Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Building on the Child Care Package) Bill 2019
Ms WELLS (Lilley) (10:47): It is time to renew our economy and the social infrastructure that supports it. We must have an economy that no longer distinguishes between full-time and part-time work or, indeed, even between paid and unpaid work, since the work of raising a family and caring for others is just as essential to human wellbeing as work that brings in a pay cheque. So, while I'm pleased to support the amendments being introduced to the House today in the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Work Test) Bill 2019, because they make something easier for working women by extending eligibility for paid parental leave to women who work in dangerous occupations or who have irregular employment, I am disappointed that this opportunity to amend the act does not go further in addressing the imbalance between women and men when it comes to caregiving and opportunities to give care to their children.
The gender pay gap remains a problem in Australia. I was very surprised to hear the Treasurer in question time last week tell us that it has closed. It was certainly news to me, and it was certainly news to all of my working-mother friends, because we know it hasn't closed. Female workers in Australia still earn 14 per cent less than their male colleagues. One of the reasons that the gender pay gap remains in Australia is that women continue to do a large percentage of unpaid work outside the house, caring for their children, caring for their parents and caring for their neighbours.
Our society and our economy do not value care enough. We do not place enough value on the role of care in our community and the work of those who provide that care, unpaid. Our failure to place a high enough value on care can be seen in a number of different areas—for example, with early educators. You see it when our country only pays our early educators a minimum wage, despite the fact that they perform some of the most important work in our society, fostering and educating our littlest citizens. We know that all the evidence tells us that from zero to five years old is the most crucial time in a child's life, yet we pay these people some of the lowest wages in our country. You can also see it in how our country funds the care in nursing homes and in aged-care facilities. I worked in a couple of different aged-care facilities as I was paying my way through uni. I know that, there, personal carers can earn just over 20 bucks an hour in exchange for their responsibilities in caring for our oldest Australians.
The impacts of that can be felt throughout society and the ripple effect is very clear, because what happens to compensate for where these gaps are in the system, where we fail to fund these things properly, is that people pick up the slack and provide that care for free and they do it on their own time. The flow-on effect of that is that they have to do reduced hours at work or they don't get to go for the promotions that others who don't have those care requirements are able to go for.
Our economy benefits from the unpaid care that our citizens give willingly—which they do out of love, and we thank them for it—but our economy shouldn't be based on a system where people provide care for free and we don't do anything to value that care or support them in their work. Our economy also draws benefit from this work being provided so cheaply by dedicated citizens, despite this imbalance and despite this injustice. Our economy draws benefit from all that unpaid care that women do when they return to work part-time after having a child, or when they stop in at their neighbour's home after work to check that their neighbour has their dinner, wash the dishes and set their neighbour up for the evening, or the unpaid work that women do when they take their dad to his doctors appointment. They also take on the mental load of keeping track of all the scripts that need to be filled, all the follow-up appointments that need to be made, and what other care will be required in the months to come. There is a lot more to do in all of this space. It is a shame that, when we have an opportunity like this to amend the Paid Parental Leave Act, we don't do more to fix these gaps.
Government data shows a woman's life is quite literally turned on its head when she becomes a mother—and the member for Jagajaga has spoken eloquently about this already. Her hours of unpaid child care increase from zero to upwards of 40 hours per week and her hours of employment plunge and normally never recover. Time devoted to unpaid household work also doubles—and it stays that way right through her children's primary school years. By contrast—and my friend Jamila Rizvi has written extensively on this topic, and I would like to acknowledge her work in this space—the hours for an average bloke don't change so much after becoming a dad. His parenting hours increase, but by not even as much as half of the increase that women experience. On average, his employment is pretty well identical to what it was pre-parenthood. There is also no significant change in the time spent on housework—on average. I repeat 'on average'; because I will honour my husband, primary caregiver to our child and extremely effective operations manager in our household, who keeps us all alive and not being human bin fires. Thank you, Finn.
The same life event, the arrival of a baby, alters the course and nature of how a woman spends her time forever, but, based solely on the data, a man's life remains fairly similar. So what an opportunity we have to amend the Paid Parental Leave Act to better support and encourage men to participate in that caregiving work—an opportunity which we have failed to take today. Marian Baird, a professor of gender and employment relations at the University of Sydney, said that almost all eligible women take paid parental leave compared to about 25 to 30 per cent of men.
Ten years on from the introduction of the Paid Parental Leave Act, we need to take stock and see where we need to make amendments to address some of the things that we set out to do in the first place. Ten years on, we now know that we are not achieving the goals that we set out in the act to achieve. We need to think about what we can do better and then we need to do it. I wish the government would address this space with a better plan and a better agenda. We have plenty of suggestions to offer—and I will offer some suggestions now.
The member for Jagajaga has already spoken eloquently about some of the case studies from Scandinavia. It is almost compulsory to speak about the success that Scandinavia has experienced when it comes to policies like these—and people who are interested in this space probably know about these policies already. The use-it-or-lose-it scheme is something we seriously need to look at in Australia. We know that it works. We know that blokes want to participate more fully in caring for their children. We know that women want their partners, when they are men, to be able to step up and do that work so that they can participate more fully in the workplace. We need to be looking at the case studies more.
Researchers at the ANU say that we need to be looking at amending our Paid Parental Leave scheme to mix up the incentives. It provides a much-needed helping hand for new parents, but it isn't doing much to shift the division of child rearing at the moment. If we want things to look substantially different by 2030, in another 10 and a bit years, then it is time to do some major tweaks. Employers also need to step up and play a role. Our current scheme isn't flexible enough to flip the stigma around dads who take parental leave. Annabel Crabb has written recently in the Quarterly Essay about that stigma and that culture that we need to address. It starts from the top. It starts from all of our national institutions. It starts from places like the chamber. Thank you to my party for supporting young mothers, like the member for Jagajaga and me, in being able to be here in this House whilst we have toddlers. We need to see more of that in both houses. Thank you.
We acknowledge the young children and their parents who are here in the House today. You can stay. I honestly won't mind if they keep interjecting, as we just heard from the gallery. It's perfectly fine. We get far worse from the other side!
It's seen as socially necessary for women to take leave, but it's not yet seen as socially necessary for men to take leave in this country, and we need to change that. Male breadwinner culture is still very strong in Australia, and it will take serious and directed efforts to shift that in a substantial way. So, while I support the amendments that are being made today, we can do better.
Emma Walsh, who's the CEO of the advocacy group Parents At Work, says:
We've got to get rid of this idea of primary and secondary carers, because no parent defines themselves like that.
It is something that I think we do in this country at the moment. But what she says is that in countries that have better systems, that are acting more effectively for the goals that we all seek to achieve, they don't look at it like that. What they look at is managing work and family from the position of absolute equality.
As the member for Jagajaga touched on a little bit earlier, Sweden is a very good example of where there are very generous paid family leave policies. It became the first country to introduce a gender-neutral paid parental leave benefit. They did that in 1974. We are so far behind where we could be. Today in Sweden, parents are allowed to take 480 days of paid parental leave per child. For 13 of those months they are entitled to up to 80 per cent of their income—up to a certain income level—and for three months they are given a flat rate of about 20 bucks a day, according to the Swedish embassy. They have also offered fathers incentives to take more of that paid leave—three of the paid months, as the member for Jagajaga has already spoken about. It can't be transferred. It's 'use it or lose it'. From 2008 to until 2017, families were also eligible for an equality bonus determined by the number of days divided equally between parents. The impact of these policies is evident. It's been recently documented by economists at Stanford University. They found that giving the father more work flexibility improved the mother's health and reduced her risk of experiencing physical postpartum health complications.
Sweden is also a leader among advanced economies in female labour participation. As of last year, more than 80 per cent of women aged 25 to 54 worked—88 per cent. But in the US, which is the only industrialised country that does not guarantee workers paid leave, that figure is 74 per cent. Both countries have a similar fertility rate. They're both at about 1.7. Japan's government, who are concerned about the drastically declining birth rate, which is now among the lowest in the world, are now considering making parental leave mandatory.
Annabel Crabb, who I referenced earlier—and she is one of our patron saints of the crusade to consider and to improve the work and care balance in Australian households—tells this great story in the Quarterly Essay where she was at a conference and the Norwegian ambassador was there to outline the parental leave systems and the childcare systems in Norway, which are 46 weeks at full pay, 10 weeks reserved especially for the co-parent, and childcare costs capped at 300 euro per month. It is a package so intoxicating that it provokes—I will quote Annabel here rather than use my words—'moans of frustrated longing in the crowd of Australian women'. I get that. I get that because I did the maths. We spend 300 euros on child care in less than a week here in Australia. In less than a week we spend that. They have that capped as a per-month cost. We also probably spend something like 300 euros in all of the raffle tickets, the donations to the cake stalls and the 'make your own spider lavender soap' that childcare centres need to do to fundraise to supplement the funding that they do receive. It's tough. It's tough to read. It's tough to read how far we could go and how well other countries do this. But the inspiration is there. We on this side of the House are committed to improving it. I welcome further opportunities to amend this act to get some of this stuff through so that our Australian families can benefit just the same.
The facts are these: in 1991 the number of stay-at-home fathers was four per cent. It's now five per cent. So, as much as we've made progress, we have an awfully long way to go. While I support the amendments today, I note that there is a lot more work to do and that this is a failed opportunity to advance that work. While I am proud to be a member of the party that introduced the first federal paid parental leave scheme in this country, I note our commitment to ongoing work in this area. We're very pleased to be able to work with the government where we can to advance that work in this term of the parliament.
I note that Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern's vision is for New Zealand to be the best place in the world to be a child. We're competitive; we like beating New Zealand where we can. I say we take up that mantle and try to make that Australia instead. But it shouldn't just be the best place in the world to be a child; it should be the best place in the world to be a parent, a carer and a family. We can do a lot more in that space. I welcome the opportunity to do that during my time in this House.