Industry outrage as independents reject parental leave bill

Business groups have slammed three independent MPs for failing to support a Liberal push to ease the administrative burden of Labor’s paid parental leave scheme.


Under the scheme, which came into effect on January 1, taxpayers fund new mothers for 18 weeks’ leave at $569.90 a week.


For the first six months payments are made via Centrelink but after that they must be made by employers.


After the scheme was introduced Liberal MP Bruce Billson proposed a private member’s bill to remove employers from the payment process, arguing that payments should be sent directly to the eligible staff member.


The Australian Council of Trade Unions lobbied independent MPs to vote against the bill, arguing that it weakened the connection between mothers and their employer.


Three independents – Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott and Andrew Wilkie – voted against the bill, with Oakeshott saying: “I do not accept … that pushing women having children and parental leave generally into a welfare-equivalent position is the right way for small business.”


Billson said he was “flabbergasted” that some of the independents could ignore the concerns of small businesses.


“The current scheme will harm the employment prospects of women and add to the pressures on cash-strapped and time-poor small businesspeople,” he said.


Billson’s sentiment is shared by Peter Strong, executive director of the Council of Small Business Organisations of Australia, who expressed “deep disappointment” over the decision.


“These three independents have let down every small business in their communities. They have failed to stop extra compliance costs being imposed on small business owners,” Strong says.


Strong, who describes the decision as the “final straw”, says it has the capacity to “break the collective backs” of small business.


“Will the three independent MPs pay the $22,000 fine that small business will have to pay if they don’t get this red tape right?  Big business – who are still increasing rents in this time of downturn – red tape and dumb independents are not helping small business,” Strong says.


The Australian Retailers Association is outraged by the decision, saying proposed changes to the scheme would have alleviated businesses from an “administrative nightmare”.


ARA executive director Russell Zimmerman says retailers welcomed the scheme but rejected their role as paymaster.


“Retailers are already managing the impacts of a lot of legislative change at the moment including the new Australian consumer law, new employer obligations and the second phase-in of the modern award due to commence in July,” Zimmerman says.


“In addition to all of this change retailers now have to invest in additional staff training, upgrading payroll systems and seeking professional advice from accountants and employment relations specialists.”


The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry criticised rejection of the bill, saying the decision was short-sighted.


The government has raised business hopes that it may modify the stance taken by the Fair Work ombudsman that employers have to pay leave loadings in termination pay, despite some awards and agreements stating the opposite.


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