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May 8, 2013

Let's acknowledge Abbott's parental leave plan is better

Forget the misplaced rhetoric, Tony Abbott's paid parental leave scheme is more generous and sends the right message about women in work. This "hardline feminist" is happy to say so.

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Tony Abbott

It seems odd finding myself in the media spotlight as a “hardline feminist” policy freak because I am supporting one form of paid parental leave over another.

Yes, it is the Coalition version and it’s under attack from within, so why am I supporting it? Rather than side with the Tony Abbott critics or the Institute of Public Affairs and the il-Liberal Right, I prefer to judge the policy on its merits.

I want to state upfront my reasons. The Coalition model is closer to an industrial work entitlement that normalises paid parental leave than the current scheme, and it’s longer (26 weeks versus 18). This reinforces the idea that having babies is a legitimate reason for time off for workers and may change common workplace attitudes that assume a woman having babies is not serious about her job. The current system is a universal government payment of the minimum wage $606 per week for 18 weeks — and has no connection to a person’s pay. Most get less than their previous income, some a lot less. And more than half the recipients lose income over their leave as well.

The current media fuss about the form of payments for parental leave is a sad illustration of both the tenor of current political debates and continuing bizarre attitudes to women in paid work. At one level, the debate should be quite simple: is the leave pay rate of the primary carer (usually the mother) an industrial or welfare issue? If it is the former, then the payment level should relate to the normal pay rates for the agreed time; if the payment is basically a welfare one, then the payment should reflect the public benefit. Who funds the payment needs to be considered separately, as if it is to be a legal entitlement of either sort, the costs need to be pooled. Otherwise, those who employ mostly younger women and face prohibitive costs would be disadvantaged — a pooled funds version distributes the risks fairly.

This is not the way the issues are being discussed. Business, unsurprisingly, is opposing being taxed. Some see the extra expense as being unaffordable, but that can be separated out of questions of the type of payment. I would not object to changes to the Abbott scheme that would reduce the cap or maybe offer 80% of pay, as happens in Sweden. The real worry is that the main discussion seems to be based on the character and legitimacy of its proposer.

“Too much of the discussion has been emotive, often s-xist and deeply irrational.”

Too much of the discussion has been emotive, often s-xist and deeply irrational. The most offensive idea seems to have been that maybe a handful of high-earning women would continue their salaries while procreating. This in itself raised a level of ire that is not applied to high-income men. Why differentiate because they are women having babies? Very few in this tax bracket would still be bearing children, if they ever did.

Is it because they are having babies? We all get paid our normal wages when we have the flu, are on compo or long service leave, so why not for women in labour? Or is there a lack of comfort with the image of high-learning women? The confusion became worse in some bizarre responses to a somewhat badly worded (and misreported) statement from Abbott. In discussing his belief that highly qualified women should be paid what they earned, to connect them more to the workforce, he used the phrase “women of that calibre”. All hell broke loose — it was elitist and worse.

Inequalities are increasing between women, as more earn higher pay and rise into senior positions, but more so among men. Income distribution overall is a separate issue but seems to be confused here, suggesting discomfort with the idea of women who are powerful. That is why we need to normalise women’s relationship to paid work and money.

Most OECD countries offer paid parental leave. In Sweden, it is for over 12 months at 80% of pay. I have no problem with a discount — costs are usually lower when you don’t go to work — but it is clearly a workforce entitlement. We are nowhere near the top of the OECD now and would still not be if the Abbott scheme was introduced. Most women’s groups supported the idea of replacement income up to average weekly earnings in the 2002 inquiry into parental leave run by Pru Goward, then the federal s-x discrimination commissioner. That would be closer to the Abbott version than the Jenny Macklin one.

Maybe we should all use the Abbott-expressed good intentions to work towards an industrial version, but less expensive than the current proposal. That would meet most of the problems and reinforce the idea that parental leave is an industrial entitlement. Though Alex Hawke and other Coalition dissenters probably don’t have that in mind.

Eva Cox —

Eva Cox

Writer, feminist and social commentator

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54 thoughts on “Let’s acknowledge Abbott’s parental leave plan is better

  1. tonyfunnywalker

    I find your defence of this elitist scheme sickening. It is an insult to the parents of Australian children, the real Aussie battlers who reared and educated their children with the “feather bedding” of baby bonuses and paid maternity leave. My wife and I are one of those families who went without for many years to rear our children, provide them with a private school and university education by working 2 jobs and in my wife’s case (as she chose to rear her children rather than pawn them off to childcare) working part time as the opportunities arose as a social worker.

    She also has a Honours degree Mr Abbott.

    My wife is the “classic Aussie mum” not the ” pandered” referred to by Abbott.

    I am resentful for any of my taxpayer dollars be used for this social engineering of middle and upper-class welfare. I am waiting for business and shareholder revolt to start a campaign as they did with the Carbon Tax and Mining Tax to throw this whole ambit of Social Engineering of the Privileged out of the window.

    There are enough tax breaks already without universal levies which are a burden on the underprivileged to line the pockets of the overpriviledged.

    Where the bloody hell are you Bernie ?????

    The deflation factor will be immense, but what will happen is that the major companies will pass the levy to consumers’ as raised prices as they protect dividends.

    Again the most effected are the underprivileged as they are the ones least able to afford the price rises.

    Household budgets are tight as it is especially for those of us on fixed incomes.

    Already as retirees we have to supplement our income by working and I am not an exception to the rule.

    The retirees of Australia like our counterparts in the US will soon be “waiting tables”

    We are self funded retirees still pay tax and more importantly we vote.

    Hope you have a nice Mother’s Day.

  2. Terrence John Snedden

    Abbott’s foot in mouth remarks that the merit of women as mothers can be differentiated bases on their employment status and income must be seen for what it is in the context of his history of contempt for women. He is a sheep in wolf’s clothing and the moment he strays from the script designed to paint him as enlightened and caring the rabid misogynist dog instinctively launches with teeth bared.

    Getting pregnant, having a baby and raising a child has nothing to do with ones work role, training and skills. It is most often a voluntary and personal matter of a non-work nature.

    In this context it is quite different from annual leave, superannuation and sick leave that arise directly from the workplace and are conditions of employment.

    Nonetheless, anything can become part of the conditions of employment. An employer seeking to attract and retain staff might offer paid parental leave, various fringe benefits such as cars, health insurance to employees and employees in turn might seek such conditions through enterprise bargaining negotiations. It is for companies to determine packages of remuneration and conditions of employment to meet their staff recruitment and retention objectives. This might be called a workplace/industrial based scheme that is determined by market forces.

    Tony Abbott’s scheme plans to raise a levy on large companies that is pooled an administered by government with compensatory company tax reductions that will diminish general government revenue. By sleight of hand the taxpayer not companies ends up footing the costs that flow in large proportion to individuals on higher incomes that choose to have children.

    Abbott’s scheme is a welfare based government funded scheme that uses public funds dressed up as a business funded scheme. Funds for the public good should not be plundered to promote the private interests of the most privileged in the community.

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