It’s a pleasure to follow the member for Indi and the member for Higgins, who both brought their medical history and knowledge to this very important topic. I also hear the member for Indi when she talks about how important it is that we support reforms for child care and that child care is accessible to women across this country, including in regional areas. That is a huge part of the gender equity puzzle our government is absolutely trying to address and solve. Thank you for raising those issues as well.
I am passionate about paid parental leave. It will surprise no-one in this place to hear that because I bang on about it a lot here. I feel like I spent most of my first term speaking about it. In fact, in my first speech I called my husband a unicorn because my family is in the unusual position of Australian families where I work full-time and my husband works part-time. We are unusual in that situation because our workplace laws, with the support we’ve put around, have not supported Australian families to be in that position. We have set up a system which is a good system but has not really allowed for the gender equity we want to see in our community.
As someone who worked in this building for the last Labor government when we first brought in paid parental leave, I know that that scheme in itself was a game changer. Particularly for low-paid women and women in insecure work, that Labor scheme, that first paid parental leave scheme we had in this country, was the first time they had the option of accessing pay after they had a child. That is a truly game changing Labor reform. But it’s been a decade since we brought that in, so we are well and truly due an update, and that is absolutely what this bill, the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Improvements for Families and Gender Equality) Bill 2022, is all about. I am so proud and pleased to be standing here, after a term advocating for action on paid parental leave, saying that our government is getting on with it and that we understand modern families need a flexible scheme that supports mums and dads to take time out with a newborn and to know they will be supported with pay during that time and will have good jobs to go back to. I am very pleased to be here today.
We know we still have in this country a huge problem with gender equality. We are just not where we should be. Overall, Australia ranks 43rd out of 146 countries for gender equality. It is not great if you consider where we should be as a wealthy, progressive country, particularly if you consider that in 2011 we ranked 23rd—so we’ve unfortunately been going in the wrong direction, mainly under the previous Liberal-National government. It is very much our government’s intention to turn that around to improve gender equality in this country.
The gender pay gap remains one of the standout areas where we need to do so much better. Since 2006 we’ve dropped from 13th to 36th in women’s economic participation. Women make up only 38 per cent of all full-time employees in Australia and 68½ per cent of the part-time or casual workforce—what a disparity there! We’re also ranked 37th for women’s representation in senior, official and management roles, and we see persistent gaps in industries such as manufacturing, IT and STEM, which continue to be male dominated, while others such as education are dominated the other way, by women.
What we know is that a lot of this does come back to the way we support women to juggle work and families and how we support men to juggle work and families. If we have a system that encourages only women to take time out after they’ve had a baby, what we’re saying is that, from that point on in a woman’s working life, they will be the person who, after taking maybe that initial year off, will then go back to work part time, probably until their child is in late primary school. At that time they may find that re-entering the workforce full time is quite a difficult task—it has been a long gap. Then, obviously, we see that flowing on into women’s economic security as they get older. In fact, we now see that older women are the group most at risk of homelessness in our society. So this is an issue that flows right through women’s lives.
At the same time that this is happening for women, we see what is happening for men’s careers. I’ve seen data that shows that when men have babies it’s common that they get a pay rise and a promotion. The exact opposite of what happens for women at that time happens for man. I know from talking to people in my community, and we know from work that has been done in this area, that so many men in our community do want to be able to take more time to be able to care for their children and support their children after they’ve been born. Unfortunately, to date our paid parental scheme has not supported those men to do that, so I am pleased that this scheme is going to make that change.
These changes to paid parental leave will mean more choice for families. There will be more flexibility in how and when partners take time off work and how they share care. There will be more support so that both parents can spend that critical time with their child in those important first two years and create a pattern of care throughout their lives.
Again, I will draw on my own experience here—I do have small children, so this really resonates for me. You see massive difference. From the very beginning my husband has known that there are jobs that he does. It’s not me telling him to do jobs. It’s not me explaining how to change a nappy, how to do the bath or what the routine is. That’s stuff he knows because he does it and because he’s had the privilege of having the time to do it. Not all men in our community have had the privilege of doing that, because they have not been in a position where they’ve been economically supported to do that, so I’m very pleased that this legislation starts to make some change on that.
Of course, it gives more opportunity for women to be supported both in their parenting life and in their working life, and, as I’ve been talking about, it maximises women’s economic equality. These changes will come into effect on 1 July this year, when we can combine the two existing payments—parental leave pay and dad and partner pay—into a single 20-week scheme, removing the notion of a primary and a secondary carer and making it easier for both parents to access the payment.
Both parents will have the same opportunities, the choice and the flexibility in how and when they choose to take paid parental leave, so families can make decisions about what works best for them. They could take the leave in a continuous block. They could take it in short bursts. They could even take single days at a time. It means that dads will no longer have to be on unpaid leave from their work to access government PPL. Just as women have been able to do, they will be able to access the scheme at the same time as being on paid leave from their work. A portion of the scheme will still be reserved for each parent so that parents can share the leave and both can take some time at home with their child. This scheme is also going to be designed to make the transition back to work easier, allowing flexibility around when you take the leave so it doesn’t have to be a continuous block. Over time, we move to 26 weeks of leave by 2026, delivering a full six months of leave. That will be a really important change in our country.
All the evidence from overseas, where a lot of OECD countries do have much more generous paid parental leave schemes than does our country, shows that a strengthened PPL system delivers important benefits to health and wellbeing not just for women, not just for men, but, of course, for children as well. For parents, more time at home means that they do get to spend that time caring, being part of early childhood development, being the people who know the routines, set the routines and manage the routines, and who do that without having to juggle work at the same time. For children, it means seeing that they can be cared for by parents of both genders—that Mum and Dad are both there to do that caring role. Again, if we think about gender equity in this country and the long way we have to go still to achieve gender equity, setting up those norms of gender roles from the very start of a child’s life is so important. If a young child sees that Mum and Dad can both be carers and that it’s not a role that just goes to women, that changes their whole perspective on how these roles play out, again, throughout our community and throughout our society.
At the moment in Australia, dads take up the government paid parental leave scheme at about half the rate of mums. The scheme as it stands has limited the ability of parents to share caring responsibility. The current eligibility rules have also been unfair for families where the mother is the higher income earner. In a situation where two families have the same household income, one might in fact be ineligible for government PPL because the mother earns more, whereas the other family, where the father earns more, may be eligible. Our changes will fix these issues. It is important, as we go through this, that we continue to take a lens of gender equity to the improvements to the scheme. I very much hope that we will see a ‘use it or lose it’ component to the scheme. Again, evidence from overseas shows us that take-up of these types of schemes by dads is most likely when there is a portion that is reserved just for fathers. That encourages men to see it as a scheme that is there for them to access and that they are in fact responsible for using for their children.
I want to commend Australian businesses for their approach to supporting Australian families that are combining work and early caring responsibilities. We know that a lot of businesses in recent years have really changed the way they run their paid parental leave schemes. They now look at much more of an equity model, where leave can be taken by men and by women, moving away from this idea of primary and secondary carers. It will be good to see this updated scheme—this much improved scheme from our government—working hand in hand with employers across our country, delivering the best outcomes for businesses, parents and kids.
We are also doing a lot of other work in other areas. Paid parental leave is just one way our government is improving workforce participation and equality for women in our country. Last year, our government set up the Women’s Economic Equality Taskforce, chaired by Sam Mostyn AO. It has been tasked with advising us on how to improve women’s equality right throughout the economic sphere. We know that single reforms or changes, even super important ones like paid parental leave, won’t do all the work themselves. We need to work across the spectrum to make sure that women can realise their full potential in the economic sphere as well as in their caring roles. So the taskforce is focusing on how gender responsive policy and budgeting will advance gender equality in Australia and the measures that we need to make this happen. They’re looking at issues like the gender pay gap, workforce participation, patterns of paid and unpaid care, safe and respectful workplaces, and planning for skills and industries of the future. The task force has already recognised that reform is needed in heavily feminised industries, such as child care and aged care, and the government has acted to do all it can to raise wages in these industries. Again, those are caring roles that traditionally we’ve seen as women’s roles—industries which are heavily dominated by women and which for too long have been underpaid. We need to make sure women are supported in those industries and are able to work in those industries.
That goes hand in hand, obviously, with our government’s efforts to make child care more affordable for Australian families. Once paid parental leave ends, most families get to that point where they need to access paid child care. Again, the evidence has told us that the cost of child care in this country has just shut too many families out. For many women, when they’ve finished their paid parental leave and are looking to return to work, there has been an economic decision where they’ve had to say, ‘I can only do three days a week because I earn less than my husband or partner; the childcare fees are so expensive that, actually, I’ll be working for nothing on that fourth or fifth day.’ Our reforms to make child care cheaper for 96 per cent of Australian families will very much change that equation for Australian families.
We are making it easier for Australian families, for men and women, to share the caring load from birth, with an improved Paid Parental Leave scheme, to that point where children are entering child care. It will allow for that ongoing flexibility and ongoing sharing of roles that we know is good for Australian families, good for our children and good for our whole community as we see women being able to increase their participation in the workforce and men being able to take up roles that many of them want—to care for their children and to be an active part of their family life. We see all of that as our government continues to work to close the gender pay gap and to support women in low-paid industries. This is really exciting to be speaking here today on such a bill that has been 10 years coming but which I know will make a huge difference to the lives of Australian women and Australian families.