25 February 2020

I rise to speak on the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Flexibility Measures) Bill 2020 and to support the amendment moved by my colleague the member for Barton. The opposition supports the bill, which builds on the national Paid Parental Leave scheme introduced by Labor, which commenced on 1 January 2011. On this side, we are very proud of this scheme. You will recall, Deputy Speaker O'Brien, that when the legislation was passed, Australia was one of only two OECD countries, along with the United States, that did not have a paid parental leave scheme—unbelievable, I know. The purpose of the paid parental leave scheme was and is to provide financial support to primary carers of newborn and newly adopted children. This allows those carers to take time off work to care for the child after the birth or adoption; to enhance the health and development of birth mothers, their children and the rest of their family coping with the addition of a new baby; to enable women to continue to participate in the workforce, which is vitally important; and to promote equality between men and women, and the balance between work and family life. It provides two payments: paid parental leave of 18 weeks at the minimum wage for the primary carer, and dad and partner leave of two weeks.


When I had my beautiful twin girls 33 years ago, I was only 23 years old. I was a trainee nurse working shiftwork. Their dad was only 21. He was a chef's apprentice. We weren't actually planning to have children quite at that time, but along they came. I was earning $250 a week as a trainee nurse. My partner, as a chef's apprentice, was earning $180 a week. There was no paid parental leave. I was, of course, entitled to take the year off on unpaid leave, but we could not afford for me to do that, pay rent and support two tiny humans. So we did what a lot of people did; we moved in with my mum. It's not ideal for a young couple. My poor partner had to live with his mother-in-law. She was, of course, a godsend and a wonderful help, and I will always be so very deeply grateful for what she did for us. But at least I had a mum to help. I had help from five sisters and three brothers as well. I had a village. I can't imagine what it was like for families who didn't have that support. I can't imagine the financial strain and pain that such a joyous event can end up causing.


We lived with my mum for 18 months. I went back to work when those beautiful babies were seven weeks old. It broke my heart, but I had to—partly because, if I didn't, I thought I would never finish my nursing training, and partly because I wanted to be independent and have my own family home. Imagine that: working full-time shiftwork as a nurse, studying to pass exams, struggling to keep breastfeeding, getting up in the night to two babies while my husband worked split shifts as a chef's apprentice until all hours of the morning; he struggling, himself, and wishing he didn't have to live with his mother-in-law. But we did it, with the help of the village, and we were able to buy our own home 18 months later.


When my son was born four years later, from memory I had two weeks paid leave. It's hard to believe—just two weeks. When my fourth baby arrived, my beautiful baby girl, I had four weeks paid maternity leave. Again, we managed to scrape by, but I still could not manage to take a full year with no pay. That was way out of our financial remit. We all know financial strain puts enormous pressure on families at any time, let alone when a new baby arrives. The chronic tiredness, the change in routine, the difficulty retaining relationships—it all adds up. Add to this worry paying the bills, keeping the mortgage payments going, and knowing that, like most people, you're only one pay packet away from disaster. You have a perfect storm.


When I was on maternity leave with my son, my husband, who, as I said, was a chef, contracted salmonella poisoning. We all did actually—the whole family; it was terrible. It meant that he could not work as a chef, for obvious reasons, until he had been cleared of the salmonella from his system. He needed weekly tests. Believe it or not, it took weeks and weeks for him to be clear. He ran out of sick leave and neither of us were being paid. We fell into terrible trouble. I picked up some casual shifts here and there as a nurse. My husband had to bring the baby to me in my lunch break so I could breastfeed him. But the casual work was not enough. We had to beg the bank to delay mortgage payments. I had to beg my employer to let me go back to work early. That wasn't easy, because someone had been employed to backfill me, and it wasn't fair to break her contract on my account. We really struggled until I managed to get back to work. For months and months, we had to play catch-up. We were one pay period away from economic disaster.


Paid parental leave is a vital component of a family's survival. Paid parental leave signals to employers and the Australian community that parents taking time out of the paid workforce to care for a child is essential and a part of the normal course of life. It enables participation of women in the workforce. A high workforce participation rate is important in the context of an ageing population. It's crucial to our economy and retaining skilled staff. And, importantly, it helps to address the gender pay gap, particularly for those women on low and middle incomes, who often have less access to employer-funded parental leave.


Almost 150,000 parents a year benefit from this leave introduced by Labor, and nearly half of all new mothers benefit from the scheme each year. The scheme was always intended to be supplemented by bargaining in the workplace, which would allow additional weeks at the workers' usual rate of pay. I'm pleased to say that for nurses in Victoria that now means 10 weeks at full pay—a far cry from when I was struggling with my twins. Any agreement-derived entitlement could be taken either simultaneously with the paid parental leave entitlement or added to the minimum 18-week scheme.


In the last seven years we have fought coalition attempts to absorb bargained outcomes against the scheme entitlement—in other words, to reduce the 18-week payment by the amount received under an enterprise agreement. Scandalously, those on the other side called access to bargained entitlements and the legislated entitlements 'double dipping'—a hard fought for entitlement that came at the expense of bargaining for other things like extra annual leave, carer's leave, shift loadings or some other outcome. Nothing comes for free, and it seems that those on the other side simply didn't understand that. Those much-needed extra weeks were hard fought for, were bargained for and came at a cost. They were not just handed over as a freebie. Thankfully, that legislation was defeated in the Senate. It would have seriously disadvantaged lower- and middle-income workers like cleaners, carers, teachers, nurses and police.


This bill will enable working mothers and families across the nation to split their paid parental leave entitlement into blocks of time over a two-year period, with periods of work in-between. Currently, the scheme only allows paid parental leave to be taken as a continuous 18-week block within the first 12 months after the birth or adoption of a child, and only when the primary carer has not returned to work since the birth or adoption of the child. So this bill will change paid parental leave rules by splitting the 18 weeks of public paid parental leave into a 12-week period and a six-week flexible paid parental leave period.


The 12-week paid parental leave period entitlement will only be available as a continuous block but will be accessible by the primary carer at any time during the first 12 months, so not only immediately after the birth or adoption of a child. The six-week flexible paid parental leave period will be available at any time during the first two years and doesn't need to be taken as a block. These are good changes, and they will apply to children born or adopted from 1 July this year. So, in practice, this will mean families can split their entitlements over a two-year period, with periods of work in-between.


As with the current rules, the primary carer can be changed during this time. It is likely that the most common use of increased flexibility will be parents returning to work part time and spreading their flexible paid period leave over several months. The bill may encourage greater take-up of paid parental leave by secondary carers, allowing mothers to transfer their entitlements to a partner at a time that suits the family, and that's to be welcomed.


We know that this scheme isn't perfect. We know that most schemes around the country are far more generous than ours, and there are good reasons for that. There's lots of medical research to show that it's best for mum and baby to be fully breastfeeding for six months, for example, and many schemes allow for that and pay that at full wages, not just minimum wage.



This is Labor's scheme. But do you know what? We had to start somewhere. That was a different scheme that was making employers fully pay for it. You know it was a different scheme. Don't be disingenuous. It was completely different, because this is a government funded scheme, and that is what we wanted. That is why this is important—because it's accessible to everybody, not just someone who has an employer or is wealthy enough to pay. This scheme is for everyone, employed or not.


I was there just after the global financial crisis when we were negotiating this scheme—with Sharan Burrow, Heather Ridout from the AiG, and Jenny Macklin pushing for this in the Labor Party. This was an important scheme, but it was a very difficult financial time for the country back then. As I said, it was right after the global financial crisis. But businesses, the government, trade unions and workers knew that it was important to get this up. They really worked incredibly hard to get those 18 weeks. We are proud of that; it was a good start. It was implemented, and we were no longer one of only two countries in the OECD that didn't provide access to paid parental leave. So we are proud of that.


The changes in this bill are good changes, but they are not dramatically increasing the entitlements, they are not making the scheme better, and the gap between us and the rest of the world is widening once again. It's really time that we thought hard about improving this scheme. We support these changes.