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.