It seems that Tony Abbott has been copping a hammering from every man, woman and their dog about his plans for paid parental leave.

Leaving the politics of it all aside for a moment, isn’t there anyone pleased to see this issue at least being put on the political agenda?

Paid parental leave for the first year of baby’s life was one of the key recommendations of the recent Marmot Review in England, which proposed strategies for helping improve the population’s health and for reducing health inequities. The review noted that the importance of the early years, from before birth to the age of five, to later life outcomes is widely acknowledged.

I somehow doubt that the Marmot Review had any bearing on Abbott’s gung-ho announcement.

But for the record, this is what it had to say on the subject:

“Sensitive and responsive parent–child relationships are associated with stronger cognitive skills in young children and enhanced social competence and work skills later in school. It is therefore important that we create the conditions to enable parents to develop this relationship during the child’s critical first year.

This involves making it practical and affordable, through providing paid parental leave for the whole of the first year, and, where required, providing parents with the understanding and skills needed to forge a positive relationship with their child.

Maternal employment in the first year, particularly if early and full-time, is associated with poorer cognitive development and more behaviour problems for some children. For 1–5 year olds there are no adverse effects of maternal employment on cognitive development, but there may be negative effects on behaviour if children are in poor quality child care for long hours. Research has linked maternal employment to lower levels of breastfeeding, increased rates of obesity at three years and poorer indicators of diet and physical activity at five years. These findings do not imply that mothers, or fathers, should not work, but they do indicate that changes in parental employment patterns are not inevitably benign and they highlight the need for policies to support parents to promote the health of their children and to enable them to remain at home with their child for the whole of the first year, if they so choose.

Paid parental leave is associated with better maternal and child health with studies finding an association with lower rates of maternal depression, lower rates of infant mortality, fewer low birth-weight babies, more breast-feeding and more use of preventive health care. This highlights the importance of parents across the social gradient having access to paid parental leave during the whole of the first year as well as the availability of good quality childcare and flexible employment thereafter, including for those young children with parents not in work who are assessed as likely to benefit.

Despite important attempts to make childcare more affordable through the childcare element of the working families tax credits, many parents find it difficult to afford to remain at home with their child for the whole of the first year, even if they would prefer to do so.”

The review also cited a 2009 report from Action for Children and the New Economics Foundation which estimated that the cost to the UK economy of continuing to address current levels of social problems such as crime, mental illhealth, family breakdown, drug abuse and obesity will amount to almost £4 trillion over a 20-year period. The report argues that investing in a combination of targeted interventions and universal childcare and paid parental leave could help address as much as £1.5 trillion worth of the cost of these social problems, leaving the UK in a similar position to nations such as Finland, Sweden and Denmark, which have the best social outcomes in the OECD.

Who’d of thought it…Tony Abbott as an advocate for tackling the social determinants of health (though I’m not sure he would frame it this way), while Kevin Rudd remains firmly fixated on hospitals as the agents for better health. Weird…

Update (11 March). I asked Professor Fran Baum, who was a member of the WHO Commission on the Social Determinants of Health for her views. She said:

“I agree that Tony Abbott is tackling one of the important social determinants of health – providing income for the parents of new babies. His policy doesn’t shape up so well in terms of equity because a mother on $150,000 per year would receive a higher payment than a mother on $35,000 per year. The higher earning mother is also likely to have a partner with a higher wage. A more equitable policy would be to give all parents taking time off to care for their children the same sum. This is likely to have a bigger impact on the low socio-economic families and so be an equitable move – the type of policy favoured by the UK Marmot review.”