A family affair - good policy is more than paid parental leave

Research on work and family policies support an approach that responds to the intensive demands of early childhood, as well as birth. Image from www.shutterstock.com

When the Labor government introduced a national paid parental leave (PPL) scheme on 1 January, 2011, it was late to the international party. The International Labour Organisation had been recommending it for almost a century.

The organisation recognised that labour markets relying on women’s labour have to respond to the reality that working mothers need rest and recovery time when they have babies – and that such leave was good for children, workers, workplaces and the labour market.

Only two years after the introduction of the Australian PPL scheme – 18 weeks at minimum wage, plus two weeks paid leave for fathers/partners – Tony Abbott has joined the party with zeal, offering an additional six weeks’ paid leave, superannuation and replacement earnings of up to $150,000.

Much of the controversy about this proposal focuses on its funding source and cost: $6.1 billion, according to the Coalition’s costings, net of the existing Labor scheme’s cost.

In fact, costing this policy is tricky: for example, how will it interact with existing public and private PPL schemes – in companies, universities, and local, state and commonwealth governments? The existing scheme is in addition to paid leave offered by some employers.

However, if the new scheme replaces such arrangements, how will the cost shifting unfold and what effect will it have on the total cost (and the total length of leave)? The waters are muddy.

Work and Family Policy Roundtable

In evaluating the policy options on PPL, the 30 members of the Work and Family Policy Roundtable – researchers from 18 Australian research institutions – conclude that the Coalition’s scheme is superior to existing arrangements on length, superannuation and payment level.

But the spend is large and uncertain, and some critical details of its implementation are unclear.

Moreover, work and family policy is about much more than PPL. The body of existing research about good work and family regimes around the world supports a balanced policy approach: one that walks on more than one leg – responding to the intensive demands of early childhood that reach beyond the moment of birth – to ensure quality care for children and flexibility in workplaces.

Quality, affordable childcare must be a work and family priority in Australia in view of the increasing rate of mothers’ participation in paid work.

Both major parties share the policy objective of further increasing this participation rate; the lack of childcare currently inhibits women’s participation and concern about its affordability is acute. Increasing direct government support to lift both wages and the quality of care, and streamlining childcare payments, will help.

The Coalition supports a Productivity Inquiry into the affordability of childcare. While an inquiry is necessary, it will not address the immediate challenge of affordability, nor will it ensure good quality care.

Labor has promised $300 million to boost the wages of childcare workers, to continue the roll-out of its National Quality Standards for childcare, and to increase support for out-of-school care by $450 million, allowing schools to either extend and improve their existing program or to establish a new one.

Labor’s policy on childcare is superior to the Coalition’s, but more is needed to address significant childcare challenges.

Beyond PPL and childcare, secure, decently paid, flexible jobs with access to paid sick and family leave are a critical work and family support. They are increasingly important for workers dealing with the care of older family.

The Coalition states that it will make minimal changes to industrial relations policy in its first term, and that it will hold a Productivity Commission review into IR.

Labor offers more, broadening the right to request flexible working arrangements to more workers who need them (which will assist those caring for aged family members), to workers with disabilities, to mature-age workers, and to those experiencing family violence. It has also required that, in changing awards, the Fair Work Commission must take account of penalty rates.

Neither party has addressed the issue of insecure work, the lack of paid leave for those who work in casual jobs, or the lack of an appeal mechanism for those refused a request for flexibility.