar belief, though, doesn't it? Surely someone in parliament understands that two wrongs don't make a right. As author of Motherhood: How Should We Care for Our Children? Anne Manne points out, mothers who look after children at home are nothing if not working, too.

When seeking to implement a new equitable scheme for mothers, one group of women must not be made a scapegoat for another.

That's not to say that the baby bonus, while much appreciated, ticked all the right boxes.

As columnist Gerard Henderson recently pointed out in the Sydney Morning Herald: 'Under the Howard government scheme, a woman on an income of $200,000 a year would receive $5000 — as would a woman on $30,000 a year. There is no doubt as to whom the baby bonus was more significant.'

Parenting deserves more than being thrown a bonus. It deserves to be exulted and supported in its many and varied forms — now and into the future. That's why it's imperative to get the paid maternity leave scheme just right. With so many women in the workforce it's the linchpin upon which other 'family-friendly' policies depend.

Setting up a payment template and launching a productivity report are steps in the right direction. But this is not a time for navel gazing. To ensure that Australia has the best possible scheme, we need to look closely at overseas models that work. And those that don't.

The noise is positive, but I see no muscle behind the move yet. Neither do I see real commitment to change. A decision hinges upon an inquiry 10 months away. As 2002's much lauded study into Australia's parental leave by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission showed, the issue marked 'urgent' today can easily find its way to the bottom of the in-tray.

With a government still in its infancy, teething problems are to be expected, but some analysts are predicting something far worse: a leader who overshot the mark and is now retracing his steps. If there's even a kernel of truth to this then we're in trouble. A paid maternity leave scheme — a policy that has been almost 30 years in the making — can't afford a backward glance. It needs a great leap forward.

'The family and the free marke' (Anne Manne, Quarterly Essay)

Jen VukJen Vuk is a staff writer with the Salvation Army's magazine Warcry.

Flickr image by r8r


Topic tags: jen vuk, baby bonus, maternity leave, paternity leave, anne manne, productivity commission, julia gillard



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Existing comments

The baby bonus should be paid to all mothers as a right. Motherhood is the greatest role for women, however much it is denigrated in some quarters. Where family income reaches a certain level (say $80,000) justice can be served by adding the bonus to income for tax purposes.

Patrick Healy | 02 July 2008  

If parents in the workforce are to be compensated for their contribution of a child to build the future, so should parents who choose to manage their family by having only one parent in the paid workforce.

This is not a women's question, this is a family question. Parents have equal responsibilities and each family must work out how it will meet them.

It is time the government recognised families as a single entity responsible for our future and needing support from the wider community. Families who don't fit into this idealistic vision e.g. single parent families, require special extra support.

Band aids have a habit of coming loose so let's start working to heal the wound.

Margaret McDonald | 02 July 2008  

The interesting point about paid child raising leave is that one privileged group, albeit by accident, namely the young mothers who happen to be politicians with children who were born to them after their election, are finding numerous excuses for not taking steps to implement this concept.

Nick Agocs | 03 July 2008  

This is still unconvincing. Why privilege one group in society? Why on an overcrowded planet is natural population increase to be endorsed this way?

Motherhood is a choice, endorsing it with money is just another symptom of the material greed swamping society.
Appears to me that this is more a cost of living and cost of housing issue and in that respect families with their greater access to the social services network are doing it easier than singles or self funded retirees.

There are many social equity issues to be addressed, maternity leave has no more weight than the need to allow income splitting between couples.

Jonah Bones | 03 July 2008  

This article misrepresents me and most other people engaged in designing proposals for paid maternity leave. I certainly do not propose cutting the baby bonus from mothers who were not in paid employment before the birth. Nor do any other proponents that I am aware of. Many propose increasing the support for this group.

It is mischievous of Ms Vuk to make the assertion that anyone is proposing this, far more so to assert that removing the baby bonus from non-employed mothers is 'quietly agreed on'.

Ms Vuk suggests we need to look at overseas models that work and those that don't. As the author of an OECD report on this subject, I have examined all the models in the OECD and in other European countries. My model is based on 'those that work'.

I suggest Ms Vuk should have taken the time to examine the submissions on the Productivity Commission's website before writing her article. I also suggest she propose a model that she prefers rather than merely denigrating the attempts of others.

Julia Perry | 04 July 2008  

The National Foundation for Australian Women, the organisation which has helped to put forward and publicly support Ms Perry's social insurance type proposal, and within whose formal written submission Ms Perry's proposal is contained, is implicitly misrepresented in this article.

Any reasonable exploration of the oral evidence given by myself and Ms Perry to the Productivity Commission in Canberra on the first day of the public hearings, let alone of the NFAW submission, would lead to the conclusions that attention and respect has been paid to the parenting role, that there has been no suggestion of removal of the Baby Bonus from non-workforce attached mothers, and that strong support was given to enhancements of maternal and child welfare services and of early childhood services for the children of all Australian women.

Nothing but harm can arise from inappropriate pitting of mother against mother - the old false arguments about working women and the collapse of society can be expected next.

Marie Coleman | 04 July 2008  

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