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Paid leave fans the maternal flame

  • 02 July 2008
Few 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,