Paid parental leave: Playing patronising and out-of-touch politics hurts women | Women's Agenda

Paid parental leave: Playing patronising and out-of-touch politics hurts women

Last time I looked, “high-flying bank executives and lawyers” were paid far more than $150,000 a year, the maximum income cut-off to be eligible to receive paid parental leave under Tony Abbott’s scheme. Labor MP Jenny Macklin, who declared today that Abbott’s policy would merely pay rich women $75,000 to have a baby, is herself paid in excess of $300,000 as a senior government minister. She previously declared that she could live on a $35 a day Newstart allowance.

Patronising comments and red herrings from out-of-touch politicians will not help Australian families struggling with the cost of living and work/family balance. The Federal government’s paid parental leave scheme pays 18 weeks fixed at the minimum wage. There is no payment for women’s lost superannuation. Tony Abbott’s scheme ensures that superannuation is paid to women for six months while they are caring for their babies — a fair dinkum measure aimed at narrowing the serious super gap between men and women, resulting in women retiring into poverty. According to January 2013 Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, men have an average of $36,000 more super than women, a gap largely attributed to many women being out of the workforce on parental leave at least once during their working lives.

Helen Conway, Director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, stated in 2012 that “…women are 2½ times more likely than men to live in poverty in their old age.” The payment of superannuation under the Coalition’s scheme is an important means of tackling the gender super gap head on. Eighteen weeks is not a long time to be on parental leave, especially when most women will start their leave at 34-36 weeks pregnancy. With many babies arriving up to two weeks late, that leaves perhaps 10 weeks of paid parental leave under the current scheme, at minimum wage, to receive while home with a newborn. Not even three months. With huge cost of living pressures, mortgage stress and job insecurity currently facing Australian families, that often means that new mothers are forced to return to work just three months after childbirth. A 2012 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report showed that while 90% of Australian babies are breastfed at birth, by four months of age that figure drops to 40%, and then to 15% at six months. The World Health Organisation recommends exclusive breastfeeding for six months to promote optimal health, growth and development.

Returning to work earlier than preferred due to financial pressures is a notable reason why women stop breastfeeding. The Australian Breastfeeding Association notes that “premature weaning increases the risk of gastrointestinal illness, respiratory illness and infection, eczema… with increasing scientific evidence of its links with chronic or serious illnesses or conditions such as childhood diabetes, urinary tract infection, certain types of cancers, diseases of the digestive system such as coeliac disease and Crohn’s disease, liver disease and cot death”. Breastfeeding is also known to reduce the risk of mothers developing breast and ovarian cancer later in life, as well as type two diabetes.

Healthier babies and mothers mean less pressure on our public health system and subsequent savings for taxpayers. The Coalition’s paid parental leave scheme gives mothers relative financial stability and enables them to continue breastfeeding for longer, making it a wise investment into the health of our citizens.

I commend the government on taking the first step towards implementing a paid parental leave scheme. But it’s time to be fair dinkum and move beyond tokenism: if we’re serious about increasing productivity, improving health outcomes for mothers and babies, and supporting the financial independence of women in retirement — all of which greatly benefits taxpayers in the long run — there is no doubt that the Coalition’s parental leave scheme is an important investment in our nation’s future.

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