I rise to speak in support of this Bill – the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (More Support for Working Families) Bill.
As a midwife and academic who researched maternal-child outcomes, and remembering my own experience in returning to the workforce and balancing work and care, I know the importance of support for parents in those early years.
I’m particularly thinking of all the parents-to-be and growing families in Indi who this Bill will benefit. Last year more than 1,500 parents accessed Government paid parental leave in our region. I really want to see this number increase. I hope this Bill will help do that.
This Bill creates a pathway to increase paid parental leave to 26 weeks by 2026, in line with international best practice. It also increases the amount of weeks of paid leave reserved for each parent. So by 2026, each parent will have four weeks of ‘use it or lose it’ leave.
I am very pleased to see the Government extend the weeks that are reserved for each parent, where they can’t transfer their paid leave entitlement to the other parent. It’s a take it or leave it approach, and this is vital to improve gender equity in this country.
Evidence continues to show that a significant gender pay gap between men and women persists in Australia. A major factor, if not the major factor, to this gender pay gap is the unequal division of unpaid caring labour, including caring for children.
In Australia, despite 92% of employers offering parental leave regardless of the gender of the parent, only 12% of those who take up the offer of primary carer leave are men.
These numbers show that women are leaving the workforce at much higher rates than men to care for children, contributing to the gender pay gap. This is not good enough, especially when other Western democracies like ours have made significant improvements to close the gender pay gap.
I spent many years studying and working in women’s and children’s health research in Sweden, a place where alongside other Nordic countries we have looked for guidance on best practice policy for families. In those days Swedish colleagues regularly asked me why we did not have paid parent leave in Australia. It was as fundamental to them as Medicare is to us.
And you can understand why, when Sweden introduced a “use it or lose it” system in 1995, reserving a month of leave specifically for fathers. This increased to two months in 2002, and three months in 2015. It’s incredible that Australia is not offering 4 weeks until 2026 – almost three decades after Sweden.
The Swedish experience provides strong evidence for incentives for fathers to take up paid parental leave. The total proportion of leave days used by men has slowly increased from 7% of all parental leave in 1989 to 25% in 2013. Furthermore, the percentage of couples that share parental leave is slowly increasing, indicating a more equitable distribution of child-rearing.
And evidence shows a ‘use it or lose it’ system of reserved leave for the non-birthing parent or father is particularly effective when combined with income replacement, so those taking paid parental leave don’t just receive the minimum wage. Evidence shows that the use-it-or-lose-it entitlement alongside income replacement of 50 per cent or more of earnings can increase the uptake of leave by non-birthing parents.
The Government should consider whether wage or salary replacement should be implemented alongside the use it or lose it approach, as we continue to strive to support unpaid carers no matter their gender.
And based on what we have learnt from the long history of parent leave in Sweden, I encourage the Government to fund an effective and targeted campaign to ensure that non-birth parents are actively encouraged to access these new benefits.
Paid parental leave is critical to support families, advancing gender equity and promoting greater workforce participation, but these measures will not be most effective without tackling the crisis in childcare.
Back in February, when the Government introduced their first reforms to improve paid parental leave, I spoke about how it is also important to address the drastic shortage of early childhood educators and childcare places right across the country. Now, ten months later, we have still not made enough progress on this important piece of the puzzle for parents.
In Indi, parents frequently contact me about how hard it is to find places within local early childhood education and care centres.
One mother who lives in a small town in Indi, has had her youngest child on four waitlists for months – one for at least 18 months. For families living regionally, early learning centres can be an hour’s drive away in a neighbouring town because local centres are at capacity or do not exist. This mother is struggling to keep her small business open which means less shifts for her workers. She says: “Families need childcare here desperately. Something, anything, needs to be done. People can’t work, women in particular can’t go back to work after maternity leave if there is no one to care for their children.”
Another mother, a social worker, told me of the ripple effects of the lack of access to childcare: the struggle to undertake work and further study, the reliance on her supportive mother, an aged care worker, and her sister, a childhood educator who are both taking time off work to care for their grandson and nephew. This mother says: “I understand that there has been government incentives for childcare rebates, however, there is inadequate staff to fill positions due to the underpaid staff feeling burnt out”.
And that is what I’m hearing from owners and managers of early childhood education and care centres in Indi. In the past week I have visited three centres in Benalla and Wahgunyah.
The predominant issue that these childcare providers shared with me was the difficult they face in trying to recruit, train and retain staff to meet the demand of their communities.
One centre has more than 100 children on their waitlist, another paused enrolments because of a lack of staff. One centre manager told me that they have lost staff to the local supermarket because the pay is better. Early childhood educators teach children throughout the most foundational and formative years of their lives. Yet our system does not recognise or remunerate that work properly.
We must find practical outcomes to attract people to become early childhood educators, to meet the demands of the community and help parents return to the workforce after parental leave, particularly in regional areas.
One of my constituents, a local GP and parent of two children1 wrote to me that she and her husband, also a GP, are both “extremely motivated to live, work and raise our family in regional Australia, yet it is feeling too hard”. This constituent said:
“the need for an urgent overhaul in the way childcare is offered in this country – but particularly within the regions – is imperative in sustaining a productive environment and one that continues to attract families to live and work”.
We need GPs and healthcare workers, teachers,2 social workers and aged care workers returned to the workforce, and a lack of Early Childhood Educators is one factor that is stopping this from happening.
This is deeply concerning. Lack of affordable, available and high-quality early childhood education and care is having detrimental consequences for parents, for children, the regional workforce and the regional economy.
This problem, especially in regional, rural and remote areas, is not just anecdotal.
In recent weeks the Productivity Commission released their draft report on early childhood education and care. And their findings paint a pretty bleak picture.
Only 8 per cent of the country has enough access to centre-based daycare to provide at least three days of care for every child up to 5 years old.
The Commission found a big reason for a lack of childcare is because of a lack of workforce.
A survey of 1,000 childcare centres conducted by the United Workers Union last month found that 90% of centres have a current staff vacancy. The survey found that in regional and rural areas, which don’t have access to casual agency staff, providers were resorting to closing centres early and turning children away.
The Parenthood, an independent, not-for-profit advocating for available, high quality, affordable childcare published more evidence last month about the desperate situation of regional childcare. This report found that children living regionally or remotely are denied – and their hardworking parents and carers are denied – the opportunity to access early childhood education and care. This report included stories just like the ones from my constituents.
The evidence is mounting: early childhood education and care is inaccessible in regional, rural and remote areas and the impacts of this are dire.
I call on the Government to implement the recommendations of the Productivity Commission to improve childcare in this country, and especially in regional, rural and remote Australia.
First, childcare should be fully subsidised for three days a week for lower-income families to ensure all children can access childcare. Second, the Productivity Commission recommended that these families do not have to meet work or study requirements to access three days of childcare.
More childcare support for low-income families would really help my constituents. Indi has the 50th lowest median wage out of 151 electorates. This puts Indi at the bottom third of electorates for its wages.
Third, the Commission recommended that more must be done to improve career and qualification pathways for early childhood education. The Productivity Commission was very clear that workforce shortages must be fixed. Commissioner Stokie said, and I quote: “without addressing the educator and teacher challenges we can’t do anything”. They found that fixing workforce shortages is critical to setting Australia on a path towards universal childcare.
That path needs to be determined, but it is clear increasing wages and workforce participation is key. I acknowledge the Government have provided additional funding for a fee-free TAFE to provide more training for industries like childcare, which is a positive development. More work must also be done to acknowledge prior learning by educators who seek to up-skill and stay in the sector.
The Government also recently announced funding to open 55 new early childhood education services in regional communities and more support for existing services to stay open.
These are great measures, but they are frankly not nearly enough. I said this in February and I’m deeply disappointed I’m saying almost the same thing 10 months later.
In addition to the Productivity Commission recommendations I call on the Government to look at the many intersecting factors that are causing worker shortages, including childcare workers, in regional and rural Australia.
I support measures that make it easier for families to balance work and care, particularly in those crucial first months of a child’s life. Measures such as this Bill will make a difference and I welcome that for families in Indi.
I commend this Bill as a step in the right direction to help working families. But this Government must do a lot more for families, especially in regional, rural and remote Australia, especially when it comes to childcare.