A Long Time Coming: the Advent of Paid Maternity Leave in Australia?

With the announcement by the federal government of a Productivity Commission Inquiry into the ‘economic, productivity and social costs and benefits’ of providing paid maternity, paternity and parental leave, the somewhat surprisingly contentious issue of paid maternity leave is once again on the public policy agenda.

Yet, it is very early days and while the forces in favour of finally introducing a comprehensive scheme are gathering, there are still no guarantees as to what the outcome will be. This paper briefly canvasses the current manifestations of maternity/paternity and parental leave in Australia and examines the ways in which they help or hinder prospects for progress. But before delving into the intricacies of the current arrangements, it is helpful to distinguish between the terms:

Maternity leave refers to employment-protected leave of absence for employed women at around the time of childbirth (or adoption).
Paternity leave refers to employment-protected leave of absence for employed fathers at the time of childbirth (or adoption).
Parental Leave refers to employment-protected leave of absence for employed parents which supplements specific maternity and paternity leave periods to allow parents to take care of an infant or young child.

In terms of existing paid parental leave provisions, these are currently available for just a segment of the Australian female workforce through enterprise bargaining entitlements, discretionary employer policies and via legislation covering public sector employees in all the States, Territories and Australian jurisdictions. There is no uniform, universal provision of paid maternity leave and consequently there is considerable variation in terms of eligibility, duration, level of pay and return to work arrangements.

In terms of unpaid leave, the draft National Employment Standard proposes to extend the current unpaid parental leave period of 52 weeks by a further 12 months per couple. But perhaps this is not the most gender equitable policy change, as we shall see.

What do we make of all of these data and how do we ensure that Australian women get the best possible outcome when it comes to combining their roles as employees and mothers?

If we consider the most recent statistics on the extent of paid maternity leave gained through enterprise bargaining, we can see that there is still considerable room for growth. Less than a quarter of all agreements refer to paid maternity leave. Interestingly, however, the most common entitlement is now 14 weeks, followed by 6 weeks and then 12 weeks. The most common industries to include paid maternity leave in agreements are finance and insurance, followed by utilities and then education. I suspect different factors are at play in each of these industries. For instance, profitability, attraction, retention and mimicking in the finance sector; government influence amongst the utilities; and strong union bargaining in the education sector. By contrast, the retail and hospitality sectors, where women are concentrated, are least likely to provide paid maternity leave. That is why the very recent announcement by Myer to provide 6 weeks paid maternity leave for their permanent employees is significant. It may signal a shift in direction, but probably only for females employed in the large retail firms.

The variability and inequity in outcomes at the workplace level suggests there is a clear need for an approach that overcomes the disadvantages of bargaining and business case arguments if all working women in Australia are to have access to paid maternity leave.

But the availability of paid maternity leave is only one part of the larger equation. The willingness and ability to use the policy is also important and here we see a clearly gendered outcome. In a survey of Australian parents conducted in 2005, we found that of the mothers, 37% took only paid maternity leave (average length of 11 weeks); 68% took a combination of paid and unpaid maternity leave and 76% took paid and unpaid maternity leave and other leave, such as their annual leave. This compares to the pattern for fathers, where 27% took paid paternity leave (average 7 days) and only 7% took unpaid parental leave (14 days). These statistics demonstrate a reluctance among fathers and households to use unpaid parental leave. As a result, the current unpaid parental leave policy, while available in principle to both men and women, in practice is used by women far more than men, producing a very gendered use of leave and care regime. The recent ABS statistics on the low numbers of stay-at-home dads tend to confirm this pattern.

The provision of 52 weeks unpaid parental leave has been a feature of the Australian legislative landscape for some time. The new draft National Employment Standard proposes to increase this by an extra 12 months per couple, on request from the employee. There is also a new right to request ‘flexible working arrangements’ for parents of children under school age. As with the extension to unpaid parental leave, the employer can refuse on ‘reasonable business grounds’. On the face of it, these changes are promising, signalling more sympathetic attention to the plight of working families. But, we also need to be careful what we accept – there is a danger for women of staying on leave for too long, but accepting too little (in terms of income compensation) and thus reinforcing the gender pay gap, leave gap and career gap.

One way of beginning to address the inequities in the division of labour and distribution of care responsibilities between the sexes may be to introduce specific paid paternity leave on a ‘use it or lose it’ basis; making it financially possible for fathers to take time off work. Many other countries have introduced such ‘daddy leaves’ without undermining the whole economy or the social order.

There are many parts to the paid maternity/paternity/parental leave policy picture that need to be considered – funding, duration, eligibility, payment level – but the task is not insurmountable. One hopes that the Productivity Commission will finally settle on a model that fits the needs of 21st century Australian parents – that contributes to equitable homes and families, that generates income and job security for men and women, that enables business to attract and retain their workforce and allows for the question to finally be put to rest – at least until the next inquiry is called.

On April 23, CPD will hold its first ‘Common Ground’ event on paid maternity leave, featuring Sharan Burrow (ACTU) and Tony Steven (Council of Small Business)  – find out more here



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