Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Improvements for Families and Gender Equality) Bill 2022

I'm very pleased to be speaking on the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Improvements for Families and Gender Equality) Bill 2022. I'm so proud that once again it's a Labor government who is leading the way on this critical reform.


We know that improving paid parental leave is vital for the health and wellbeing of families and has immense benefits for our economy. We also heard loud and clear during the Jobs and Skills Summit in September last year that paid parental leave reform would be instrumental in advancing gender equality. Businesses, unions, experts and economists all understand that one of the best ways to boost productivity and participation is to provide more choice and more support for families and more opportunity for women to re-enter the workforce. The introduction of this bill is just another example of the Albanese government listening and acting.


This bill is designed to address shortfalls under the current scheme. At present the scheme does not do enough to provide access to fathers and partners, it limits flexibility for families to choose how they take leave and transition back to work, and the eligibility rules are unfair to families where the mother is the higher income earner. Our bill fixes these issues. It gives more families access to the government payment, it gives parents more flexibility in how they take leave and it encourages parents to share care to improve gender equality.


From 1 July 2023, the bill delivers six key reforms. The two existing payments will be combined into a single 20-week scheme. A portion of the scheme will be reserved for each parent, to support them both taking time off work after a birth or adoption. It will be easier for both parents to access the payment, as the notion of primary and secondary carers will be removed. Access will expand through the introduction of a $350,000 family income test, under which families can be assessed if they exceed the individual income test. Flexibility for parents to choose how they take leave days will increase, and eligible fathers and partners will be allowed to access the payment irrespective of whether the birth parent meets the income test or residency requirements.


Australia's first paid parental leave came into force on 1 January 2011. This was a Labor government initiative. Now, a decade later, the Albanese Labor government is ensuring that our Paid Parental Leave scheme meets contemporary expectations and is fit for purpose for the next decade and beyond.


The changes in this bill send a clear message that treating parenting as an equal partnership supports gender equality. Our wonderful Minister for Social Services said boosting women's workforce participation and encouraging more dads to take paid parental leave was a priority for the government. The minister has made the point that treating parenting as an equal partnership helps to improve gender equality, and she is right when she says of our changes:


This will benefit mums, it will benefit dads, it's good for children, and it will be a huge boost to the economy.


Our government values men as carers too. We want to see that reinforced in workplaces and in our communities.


On a personal note, I know how important paid parental leave is. When my beautiful daughter, Tia, was born, having time together as a new family was so important and so special. It meant so much to have that time at home. In fact, it was probably the best four weeks of my life. I know that for many fathers or non-birthing parents two weeks is not enough time to support the mother, or birthing parent, to settle into the new routine and care for their baby—not enough time in these formative months.


Australians need a paid parental leave scheme that reflects the needs of modern families. The current scheme does not do enough to provide access for parents together. For example, currently dads take government paid leave at roughly half the rate that mums do. The scheme as it stands today is built on gendered assumptions of primary and secondary carers, which limit parents' ability to share care.


It's time to ensure that our legislation better reflects what we know about the benefits for children that can flow from a more flexible scheme, and there are benefits for parents as well. Why would we perpetuate an outdated understanding of caring roles, where too much of the burden falls on one parent and, as a consequence, that parent is more likely to suffer poor mental and physical health? Having both parents engaged in care also means that they are more likely to be happy at home, where they can be engaged in the lives of their children. They will be more productive when they return to work. Their children will grow up and fare better at home and at school. If both parents have the opportunity to be part of caring for their children it also means greater empowerment for the parent who might otherwise have to take on a significant portion of the responsibilities. This means, among other things, that they may have the option of returning to work sooner, which would support productivity in the economy. This is why our changes to paid parental leave are not just about individuals; they deliver benefits to the entire family and to the community more broadly.


As I mentioned before, placing a burden of care on one parent alone in the weeks and months after a child is born is not acceptable. It's plain unfair. Our paid parental leave scheme should not entrench an outdated model of care. We know that this approach leads to adverse mental health outcomes for the parent who has to undertake this task, and we know that, more often than not, it is the mother. Our paid parental leave scheme should operate to ensure there is no structural reason for this outcome to take place. The importance of this is outlined by a mother who described her experience of a paid parental leave scheme that is past its use-by date. The example I've taken is from an organisation called TheParentHood. The mother described her experience as follows:


Rather, it was a blur of tears, anxiety and a needling sense of dread that felt louder and more urgent as the days passed by. This challenge was in no small way due to the inadequate parental leave afforded to my husband, a predicament that is unfortunately commonplace in Australia.


She outlined the anxiety that surrounded her as she grappled with the responsibilities of being a new mother after being discharged from hospital, saying she:


… spent the remainder of a fortnight juggling nappies, breast pumps, and an unspoken sense of panic at the prospect of me carrying on solo once my husband returned to work.


Most significantly, she spoke frankly and bravely about the depth of mental health struggle that ensued over subsequent weeks and months:


Over the next few months my mental health suffered, and despite the enormous support of friends and family, it became clear to those around me that my struggle with parenthood was very much affected by what was later identified as postnatal anxiety and depression.


The Paid Parental Leave scheme changes made by this legislation will not eliminate postnatal anxiety and depression, but, by increasing the flexibility of the scheme and making it possible for parents to more reasonably share caring responsibilities and support each other, we will remove a structural problem that exists under the current scheme. All the evidence tells us that this will help create an environment that is likely to reduce the circumstances that create a mental health burden on one parent, which is usually the mother. This is undeniably a very positive outcome.


Throughout my speech, I've spoken about how these changes will apply to parents and families. In my own case, as I outlined, I share the responsibilities of parenting with my wonderful wife. But I understand that not every family looks like mine, and this scheme does not apply just to mums and dads. The legislation is inclusive of different models of family, all of which must be nurtured, supported and celebrated in our community. I know many families of different kinds in my electorate and beyond—rainbow families, single-parent families—and our Paid Parental Leave scheme ensures that these families are also able to access support when they need it to help give the next generation the best possible start in life.


Labor is the party that has delivered paid parental leave to Australian families. We need to ensure our national Paid Parental Leave scheme keeps pace with the expectations of Australian families. Increased flexibility in the application of paid parental leave will benefit parents and their children. All Australians should welcome this. I hope it will be reflected in the way that parents share the responsibility of raising their children, from birth right through their early years and beyond. Without these changes, we risk leaving in place a paid parental leave scheme trapped in the past. I call on all members to get behind this legislation. This benefit will be felt across our communities and across our economy. I commend the bill to the House

08 February 2022