Back in 2010, Tony Abbott announced his intention to introduce a “world class” paid parental leave program, which would give mothers access to six-months of actual pay. It was meant to replace Australia’s first parental leave scheme, which had recently come in, which only provides 18 weeks’ pay at minimum wage rates. While there is plenty of criticism that can be levied at Abbott, his parental leave proposal was bold.
That was the last bold idea our politicians have had regarding parental leave.
Our current 18-week scheme has barely changed since its introduction 12 years ago. Considering Australia was one of the last OECD countries to receive a PPL scheme and currently, it remains ones of the least generous, we need to return to bold ideas. Unfortunately, the current election race has failed to inspire.
Labor has been dancing around its previous promise to add superannuation contributions as part of the current PPL scheme, which remains an embarrassing omission since its introduction. The Liberals have outright rejected the suggestion of including superannuation as part of the payment.
The recent federal budget did include proposed changes to our PPL scheme with a plan to pool the additional two weeks currently available as “dad and partner pay” with the 18-week entitlement, giving a parenting couple 20 weeks’ PPL to be used and split between them as they choose. The government proclaims that this new level of flexibility, which does not increase the total amount of PPL currently available to families, as a win, particularly for women. As many have rightly pointed out, that’s not the case.
As a society, we have yet to buck conventional family roles that see women taking the brunt of the childcare responsibility. The pandemic has reinforced that when the kids need care, mum stands up. By taking away PPL that specifically targets dad or the non-primary carer, the government’s proposal runs the risk of simply increasing the leave taken by one parent.
Both parties seek to promote their commitment to women and families by asserting that their focus is affordable childcare. A commendable initiative, but these party statements operate on a perception that affordable childcare is an alternative to a reasonable PPL scheme.
Average parental leave periods exceed six months. It is safe to assume that most parents are not looking to move their child into outside care beforehand.
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Our PPL scheme is due for a thorough re-examination. One that acknowledges the diversity of family make-up and size, including same-sex couples and single parents. Our system needs to support these families through the early months of childcare, encouraging both parents (if there are two) to take leave. And with the last two years shaking up how we balance work and family, there has never been a better time to return to bold ideas.