An Australian politician this month introduced a bill calling for a paid maternity leave scheme. Natasha Stott Despoja, a senator from the Australian Democrats Party, put forth a bill that would give mothers 14 weeks’ government-funded maternity leave (at birth or at time of adoption). The proposal is estimated to cost the government A$219m/year.
Currently, around 34 percent of Australian working women have access to paid materntiy leave, Stott Despoja said in introducing the bill. An opinion poll shows that 76 percent of Australians supported the idea of a national scheme, according to this article from the Australian Broadcasting Coporation. Australia already has a small form of government-funded paternity support- the so-called A$5,000 Baby Bonus.
Despite the popular support, it’s going to be an uphill battle for Stott Despoja and the Democrats, which are one of the minority parties in Parliament; the ruling Liberal party has already said they’re not in favor of a paid maternity scheme, and have conflated the Democrats’ proposal for a government-funded scheme with an employer-funded scheme. Deliberate distortion like this drives me up the wall.
Asked about the subject last week, Workplace Relations Minister Joe Hockey referred to a compulsory business-funded scheme, saying a newsagent in Shepparton had told him “she would sack all her young female workers if we introduced paid maternity leave,” because she could not afford it.
The Democrats are crystal clear on where funding would come from, according to their page on the bill:
While there has been concern in some areas of business about the potential costs of paid maternity leave, this Bill does not propose an employer-funded scheme of paid maternity leave, recognising the burden it would place on small businesses.
A paid maternity leave scheme allows women to maintain their attachment to the labour force and also promotes retention of the skills and knowledge that they bring to the workforce.
In recognising the importance of women’s attachment to the labour force, and allowing for the continuation of superannuation payments throughout the period of leave, a paid maternity leave scheme relieves the pressure experienced by women to minimise time taken after the birth, or adoption of a child.
Not that the Australian Labor Party’s been much better on the subject. ALP support an unpaid materntiy scheme and their response to Stott Despoja’s proposal was to say they’d refer the subject to the Productivity Commission to examine the cost of different options. It is, after all, an election season; why support another party’s popular proposal when you can wait a couple of months, potentially win the election and introduce one of your own to great fanfare.
Part of Stott Despoja’s argument is that Australia is only one of two OECD counties not to have legally mandated paid maternity leave. The other country? You guessed it – the U.S of A.
I gave birth in the UK, which does have a mandated paid maternity scheme – 26 weeks paid, with the minimum pay stipulated at something around the £100 mark/week. It definitely made a difference for us; I had no intention of going back to work before Jess was six months, out of plain desire and economics – nursery places for infants would have almost entirely eaten up my salary contribution. The £100/week helped defray a lot of the basic living costs and it was comforting for both of us to know that DH wasn’t solely carrying the load. (BTW, the UK’s maternity leave scheme further gave an additional 26 weeks unpaid maternity leave, with guarantees that a returning mother would come back to her position. So, women are entitled to a full year of maternity leave.)
A paid maternity leave scheme is a wholly pragmatic solution, IMHO. Speaking to Australia’s situation, there is a dearth of daycare center positions in a lot of cities – such as my hometown, Melbourne. If mothers could stay home for 14 weeks with pay, it would ease a great deal on daycare positions, plus ease the pressure on family finance. Additionally, parts of Australia are at levels of record unemployment – Melbourne’s unemployment rate is 4% – basically, meaning that all able-bodied people who can work, are working. This is leading to significant inflationary pressures through wage inflation; a paid maternity leave scheme would help retain women workers.
There’s not much time to get this done; Parliament’s session will end any day now as Prime Minister John Howard must shortly call an election. I plan to contact my member of parliament’s office today (he’s Labor) and ask why the party isn’t getting behind a paid maternity leave scheme. I’ll update as and when I get a reply.