The Coalition not merely knew about “double dipping” on paid parental leave — new mothers accessing employer-funded PPL as well as the current 18-week PPL scheme established by Labor — but used it to argue its own scheme was superior to Labor’s, Hansard shows.

Last week, Social Services Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Joe Hockey both purported be surprised to discover that new mothers in paid employment were accessing both employer-funded and taxpayer-funded PPL.

Morrison told right-wing shock jock Ben Fordham:

“What we’re saying is there is a safety net of those 18 weeks and if you’re getting less than that from your employer then we’ll top it up to that value. But if you’re getting more than that from your employer, well, you’ve got your minimum amount and your employer’s generous, that’s great, that’s up to you, but you don’t get to go to the well twice. What we have learnt as a result of what the opposition said today is they are opposing this measure because it was supposed to double dip by design. This is actually what they wanted.”

Joe Hockey went even further, attacking unions for negotiating enterprise deals based on taking PPL:

“I’m surprised that the unions and the Labor Party negotiated wage agreements for workers based on government payments. I haven’t heard something like that. Have they negotiated other deals on the basis of family tax benefit or a range of other measures? So this is quite surprising and frankly, I think the Labor Party has got a lot of explaining to do.”

But Morrison and Hockey’s astonishment that the existing PPL scheme could be topped up by accessing employer PPL is entirely contradicted by what the Coalition argued in 2010, when it criticised the scheme being introduced by Labor as inadequate compared to its own scheme. “The government scheme does not provide to the mothers of this country their full wage for the full six months that it is recommended they spend with their newborn baby,” Tony Abbott, desperate to convince female voters he’d turned over a new leaf on gender issues, told Parliament. “Our position, by contrast, is that mothers in the workforce should be paid real money for real time to bond with their newborn babies.”

Abbott moved that Parliament “notes the government’s proposed paid parental leave scheme is inadequate in its current form and should be amended to better reflect the requirements of Australian working mothers, and families more generally”. He also wanted Parliament to “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”.

The relevant shadow minister in charge of PPL at the time was Sharman Stone, long since relegated to the backbench but at that point charged with doing the heavy lifting in the debate over Labor’s PPL bill. She explored the issue of “double dipping” in extensive detail:

“If you read Minister Jenny Macklin’s second reading speech, you will see that she is fully aware that Labor has cheated Australian families of a proper and decent paid parental leave scheme. She has said that she expected, and indeed hoped, that parents would top up her scheme with the privately negotiated paid parental leave schemes that are already in existence across the economy in Australia. This is, of course, a mean and cruel expectation. It, in fact, perpetuates the haves and have-nots — the gross inequalities that have affected parents in Australia for many, many years. It is simply un-Australian.”

Stone quoted ABS statistics about the prevalence of employer-funded PPL and who was able to access it. “I hope that I have made it absolutely clear,” she told Parliament, “that lower-paid women and those more likely to be in part-time work are far less likely to have a top-up scheme of paid parental leave, and they have to have that top-up scheme, as I have said, to make Labor’s meagre offering affordable … Lower -paid women working in hospitality, tourism and retail and the self-employed and contract worker women across the country will inevitably be forced to rely exclusively on Labor’s offer of only 18 weeks of leave while their better-paid sisters can add their employer’s scheme on top to give them at least six months leave or an even better salary outcome.”

As Stone’s words make clear, the Coalition has gone from criticising Labor for explicitly relying on “double dipping” to supplement a “meagre” PPL scheme compared to its own to criticising Labor for hiding “double dipping” and letting unions secretly rort it.

And in arguing that accessing employer-funded PPL is “double dipping”, the government is now contradicting Tony Abbott’s own insistence, five years ago, that PPL is a “valid workplace entitlement” rather than welfare that can be rorted. It isn’t Labor that has some explaining to do.

Peter Fray

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