Rudd’s just-passed parental leave scheme means that from 1 January 2011, working parents will be eligible for 18 weeks of leave paid at the national minimum wage. Australia has been one of only two OECD countries without a government funded parental leave scheme. The legislation isn’t perfect but it marks a huge step forward for prospective parents who can’t afford to take substantial time off work after the birth of a child.
During Wednesday’s second reading of this historic piece of legislation, Senator Steve Fielding decided it was an opportune time to get on his pulpit about abortion.
"Under this bill drug addicts and welfare cheats can rort the system and get paid parental leave money for nothing. Drug addicts and welfare cheats can get pregnant, then after 20 weeks have an abortion and still pocket the government’s cash," he said (pdf).
"There may be mums out there who want to cheat the system in a horrific way," claimed Fielding, and successfully shifted the discussion away from the matter at hand.
Let’s be clear about this: Fielding’s comments are a blatant and outrageous obfuscation.
Why? Firstly, his so-called "welfare cheats" or the unemployed aren’t entitled to paid parental leave. To be eligible for the payment, a parent must have worked for 10 of the 13 months before the child’s birth.
Furthermore, payments for women who have elective abortions were never included in the bill. Late term terminations are almost always a painful and tragic end to a wanted pregnancy. Fielding’s comments are a hurtful slur on women, intensely so for those women who have had to endure the trauma of late term abortion after fetal abnormalities or threats to their own health were detected.
The part of the bill to which Fielding was referring brought the paid parental leave legislation in line with the baby bonus legislation — which does allow for claims by those whose baby didn’t survive the birth or the pregnancy.
Parliamentary Secretary for Social Inclusion Senator Ursula Stephens responded immediately to Fielding’s assertions, saying that:
"The baby bonus and now the paid parental leave can be paid in the case of a stillbirth, as should be the case, but there needs to be an actual delivery of a stillborn child to qualify and all claims for the baby bonus in cases of stillbirth have to be certified by a medical practitioner. The claim form requires the doctor or the midwife to certify that a stillborn child was delivered and this requirement necessarily excludes other events."
She continued, "The notion that someone would, for the purposes of receiving the baby bonus or paid parental leave, proceed to a post-20 week pregnancy and then procure an abortion is anathema. It is really the most incongruous thing that anyone could consider might happen and it certainly would not be something that a medical practitioner or a midwife would certify as having been a legitimate activity."
Fielding’s objections were taken up by senators Cory Bernardi and Rob Boswell later in the proceedings. Bernardi’s language was more moderate than Fielding’s but said, "I agree with the Parliamentary Secretary for Social Inclusion that it seems a grotesque suggestion, but unfortunately there is some evidence that these circumstances have arisen."
He sought assurances from Stephens that "there will not be circumstances where a termination or someone undergoing a late-term abortion will be eligible for this payment." The concerns of the anti-choice camp in the Senate reveal a deep distrust of women.
In fact, Fielding and Bernardi’s concerns had already been addressed in a Senate committee hearing on the bill in which Senator Stephens was asked to clarify the difference between a stillborn and a late term abortion. In that committee hearing, Stephens reported the outcome of an appeal by the Social Security Appeals Tribunal — which she repeated yesterday in the Senate:
"While the narrow definition is the delivery of a dead child, a stillborn child is usually considered to be progressing towards a live delivery until some adverse event occurs that ends the child’s life. Such an event may include antenatal haemorrhage, placental insufficiency or foetal abnormality etcetera and all of these events are unintended events. In contrast, an elective termination in which there is no life-threatening abnormality or risk to the mother’s health is very much intentional and does not fit the accepted meaning of a stillborn death."
Fielding’s interjections on late term abortion and parental leave payments, along with a diatribe about stay-at-home mums’ work not being valued, drew attention away from the debate at hand.
Calls to increase the length of paid parental leave to six months to allow women to breastfeed their children for the recommended amount of time, for example, and to make the payment a workplace entitlement that includes superannuation, were outshone by Fielding’s outburst. If we are to address the gross disparity between men’s and women’s superannuation funds at the time of retirement, the latter will be a vital component of paid parental leave.
It’s nothing new for Fielding to waste the Senate’s time. Even the pro-life Barnaby Joyce scolded Fielding for participating in cynical vote grabbing. Joyce’s rebuke was a thorough one:
"What I question is the motivation of Senator Fielding on this issue. Yes, you are stating the obvious that it is a primary aspect, and that is why it is contemptuous to believe that you are working what I would suggest is a wedge, what I would suggest is a political chess manoeuvre by the most minor pawn in the most base way to deliver an outcome that, to be honest, I do not believe the many people in this place who genuinely hold a pro-life view would want. It is more for the base political gain in a very minor period of time and no real acumen, consideration or hard work has gone into it. Therefore it remains contemptuous."
Fielding knows his days as a person of influence in the Senate are coming to an end and yesterday’s grandstanding gives us a clear indication of the issues to which he will be tethering himself in the forthcoming election.
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