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Academics for Abbott? The paid parental leave paradox

Our Prime Minister Tony Abbott with Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada (or is that Canadia?) AAP/Australian Government)

Let’s face it, for an academic it had been a long time since there was too much to get passionate about in Federal politics. The latter Howard years were more of the same and the joy of the Rudd “education revolution” soon dissolved amid party in-fighting, the great Rudd-Gillard-Rudd leadership debacle and Labor’s pathetic emulation of the Liberal’s off-shore refugee processing in a race to the bottom of the political cess pool.

Then along came Christopher Pyne, George Brandis, Greg Hunt, Scott Morrison, Joe Hockey and of course Tony Abbott.

All of a sudden the fire’s back in the collective academic belly! There’s a veritable smorgasbord of issues for the us small-l liberal academics to feast upon as the most conservative government since the war embarks on its “reforms” to end the “age of entitlement”. To the barricades comrades!

The Government in action

On climate, the Minister Against The Environment, Greg Hunt, is doing his best to chop down trees, dismantle anything to do with renewable energy incentives, burn coal, attack innocent marine species in the Great Barrier Reef and of course remove the carbon tax. The much-heralded “Direct Action” plan to reduce emissions seems to be code for “inaction”.

On his recent world tour our super-fit leader Tony Abbott stopped off in Texas to sing the praise of burning coal in one of the few places outside of the Liberal party-room (and Canadia) that such statements still win applause – and a Stetson!

While in the US Tony even labelled himself a conservationist, and in the right company likened the increase in the fuel excise levy to a carbon tax, which when you think about it, it is.

George “Free Speech” Brandis belongs in a private school debating club and for his first topic has chosen to argue for the affirmative on the special topic: “Do you have the right to be a bigot?” A noble quest for sure and certain to get Andrew Bolt eligible for a knighthood if successful.

Scott Morrison hasn’t been able to tell us much, except that he stopped the boats(!) – and made refugees someone else’s problem while helping our foreign debt levels by slashing foreign aid.

Joe Hockey wants to transform Medicare into a user-pays system, regardless of whether you are a pensioner or not, and make us all work longer.

And finally, Christopher Pyne has slashed the universities’ budgets by 20% and told us to hit the students for the difference – and more if we’re worth it (wink, wink). The free market will do the rest!

What say the Opposition?

The Labor party is surprisingly unified despite Bill Shorten’s best efforts to put us to sleep, and is steadfastly opposed to just about everything, except the debt levy, which it would be against, except they wish they’d thought of it.

As academics, we’re gob-smacked. The anti-intellectual ethos behind the coalition’s environmental policies is horrifying, labelling shock jocks as friends while disregarding the Chief Scientist’s ever more urgent warnings about the environment.

Regardless of what you think a “fair” level of contribution for a graduate should be, the “Amerification” of our university sector, the transfer of government debt to graduate debt and the joyful zeal with which the government wants to (over) “correct” Australia for Labor’s “class warfare” by seeking to dismantle the social policies that the Fraser and Howard governments held dear has many of us praying to the Palmersaurus for salvation.

Paid parental leave

With so much to get angry about, it would only seem logical for us to put the boot into Abbott’s signature piece of legislation, the paid parental leave scheme, after all Labor haven’t held back.

The legislation seeks to pay women who take maternity leave their normal salary for up to 26 weeks. Originally the payments were to be capped at A$75,000, but after the “budget emergency” this has been trimmed back to A$50,000. The current scheme introduced by Labor gives women the minimum wage for up to 18 weeks for a fairly paltry A$11,000.

Labor is arguing that wealthy women don’t deserve this “Rolls Royce” scheme and on social equity grounds the legislation must be opposed. They call it a “gift to wealthy people”. Rumours persist that even within the government’s own members support for the policy is at best lukewarm.

And yet, I like it. Why? Well, Abbott’s policy is like a watered down version of my own university’s policy that has been instrumental at helping our institution to retain women who choose to start a family while minimising the financial burden at a tumultuous time in their lives.

At Swinburne University of Technology, women who take maternity leave are entitled to 14 weeks at full pay and another 38 weeks at 60% of their normal salary.

In full, this is 70% of their annual salary (up from the Abbott scheme’s 50%). Even for our lowest ranked (A6) academics this amounts to almost A$60,000 as it includes superannuation, and for a full Professor this would be A$127,000 (although the majority of women who use the scheme are in more junior positions).

The maximum benefit under Abbott’s scheme (A$50,000) is similar to what a very junior administrator (HEW 5.2) can gain at most universities.

The similarities to the Abbott scheme and our own are inescapable, except that the university one is more generous. Both offer benefits in proportion to the current salary of the recipient.

Since universities are tax-payer funded organisations, it would be hypocritical of us to sing the praises of our own generous maternity schemes whilst denouncing Abbott’s one for the tax-payers who help fund our own. Rats.

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