On Wednesday 8 February 2023, I made a speech in Federal Parliament on the government's Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Improvements for Families and Gender Equality) Bill 2022.
You can read the full transcript below.
E WATSON-BROWN: I rise to speak on the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Improvements for Families and Gender Equality) Bill 2022. Many working parents in Ryan have shared with me the challenges around just that: being parents who need to work. Appropriate, fit-for-purpose paid parental leave is absolutely central to functioning and thriving families, to communities and to our economy.
This morning I attended the International Women's Day breakfast here in Parliament House. Both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, amongst others, spoke about uplifting women's lives and equality. They were certainly talking the talk. A great way to walk the walk would be to radically improve paid parental leave, thereby radically improving women's lives. We know that making paid parental leave available for both parents can foster a more equal division of caring responsibilities and set up good habits for life. We also know that the workforce participation of mothers is considerably higher in countries with both a strong paid parental leave scheme and available, affordable child care.
Despite these clear benefits, shamefully, Australia's Paid Parental Leave scheme is currently ranked second-worst in the developed world. With 18 weeks of leave, it falls well behind international best practice of 52 weeks, with structured use-it-or-lose-it provisions and higher rates of pay in those other schemes. As one of the wealthiest nations on the planet, we should be able to give working carers and their children the quality time together that they need. The work and care inquiry initiated by my great Senate colleague Barbara Pocock has heard a wealth of evidence about the need for a strong parental leave scheme, and we Greens will continue to push to make that a reality.
The Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Improvements for Families and Gender Equality) Bill 2022 is a welcome recognition of the need for reform in the way we design parental leave, to address maternal and child health, to encourage shared care and to address the contribution of our current parental leave policies to the persistent and problematic gender pay gap. But much more needs to be done, much faster than the government's current timetable. The government could immediately move to 26 weeks rather than making families wait another three years for that, and they should commit to finding a pathway to 52 weeks of paid parental leave by 2030, as recommended by many stakeholders, including the ACTU.
In Australia, despite measures allowing fathers to take parental leave, only one in 20 fathers take parental leave beyond the two weeks of dad and partner pay leave. We know that use-it-or-lose-it provisions can be part of the solution. There are great precedents in other countries like Finland and Norway, along with Japan, Canada and other countries that have had these policies in place for some time. What they have reported is a marked increase in shared care arrangements and reduced stigma around shared care and flexible work arrangements. Isn't this what we also need in Australia? In fact, when Canada introduced additional paid parental leave on a 'use it or lose it' basis, the percentage of partners taking leave in the first year doubled. We know it works. It's better for all parents and children.
I welcome the government's recognition of 'use it or lose it' in encouraging shared care. I also acknowledge the great work being done by the Women's Economic Equality Taskforce to review effective 'use it or lose it' periods and urge the government to implement their recommendations when they are released.
This change must be supported by campaigns to educate families about the great benefits of shared care and to encourage employers to facilitate both parents taking leave and returning to the workplace while juggling caring responsibilities. This will be absolutely transformative. We urgently need to make that cultural shift that removes the stigma and normalises both parents being equally involved in caring for young children.
Under the bill, paid parental leave will continue to be a government funded scheme, paid at the minimum wage, as the previous speaker just mentioned, but that's a wage that we know is woefully inadequate. The Greens have consistently said that it must be lifted for everyone. I also note that the ACTU and the Australian Human Rights Commission, and others who submitted to the bill inquiry, strongly supported increasing the rate of paid parental leave to replacement level, instead of just the minimum wage. This is consistent with the calls of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.
Why is this so important? Parents taking leave to care for children marks a really significant break in their career and their earning capacity, particularly for women who take leave and often return to work at reduced hours and defer promotions. This is an issue that has often been raised with me, and it resonates very strongly for me and, I'm sure, most other people who've been working parents. I believe that replacement wages would ensure that parents are not financially punished for taking time to care for their children. Importantly, providing replacement wages also helps to encourage shared care, by reducing the income lost by parents taking leave.
We Greens are going to continue to call for reforms that incentivise parents to take their parental leave entitlements, including increasing the payment rates and encouraging employers to top up any government paid leave. The Greens have long called for superannuation to be paid during parental leave. We know that the gap in super balances between men and women at retirement age is really huge. Research suggests it's as much as 30 per cent. This makes things much tougher for older women, who are also known to be one of the most at-risk groups for homelessness. Unions, business groups, the Greens and even the former government's Retirement Income Review all agree that adding super to paid parental leave is a no-brainer, and yet it's not a part of this bill.
The Greens will also continue to push the government to ensure that workers can access reasonable flexibility to work from home, change their hours, share roles or make other arrangements to allow them to balance care and work. Other countries have achieved this. So should we.