07 February 2024

Paid Parental Leave Amendment (More Support for Working Families)

Ms WELLS (Lilley—Minister for Aged Care and Minister for Sport) (12:20): The Albanese government knows that Australians are doing it tough and we are laser-focused on delivering cost-of-living relief to support working families. Since coming to government, we have implemented a raft of measures to help Australians make ends meet including cheaper child care, electricity bill relief, increased rent assistance, more Medicare bulk-billing, cheaper medicines and, of course, our $11.3 billion investment in a wage rise for aged-care workers.

We have also made important reforms to the Paid Parental Leave Scheme to improve and expand the scheme to make it more equitable for parents and to encourage shared care. Under the previous coalition government, birth mothers who earned more than $151,351 per year did not qualify for 18 weeks of paid parental leave. However, if their partner earned more than $150,000 threshold and the birth mother earned less than that, they did qualify for the payment. The policy reinforced outdated gender roles and reflected an outdated view of the world where the man was the breadwinner and the woman's income was secondary to any household budget.

A Lilley constituent, Emma, from Geebung, wrote to me prior to the election about her family's situation and how unfair the coalition policy was for working mothers who were the main income earner. Emma said that she was the primary income earner in her family, bringing home approximately $160,000 per year, and her husband earned about $70,000 per year. Under the old regime, Emma would not have qualified for paid parental leave due to her income exceeding the $150,000 cap. But if Emma and her husband's salaries were reversed and she was the lower income earner then she would have qualified for the payment—same family income but, because the woman earned more, the family did not qualify for paid parental leave. Emma said, 'I think this policy is outdated and unfairly impacts families where the mother is the breadwinner for the family. I am appreciative of having a paid parental leave scheme in our country; however, I think we could improve on it in the name of equality.'

Well I heard you, Emma, and the Albanese Labor government heard you as well. We know that paid parental leave is vital for the health and wellbeing of parents and their children. We know investing in paid parental leave benefits our entire economy and we know that, done right, paid parental leave can balance gender equality. Businesses, unions, experts and economists all understand one of the best ways to boost productivity and participation is to provide more choice and more support for families, and more opportunity for women. That is why paid parental leave reform was the centrepiece of our first budget, where we invested half a billion dollars to expand the scheme to six months by 2026. This is the largest investment in paid parental leave since Labor established the scheme in 2011, benefiting over 180,000 families per year. Some 2,030 of those families live in my electorate of Lilley and have taken advantage of the paid parental leave improvements so far. It reflects the Albanese government's commitment to improve the lives of working families, support better outcomes for children and advance women's economic equality.

This bill implements the second tranche of the government's paid parental leave reform announced in our 2022-23 October budget. It follows the first tranche we legislated at the start of the year to modernise the scheme to reflect how Australian families and their needs have changed over the last decade. These changes, which commenced on 1 July, give more families access to the payment, give parents more flexibility in how they take leave and they encourage parents to share care. Already these changes are making a big impact on Lilley constituents, like Melissa and Matthew of Taigum. Melissa is a doctor who returned to work earlier than she had planned and was able to transfer the remaining paid parental leave to her husband, Matthew. The family has been able to choose how they care for their new baby in a way that suits their needs, thanks to a policy that allows dads to play an active role in infant care.

These previous changes have laid a strong foundation for our expansion of paid parental leave to 26 weeks, which is the focus of this bill. This bill expands paid parental leave by increasing the length of the payment, from 20 to 26 weeks; increasing the period reserved for each parent, from two to four weeks; and doubling the period where parents can take paid parental leave at the same time, from two to four weeks. Starting on 1 July 2024, two additional weeks of leave will be added each year, until reaching 26 weeks in 2026. Currently, up to 18 weeks are available for one parent, which is usually taken by the mother, with two weeks reserved for the dad or partner. The increase to 26 weeks means mums can access up to 22 weeks of PPL—an additional month, compared to the current scheme—and it also doubles the period reserved for the dad or partner from two to four weeks. Crucially, this expansion provides additional support to mums after childbirth, supporting their wellbeing and their child's wellbeing while also encouraging dads and partners to take more leave.

When fathers take a greater caring role from the start, it benefits mums, dads and their kids. The changes in this bill send a clear message that treating parents as an equal partnership supports greater equality. The government values men as carers, too, and we want to see that reinforced in workplaces and in communities. Single parents will have access to the full 26 weeks. The bill also provides flexibility by increasing the number of weeks where parents can take paid parental leave at the same time. When we announced our paid parental leave reform in the 2022-23 October budget, we tasked the Women's Economic Equality Taskforce with providing advice on the best model for 26 weeks to advance women's economic equality. The taskforce recommended reserving four weeks for each parent on a 'use it or lose it' basis and allowing parents to take up to four weeks leave at the same time, and we have adopted that advice in our bill.

The Scandinavians have led the way in promoting shared parental leave. In 1995 Sweden introduced a 'daddy quota', which is a part of the parental leave period exclusively reserved for fathers. If the father doesn't take his allotted period of leave, the family loses it. Thanks to the daddy quota, nine out of 10 Swedish fathers now take the leave. Norway has seen similar success, with about three-quarters of fathers taking the amount stipulated in the quota, while one in five take a few weeks more than the quota. It promotes gender equality, it reduces the impact that a period of extended leave can have on the mother's career, and it enables fathers to play a more prominent role in the early parts of their child's life. Together, our changes strike an important balance: increasing support to mums, encouraging dads to take leave, and providing families with flexibility in how they structure their care arrangements.

It is critical that our Paid Parental Leave scheme supports modern Australian families. We need a scheme that is flexible and fair and drives positive health, social and economic outcomes for both parents and their children, and this bill does just that. Crucially, it gives families access to more paid parental leave, provides parents with flexibility in how they can take that leave, and encourages them to share care to support gender equality. This bill is good for parents, good for kids, good for employers and good for our economy. I thank the House.