I would just like to comment on the member for Higgins’s fine contribution just now. Member for Higgins, I join you in wishing to smash those gender norms not just for the sake of women but for the sake of men; we all benefit, and mostly our children benefit. Thank you for those comments.
The Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Improvements for Families and Gender Equality) Bill 2022 is an important step towards supporting Australian families, and one I welcome. As a former midwife and academic researching maternal and child health, I deeply understand how giving children the best start in life is one of the most powerful drivers of lifelong health. It’s preventative health 101. Creating an environment that promotes parent-child attachment is key to that. A law that supports both parents to care for their young children at home with paid leave when they choose to is good public policy.
Good public policy should always be supported by evidence, and there is plenty of evidence to support this bill. We began to understand the importance of nurturing parent-infant attachment in the 1950s with the groundbreaking work of Bowlby and Ainsworth. Their work was followed on by Emerson, and a raft of subsequent studies has demonstrated that attachment is crucial for children’s physical, psychological, behavioural and developmental wellbeing. Longitudinal studies have confirmed lifelong benefit from strong, healthy attachment.
We have been slow to embrace paid parental leave in Australia. I spent many years studying and working in women’s and children’s health research in Sweden, a place, alongside other Nordic countries, we have looked to for guidance on best practice policy for families. In those days, Swedish colleagues regularly asked me, ‘Why do you not have parent leave in Australia?’ Very straightforward, the Swedes! For them it was as fundamental as Medicare is to us. Since the introduction of the Swedish parental leave reform in 1974, fathers have had the same rights as mothers to use parental leave. Parental benefit is 240 days per parent, a total of 480 days, and it’s distributed between parents as they choose. Sweden introduced the ‘use it or lose it’ system in 1995, recognising—all the things that we’ve heard about—why fathers don’t take up this leave. They reserved a month specifically for fathers that they would lose if they didn’t take it. They watched it, and they decided they needed to raise it to two months in 2002, and then, in a bid to achieve further gender equity, this was increased to three months in 2015. There’s a lesson there. We need to monitor how well our system works and be prepared to amend it again if we need to.
There is strong evidence in Sweden of paternal and maternal leave being taken up. In 2013 almost 90 per cent of fathers took some amount of parental leave. The number of days taken varies between men and women still. Overall, 44 per cent of parental leave benefit recipients were men, and 56 per cent were women. It’s getting closer. Even so, the proportion of total days used by men has slowly increased from seven per cent of all leave in 1989 to 25 per cent in 2013. Furthermore, the percentage of couples that share parental leave equitably is slowly increasing, indicating a more equitable distribution of child rearing that has benefits for mothers, fathers, other key carers and infants. The evidence is there, and I support the bill’s intention to further incentivise dads and non-birth parents to share the load of care responsibility. We know that, when caring responsibilities are shared, the child, the birthing partner, the family, all benefit—physically, mentally and socially. It’s great public policy.
Based on what we have learned, though, 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. I support increasing paid parental leave from 18 weeks to 20 weeks. This is a great start, and I really look forward to seeing paid parental leave increase to 26 weeks in line with international best practice.
Removing the categories of primary, secondary and tertiary claimants and removing the requirement that the primary claimant must be the birth parent are positive steps towards recognising the diversity of Australian families. I hope that the families of Indi, who I represent and who are configured in many shapes and sizes, find accessing parental leave easier and more inclusive.
Businesses, unions, experts and economists all understand that one of the best ways to boost productivity and participation is to provide more choice and more support for families, and, most importantly, more opportunity for women. Reforming the Paid Parental Leave scheme is one part, and an important part, a groundbreaking part actually, of improving women’s economic equality and encouraging greater economic independence for women. That, again, confers lifelong benefits on women and children.
As the minister said in introducing the bill, we need a system that reflects modern families. We need a system that improves the flexibility for families to balance work and family life in a way that suits their diverse needs. But—and I have to spend some time talking about this because it is so interrelated—parents can’t go back to work if there’s no-one to look after their child. This bill will hopefully take some pressure off finding child care by supporting families to provide care at home, particularly in the child’s first year. But access to affordable, high-quality and flexible child care has to work hand in glove as part of this policy, and further reforms are necessary. Child care has been a key focus for the government, and I encourage them to continue on this path, for, if we’re truly going to support parents entering and staying in the workforce, we need to do this.
I draw the government’s attention particularly to rural and communities such as mine, where finding child care has always been a challenge—and it has never been a greater challenge than it is right now. High-quality, accessible early childhood education and care is an essential service in a community where we want maximum workforce participation. For parents, it allows them to work, to train, to study, to open doors—and to provide for their families, of course. For children, it keeps them safe and healthy, assists in their development and builds their skills for school and well into the future.
A thriving childcare service is crucial everywhere but particularly in rural and regional areas where child care is a linchpin service in maintaining the sustainability of small towns and communities. Having childcare services locally, even in thin markets, even where there are not many kids, means that young families can live and work and stay local. If childcare centres close, then the community loses a key hub. In Indi, we’ve experienced the threat of closure in several small towns where the market is thin and childcare workers are so scarce.
Very early on in my tenure as the member for Indi, I was very pleased to successfully advocate and work with the people of Bellbridge to secure their local childcare centre. That little community has continued to go from strength to strength, and I would argue, based on the strength of their child care. Once a local childcare centre closes down, this is what happens. Parents have to take their children somewhere else, which often leads to a flow-on effect of that child entering a school in another town. Subsequently, this leads to school closures, the loss of opportunities, the loss of childcare workers or primary school teachers who lived there—the list goes on—and, ultimately, contributes to the desertification of country towns.
Family policy is crucial to rural and regional development, and child care remains an urgent issue in Indi. I need to tell you about this. Each month—and this has really grown for me in Indi—parents, both mums and dads, write to me about how hard it is to find a childcare placement for their child. They tell me that this means they’re delaying going back to work. Many of them are critical healthcare workers, such as psychologists, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, not to mention logistics supply people and all the other people we have in our regions. The lack of available places is actually severely compounding the problem of essential worker shortages in Indi.
In Wangaratta, some children have been on the waitlist for 18 months, with over 100 families now on their waitlist. In Bright, there’s a 70-child waitlist. In Wodonga, families have their children on waitlists at 10 or more centres and still can’t get a spot. Working parents are forced to quit their jobs—I’m not exaggerating—or reduce their hours because there are not enough childcare places. So paid parental leave reform is brilliant. It’s good. I’m happy about it. We must, though, work in lockstep with childcare places as well.
One of the reasons there are no childcare places available is that there are not enough educators. One educator in Wangaratta, who’s worked in the sector since 1994, tells me she has never seen the level of educators so low. In Corryong, a tiny town in the Upper Murray, minimal childcare staff mean women are considering leaving town because they can’t return to work. They estimate that at least 10 more childcare workers are required to meet the demand. I recently met a highly trained nurse in Cudgewa who told me how badly needed she was at the local hospital, but she simply couldn’t go to work because she could not get childcare. Parents who send their children to The Lake View Children’s Centre in Mount Beauty talk about how they feel the centre is in survival mode when it comes to staffing. They’re simply not getting paid enough. One mum told me: ‘We need our childcare centres to retain quality staff to provide our children with the expert care and education they need. Access facilities and better pay for our educators should be priorities.’ And I couldn’t agree more.
I welcome the government’s commitment towards lifting the maximum childcare subsidy rate to 90 per cent for families for the first child in care and keeping higher subsidy rates for the second and additional children in care. Great work! Making child care cheaper, though, is one part of making child care more accessible. I have to emphasise that—and many of my colleagues from the regions are saying the same thing—regional communities can’t take up this cheaper child care because they’re limited by having the child care to take up. This government also needs to prioritise attracting, developing and retaining quality childcare staff to develop the workforce that will meet the demand that comes with cheaper child care, a demand that’s well and truly being felt in Indi.
We must increase the minimum award pay for childcare workers. Improving pay conditions in the childcare sector is one of the reasons why I ultimately supported the government’s secure jobs, better pay bill last year. Secondly, the government must continue to invest in training a childcare workforce. The government has agreed on a $1 billion national skills agreement, which will provide additional funding for a fee-free TAFE in 2023 to provide more training for industries just like child care, and I welcome that. A longer-term agreement aimed at driving sector reform and supporting women’s workforce participation is still being negotiated. I sincerely hope that growing the childcare workforce is directly addressed in this agreement. I also call on the government to fully implement the National Children’s Education and Care Workforce Strategy, which seeks to address recruitment, retainment and sustainability of the childcare workforce. I also welcome the upcoming comprehensive review by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission on child care. I look forward to reading their findings and recommendations, and working with government to see them fulfilled.
Thirdly, and finally, I call on the government to look at the many intersecting factors causing worker shortages, including childcare workers, in regional and rural Australia and placing enormous pressure on families. One factor I consistently hear about is the lack of affordable housing. The government’s upcoming housing legislative package aims to address affordable housing. I’ll be closely watching how this package will prioritise affordable housing and affordable rentals in regional and rural areas. If this doesn’t happen, critical sectors like child care will continue to suffer along with all the flow-on effects this has for small communities. I look forward to working with the government on how this package can truly deliver for regional electorates like Indi.
The Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Improvements for Families and Gender Equality) Bill 2022 is a very important reform in family policy, gender equity, and child and parent health. I commend this bill to the House.