There’s a simple reason why so many women find it hard to trust Tony Abbott on paid parental leave.
For over a decade he was in a position to transform the lives of Australian working mothers as both Workplace Relations and Health Minister, but consistently chose not to. He didn’t just ignore paid parental leave, he vocally rejected it.
While women workers, academics and campaigners were calling on the Howard Government to establish a scheme that would see Australia come into line with many nations in Africa, Europe and the Middle-East, Abbott dismissed the campaign, calling it a “radical women’s agenda” with no place in a Coalition government.
In 2002, his hostility to paid parental leave reached a crescendo, when he declared to the press: “Compulsory paid maternity leave? Over this Government’s dead body, frankly.”
Labor movement feminists campaigned for decades to get paid parental leave in industrial awards and workplace agreements. Australian trade unions secured the maternity allowance in 1993 and supported the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission report Time to Value in 2002. EMILY’s List Australia was also part of this campaign, conducting Gender Gap research in marginal seats which revealed time and again that women wanted a paid parental leave scheme. Through this work, and the work of hundreds of women across the country, a paid parental leave scheme became Australian Labor Party Policy.
This is why, upon election, both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard set out to deliver it.
They briefed the Productivity Commission to explore options for the implementation of the scheme and opened up public consultations to enable women and men to talk about the challenges of balancing work and life.
In 2008, I was one of the many women who made submissions about the importance of paid parental leave. At the time I was doing so on behalf of PolMin, a Catholic NGO committed to influencing public policy for the common good. I had also just given birth to my first child, so the importance of the scheme was not only political, but personal. Although I had a highly supportive workplace, as a small NGO, PolMin, was unable to afford to pay me paid leave.
But while women’s NGO’s, – including the Australian Women Lawyers – made submissions encouraging government to enact paid parental leave, Abbott continued to reject the idea.
Writing for The Australian in October 2008, he claimed that paid parental leave – like abortion – was part of a “radical women’s agenda” championed by extreme feminists in the Labor movement. He spoke out about his opposition to the scheme based on the ways it reduced stay at home mothers to second class citizens, lambasting then Prime Minister Rudd’s commitment to women workers as an example of “Political Correctness”; extreme lip-service to the feminists in Labor ranks.
All it would have taken to have a genuine debate about paid parental leave – and to have secured the best possible format for it – was bipartisan support from Abbott and others within the Coalition. Instead there was hostility and political point scoring. Sound familiar?
Without bipartisan support for paid parental leave, I gave birth twice without paid leave. I was forced to leave work without pay for each birth, putting incredible financial strain on my family at a time when we least could afford it and forcing me back into employment quicker than I wanted to.
This is why I don’t believe a word of what Abbott says on parental leave and give little credit to his electorally motivated backflip. It is also why I became involved in EMILY’s List Australia.
In 2011, paid parental leave was shepherded through the parliament by the Prime Minister, the Minister for Family and Community Services, Jenny Macklin and then Minister for Women’s Affairs, Tanya Plibersek.
It was a historic day, as Labor women who had been at the frontline of this campaign for a decade, brought it home for thousands of Australian families.
But it was not the end of the story. In 2013, Australian Labor introduced Dad/Partner Pay, to enable men to take time out of employment to care for a child. And on International Women’s Day, Jenny Macklin announced that there would be a Stage 2 review of the scheme, as foreshadowed in the original legislation, to see what improvements could be made.
In Battlelines, Tony Abbott’s manifesto on the future of the Liberal Party, he agonised over the tensions within Coalition ranks on support for women, outlining the internal dispute between free marketeers who bemoan business being burdened with paid parental leave responsibility and arch-conservatives who yearn for women to return to domestic servitude and baby-caring bliss. Clearly, this dispute is still ongoing, given recent media reports of tensions between Abbott and extreme free marketeers on his back bench and within influential Coalition think tank, the IPA.
It’s pretty clear where Abbott aligned himself during the decade of non-action on paid parental leave – he was one of the MP’s who feared paid maternity leave “would encourage women to forsake their traditional roles”.
There’s a generation of women, just like me, who remember how Abbott limited our freedom, not just on paid parental leave, but to abortion drugs like RU486 and other medications like the anti-cervical cancer drug, Gardasil, in the name of protecting our “traditional role” in society.
This is why so many women see Abbott’s road to Damascus conversion to paid parental leave as nothing more than spin. He will say and do anything now to win the women’s vote. But his track record of issues that matter to women means there is no guarantee he will respect our vote the morning after the election.