Maternity Leave: It's About Time


The lack of publicly funded leave for mothers to give birth and early nurture sends a deeply disturbing signal about the Australian political ethos, given the widespread acceptance of similar payments in both similar and even much less affluent countries.

The long-term intransigence of governments of both persuasions to establish publicly paid leave indicates some serious problems with gender assumptions.

The latest report by the Productivity Commission on parental leave clearly makes the case for changes in workplace cultures that recognise the overlap of paid worker and parenting responsibilities. It says:

"[Providing] a strong signal that having a child and taking time out of the paid workforce for family reasons is viewed by the Government and the community as part of the normal course of life, and work, for parents, rather than a nuisance. A scheme that intends to signal such normalcy should be structured like other normal leave arrangements, such as those for recreation, illness and long service leave, rather than being structured as a social welfare measure."

This is a move away from traditional views that see a clear separation between roles in workplaces and homes — that separation that once excluded or severely limited women’s job/career options. It is not even the modified current version of that view, which says it is up to (mainly) women to reduce involvement in their paid jobs because child rearing was a private cost to the individual or family. What the Productivity Commission has said is a clear statement that employers should recognise parental leave as integral to workplaces and jobs, and as legitimate as other forms of time out.

Paid parental leave has been adopted by about 40 per cent of employers, but mainly for higher income workers and for public servants. Less than 10 per cent of low-income workers are allowed it. We have tried to extend it in the past, but governments have so far subverted the idea twice — once by Keating in 1995, once by Howard in 2004 — who refused to introduce public funding for leave, but introduced a universal welfare maternity payment instead. The argument in both cases was that there should be no distinction between those mothers who were in paid work at the time of the birth and those who were not!

This view point clarifies the underpinning political set of beliefs that there is something inherently wrong about granting mothers who have paid jobs different entitlements to those who do not. This one-size-fits-all assumption is not feminist because it stereotypes motherhood and assumes there is something wrong with recognising actual differences between mothers and their needs, thereby disguising a deeply sexist policy framework.

We already have policies that explicitly favour single income families, i.e. a set of families run mainly by mothers who have little or no paid work, and discriminate against those with paid work. The main one is Family Tax Benefit (FTB) B which is assessed on the income of the recipient (unless her partner earns $150,000 now).

Other family payments, de facto, may not go to mothers because it’s assessed on joint incomes and cuts out her eligibility for payments like FTB A. This difference in the payment eligibility illustrates the confused view of "mothers": those in substantial paid work do not have any separate entitlement for social payments, those out of the workforce or with limited income do, (except for the recent introduction of the $150,000 limit.

Interestingly, the current Baby Bonus’s limited means test is also on the woman’s income assuming she will be not employed. There is no payment that is clearly related to workforce status, including Child Care Benefit, though the Child Care Tax Rebate has some loose work-related criteria.

Peter McDonald has calculated that much greater subsidies already go to those families with one earner; they can net nearly four times as much public support than those with two earners, one part time. There are other advantages to single income families as shown in Patricia Apps’s work as quoted by Ross Gittins in a recent Sydney Morning Herald article:

"The belief that single-income couples are hard done by rests on a hidden assumption that the work in the home of women who don’t have paid employment is of no value…In truth, the work of stay-at-home mums (and the occasional dad) is of considerable value. They do their own child care, cooking, cleaning, washing and ironing, and they do it to their own satisfaction…By contrast, mums with paid employment often end up having to pay others to do their child care, cleaning, washing and ironing, as well as spending more on prepared and takeaway meals…So a woman with paid employment pays tax on her income and then has to buy these other services from her after-tax income."

The above examples of public policy discrimination elucidate why it has been so hard to get a publicly funded payment that is clearly targeted to an employed mother.

Our policy makers still assume that mothering and paid work are not related concepts, and maybe should stay that way. Men have created the workplace in the image of worker who, at best, has no responsibility for domestic chores that interfere with workplace demands. At worst, the intrusion of other roles is to be ignored or punished unless, maybe, connected to sport or defence needs.

Despite the massive shifts of women into paid work, this viewpoint prevails, albeit not so openly. Similarly, the mothering role is still clearly female, and male parenting is assumed to be primarily as provider and not to interfere with careers. Therefore public policy that recognises the intersection of paid work and other roles is to be avoided and piously justified, by figures like Tony Abbot, who claim that to do otherwise would be to discriminate against those "real" mothers who "chose" to commit full time to nurture.

Yet a report issues last week by the SPRC on LSAC data on children failed to find any statistical differences between the development of babies and four year olds on the basis of mothers’ employment status. So why is there such a fuss about a payment specifically aimed to those in paid work?

I realise that I have painted this picture in somewhat caricatured style but it is the only explanation for the difficulties in recognising that parental leave should be an entitlement like sick leave and long service leave. Parental leave needs to be partly publicly funded to ensure that employers of women (at this stage) of child bearing age are not seriously disadvantages in a gender segregated workforce.

This current proposal is a modest one, with most of its costs coming from other payments, and only offers an average of $3300 extra per recipient. There is no real justification for continued public failure to recognise how parenting and paid work mix, so Government needs to affirm the legitimacy of both.

The Productivity Commission’s starting point proposals allow for a serious cultural change to "normalise" the connections between paid work and parenting. Perhaps then we may be able to feminise our workplaces and masculinise caring for children, and others.

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