I know I’m supposed to be celebrating a great Victory, because Women have finally made up some ground in the passing last night of the legislation for the payment of parental leave. I’ll be seen as ungrateful for still carping. But in the end, women with workforce attachment may clear something over $2000 extra through this payment, and some will gain nothing.

The vagaries of the taxation and timing may mean these will be better off taking the Baby Bonus and Family Tax benefit B.

As a long term activist I am pleased we have something and the support of both major parties for the concept. I can remember the failure of earlier attempts after the 12 months unpaid leave in the late seventies. We hoped paid leave would follow soon, but it didn’t. Some public sector workers were given paid leave, and a few private sector ones but most low paid mothers had no access to paid leave.

An attempt under Keating failed when he worried about discriminating against mothers at home and made it a universal maternity payment at eight times the weekly unemployment rate. The next major effort by Pru Goward under Howard failed for the same reason and created the baby bonus, another welfare type payment but not income tested.

The change of government and some heavy lobbying by women’s groups was for a clearly work based leave payment to create a clear link between parenting and jobs. The result of a Productivity report and government decisions is a strange hybrid that will offer payment of 18 weeks at minimum wage to those giving birth after December 31st 2010 but does not include a leave entitlement.

For those women who had no paid entitlement this is a victory, and maybe for those who will increase smaller payments already awarded, but it has been interesting listening to the Greens and Opposition identifying the flaws in scheme. The question is whether the Bill is a good starting point or will its difficulties will make it hard to build on. The now legislated review in two years time will be very necessary.

The debate on the Parental Leave Bill in the Senate was underway when I started writing this, and there wasn’t much doubt that it would go through because the Opposition was committed to support it. They needed to do so because they could hardly claim credibility for their ‘’better version and policy switch, if they destroyed this one. This didn’t stop Rudd trying to set them up as a problem by ordering them to get out of the way a couple of days ago.

The major flaw in the Bill is its lack of leave entitlement so it offers a payment for those who have the 12 months employment with one employer, ie continuity of services that qualifies them for 12 months unpaid leave under the Fair Work provisions. However, there will be about 20% of new mothers who have the employment qualifications for the payment but do not qualify for unpaid leave. To take the 18 weeks off, they will either have to rely on employer goodwill or maybe have to leave their jobs to spend time with their newborn.

Hansen Young and others made the point that this is a social security type payment, not a genuine workplace leave payment, and this is reinforced because eligibility assessments and the money comes from the Family Assistance Office, who will also pay those who have no long term employer. The government expects those employers in the long term workplaces to integrate the payments with their usual payroll, despite the different weekly pay rate, no superannuation and no payroll tax.

A survey of employers by the Bank of Qld and noises made by the Opposition suggest that many employers don’t want to take on that role.

Peter Strong, chief executive of the National Independent Retailer’s Association, says this is a bad decision. “Every Government always says they will not increase red tape. This addition is completely unnecessary, it just adds an extra part of the process,” he says. “They want to keep employees connected through this process, but you shouldn’t impose new red tape on a business just out of philosophy. The way to stop all this is to just make the payments directly to the person.”

This view is supported by both the AIG and ACCI in their submissions to the Senate inquiry which expressed concern over business’s role in distributing the payments to employees. “To insert a third party, such as the Government agency and workplace inspectorate, into the employment relationship, will create undue unnecessary workplace disputation and friction between employers and employees,” ACCI said. Next year will show whether the connections to employers are working.

Therefore the revolution it ain’t. It may well fail the basic test of changing the way that employers view parenting and paid work. Despite the government’s good intentions about reinforcing workplace connections, administration complexities may interfere with the maintenance of workplace relationships.

Rudd was on The 7.30 Report boasting about the stunning reform for 148,000 mums, which is a bit of an oversell. The government’s trashing of the good aspects of the opposition’s scheme will make it harder for to make similar changes. The opposition in their proposed amendment stated they:

‘(e) reject the Government’s representation of a paid parental leave scheme as a social security measure and instead affirms that it is a valid workplace entitlement that must come with a superannuation component to arrest the gross inadequacy of female retirement incomes’.

A Diversity Council meeting said leading employers largely welcomed the introduction of the Federal Government’s Paid Parental Leave (PPL) scheme but called for any future scheme to be as simple and as easy as possible to administer.

The Government made some minor changes as a result of the Senate Inquiry and included some objects of this Act which after the usual health related issues stated it would:

(c) encourage women to continue to participate in the workforce; and

(d) promote equality between men and women, and the balance between work and family life.

It sounds good if a little ambitious for a single Act. Whether this change is a harbinger of a new view of the workplace and women remains to be seen.

Given the way that some of the loony right attacked the Bill, including Fielding’s bizarre assumption that women would deliberately set up a late term abortion to gain the payment, there are still problems out there. However, the support of the idea by both parties suggests finally an acceptance that women are in the workforce to stay.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey