Productivity Commission Inquiry into Paid Maternity, Paternity and Parental Leave
20 May 2008 (2.15-3.15pm)
Commissioner Robert Fitzgerald
Commissioner Angela MacRae
Oral evidence provided by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth
Commissioners Fitzgerald and MacRae, thank you for the opportunity to appear before the Productivity Commission’s Inquiry today.
The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission – HREOC – is Australia’s national human rights institution with legislative responsibility for the promotion and independent monitoring of human rights in Australia.
In promoting human rights our work is underpinned by Australia’s international obligations and standards, including international instruments which are relevant to the rights of working women during their childbearing years and the rights of workers with family responsibilities.
These international obligations include the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women – CEDAW, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the ILO conventions.
As you know, HREOC has had a long standing record of promoting the introduction of paid leave for working parents in Australia and has undertaken substantial public consultation, research and modelling of possible schemes as evident in previous reports.
In 1999, the then Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Susan Halliday first recommended modelling and analysis of possible paid maternity leave options in the report of the National Pregnancy and Work Inquiry, Pregnant and Productive: It’s a right not a privilege to work while pregnant.
In 2002, Pru Goward published A Time to Value: Proposal for National Maternity Leave Scheme which reported overwhelming public support for a national paid maternity leave scheme. She proposed, as a basic minimum standard, a fully costed scheme of 14 weeks to be paid by the government at the level of the federal minimum wage.
In 2007, acting Sex Discrimination Commissioner John von Doussa QC, released It’s About Time: Women, men, work and family, a report arising out of extensive public consultations and expert submissions. He again called for better support for the reconciliation of paid work and family life. He reiterated the priority need for a national paid maternity leave scheme and also argued for a broader approach, including a consideration of a set period of leave for supporting parents and a longer transferable period of parental leave.
And here we are in 2008. I’ve just completed my national “Listening Tour,” involving over 100 events, 1000 people in person, and thousands more through our online diary and blog. I found enormous support among the community for a scheme of paid maternity leave. I also found strong support for a broader scheme of paid leave for parents.
So as you can see, I am now the 4th Sex Discrimination Commissioner to advocate for a national paid leave scheme.
It is my great hope that I will be the last.
Our work over the last ten years makes a compelling case for urgent action. In HREOC’s view, it is not a question of if but how a national scheme of paid leave for parents is to be introduced to best meet the needs of this country.
Accordingly I welcome the opportunity to appear here today to present to you our proposed scheme.
In designing the best scheme for our country, HREOC believes that a number of key national objectives must be met.
The priority objectives include:
- ensuring the health and wellbeing of mothers, babies, and families – including providing time for women to recover physically and emotionally from childbirth, to establish and maintain breastfeeding and to support maternal and paternal bonding and attachment.
- addressing the workplace disadvantage that women experience as the result of their maternal role – in order for women to participate in the labour market on an equal basis as men, there must be sufficient measures to support the combination of motherhood with employment.
- gender equality objectives, both in the workplace and in the home – paid leave is an essential means for achieving gender equality. It will enable a better sharing of family responsibilities between men and women, allowing women to participate more fully in paid work and public life, and men to participate more fully in family life.
Other important objectives are:
- economic security for parents at the time of the birth of a child and over the lifecycle – paid leave would directly contribute to increasing economic security by providing a guaranteed source of income upon the birth of a child. Paid maternity leave in particular would provide income replacement for women in employment who are currently required to forego their regular income as a result of taking time out of the workforce to give birth, with long reaching effects on women’s retirement savings as a result.
- social benefits – such as supporting the rearing of the next generation, valuing motherhood, fatherhood and children, and valuing the dual role of men and women as both workers and carers.
- benefits to the economy and to employers – through, for example, maintaining mothers’ labour force attachment, particularly in areas of skills shortages, and providing savings on the cost of recruiting and retraining new staff and increasing the return to work rates of women who take time out of the workforce to raise their children.
I am absolutely convinced that an appropriately designed national paid leave scheme for mothers and fathers will positively contribute to each of these objectives.
However, I also believe that the scheme needs to be built in a progressive manner, informed by our experience over time, assessing the impact of the scheme in light of our domestic conditions.
HREOC proposes an incremental national scheme of paid leave which consists of two stages.
The first is for immediate introduction. The second stage is to be introduced following a review in two years’ time.
Stage one is a non-transferable national scheme of paid maternity leave of 14 weeks duration at the rate of the federal minimum wage, or the average of the woman’s previous weekly earnings from all jobs, whichever is the lesser amount.
The particular objectives for this period of leave are to ensure the health and wellbeing of mothers and babies, and to address the workplace disadvantage that women experience as the result of their maternal role.
In addition, stage one of HREOC’s proposal includes a non-transferable, separate entitlement of two weeks paid leave available for the supporting parent, calculated at the same basis as paid maternity leave. We are calling this ‘supporting parent leave’. It is commonly known as the paternity leave.
This period of leave is to be taken either concurrently with the mother’s paid maternity leave at the time of birth with the objective of supporting the bonding between the supporting parent and their child and as a support for the birth mother, or at the end of the period of paid maternity leave as a way of transitioning to alternative care arrangements following the mother’s return to paid work.
That is stage 1.
HREOC proposes that following implementation, this initial stage should be independently reviewed after two years in order to measure the impacts of the new scheme, make any necessary improvements and to develop and implement a second stage of paid leave measures.
Stage two introduces an additional 38 weeks of paid parental leave of which 4 weeks is reserved for the supporting parent on a “use it or lose it” basis. We are also asking the Productivity Commission to model now how we could achieve an increase in the payment level beyond the federal minimum wage to, for example, two thirds replacement income.
So in summary, when both stage 1 and stage 2 are in place, we will have a national paid leave scheme of one years duration. It will comprise:
- 14 weeks paid maternity leave;
- 2 weeks paid supporting parent leave (to be taken concurrently with paid maternity leave);
- 38 weeks of paid parental leave to be shared between the
parents, of which 4 weeks is reserved for the supporting parent on a “use
it or lose it” basis.
Stage Two would bring Australia into line with comparable countries and meet important health and wellbeing and gender equality objectives, such as facilitating the shared care of children by men and women, as well as meeting the urgent need for a baseline, minimum entitlement.
We will be lodging our written submission in the next fortnight, where we will outline our position in full. We will be asking the Productivity Commission to model both stage one and stage two of our proposal, following which we may wish to make further submissions to you.
My mandate as the Sex Discrimination Commissioner is grounded in human rights – to promote the principle of equality between men and women. My work is informed by international standards. As you know, Australia has been consistently criticised before international committees for our failure to have paid maternity leave, and their criticism is well-founded.
However, my determination to promote introduction of paid leave for parents is driven by the personal stories shared with me from mothers and fathers around the country.
I am deeply disturbed that, in 2008, we still have women who are being forced to go back to paid work just two days after giving birth, because they cannot afford to do otherwise. Paid maternity leave is urgent.
Paid maternity leave is an essential part of valuing the care provided by mothers and ensuring their health and the health of babies is paramount from birth. It is a critical piece of the puzzle that is currently missing for two thirds of Australian mums.
Only 34 per cent - 101,000 - of employed mothers access paid maternity leave, while the rest - 198,000 - miss out, most of whom are on low incomes.
I am also concerned that parents right now who want to be able to give their children the best start in life simply cannot afford to do so. I want to support fathers and other supporting parents who want to fully share the care of their children. For them, supporting parent leave and paid parental leave is also a priority.
I want us to live in a country:
- Where all mothers can give their newborns the best start in
- Where working women are not disadvantaged because they are
- Where fathers and supporting partners can be actively involved in their
child’s life right from the beginning; and
- Where decisions about how to share paid work and care are not based
purely on financial considerations but on what is best for every member of the
In order to achieve this we must lift our gaze towards building a world class scheme of paid leave for parents.
This Inquiry provides us with that unique opportunity.
In 2008, it is about time.
 ABS Pregnancy and Work Transitions Australia Cat No 4913.0 Nov 2005. the ABS Pregnancy and Work Transitions survey data, which is collected from birth mothers aged 15 years and over with at least one child less than two years of age living with them at the time of interview.