Zali Steggall introduces motion to extend paid parental leave

26 September


I move:

That this House:

(1) notes that:

(a) there are around 2.5 million families with dependent children aged under 15 in Australia;

(b) Australia has one of the least generous paid parental leave schemes in the OECD;

(c) McKinsey & Company found that in Australia, participation in early childhood education is lower and costs over 40 percent more than the OECD average; and

(d) perinatal discrimination is the top discrimination complaint in Australian workplaces;

(2) acknowledges that:

(a) Australia lags developed countries in the provision of best practice, evidenced-based policies that support families and children;

(b) at the Jobs and Skills Summit there was broad agreement from trade unions to the Business Council of Australia, and advocacy groups that improving paid parental leave and childcare were essential to improving women's workforce participation; and

(c) there is significant economic benefit to Australia from increasing female workforce participation, gender equity and outcomes for children; and

(3) calls on the Government to:

(a) provide for at least 26 weeks of paid parental leave with a use it or lose it provision to incentivise shared use of leave where there are two carers;

(b) set 1 January 2023 as the start date for lower the cost of early childhood education for all families; and

(c) improve access to paid carers' leave for parents of sick children.

This motion outlines a very important need. We need a more generous, shared paid parental leave scheme of no less than 26 weeks, lowering the cost of early childhood education and improving access to paid carers leave for parents of sick children. In February 2021, I moved a similar motion and, disappointingly, despite a change of government, there has been a lack of progress on these key issues for young Australian families. Closing the gender pay gap and facilitating women's participation in the workforce must be a priority. At the recent Jobs and Skills Summit, there was broad agreement from unions to business councils of Australia and advocacy groups that, to increase women's participation in the workforce, we need to improve paid parental leave and make child care more affordable. We saw a lot of other policy move, but, in response to this very key ask, what we got from the Prime Minister was, 'We will think about it,' and 'Not now,' or 'Let's have an inquiry.' That is, with respect, not good enough. Women and parents are tired of waiting.

There is a strong economic case for these changes. Equity Economics has estimated that the cumulative impact of proposed changes, like those in this motion, could increase GDP by 4.1 per cent by 2050 or some $166 billion. If Australia were to lift female participation equivalent to that of men, it would increase GDP by 8.7 per cent or some $353 billion by 2050. We don't need to look only to migration to reduce skills shortages. We need to ensure that women in Australia have the ability to participate in the workforce. There's a health imperative as well in these measures. I presented a petition last week in relation to the World Health Organization's guidelines and the National Breastfeeding Strategy goals relating to children having the opportunity to be exclusively breast fed for six months, yet we don't have a paid parental leave scheme that facilitates that.

A fairer, more widely accessible paid parental leave scheme in tune with 21st century families—working families, working parents—is urgently needed. The current Paid Parental Leave scheme was introduced in 2009. The make-up of families has changed. A new scheme must take into account all families—double-income, stay-at-home dads, stay-at-home mums and a far greater proportion of single-parent families. We lag behind developed countries. At the moment, the average in OECD countries is 55 weeks, and yet we have 18 weeks for the primary carer and two weeks for the other parent.

Last Father's Day, the Grattan Institute released research showing that shared paid parental leave not only boosts mothers' earnings but it can boost our entire GDP. Increasing the entitlement to 26 weeks, shared between parents, would cost some $600 million per year but it would return $900 million per year, as well as boosting a mother's lifetime earnings by $30,000. Time and time again we come back to this place and we hear that the gender pay gap is not narrowing, and women are still behind. And yet here is the measure to start to narrow that pay gap. So don't put it on the shelf. Don't put it away for another inquiry. Actually act upon it.

At the moment, you have a system that has no incentive for sharing. We know men's participation in parental leave is incredibly low. That's because of the way the system is set up. It is income-tested on the woman's income, the mother's income. We need to make sure that it's not just a cap of $150,000 per year on the birth mother; it must be a joint household income, a couple's income. This will encourage fathers into caring roles, improve their long-term bond with children, increase their participation in unpaid work in households and give them an appreciation around the world of the carer but also provide primary carers with that opportunity to return to their career sooner and more sustainably. We know this is so incredibly important to facilitate women's participation in the workforce. We know childcare fees have increased some 41 per cent in recent years. The Productivity Commission last year found that the massive block is the cost of child care. The government is talking about improving that situation on 1 July 2023. I say: make it 1 January 2023. The changes are needed now.