Date: 
Sunday 23 November 2008

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Maternity leave scheme is a must

Author: Elizabeth Broderick

Publication: The Sunday Age, (Sunday, 23 November 2008)


Now you see it, now you don’t. If we are to believe what we are hearing, this may be the government’s approach to paid maternity leave.

It would be a baffling about face. In a business climate that calls for decisions that will provide our country with some form of economic certainty and optimism, paid maternity leave is precisely a policy for our times. Not only will it improve national productivity and market competitiveness over the long term by ensuring women remain attached to the workplace, it will support these strong economic outcomes with a strong social dimension.

I have spent 20 years in the business world and I am yet to come across a company that has introduced paid maternity leave solely because it is good for women. In business, it is always about the bottom line. And well it should be. That is why more and more large businesses and government employers are starting to see the importance of paid maternity leave - to enhance productivity and the management of their skilled female workforce, one of their major assets.

In striving to maximise our productivity as a nation, it has always been clear that making paid maternity leave available to all working women would require government intervention. Indeed, for some businesses – particularly small businesses – government assistance would be a necessity.

The Productivity Commission’s draft report, Paid Parental Leave: Support for Parents with Newborn Children, proposes an 18 week paid parental leave scheme. This initially goes to the birth mother, who then has the choice to transfer the leave to her partner.

Not only is the proposal both reasonable and affordable, the cost to the taxpayer of $452 million is a modest increase of 2 per cent over Australia's current overall spending on family payments.

This is a policy that Australians thought they were going to receive. And in the current climate of government bail-outs for big businesses ($6.2 billion for the automotive industry; up to $22 million for ABC Learning Centres) and stimulus packages ($4.8 billion down payment for pensioners, seniors and carers; $300 million for local councils), paid maternity leave represents a drop in the ocean, but a drop which would nonetheless put money into the pockets of families that desperately need.

It is the package taxpayers should get.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is the families who struggle financially that will most benefit from this scheme. This is money that would be rapidly spent on the necessities of life, like providing their children with accommodation, food, healthcare and education.

In much the same way that the government is hoping pensioners, seniors and carers will spend the increases they are about to receive in December, paid maternity leave would also assist in economic stimulation by injecting money into the economy.

Australia currently lags behind our international labour market competitors who typically, not only have higher workforce participation by women, but already have established and successful paid maternity leave schemes up and running.

Our employment rates for women with children are low in comparison with other OECD countries. The employment rate of Australian mothers with a youngest child under six years of age is 49.6 per cent, compared with the OECD average of 59.2 per cent. That is a ten per cent lag.

A failure to implement paid maternity leave in the next budget will continue to position Australia behind its competitors.

The World Economic Forum has stated that Australia is the number one country for women’s educational achievement, but only the 41st in women’s workforce participation. This is an appalling leakage of human capital that positions us behind the UK, New Zealand and Canada.

There is no disputing the broad support for a national scheme of government-funded paid maternity leave scheme.

Businesses, unions, community groups, human rights organisations, child health organisations and the women’s movement want it. Already, high profile big businesses, from Woolworths to General Motors Holden, see its value and have implemented it.

It has been a long 30 year road of advocacy to get us to this point of consensus.

On 29 September this year, the Prime Minister vowed to “bite the bullet” and introduce the national paid parental leave scheme proposed by the Productivity Commission.

For very sound business and social reasons, now is not the time to walk away from that vow.