Sections

Services

Information

UK United Kingdom

Are feminists opposing Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme on personality grounds only?

There is an odd consensus emerging between conservative Liberals opposed to their own leader’s paid parental leave scheme and defenders of the Gillard government’s version of the same policy. Into the…

Opposition leader Tony Abbott is under pressure to drop his signature paid parental leave scheme ahead of this year’s federal election. AAP/Dave Hunt

There is an odd consensus emerging between conservative Liberals opposed to their own leader’s paid parental leave scheme and defenders of the Gillard government’s version of the same policy.

Into the strange mix, we can throw the business sector, which also opposes the contentious Abbott scheme.

The business excuse is that it is paid out of a new levy on business - their view is obviously self-interested - but the motives of the conservative Liberals are less clear.

Paid parental leave draws justifications and criticisms from various quarters. At a basic level, it is difficult to oppose a payment that ensures mothers the time off work required to bond with newborns.

This is obviously a health issue. But if the rationale behind the move is to ensure that lower income families have the money to allow the mother to take that vital time, then we’re drifting into the realm of welfare policy.

The more radical basis for arguing for parental leave is to set up it up as an ongoing workplace entitlement. Feminists have long argued for parenting time to be recognised as a legitimate employee entitlement, like holiday pay, sick pay and long service leave, as part of a wider effort to normalise parenting in workplaces.

Interestingly, Tony Abbott’s pitch for his version of paid parental leave is closer to the feminist angle than the health or welfare justifications. He has designed a payment that meets so many traditional feminist demands. This is not just an argument about the needs of children - important as these may be - but the value women workers bring in improving productivity via greater participation. Recognising parents' role in workplaces fits this model.

The campaign by feminists and others to introduce a paid parental leave scheme has a long history. An initial victory in the late 1970s put in place the right of employees to take up to 12 months unpaid maternity leave if they had 12 month continuous services with the same employer.

This change was disappointingly not followed by a leave payment, despite various campaigns, reports and even interventions by the Human Rights Commission.

The last major effort to introduce a paid parental leave scheme was driven by Pru Goward. It recommended 14 weeks paid maternity leave in a scheme similar to the current Gillard plan, except it was to be paid up to and not at the minumum wage level.

This was not acceptable to the Howard government as it was linked to paid workers and didn’t cover women at home. The Howard answer instead was a A$3000 baby bonus paid to all mothers, soon rising to A$5000.

After ejecting Howard in 2007, the Rudd Labor government referred the issue to the Productivity Commission which produced yet another version bearing considerable similarities to Pru Goward’s model. The government accepted and introduced this and by 2011, it was operational. Parents are now entitled to 18 weeks pay but can no longer claim the baby bonus and some Family Tax benefits.

It was, as was the earlier version, an odd mix of welfare-type payment and workplace attachment. However, it has some serious flaws. The standard payment of the minimum wage bears no relationship to actual earnings - and the source of the payment is Centrelink - making it just another form of welfare payment.

Some part-time workers receive more that they were paid while working and others significantly less. There is also no connected leave or the right of return to your job. These rights are available only to those mothers who have been employed for 12 months by the same employer, as with the entitlement under the separate legislation for unpaid maternity leave.

Under the current paid parental leave scheme introduced by the Gillard government, parents are entitled to 18 weeks pay following the birth of a child. AAP/Alan Porritt

So why have so few feminists been openly supportive of the Abbott scheme? On what the information available so far, it seems to be pretty much what many have long campaigned for: replacement income and 26 weeks leave.

Could the reason for the lack of support be related to who proposed it than what it is? Abbott has a history of sexism and anti-fertility control so opposition to his proposal could stem from his past record.

This is Abbott’s opportunity to show he has changed. If he were to deliver on this scheme and fix the two anomalies (connected leave and right of return) he would be offering a better scheme than the present one. He could then seriously claim that he really was committed to changing workplace cultures, not just the incomes of women.

He would need to insert the right to return to the job and align the right to take leave with eligibility for the payment for those who recently changed jobs, as these omissions exclude many low income earners in casual jobs.

Paying a form of parental leave that both covered these anomalies and replaced income for nearly all women would be a significant progression for Australia. Having it paid by a levy on business makes sense, as business benefits from not having to make the payments out of individual profits.

The fuss about the very few possible high income claimants is a distraction. Most women in upper income brackets are either older and have had children or are not likely to have children. As so few female high earners are likely to have babies that is the problem we need to solve.

We need to change the far too common workplace cultures that demand women behave like male employees in attempting to separate paid work from other parts of life.

Starting with a clearly work related paid parental scheme would be one further step in that direction. Even if it is Tony Abbott offering it.