Rudd Scores A Point


Finally, the Rudd Government has had a win.

Yesterday, the Senate passed the Rudd Government’s Paid Parental Leave bill, providing a mandatory four months of paid leave for new parents in this country for the very first time.

And not before time. Australia is one of the very last countries in the industrialised world to recognise the need for such a scheme after decades of campaigning by feminists, women’s groups, economists and other champions of a more enlightened workplace.

As with so many reforms, the process has been slow and halting, as this excellent policy primer (pdf) by Deborah Brennan observes. An adequate parental leave scheme has long been a goal of many within the ALP’s ranks, and was one of Labor’s 2007 election promises. But it took a Productivity Commission inquiry and more than two years in office before the Government got around to introducing legislation for the scheme.

The scheme we now have owes much to the Productivity Commission’s recommendations (pdf). The Commision recommended that those eligible should have been working for at least 10 of the last 13 months, for at least 330 hours, although not necessarily for one employer. The nominated carer will receive 18 weeks paid leave at the minimum wage. The leave will be paid for by their employer, who will then be reimbursed by the Government through a new Commonwealth agency.

Labor is understandably pleased. "It’s good news for parents," beamed the PM. Families Minister Jenny Macklin hailed the decision as "an historic day and a major win for Australian families".

Most informed commentators, however, think the scheme doesn’t go far enough. The Greens have criticised the major parties for not paying superannuation as part of the parental leave, pointing out that on average, women are disadvantaged compared to men in their eventual super payouts, because of the time they spend out of the workforce rearing children. As Sarah-Hanson Young, a young mum herself, told the ABC, "there’s really no excuse except for the fact that the Government didn’t want to have to pay that bit extra, to ensure that we do something now immediately to address the retirement pay gap between men and women."

There is certainly scope for Australia to do better. After all, Sweden’s world leading parental leave scheme entitles parents to 13 months paid leave, at much higher pay than Australia’s stingy $570 a week. Two months of Sweden’s scheme is carved out specifically for dads.

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, one of the more effective recent advocates in this role, has argued for a specific paternity leave component in Australia. "Until you isolate a component just for dads on a use it or lose it basis, most dads won’t take any of the leave," she told the Canberra Times‘s David McLennan.

Even so, you can see why Labor is delighted about the first bit of front-page good news in quite some time. It’s been a tough 2010 for the Rudd Government but yesterday they fulfilled a long-held policy ambition that delivers to Labor’s base among "working families". The passage of the bill also gives the Government something to talk about apart from the difficult issue of the Resource Super Profits Tax.

As a matter of fact, the Paid Parental Leave bill tops off what has been an unexpectedly good week for the government.

The Opposition was expected to exert significant pressure on the Government in what many think could be the last sitting week of Parliament before an election. But the Opposition’s Question Time performance was characteristically weak, allowing Government ministers, particularly a calm and focused Julia Gillard, to bat away difficult questions with surprising ease. Even the Prime Minster appears slightly more refreshed and energetic compared to his doleful recent appearances. Meanwhile, Tony Abbott has been keeping an unusually low profile, perhaps in an effort to keep the focus on the Government and its poor performance.

Of course, given how bad things have been for Labor lately, cynics would be forgiven for thinking that things could hardly have got worse. But that cannot disguise the fact that the Rudd Government has delivered on another election promise — and it’s one that is expected to enjoy wide support in the community. The Government can paint this as unambiguously good news.

With the Prime Minister’s office issuing a statement today confirming that an election will be held this year, speculation about the date of the election is favouring October or November. This would not only represent a full three-year term for Rudd, it would also place campaigning comfortably after the apparently all-important football finals season in September.

The furious debate on the RSPT is also beginning to calm. Although the mining industry continues to run its glossy ads and hokey TV commercials, the media at least is showing signs of fatigue in its coverage of the issue. This offers the Government a ray of light in what has been a stormy political interlude. Suddenly, Rudd’s strategy of staying the course — partly forced on it by the vehemence of the mining industry’s campaign and the obvious dangers of rolling over on yet another difficult policy reform — looks like it might have a chance of success.

With the economy on the upswing and the stockmarket bouncing back from a rocky month, all is not lost for Labor and Kevin Rudd. And Australia finally has a paid parental leave scheme. It’s a win for young parents-to-be — and a welcome example of policy reform from the Rudd Government.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.