We need to talk about paid parental leave in detail | Women's Agenda

We need to talk about paid parental leave in detail

Before the Prime Minister Tony Abbott delivered his speech to the large crowd gathered for The Sydney Institute annual dinner on Monday night I heard a rumour that he was going to discuss paid parental leave. He didn’t. The absence seemed conspicuous given the subject matter – Abbott spoke vehemently about the case for austerity in the upcoming budget in order to reduce the deficit.

In that context, a proposed policy estimated to cost $5.5 billion might have warranted a mention. Particularly, when there is so much confusion and so little unity on the policy in question.

That the Prime Minister yesterday urged coalition PPL dissenters to “evolve” their thinking on the policy made me wonder. If that is a genuine point of contention among the party ranks, as well as the community at large, why wouldn’t he have used the platform he had on Monday night – speaking to a room filled with Liberal-party members – to make the same point? With a few lines he could have made an impact.

From all accounts this policy is his brainchild more than his party’s and, despite news that he will reduce the threshold, he’s resolute about it being implemented. So why isn’t he selling it? I am genuinely perplexed.

At roughly the same time paid parental leave wasn’t being discussed by the Prime Minister it was being debated with intensity on ABC’s Q&A.

The resulting conversation between Malcolm Turnbull, Sarrah Le Marquand, Doug Cameron and Van Baddham confirmed what the coverage of the issue to date has revealed; it’s a complex issue on which there is an extraordinary lack of consensus. Which is why it seems baffling that it isn’t being advocated in any meaningful sense by its engineer.

Many PPL ‘dissenters’ don’t object to paid parental leave in general. They disagree that this particular scheme is the most cost-effective way to meet the objective of helping more women return to work after they have children. The Productivity Commission here, and similar bodies around the world, determined that once a minimum paid parental leave policy is in place, childcare is the real lever in terms of facilitating the return of mothers to the workforce. A more generous PPL, like the Coalition’s, will not increase women’s participation at work, and thus national productivity, the same way that an investment in childcare would.

In an ideal world it wouldn’t be an either or proposition – it would be about paid parental leave and appropriate, affordable and available childcare. But in these economically-challenged times, in which reducing the budget deficit is the government’s undoubted priority, it has to be an either or. On that basis Tony Abbott’s PPL needs explaining. I have trawled media coverage, speeches and press releases on this topic and I am yet to find a response to this. (If I am mistaken please point me in the right direction.)

I realise the government has directed the Productivity Commission to investigate childcare, but that these two policy areas – of PPL and childcare — are so rarely discussed in tandem, when they are almost inextricably linked, seems to indicate they are not considered in tandem. Which seems to indicate they’re not properly understood.

While there are people, myself included, who oppose this PPL on those grounds, it is true that there are also dissenters who oppose paid parental leave existing at all. Sarrah Le Marquand was absolutely right when she said so much of the rhetoric on this issue reveals an anti-working-women sentiment. It is true and it’s disturbing.

The reality is PPL is paid to parents – if the father is the primary carer he is entitled to the payment. But even if he’s not the direct recipient, the payment benefits the whole family, not just the ‘greedy mother sitting at home counting her cash‘.

Those details seem lost whenever the ‘gold-plated’ luxury PPL is mentioned. So too is the fact that increasing women’s workforce participation is not merely a moral issue, it’s critical given our ageing population.

The Prime Minister was absolutely right yesterday when he said dissenters need to evolve their thinking about families and work. If he’s committed to that, he’s in a uniquely influential position to lead by example and make that the case. And while we’re talking about ‘evolving’ perhaps he might consider evolving his policy?

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