Natasha Stott Despoja on

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On May 16, 2002 I introduced a fully-costed Paid Maternity Leave model to the Federal Parliament: the Workplace Relations Amendment (Paid Maternity Leave) Bill 2002.

After the past few months with the deliberations and report of the Productivity Commission, it looks like Paid Maternity Leave (PML) may finally happen – that is, unless the Government can think of reasons to delay further.

But what took them so long and, more to the point, why did both major parties persistently kill legislation that has been on the table for over 6 years?

The federal Labor Government’s embrace of PML now appears to be total. Yet when my bill was tabled for 14 weeks of Government-funded leave at the minimum wage (with possible employer top ups) neither major party supported the scheme.

Both major parties participated in a Senate Inquiry into my legislation and opposed the scheme in their reports. I even recall (during a debate on the bill in the chamber), that one ALP Senator who complimented the bill was later chastised privately for her comments!

This opposition was voiced despite the research and submissions that demonstrated a clear need for a PML scheme in Australia.

Australia was then – and still is – one of only 2 OECD countries without some form of paid leave for women on the birth of a child.

Currently, around two thirds of women have no access to paid maternity leave.

The arguments put to the Senate inquiry and the HREOC Report ‘A Time to Value: Proposal for a National Maternity Leave Scheme’ in 2002 showed paid leave enabled women to maintain their workplace attachment (including superannuation and taxation) while businesses could retain their productive employees, more and more of whom were women.

There is a biological imperative for PML: mothers can spend those vital weeks with their newborn, and it recognises the physical demands of the latter stages of pregnancy, birth, recovery from birth as well as the establishment (where possible) of breast-feeding.

The CPD recognised this when it held its first ‘Common Ground’ forum on Paid Maternity Leave and featured speakers from the ACTU and the Council of Small Business (COSBOA) – traditionally opposing groups – who have coalesced around the model I developed back in 2001.

In fact, COSBOA was one of the first organisations to support the model, recognising it was an economically sensible model as well as politically feasible…or so we thought.

Last year, I updated the legislation to reflect changes to Workplace Relations law and to incorporate feedback from the Senate inquiry. In September 2007, I reintroduced the Workplace Relations (Guaranteeing Paid Maternity Amendment) Bill 2007.

The current bill amends the Workplace Relations Act 1996 and builds upon existing provisions for unpaid parental leave to provide a system of paid maternity leave that will assist all eligible Australian working women who take time off from employment when they have a child. The Bill provides 14 weeks Government-funded paid leave at or around the birth or adoption of a child for all eligible women, at the level of the minimum wage. If they earn less than this (e.g. part-time or casual workers), the pay would be at their average wage.

Fourteen weeks is a minimal period by international standards, many developed countries have moved to extend the period of payment. This has always been my preferred outcome in the long term but I did not believe it would take so long to get the debate going nor a policy in place.

The Productivity Commission’s preliminary recommendation is essentially my model but with 18 weeks leave (which only slightly ‘super sizes’ the bill – surprising in some senses given the amount of time that has passed).

It ensures women’s labour force participation is recognised and allows for superannuation payments to continue during the period of leave.

The scheme proposed in the Bill is minimalist. Preliminary costings indicated it would cost the Government in the vicinity of $591.6 million in the first year of operation, not including offsets from Family Tax Benefit A and B and childcare. This is much less than the cost of the more than billion dollar Baby Bonus!

The Sex Discrimination Commissioners (Halliday, Goward and, now Elizabeth Broderick) have worked hard to highlight this issue and help coordinate a coalition of support around the issue. But this battle has been fought over many decades and the lack of progress has been frustrating.

There is no doubt that this issue has gained momentum over the past six years and we cannot afford to lose that in the intervening months before the Productivity Commissionfinally reports in February next year – just in time for the 2009 Budget.

The Government – and others – are already arming themselves with arguments against any form of parental leave. Apart from the usual naysayers (those who oppose women in the workforce generally; or argue that having and raising a child is an ‘individual responsibility’ – never mind the money we already spend on families in Australia) there are looming economic arguments and excuses on which the Government can fall back.

The job of PML supporters now – including those in office (who could have been more outspoken over the past six years) – is to address those issues and to explain why this investment in our economic and social future is worth making.

A generation of children have reached adulthood while my legislation has sat on the Senate notice paper.

What does this say about Australia’s resistance to reforms that benefit women and children?

Once the nation was at the forefront of benefits for families, now they are way down the list.

There is no reason for the Federal Government to delay on this: the research and feedback are overwhelming. Bring it on!

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