I rise to support the bill before us, the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (COVID-19 Work Test) Bill 2021. This is an important and, I must say, much-needed bill that will come as some relief for many families around Australia. Australia’s Paid Parental Leave, or PPL, scheme is intended to support working parents. To be eligible for paid parental leave pay a person must have worked 10 out of 13 months prior to giving birth and have worked a minimum of 330 hours in that 10-month period.
Like so many things, COVID means that meeting these requirements is difficult for many Australians. Last year, lockdowns and border restrictions were inevitable measures necessary to protect our public health. These restrictions are interfering with the working lives of millions of Australians, especially in border communities such as I represent. Across Australia people are being stood down or experiencing a significant reduction in work hours. This may, in turn, have an effect on their ability to meet the PPL work test requirements. The legislation will fix that oversight by ensuring that, if a person is receiving the COVID disaster payment, that time counts towards meeting the paid parental leave work test. Up until now, parents receiving the disaster payment may have found themselves ineligible for paid parental leave if they lost hours of work as a result of the lockdowns, and this would have been yet another hard economic blow for hard-hit families.
I’m rather surprised that we’re only debating this legislation now, on the very last day of August in 2021. It’s baffling really why the government has been so slow off the mark giving people the reassurance they need to make it through the pandemic. We had to make this exact change for JobKeeper last year, and it’s taken until now for the government to realise we need to do it again for the updated disaster payment scheme.
When the government ended JobKeeper, even when the nation was plunged once again into lockdowns, they stubbornly refused to bring it back even though people and business were desperately asking for it. Indeed, many of the businesses that I talk to daily tell me that the current program is nowhere near as effective as JobKeeper. But, instead, the government has given us an entirely new scheme, the COVID disaster payment, and as the lockdowns of 2021 started to ravage Victoria and New South Wales, the support the government comes up with is, I’m afraid, ad hoc, constantly changing and seemingly based on the political criticism of the day rather than a sober assessment of what people actually need. Unfortunately, the Paid Parental Leave scheme has been no exception. Just consider this point: when the government originally introduced the COVID disaster payment it was only made available to people who were directly in lockdown, and this ignored the fact that many people who weren’t themselves in a lockdown lost work because of the lockdowns. It was a mistake, and it was a rushed job. Thankfully, though, it was corrected. But imagine if the government hadn’t corrected it. Families in regional Victoria whose incomes had been gutted by lockdowns in Melbourne wouldn’t have had the PPL work test exemptions available in this bill.
For people living in border communities, the biggest problem with the government’s approach to economic support during this pandemic is not simply that it’s haphazard and insufficient; it’s that it doesn’t account for the additional burdens border communities have to face. If you live in Wodonga, you’re affected by an outbreak in Watsons Bay. If you live in Albury, you’re affected by an outbreak in Albert Park. If you live in Wangaratta, you’re affected by an outbreak in Parramatta. The impact of the border closure last year was immense. It took 138 days of disruption, pain and crisis before those restrictions were lifted and our community came together again. But it was only a temporary reprieve. This year has been like groundhog day. People have been forced to obtain permits simply to get to work, to access health care, to take their kids to school and to care for elderly parents. In some cases when the borders close these things are simply not possible. Nothing in this bill recognises that these are additional border area impacts, because there’s nothing in the COVID disaster payment scheme that recognises them either.
As a midwife, I know how important access to paid parental leave is for healthy families and parental bonding. We are living in a time when social networks are being put to the ultimate test. Grandparents who would usually pop by and assist with informal child care can no longer help out. Family budgets are tight and many will be counting on PPL months ahead of giving birth. This financial stress can have flow-on effects on the health of newborns who are entering this world in the middle of a pandemic. There is a growing body of empirical evidence that demonstrates very clearly that anxiety in parents has a direct flow-on effect with anxiety in offspring.
Families come in all shapes and sizes in this country, but the evidence shows that women have borne the greatest brunt of this pandemic when it comes to economic impacts. Women are also by far the greatest subscribers to schemes like PPL. So, when I see legislation like this, which adapts our Paid Parental Leave scheme for the realities of COVID, I think: ‘Sure, good, this is sensible. But why didn’t the government learn from last time? Really, why?’ I think at the start of the pandemic, even for the first year, Australians were happy to cut the government some slack. It’s a crisis that no-one saw coming and that no-one really knew how to handle. Mistakes were bound to be made, and I think we are a generous nation. But we’re 18 months into this now, and people have been patient enough. So I support this bill, but I call on the government: please, think ahead, plan ahead and learn from what we experienced last year.