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Day 19: PPL: It goes back to the “baby drought”

A new slant on campaigning as Tony Abbott joins the soldiers for a work out in Darwin. AAP/Alex Ellinghausen

Tony Abbott describes himself as a “convert” to paid parental leave. Once a declared sceptic, he’s not only a believer but a passionate advocate of a scheme that’s become highly controversial and divisive in this campaign. So how was he persuaded to a faith now so strong that even colleagues roll their eyes?

“What slowly changed my mind was the experience of female colleagues who often felt torn between the demands of parliamentary life and the duties of motherhood”, he wrote in Battlelines in 2009.

Enter Jackie Kelly, former Liberal member for the western Sydney seat of Lindsay. (Abbott recently famously said that she and present candidate Fiona Scott both had sex appeal. It brought him criticism but didn’t do Scott any harm – she appears set to win the seat).

Kelly, an MP from 1996 to 2007 and good mates with Abbott, had two babies while in parliament, the first when she was minister for sport and tourism (she was the first to give birth while a serving federal minister).

Her situation was unusual: she didn’t get maternity leave but her pay wasn’t docked when she took time off. In contrast, she says, the check-out woman at the supermarket didn’t receive pay. “How was that fair?”

Kelly was in Abbott’s ear, especially when they rode on his “Pollie Pedal”. “We’d get talking about life. I didn’t miss an opportunity”, she tells The Conversation, adding quickly, “but I wasn’t a nag.”

For his part, Abbott was concerned about why women were having fewer children. Kelly would argue to him, “You say you want people to have more children – but you’re not putting anything out there.” She harked back to the Liberal party’s commitment to family values to push the case.

As they pedalled their way around various places, Kelly would ask women at the meetings for their views. Abbott could hear “example after example of how policy was letting us down”.

Kelly says he was on board well before she left parliament. “I used my time very, very well on the pollie pedal.”

Abbott these days sells PPL as a driver of productivity as well as increased population. Kelly’s comments and Battlelines make clear that boosting fertility has always been an important goal. “Anything that makes having children easier is likely to mean more of them”, he wrote (as well as talking about fairness). “A paid maternity leave scheme could motivate some career women to choose to have a child and others to choose to have two children rather than just one”. One sub-heading in the book is entitled “The Child Drought”.

Abbott frequently acknowledges that generous PPL is hard for some conservatives to accept, because they fear it will encourage women to forsake what he refers to in Battlelines as their “traditional roles”. But the “child drought” concept can square the circle.

“As Jackie Kelly has most persistently argued, more support was needed if women were both to stay in the workforce and continue to have children. The parliamentary childcare centre, for instance, which she did so much to bring about, was absolutely necessary if conservative, motherhood-minded women were to enter parliament before their children had grown up”, he wrote.

Abbott announced the plan to the party room in 2010 as a captain’s pick, and took it to the 2010 election.

He and the Coalition argue its benefits for women up and down the income scale. But by linking the payment to income – providing up to a maximum of $75,000 for six months plus superannuation – it’s obvious that it has women up the scale particularly in mind.

Abbott said in May, “We do not educate women to higher degree level to deny them a career.

"If we want women of that calibre to have families, and we should, well we have to give them a fair dinkum chance to do so. That is what this scheme of paid parental leave is all about.”

To that extent it can be seen as involving some social engineering.

But politically the “women of calibre” pitch has obvious problems, and it’s not one we hear now from Abbott.

One of his central points is that PPL should be seen as not welfare but a workplace entitlement and so should be tied to wages. It’s a measure to keep women with skills attached to the workforce.

In adopting PPL so enthusiastically, Abbott has deserted the position held by John Howard, who makes clear in his autobiography Lazarus Rising his opposition to the Abbott plan. Howard criticises the Labor government scheme as discriminating against stay-at-home parents, adding: “The policy announced by Tony Abbott was more generous and, as a consequence, discriminates even more heavily against stay-at-home parents”.

Some see the Abbott PPL as a carefully-crafted attempt to neutralise his so- called women’s problem. That has become a consideration. But the hitch with that theory to explain how he initially came to his view is that Battlelines was written before there seemed any real likelihood he would become leader.

After the conversion why the Abbott zealotry? One reason is that all leaders like and need a big idea. Howard’s was industrial relations reform. For Abbott it’s become a blow-you-away PPL plan.

Join the conversation

22 Comments sorted by

  1. Dale Bloom


    Abbotts’s Parental Leave scheme is a Maternity Leave scheme in thin disguise.

    The aim of the scheme seems to be to get women to have more babies, but the bigger question is why do we need more babies, and why do we need more people in the country?

    That question has yet to be answered by the Liberal party, but the Labor party has never answered that question it also.

    Meanwhile, our population growth rate is now one of the highest of OECD countries, and we need to build a city the size of Wollongong every 12 months to accommodate that population increase.

    We are already full.

    1. ian cheong

      logged in via email

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      According to the stats, the population growth is mostly migration and not births. The reason for the migration is reported to fill needed jobs, which are needed to grow the economy.

      Migration numbers are very lumpy and determined by immigration policy, so numbers can be reduced if birth rate changes.

      I'm not sure it has been clarified who actually is paying for the PPL scheme. Other employment entitlements (sick leave, holiday pay, etc) are paid by employers. Workers are entitled in the law. So a legal entitlement doesn't actually cost the government *anything*, just as the government is not responsible for the rest of workers entitlements.

    2. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      And because of population growth, property prices just keep rising, and rising, and everyone is feeling so wealthy they'll just vote conservative to keep the wealth kettle boiling?
      Talk about a fools paradise, the era of cheap money which fuelled a trillion dollars of the Howard era mortgage debt, (Wealth said Howard, celebrate the wealth!!) is over and gone and the wealth is now revealed instead as unsustainable debt, with Abbott's Austerity Axe set to bring the entire sorry edifice crashing down.
      Australia finally joins the Global Financial Crisis!
      Always so keen to catch up with the rest of the world that it doesn't even know when it is ahead?
      So fewer children in an economic austerity period as well as less greenhouse gas production?
      Abbott's Economic "Gangrene" Policies in Action?
      Please excuse the excess cynicism being expressed here.

    3. Dale Bloom


      In reply to ian cheong

      Norway’s system was to build a sovereign wealth fund, and now many pensions including its Maternity Leave pension are mostly drawn from that fund.

      Norway’s “Government Pension Fund” is $737 billion for a population of 5 million people, while Australia’s "Future Fund” is only $88.7 billion for a population of 23 million.

      The Australian government invested most the country’s wealth in ponzi demography to increase the population, mainly through immigration.

      There may not be an old age pension in the future, and the federal government will likely increase taxes, and will probably attempt to sell public assets in future years.

      We have had the most inept and stupid federal governments in our history, and we will all pay for it.

    4. Chris O'Neill

      Retired Way Before 70

      In reply to ian cheong

      "According to the stats, the population growth is mostly migration and not births."

      You're being a little misleading. Births are a lot more than net immigration but subtracting deaths brings natural increase down below net immigration.

    5. Chris O'Neill

      Retired Way Before 70

      In reply to ian cheong

      "I'm not sure it has been clarified who actually is paying for the PPL scheme. Other employment entitlements (sick leave, holiday pay, etc) are paid by"

      the employees own


    6. Andrew Smith

      Education Consultant at Australian & International Education Centre

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      To describe NOM net overseas migration as "immigration" or "migration" is misleading.

      The NOM has been described as a "statistical" anomaly which includes (over half) temporary churnover of international students, 457 workers, 2nd year backpackers, NZ's, dependents and Australian citizens when returning home permanently.

      They may become part of the "Estimated Resident Population" but that does not make them immigrants especially when they receive no benefits, no right to vote, limited work righst and conditions, pay high fees for study, move around etc..

      The inflation of population plays into the hands of property spruikers, and white nativists claiming runaway population growth (which PJ O'Rourke says is used to by white poeple to assuage their racist guilt....)

    7. Dale Bloom


      In reply to Andrew Smith

      “The Director of ABS Demography, Bjorn Jarvis, said the increase in Australia’s population growth rate is being driven by net overseas migration.”

      The ABS also describes the population growth as being “strong”, with WA continuing to “lead the nation”.

      Strong leadership to a cliff more likely, with biocapacity levels becoming very weak, and decreasing to zero in about 50 years.

      Time to close the doors and turn out the lights then, after the party is over.

    8. ian cheong

      logged in via email

      In reply to Chris O'Neill

      the graph is self explanatory. net migration is way bigger than net natural popuation growth. more peope are born than die.

  2. Lee Emmett

    Guest House Manager

    Tony Abbott's apparent insularity on this issue could be symptomatic of a wider blindness - can't he see how insensitive this proposal is? If a future government uses the tax system to give a woman on the minimum wage ~ $5k compared with women on $150k+ receiving $75k it will entrench a system of inequity, with the gap growing between those at the bottom and those at the top end of the income spectrum.

    The women of 'calibre' remark indicates Tony Abbott's real sympathies. Rather than distribute entitlements equally across income levels (like Labor's scheme), or to give more to those needing income support, the LNP's system is deliberately favourable to wealthier women.

    Combine this policy with cuts to superannuation, existing inequities in educational and health opportunities for those with lower incomes, and the likelihood of individual flexibility agreements eroding wages and conditions, and we will get some idea of what will happen if the LNP is voted in.

    1. Neville Mattick
      Neville Mattick is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grazier: ALP Member at A 4th Generation Grazing Station

      In reply to Lee Emmett

      Indeed Lee, in fact many Rural Wives (where the enterprise is running at a loss) will be far worse off if they have an LNP scheme in place.

      Even so, we can't be surprised that the LNP is supporting its supporters' when recalling the last round of Tax cuts from the Howard era to the big end of town which has deliberately sunk the budget.

      Small end of town? Given a proper tax free threshold by Labor, which for many farming families will see real benefits where it is needed as many are partnerships and each partner will multiply the tax free component.

    2. wilma western

      logged in via email

      In reply to Neville Mattick

      That's what I thought too , Neville - also probably applies to many small family businesses and reinforces pressure to set up so-called family companies with all the paraphenalia of "wages" for the "managers" etc.... will someone please explain?

  3. David Thompson

    Marketing Research

    Abbott is also an irresponsible huge spending conservative, just waiting to leap out of the Prime Minister's chair in his Captain DLP speedos.

    1. Brett Bailey

      Self Employed

      In reply to David Thompson

      Well at least you acknowledge he will be in the PM's chair. The speedo's refernce in a little passee now - really think we should have grown up a little and not keep making oblique comments which are derogatory really.
      I like the concept of Abbott's PPL the amount is perhaps high but there again the number of women in that high end are only about 1.5% of the workforce - the reality is that the predominant group of women who are in the age group of having children is way under $75K so I don;t know…

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    2. Chris O'Neill

      Retired Way Before 70

      In reply to Brett Bailey

      "I like the concept of Abbott's PPL"

      There will be quite a lot of smallish businesses that like the concept of Abbott's PPL. Hardly surprising when it is effectively a subsidy to their wages costs that will be paid for by someone else. Isn't it sweet when some of your costs are paid for by other people's money (OPM)?

  4. David Stein


    What appears to be totally lost on Tony Abbott is the discrimination 'motherhood-minded' women will face when attempting to get a job in the first place.
    The scheme guarantees that almost every woman who has a child will take the 6 months off which just doesn't happen today. Some women do at their own expense of course, but employers will know there will no longer be a question about it - any woman who presents themselves for a job who is of childbearing age will be presumed to take at least one, and perhaps multiple periods of 6 months or more off to have children.

    1. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to David Stein

      Abbott's hidden agenda, to keep the women at home, jobless?
      Better for the mothers, where working conditions permit, to take their children to work, where facilities for their children are provided, and earn and take home 100% of their pay.
      As women want, according to the media articles.

  5. Janeen Harris


    If the loss of some income is stopping " women of caliber" from having children then they are not women of caliber.

  6. Mark O'Connor


    What a medieval head-in-the-sand pro-natalist set of ideas! Our population is growing at a third-world=style annual rate of 1.8% (that's 50% higher than Indonesia's rate for instance), and with twice as many births as deaths.

    The state governments have been near bankrupted by the costs of expanding infrastructure and services, at some $200,000 cost per extra Australian, and the environment is being trashed.

    Yet Abbott complains of “The Chīld Drőught” -- and his rival Turnbull has never…

    Read more
  7. Chris O'Neill

    Retired Way Before 70

    "PPL: It goes back to the “baby drought”"

    So it goes back to a lie. Thought so.

  8. Chris O'Neill

    Retired Way Before 70

    "Abbott has deserted the position held by John Howard, who makes clear in his autobiography Lazarus Rising his opposition to the Abbott plan."

    Looks like we should have kept John Howard.

  9. Philip Brentnall


    Years ago, Hitler arranged for the German race was to be improved by practicing eugenics, Now it seems that Abbott is going to improve the Australian race by paying "high calibre women" to have high quality babies.

    How far do we take the same mind set?