BY KATE ASHMOR
Bravo Bernard Keane for yesterday raising the issue of paid parental leave, an important government policy which directly affects millions of Australian women. As I’ve recently noted, it’s time for women to move beyond the ‘gender wars’ and use their unprecedented political power to leverage policy outcomes.
The Coalition is offering a paid parental leave scheme of six months leave at full pay, limited to $75,000. Paying parents 100% of their replacement wage while on parental leave has been a common practice around the world for many years, including in countries such as Denmark, Lithuania, Slovenia, Venezuela and Iran.
Paid parental leave is much more than a workplace retention and productivity incentive. If Tony Abbott’s scheme is to be fairly compared with the government’s 18 week, minimum wage package currently available to Australian families, some important factors omitted in Keane’s piece need to be considered.
The financial stability created through receiving a full replacement wage, such as not having to worry about mortgage stress, enables mothers to concentrate on caring for and bonding with their newborn babies. A critical aspect of this is breastfeeding for at least the first six months. Indeed, the World Health Organisation recommends exclusive breastfeeding for six months to promote optimal health, growth and development. But just this week, a report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare showed that while 90% of Australian babies are breastfed at birth, by four months of age that figure drops to 40%, and then to 15% at six months.
Returning to work earlier than preferred due to financial pressures is a notable reason why women stop breastfeeding. The Australian Breastfeeding Association notes that “premature weaning increases the risk of gastrointestinal illness, respiratory illness and infection, eczema… with increasing scientific evidence of its links with chronic or serious illnesses or conditions such as childhood diabetes, urinary tract infection, certain types of cancers, diseases of the digestive system such as coeliac disease and Crohn’s disease, liver disease and cot death”. Breastfeeding is also known to reduce the risk of mothers developing breast and ovarian cancer later in life, as well as type 2 diabetes.
Healthier babies and mothers mean less pressure on our public health system and subsequent savings for taxpayers. The Coalition’s paid parental leave scheme gives mothers relative financial stability and enables them to continue breastfeeding for longer, making it a wise investment into the health of our citizens.
Another significant benefit of the Coalition’s paid parental leave scheme is that it includes the payment of superannuation. According to research in 2010 by the Australian Centre for Financial Studies, the average amount of super held by women aged 58 to 62 was $95,000, compared with $210,000 for men of the same age. Much of that gap is attributable to time women taking time off work for childbirth and child-rearing responsibilities. Helen Conway, Director of the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency has recently stated “…women are 2½ times more likely than men to live in poverty in their old age.”
Paying women super while they are on parental leave is an important step towards closing the gap and reducing the number of women who will retire with insufficient super to live on.
I commend the government on taking the first step towards implementing a paid parental leave scheme. But it’s time to be fair dinkum and move beyond tokenism: if we’re serious about increasing productivity, improving health outcomes for mothers and babies, and supporting the financial health of women – all of which greatly benefits taxpayers in the long run – there is no doubt that the Coalition’s parental leave scheme is a superior offering for Australian families.