Wooing Mothers-To-Be


Psst! Want a bargain? Vote for us and you will get the best deal for paid maternity leave in 2011!

So far, the ALP has put 18 weeks at the minimum wage on the table — for those with substantial workforce participation in the last year or more. It will be paid for out of general revenue with no compulsory employer contribution.

But look! The Coalition looks likely to top the offer with 26 weeks of leave — but no details yet either on who will be eligible or how much they will be paid. The account of maternity leave given in Abbott’s book, Battlelines, is short on detail but suggests that his scheme would be funded by an employer levy.

Those who will not be very pregnant around election time, and those who are planning a baby in the near future, may have to hold their decison to see whether they get a better offer. There are some glaring weaknesses in the design of Rudd’s proposed scheme which could allow Abbott to up the ante and make his bid more attractive.

For starters, one in five potential parents who will be eligible for the payment under Rudd’s scheme will have no right to take parental leave because they have not been with the same employer for 12 months. These people may have to resign in order to claim Rudd’s 18 weeks of maternity leave and they may be wooed if Abbott makes changes to the basic employment conditions such that leave is available with the payment. The biggest problem with the ALP scheme is that it is not truly a parental leave payment, but a payment that funds those who have access to unpaid leave.

There are further differences between the two proposed schemes that may sway some voters. Whereas the ALP payment is transferable to fathers/partners, there is, interestingly, no mention of fathers in the Abbott model. He has made it clear that the purpose of his scheme is primarily to allow mothers to breastfeed for six months and I wouldn’t be surprised if that became a condition of receiving the payment.

As the tone of Battlelines suggests, Abbott’s priority is clearly to support traditional families; the section on working women sits uncomfortably between those dedicated to the birth drought and to higher family payments. Overall, Abbott stresses women’s traditional roles which is why there is no mention of fathers taking leave.

Abbott could possibly garner a few votes from the high income women who are excluded from the ALP scheme. There is something rather odd about a workplace leave payment that is means tested — which is why Rudd’s scheme might be more accurately classified as welfare. So, if Abbott were to make his scheme universal, he might gain some brownie points and votes.

If paid parental leave was the main item on potential mothers’ political agendas, there would obviously be plenty of votes out there for the highest bidder. The leader of the Opposition does seem to be prepared to spend more than the Government but he hasn’t yet explained how his model will be funded.

But are voters — particularly female voters — so crass that they can be bought for a few thousand dollars more? It really depends on what else is on offer. Present indicators suggest that we have an election full of sound and fury (signifying very little) ahead of us, based on my-economy-is-bigger-than-yours bluster. Under such conditions, self-interested minorities can emerge looking for advantages. If the appeal to voters is primarily aimed at the hip pocket nerve, it may be that women will look at what would be targeted to their purses.

During the last few elections, policy platforms have tended to look like supermarket catalogues full of vote-for-me offers and promises that I’ll-give-you-more-than-they-will. Issues of principle seem to have fallen off the agenda: indeed, we see the debate on climate change slipping into the exchange of competing complexities. Voter cynicism appears to be rising as even those who voted for change find that it has been very limited.

With little else to focus on, a jaded public may be more likely to vote on a single issue. The attention lavished on Abbott for what remains a very vague leak about his maternity leave scheme, and the questions I’ve been asked by media about whether it will win votes, signal that we are in for another long and tacky election campaign.

So let’s see if Antony Green can tot up the potentially pregnant voters in the marginal seats and wait for the next appeal to self interest. The glories of democratic interest auctions are upon us again.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.