I am pleased to speak in support of the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Flexibility Measures) Bill 2020 and the amendment. As we heard from the member for Perth it was Labor that introduced Australia’s national Paid Parental Leave scheme, which started on 1 January 2011. I have spoken in this place before about how, at that time, when Labor introduced this scheme, I worked for the minister responsible, Jenny Macklin, the former member for Jagajaga. And I think it’s worth repeating that today because, at the time when labour introduced PPL, Australia was lagging behind other comparable countries in how we provided support for women who’d had a baby. Among the OECD countries, only Australia and the US did not provide some form of government funded paid parental leave. So the introduction of Labor’s scheme was important in helping us to catch up. It provided support to women who worked in businesses and industries who had never before had access to any paid parental leave when they had a baby. Women in retail, in hospitality, in small business could finally take the time they needed to look after their baby without facing immense financial stress.

But it’s almost a decade on and Australia is falling behind again. We now invest just a third of the OECD average in parental leave and, in particular, we are falling behind when it comes to encouraging and supporting fathers and partners to take time off to care for their baby. We are doing a disservice to families, to children and to our community in doing this. So this bill is meant to make paid parental leave more flexible by changing the rules so that the 18 weeks of paid parental leave can be split into a 12-week paid parental leave and a six-week flexible paid parental leave period. This should mean that families can split their entitlements over a two-year period with work in between—and, as with the current rules, the primary carer can be changed during this time. It is likely and hopeful that this will increase flexibility, and help parents to return to work part-time and spread their flexible paid parental leave period out over several months. The government says the bill may encourage greater take-up of paid parental leave by secondary carers, by allowing mothers to transfer their entitlements to a partner at a time that suits the family. Well, I certainly hope that that is something that happens, because, while Labor supports these changes and hopes they’ll be beneficial, it’s clear there’s much more work to be done; particularly on how we share parenting between genders and how that’s supported by schemes such as this one.

I’m going to look for some inspiration from Scandinavia, of course. I’ll start with Finland, where their female leadership team has just introduced almost seven months leave each for mothers and fathers—or for each parent, in the case of same-sex relationships—with a further six months to share. Iceland offers fathers three months paid parental leave. Norway has been leading the way in this space for quite some time, first introducing a ‘use it or lose it’ daddy quota, where parents were entitled to extra leave but only if the father took it, way back in 1993. The research on that shows that countries that have a non-transferable form of leave for the father have a much higher uptake of men taking leave than those countries that don’t. This benefits men and women and, importantly, it benefits children. Nordic research has shown men who take longer parental leave will also take on more responsibility at home, they do more unpaid housework, they’re more involved in the care of their children, and they have better relationships with them. That is such an important point: by having that early time where they actually get to be the primary carer, these fathers build lifelong bonds with their children. Men who spend time caring for their child or children alone establish a more fundamental sense of shared responsibility between the parents and, as I said, they have a stronger bond with their children.

Another study of four countries, the US, Australia, the UK and Denmark, found that fathers who’d taken paternity leave were more likely to feed, dress, bathe and play with their child in the years after the period of leave had ended. In Britain, dads who took time off at birth were almost a third more likely to read books with their toddlers than those who hadn’t. These are significant changes. In Australia today, more and more men want to be more hands-on with their children and to be able to take more parental leave, but they are held back by financial considerations, by a lack of support and, probably quite often, by a workplace culture that still sees it as a little bit strange that they might want to spend more than two weeks at home with the baby. In fact, the national average leave of less than two weeks for men leaves men often returning to work sleep-deprived, unable to give 100 per cent at work, and ill-equipped to also provide adequate support at home. A 2018 Human Rights Commission report here in Australia found that 27 per cent of fathers had experienced discrimination in the workplace during parental leave or upon return to work, ranging from negative attitudes and comments to actual threats of dismissal. There are a couple of things we need to do here. One is to look at policies that actively support fathers to take more leave, and the other is to look at the culture in our workplaces and how we can ensure that they’re set up to support both men and women to care for their children, so that working parents—because, let’s be honest, most families in Australia have working parents—generally share the load of bringing up their children while having a job.

Like many people in this House who’ve spoken on this bill, I’ve had some pretty recent experience of parental leave myself. My daughter has just had her second birthday last weekend. When she was born, I took leave for the first 11 months. My partner and I had planned that at that point he would step in and take three months unpaid leave. This is how we had always planned it, and we were ready for this, but I think the change that happened when he took over the primary responsibility was immense. It probably started with a fairly ‘crash-through or crash’ approach by both of us. My partner decided to take our daughter, at 11 months old, on a flight from Melbourne to Newcastle to go and visit his parents. I thought to myself, will I check the bag that he’s packed? Should I have a look at what’s in it before he goes? And I thought, no, he’s got this; it’s his responsibility now. So off they went. The plane was apparently a bit delayed in taking off. By the time they got on the plane, I believe he may have run out of nappies. They then sat on the tarmac for a little bit, and that meant he used up the last bottle he had with them. They took off and they had to get through some turbulence. They were circling around and around. I can see some of the other parents in the room smiling with recognition. So he was out of nappies and he was out of food. There was possibly some wee on his trousers at this point. He’s not going to really thank me for sharing this story, but I think that at that point a helpful family stepped in to support him.

That was not a great experience, obviously, but it demonstrates that being the primary carer is actually really different to being the secondary carer. The relationship between him and his daughter from that point on changed. I don’t have to worry about things like that anymore. I don’t look around and think, ‘Did that happen? Has that been packed? Does he know what she needs next?’ He knows what she needs next because he’s done it. He’s taken that responsibility on. We’ve all had bad experiences as a parent when we think we could have planned things better, but, if you haven’t had that experience, if you haven’t done it as a solo parent, if you haven’t done it as the main care giver, you need to know it’s a really different relationship. I think it is important that we set up a system that allows men and women to experience that, both for our relationships and for our relationships with our children.

Of course, it’s also for women’s economic security because, until we do a better job at sharing the caring load, women in Australia will continue to be left behind. ABS data that came out just a couple of weeks ago reveals the gender pay gap remains stubbornly stuck at 13.9 per cent. That means that women earn $242.90 a week less than men, despite the Treasurer telling us last year that the pay gap had closed. Women’s superannuation is, on average, half the rate for men at the age of retirement. This leaves too many older women at risk of homelessness and poverty because they’ve shouldered a lifetime of being a primary carer. They’re the ones who not only took the early leave—again, because they’d fallen into the role of being the primary carer, the one who knows how it all happens—but became the carer going forward. They were the ones who took the extra sick days when the child couldn’t go to child care. They were the ones who came home early for the school excursion or to organise the other things. As that happened over a lifetime, they fell further and further behind in their career and their earnings.

We can do better than this. We do need to strike a better balance between the genders when it comes to caring, unpaid domestic work and productivity. Women are too often forced to make a decision between having a family and their career. Good parental leave policies are still judged too much on the amount of maternity leave afforded to women. Of course this is important, but we must look at how we also make a system that supports women and men to be there for their children. It’s an issue that goes to how we set up those systems, how we set up our jobs and our careers and our life, and how we do the ongoing juggle that all parents are trying to make work.

The scheme introduced by the Labor government has been life-changing. There were so many women who, prior to this scheme being introduced, didn’t have access to any paid leave. I remember hearing a lot of their stories. Particularly for women in areas like retail who were working casually, this scheme has been so important in that they know they can take some time off with security. It’s been important for their employers as well to know that they can afford to have their workers take some time off. It has made a big difference in the lives of a lot of families, so it’s good that the Morrison government is looking at what it can do to improve this scheme and how it can improve some of the flexibility in the scheme. But it’s a shame that it’s taken so long for them to start thinking about this, because there is so much more to be done. We have fallen behind again and we don’t need to. We are a modern, progressive and smart country. We are a country in which families are juggling work, caring, child care and all of those things, and we deserve to have a government that’s thought these issues through, looked at what will benefit women, what will benefit men and what will benefit their children in order to give them all a start during a pretty tough time—becoming a parent and working through what that means for your relationship and what that means for your relationship with your child going forward. That needs government support. It needs to be thought about; it needs to be planned.

The fact that this has taken so long to get here is regrettable. It’s good that it’s here now. We need to see more. I encourage the government to look at some of the overseas examples of what is happening elsewhere and think about what else they can do to support working families in Australia. This is a start. It doesn’t get us to where we need to be. It doesn’t really give the sort of flexibility that will allow families to set themselves up for a truly equal model, and it doesn’t allow women to make up some of those gaps that they still have in their careers and in their earnings—gaps that really, as they get further and further down the track towards retirement, leave them at risk of poverty, homelessness and quite serious consequences that we still see for many women today, and that shouldn’t exist in our country.

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