House of Representatives

I rise to speak in support of this bill. I wish to acknowledge the Member for Cooper for relaying her story, her family’s story, which indicates so powerfully to this House the struggles that mothers, fathers and broader families experience in raising little babies through to adulthood and trying to combine their work and career. Thank you for sharing that story, Member for Cooper.

So I rise in support of this bill, the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Flexibility Measures) Bill 2020. Allowing families to take six of their 18 weeks paid parental leave flexibly and within two years of a child’s birth or adoption is common sense. It reflects the diversity of our modern families, which increasingly feature single parents, same-sex couples and multi-generational care.

Paid parental leave is a tangible structural support that helps new parents enjoy the full joys and complexities of family life. It moves Australian society towards gender equality by making possible both a meaningful career and a fulfilling family life. Yet there’s still so much the government can do to support the hopes and aspirations of parents while giving our kids the benefit of meaningful quality time and care. With some imagination, and by following in the footsteps of countries which are fully committed to shared parenting, Australia can reap the benefits of increased productivity and happier families.

Families in my electorate know that change is the only constant in raising children. As a former midwife I’m well acquainted with how a new arrival transforms the lives of parents in ways that they could never have anticipated. In Indi, our birth rate is two, significantly above the Australian average of 1.74. In 2017-18, 861 Indi residents accessed paid parental leave, with roughly half that number using the two-week dad-and-partner pay scheme. Paid parental leave supports not just parents but also the people who employ them; and their extended care networks, including grandparents and friends.

But let’s start with the parents.

More flexibility makes life easier for parents in casual or part-time work. Currently, primary carers must take parental leave in one 18-week full-time block and forfeit the rest if they return to work during this time. And returning to work is anything over one hour, except in certain circumstances. Women make up 70 per cent of the part-time and casual labour market, and taking full-time leave to replace part-time or casual work creates its own challenges—and we have just heard about that. The healthcare and social assistance sector is the largest employer of women of child-bearing age in my electorate, employing 3,427 women, or around 23 per cent of that group. Part-time and casual employment is a feature of this work, and this bill corrects the restriction that might prevent these women taking their full parental leave entitlement. It also allows them to return to work when it suits them, and it supports them to remain in the workforce as mothers.

More flexibility is good for the increasing number of women who run small businesses or who are self-employed. In Indi, our young mothers have their own law firms, or are entrepreneurs, cafe owners or farmers. Their businesses and their customers and employees would suffer if they stepped away from operations for a continuous 18 weeks. The government’s amendment recognises that a graduated return to work helps keep these businesses in the black, while giving new parents the space and time for rest and recuperation and to support the health benefits of the child. It’s also good for business. Flexible parental leave can support women returning to work earlier in a part-time capacity if they take the rest as paid parental leave. This means employers get their staff back sooner, which supports retention when parents return to work in a greater capacity.

But there is still so much we can do to improve the experience of parenthood. The tired, gendered, stereotypical roles of breadwinner versus homemaker are persist in parenthood in heterosexual relationships, to the detriment of both men and women. This is in stark contrast to the huge strides we’ve seen in workforce participation and educational attainment. Younger women who have not experienced gender inequality tell me they are shocked to find that it lingers still in parenting. Government policy continues to foster this gendered division of care. We can see this in how leave is structured. As well-intentioned as this legislation is, the added flexibility only applies to primary caregivers. While primary carers aren’t required to be the mother, the reality is that mothers take 95 per cent of primary carers leave, according to the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

In explaining this amendment, the government says: ‘Increasing the flexibility of paid parental leave may encourage greater uptake of parental leave pay by secondary carers, contributing to changing social norms around sharing care and encouraging men to take parental leave.’

But while this flexible leave can be transferred to the secondary caregiver, such as a father or non-biological parent, currently this leave is transferred to fathers in only two per cent of cases, according to an ANU roundtable held in Canberra last August. On paper I can see how increased flexibility makes transferring leave between parents more appealing, but I am sceptical that this will be enough to shift the dial to encourage fathers to take more leave.

How do we encourage more fathers and partners to take a greater share in the upbringing of their children? We know that male parents want to take time off and be more active participants in caregiving. While the rate of fathers taking some leave has risen, from 31 per cent in 2004-06 to 49 per cent in 2013-15, this still means that only half of secondary carers, fathers in most cases, actually utilise two weeks of leave through dad and partner pay entitlements. With only two weeks of leave, in heterosexual two-parent families fathers are less inclined to learn how to manage the daily needs of the child and to see themselves as an equally competent carer, and this further burdens women with an imbalance in caring responsibilities. Supporting both parents to take leave encourages fathers to play a more active role in understanding how to care for and soothe their children, and this has positive impacts on children’s long-term bonding and developmental outcomes.

Part of the problem with increasing the rate of fathers taking paid parental leave is the continuation of the binary model of primary and secondary carers in the legislation. I consulted with the Women’s Health Goulburn North East, a non-government regional women’s health promotion agency, on the impact of this bill. They told me that this division: ‘reinforces patriarchal gender norms that value women for their reproductive capacity and men for their capacity to earn. This traps families in dichotomous breadwinner-homemaker relationships that prevent them from participating equally in the joys and responsibilities of family life.’

These current arrangements disadvantage men as carers, further embed gender inequality and limit women’s career advancement. This serves no-one’s interests.

Women’s Health Goulburn North East continued to tell me: ‘The right to participate fully and equally in the joys of family life should be afforded to all parents regardless of gender or familial structure. Removing gendered language also removes the inherent roles and expectations assigned to men as fathers and women as mothers, meaning parents are free to define these roles for themselves based on the needs of their families.’

Leaving it up to the private sector to lead gender equality initiatives has had mixed results. Many workplaces don’t give secondary carers parental leave, which means that men must take unpaid or recreational leave, creating further disincentives. Even more don’t even ask. At the other end of the spectrum is Telstra, which last year scrapped the distinction between primary and secondary carers, allowing either parent to take up to 16 weeks paid parental leave within 12 months of the birth or placement and to take it flexibly.

The two-tiered model of parenting begins during pregnancy. In my former life as a midwife and later as a researcher, I investigated the experience of fathers in rural Victoria during the antenatal period. I found that, while we talk about fathering as if it were a partnership, a joint experience with the mother, this is not the experience of most people. For instance, when men encounter the healthcare system during a pregnancy, they overwhelmingly report feeling peripheral at least and marginalised or excluded at worst. This is despite data showing that men generally want to be more involved during the pregnancy process. This is a lost opportunity for population health. For example, we do very little to support the mental health of men during their partner’s pregnancy and in the early parenting period, despite significant evidence that tells us this is a key period for the onset of anxiety and depression in men. And this is at our cost. Fathers who are healthy, physically and mentally, and engaged with their children are far more likely to have healthy kids and respectful relationships. The evidence of this is now very, very clear.

The government’s bill goes some way towards catching up with modern parenting. But there are three things that I can suggest we could do now. Firstly: remove the distinction between primary and secondary carers in the government’s paid parental leave legislation. Leave it up to parents to find the balance that works for them. Secondly, and building on the first reform: legislate for shared parental leave. Take a leadership role in removing the unfair bias that persists in many workplaces that prevents or discourages men from taking extended leave. Make sure it’s affordable and is accessible to all parents, regardless of their employment status. Thirdly, ensure that the mental health of men is part of the antenatal care picture. Do this by introducing Medicare-listed mental health check-ups for expectant fathers, like the UK did last year. In the longer term, we need a wholesale review of the delivery of pregnancy, infant and early parenting care, to ensure that we are engaging men as equal partners in the parenting experience and debunking gender stereotypes right from the beginning.

In conclusion, I congratulate the government for leadership on this reform and I urge it to think about: what more can we do to advance equality in the home for the parents raising kids today and for the benefit of the generations of Australian children to come?

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