Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Flexibility Measures) Bill 2020


Peter Khalil: I also rise to speak on the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Flexibility Measures) Bill 2020. I join all of my colleagues in supporting this bill, and particularly the shadow minister who has just spoken, as a parent, so passionately and eloquently about the need for reform in this space.

We know that the national Paid Parental Leave scheme was introduced by the Rudd government and started on 1 January 2011. The passage of the original legislation was really a landmark reform in Australia. It created a new national standard that gave all women the right to take a period of paid leave, a major benefit to child health and development. Women who needed to take time off because of difficulties during their pregnancy, even if they didn’t meet the work test, could take the leave under this scheme as well.

Every year in Australia there are around 300,000 births, with half of the families involved in those momentous occasions utilising this scheme. Currently the Paid Parental Leave scheme provides 18 weeks of payments at a rate based on the minimum wage of $740.60 per week, a total of about $13,330 a year. We know that this bill seeks to implement changes that would allow for more flexibility for working families, amending the way families can actually receive the payments. The bill would change the paid parental leave rules by splitting the 18 weeks of the public paid parental leave into a 12-week paid parental leave period and a six-week flexible paid parental leave period. The 12-week-period entitlement would only be available as a continuous block, but would be accessible by the primary carer any time during the first 12 months after birth, not just immediately after the birth or the adoption of a child. And the six-week flexible paid parental leave period would be available at any time during the first two years and does not need to be taken as a block. That’s good flexibility for families.

For those of us who have gone through the wonderful gift—that is, having a baby born to the family—having that flexibility makes a big difference. It will allow, in practice, greater flexibility for these families so they can split their entitlements over a two-year period, going back to work in-between. I think it would also encourage a greater take-up of paid parental leave by secondary carers, allowing mothers to transfer their entitlements to their partners at a time that suits their family circumstances. There are about 4,000 families that are expected to benefit from these proposed changes.

I’m a dad, and I’ve got two young kids, a seven-year-old and a four-and-a-half-year old. I know, as I think many of us in this place know, what it means to have to find a way to balance your work—particularly the work of being a member of parliament—and your family life. It is very, very hard. We all know that; we’ve shared those experiences, especially with the trips to Canberra. With young children, you’re away from your kids for considerable periods of time. With my kids at least—I got elected here the first time in 2016—being seven and 4½ they didn’t know much else. They were used to me going away: ‘Dad’s going away again.’ They got used to that. Many of us who have younger families will find this, that as they get older they start thinking about it and they start talking about it, saying: ‘I miss dad. Why are you going? We don’t want you to leave.’ It’s contracting. It used to be by Wednesday or Thursday that they’d say this. Now it’s happening a couple of hours after I leave for the airport on the Sunday, because they know now; they’re much more cognisant of time as they get older. It is very difficult for families to balance, especially if your partner is working, and full-time. There is an amount of strain and stress that puts on your partner, having to do those parental responsibilities while you’re away for a couple of weeks in Canberra, because it is very, very difficult to juggle all of those scheduling issues and all of the commitments that we might have. And, not always, but often, it is the women in the family who suffer the greatest because the burden is placed on them. We try and share our parenting responsibilities as much as possible. We try and do that in the best possible way. So I’m very encouraged by these changes because they provide much more flexibility for families. They provide them with a way of actually relieving some of that pressure that I was talking about and making things that little bit easier, because we know how young families can struggle in this period. Labor introduced the Paid Parental Leave scheme because we understood that and we wanted to provide that kind of relief and support for young families. The Labor government at the time decided to offer that financial support to new families to remove the detriment of having to take time off work to care for new members of the family and to enable women to continue to participate in the workforce if they wanted to do so. My wife spent a whole year after our son was born, the first time, but with our daughter, our second child, she went back to work within three months. It’s a choice, but we want to be able to give women that choice and not have them restricted with respect to their decision to go back to the workforce or not.

It is about promoting that equality, that sharing of responsibility, between the parents. We’re all working professionally. It’s unusual for us, as members of parliament—we have some strange commitments over the weekends, and travelling to Canberra and so on places a greater stress. But most young families now try to share the burden, and both are usually working. So it’s important that these arrangements can give those couples, those families, the flexibility to get that balance between their work life and their family life right. It shouldn’t be such a stressful time, with a new child in the family. It should be a joyous time that you can enjoy and cherish. I don’t know this yet, but I’ve been told: ‘Just wait until they hit adolescence! That’s when you get really stressed.’ I’ll wait for that.

I’m proud of Labor’s efforts in this space. Almost 150,000 parents a year, half of all new mothers, benefit from Australia’s Paid Parental Leave scheme. When it was introduced, Australia was one of the two countries that didn’t have a national scheme; the United States was the other. In a sense we’re playing catch-up. We were playing catch-up back then and unfortunately, in many respects, we still are. According to last year’s OECD data, Australia’s Paid Parental Leave scheme was ranked among the lowest in terms of duration of leave and rate of pay. This bill does nothing to change that.

In Iceland, fathers are entitled to three months of paid parental leave. I’d move there, but it’s a bit cold. In Finland it’s even better: the new government just announced plans to give all parents the same parental leave, in a push to get fathers to spend more time with their children. We’ve heard from previous speakers about the importance of having fathers take more time to help with and be part of raising their children so that the burden is not just placed on one parent, usually the mother. In Finland each parent will receive 6.6 months leave, including a further six months to share. What a paradise that would be—to spend all that time with your kids! Some of us have said that it sometimes feels, given the pressures we’re under, like we’re taking a break by going to work; I certainly understand that feeling.

It’s important for single parents to be entitled to use allowances as well. As a father, I always wanted to be involved in raising my children. I wanted to be able to do so with my partner in such a way that we could share the joy, the experience and the responsibility as evenly as possible, avoiding the stress of one partner having to step in and do all of the work. The Australian scheme still falls short with respect to fathers, and I hope that we look at some of these reforms in the future, to give fathers more flexibility to be able to spend more time with their children.

It is a small step in the right direction, what we are debating today. It’s great that this bill allows more flexibility for working families, but, as I said, I think more needs to be done. We can do more. We’ve got examples, as I mentioned—Finland, Iceland and so on—of improvements in the take-up of secondary carers. We can improve on one of the lowest rates of investments in parental leave, as we’re just a third of the OECD average. I don’t think the government can ignore this. The gender pay gap also remains a problem; it flows from this as well. Because women have to take time off work, as we heard earlier their super gets hit. The government shouldn’t ignore this either.

I know that the Treasurer thinks it’s all done; he thinks that the pay gap is closed. That was news to us! Last time I checked the stats, female workers in Australia still earn around 14 per cent less than their male colleagues. So the pay gap is still stubbornly high, despite what the Treasurer would have us believe, and it has been that way for the last two decades. If the Treasurer and the Prime Minister were genuinely serious about fixing that gender gap they would oppose things like cuts to penalty rates, because the majority of workers who have had their penalty rates cut are women. So they’re exacerbating the pay gap, the pay gap that they apparently think doesn’t exist. I think the Treasurer needs to pay more attention to that and have a look at the statistics we are seeing so he can put some policies forward to address it.

I’m surprised that the government has put forward this bill. I think it’s testament to the previous minister Kelly O’Dwyer. The former minister pointed out her work in pushing this forward and the challenges that she faced, so kudos to her. Even though she is no longer in this place, it was a lot of good work by her in that respect. We saw unfair cuts by the Turnbull government which hit families who could least afford them and which reduced access to things like early education for kids who needed it the most. When we talk about stress on young families, these are the things that add up. One in four families are worse off because the then Turnbull government made changes to childcare. There were 279,000 families nationwide, and 2,225 just in my electorate of Wills, impacted by these cuts, the families that have to adhere to a very complex system of subsidies for child care where a fortnightly period of work is used to determine financial relief. What about shift workers? What about casual workers? What about seasonal workers? Don’t they exist as well?

In many respects those arrangements are arbitrary and inflexible and discriminate against large swathes of the working population. We have seen this. There are data and evidence from the department of education and training’s report on early childhood and child care. In summary, the report shows that hourly fees at early learning facilities have risen by an annual average of 5.4 per cent since 2013. The obvious pressure this puts on those young families we’ve been talking about, working families with both partners working, trying to juggle their responsibilities, who rely on early learning services and early education services, has been echoed regularly when I go on my many visits to childcare centres or early education centres in my electorate. Because it’s not just about childcare; it’s about early education. Of course access to early education and early learning is more than just about giving flexibility to parents; it is so important for the development of the child at that early stage. It amplifies the child’s development, improves school results, boosts economic outcomes and is an investment in our nation’s future.

Labor made an election promise before the last election to take pressure off family budgets, to make access to early education and care more affordable and to support parents’ return to work. We know the Liberal Party also promised to make child care more affordable for Australian families, but I haven’t seen it. I don’t think anyone else here has seen it; it hasn’t happened. It is just another empty promise.

In my electorate we have families from a vast array of diverse backgrounds—young families, migrant families, same-sex couples, single parents, newlyweds. I find it distressing on their behalf that, particularly in an electorate that has notable financial hardship, we will see some of these problems persist and deepen, and those financial strains become amplified with some of the policies or non-policies of this government. But I do welcome these changes because they are a step in the right direction. Even though we are falling behind internationally and we still need to do more and can do a lot more, these changes are welcome. They’re modest, but Labor obviously welcomes this bill because Australian families deserve this and so much more.