Canberra fails to meet the work-family benchmark

Why do we still need benchmarks for work and family policy?

This question is asked in the Benchmarks for Work and Family Policies produced for the coming Federal election by a group of feminist academics, including myself. It raises the wider question of why existing policies are so weak in this area that we still need to construct tests against which to assess the parties’ proposals.

Australia, as a developed country with a large surplus, is still well behind equivalent countries in its recognition that paid workers have families – and vice versa. We are one of only two OECD countries that have no national scheme for paid parental leave of any kind. We lack accessible, quality, affordable child care and do not have enough care for other family members who cannot manage alone. These deficits could explain why our workforce participation rates for mothers are well below many equivalent countries.

The criteria developed by the Australian Work and Family Policy Roundtable (W+FPR) for assessing policies for improving work and family interactions are not rocket science. They are simply realistic research-based proposals for a better fit between paid work and family time and tasks. Total hours worked is one element, but the criteria also include assessment of the flexibility, location, predictability and preferences which make the balancing of varied roles possible.

The W+FPR benchmarks include eleven guiding principles and nine specific policy recommendations for consideration in a Charter for Work and Family.

Assessment against these fairly basic benchmarks generates a low scorecard for either of the major parties (see table below). Neither has
taken up the ideas in toto or seriously accepted the need to make ‘a strong commitment to improving the reconciliation of work and family in Australia (and) adopt a Charter for Work and Family’ which gives attention to the specific issues addressed in the benchmarks.

Recommendations 1, 2 and 3: policies to assist workers find a better fit between working hours, schedules and location and their preferences; measures that contain and compensate for long and unsocial hours of work; a better approach to part-time work
Promises to repeal the worst aspects of the current IR laws which will assist in many of the above issues. In mid July they agreed to support the right to ask for part time work, as part of a package. However, they have not stated that they will do anything about the coercive aspects of forcing mothers who are on income support into paid work – at present they can be required to take jobs that don’t fit with their children’s needs.No response except to claim it’s all possible under WorkChoices despite evidence from the NFAW research that this does not work, particularly for those on low incomes.
Recommendation 4: greater access to sick leave, annual leave and leave for family reasons
Says it will fix the present legislation and guarantee leave entitlement.No responses.


Recommendation 5: a government funded national system
of paid maternity, paternity and parental leave
Neither party makes any commitment and both voted against an in principle motion from the Greens in mid June 2007.
In mid July the ALP continued its objections to proposals in this area. 
Recommendation 6: arrangements that ensure a relevant living wage
Will change the process for setting the minimum wage from current system to ensure fairer pay.Happy with current arrangements.


Recommendation 7: fairer, more effective family tax and welfare policies
Nothing yet from either party.
Recommendation 8: a new national approach to quality, accessible, affordable early childhood education and care
Some initiatives including capital funds, co-location with public schools and funding of some preschool components and training but no comprehensive policy or overarching national approach that will deal with the complexity of issues in states, fees etc.Fails to recognise any problems with the current system and takes no measures other than more policing of parents and centres.
Recommendation 9: Better research data and evaluation
This is always a problem – no government really likes evidence-based decision making, as it tends to interfere with political judgements.

The ALP is obviously ahead but from a very low base, so we wait and watch for more attention to this area of policy.