Labour pains dog Abbott’s maternity plan

Mark Bahnish tells ABC online what he thinks of Tony Abbott’s plan for paid parental leave.

Published on ABC’s The Drum Unleashed on 10 March 2010.

Tony Abbott clearly thought he’d blindside Labor with his “leaders’ call” – the announcement of a curiously non-policy like plan for paid parental leave on International Women’s Day.

Predictably, much of the media has fallen into line, breathlessly reporting that Abbott’s initiative would be somehow ‘better’, because apparently more generous than Labor’s position. Some have argued that Labor has been attacked from the left, and some commentators who should know better, including Bob Brown, have welcomed the latest installment in Tony Abbott’s Getting of Wisdom.

So has the political world, as the ABC’s Lateline report last night put it, been somehow turned upside down?

No, it has not.

Abbott’s plan is very far from progressive. It’s deeply regressive, and if the object of social policy is to redress existing inequalities, it does quite the opposite.

As a commenter remarked on Larvatus Prodeo, basing parental leave on income not need “simply entrenches existing inequalities, and will do little to benefit the vast majority of mothers and children”.

While details are very thin on the ground, we can make a comparison between the two parties’ positions.

The Government’s scheme would pay eligible recipients the adult federal minimum wage ($543.78) for 18 weeks. Other benefits and transfers available would provide support equivalent to six months.

Abbott’s scheme would pay someone on $150 000 a year $75 000 for six months. (The full replacement of the wage being the reason why his plan would cost close to $3 billion dollars rather than the government’s $300 million a year). But someone on less than the current minimum wage would presumably only receive what they earn.

So if someone works casually for a couple of days a week, they might get, say, $250 a week from a Coalition government compared to $543.78 from Labor – because “all those employed with a reasonable degree of attachment to the labour force” – including contractors, the self employed and casuals are eligible under Labor. Or perhaps such workers would get nothing from the Coalition, as the entire tenor of the proposal seems geared to full time work. It’s impossible to be sure, given the ad hoc nature of the speechin which he announced his intentions. But it’s worth remembering that women are over-represented in the ranks of the insecurely employed, and under-represented in those of the full time and well paid.

The Coalition’s plan would remunerate people, during the period they are on parental leave, at the same rate at which they are valued on the existing labour market. That is to say, the rate at which it’s paid is entirely dependent on income, not need, and that income, in turn, is usually less for women than men, and ‘flexibility’ bears down hardest on those in the worst labour market bargaining position – the very reason why WorkChoices was rightly so unpopular with many working women.

The labour market is already littered with, and distorted by, a range of institutional and cultural factors which worsen inequalities in income and status as between men and women. Abbott’s scheme preserves, nay reinforces, all these. It’s hard to believe that an Abbott government would act to give flesh to the bare legislative bones of gender pay equity, or support moves afoot in Fair Work Australia to revalue the skills of women in low paid industries, and thus increase their relative compensation.

Tony Abbott might take from the rich, though the levy on big (and medium sized) business is largely a populist distraction, but he gives much more to those who already have than those who have not. Perhaps this “thought bubble” is based on another misunderstandingof a Gospel verse?

The point of the scheme proposed by the Productivity Commission was precisely to target public assistance to those most in need of it, and not to provide additional benefits to higher income workers, who were much more likely to have reasonable arrangements for parental leave in place, and much better economic resources to cope with a loss in income. The Productivity Commission rightly anticipated that those with employers who had a better capacity to pay, and employees with stronger market bargaining power, could access supplementary schemes from their workplaces.

Labor’s policy seeks to level the playing field and enable those who are on lower incomes, whose attachment to the labour force is less secure, and whose resources for raising children are more straightened, are the appropriate targets of publicly funded income support.

So, the claim that Abbott’s payment lasts for longer is untrue, and fairness or its alleged ‘better’ status is very much in the eye of the beholder.

It would be wrong to think that the welfare state is always the preserve of the political left. From Bismarck on, conservatives have supported and proposed some social policy measures for a range of motives, including containing class conflict and rewarding those who behave according to traditional social values. Abbott’s plan has much more in common with the Christian Democratic model of the conservative welfare state, favoured in countries such as West Germany after World War Two, than any sort of progressive initiative which would respond adequately to the lived experience of working women.
Abbott’s plan is a regressive, not a progressive scheme. And there is no good reason why any progressives should be tempted to support it for even a passing millisecond.

Dr Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development.He founded the leading public affairs blog, Larvatus Prodeo.

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