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What’s the Deal with Paid Parental Leave in Australia? I’ll Fill You In.

mum-newborn-babyOkay, I’ll say it: I think the government’s decision in last week’s budget to tweak paid parental leave makes sense. What’s that? You didn’t hear me the first time because it was garbled with the vomit in my mouth? I’ll say it again: I agree with Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey that the 90,000 new mothers a year who have no employer-provided paid maternity leave are entitled to access the government’s $11,500 scheme—others are not. Yes, I know this is not a popular opinion.

Over on Mamamia, writer Rose Jackson predicted tears all ’round:

I personally cannot wait for my workmates to have me bursting into tears when the photocopier breaks because I’ve been rushed back to work with a four-month-old baby who still wakes four times a night so my family can meet the mortgage.

Tanya Plibersek, deputy leader of the Labor party, got kicked out of Question Time for voicing her thoughts on the move, and summed up her opinion by stating:

This government just has no idea about parental leave.

But, in the tragic comedy that is the Abbott and Hockey Show, their latest move actually makes sense. You see, the Liberal Government (which um, presumably some women and mums voted for in the 2013 election—giving them ninety seats to Labor’s fifty-five) stands for “a lean government that minimises interference in our daily lives.” They’re all about not competing with the private sector, believing instead that “businesses and individuals—not government—are the true creators of wealth and employment.” Dishing out $11,500 to mothers who have a higher paying maternity scheme already provided by their employer? Well, that’s in direct conflict with what the Liberal Party does.

And let’s get one thing straight—no mother is losing her entitlement to eighteen weeks at the minimum wage. That is the safety net; the bare minimum that Labour Government generously and ingeniously instituted in 2011. What is happening is that if your work also offers paid maternity leave at a greater rate, you’ll get that instead. And obviously, you and your family will be better off financially within the same period of time.

But, as with so many things in life, it’s not what is said but the way it’s said that makes a difference. When I had my first baby in 2008 there was no paid maternity leave from the government at all. Employer maternity leave policies were random, seemingly reserved for senior management. Like many female employees in their late twenties, I had joined my company around two years earlier and had been shifted around on a few contracts during my time with them thanks to restructuring and headcount-cutting measures.

When I accidentally fell pregnant I hid my news from my coworkers and managers, not knowing how they’d respond. I felt dumb and desperately vulnerable at the time. One day, to much fanfare at the general meeting, the company released a new maternity leave policy advocating six weeks paid leave—seemingly great for me. The policy was accessible to anyone who had worked for the company for a year, but when I presented myself to HR they gave me an odd look and quickly revised the policy on the intranet to specify it was “only accessible to employees who had held a twelve months salary position.” Their weird contracts that I’d calmly gone along with made me ineligible. But even louder than the hypocrisy and apathy, the message to me personally was clear:

You’re not worth it.

And speaking to lots of mums on the front lines, it’s an undertone that pervades conversations with employers around the country.

Cut to the Labour Government’s move in 2011 advocating eighteen weeks paid leave. All of a sudden corporates offering six weeks seemed stingy. The government’s gesture was a bold statement that clearly said “We value women for working and for raising children.” Across the commercial landscape there was a palpable shift in sentiment as employers competed against each other to come up with the most generous and lucrative maternity leave schemes in order to cash in on pro-mum fever.

Woolworths now offers eight weeks paid. ANZ offers twelve weeks paid. Vodafone will soon offer sixteen weeks paid. Every single one of them a good move and something that would have been inconceivable five years ago.

Then came along Tony Abbott’s scheme in the lead-up to the 2014 election, which advocated that new mums receive their full salary plus superannuation for twenty-six weeks, capped at an annual income of $150,000. Say what?!?!

Here’s the thing: Mums want support from their employers—not to financially cripple them. The plan was obviously scrapped, and this week Joe Hockey announced that mums who take up their employer’s scheme will have to forgo access to the government one for the same period of time. And that’s cool—corporate lawyers and bankers probably don’t need as much access to this scheme as manufacturing and factory workers.

But for extra measure, he had to go and insinuate mums who used the system as it was previously designed to take up both the government and their employer’s offers were rorters and double-dippers—completely undermining the positive sentiment toward mum employees that has built up over the last few years.

And guess what? This week Abbott’s popularity has surged, and business leaders reckon they might bail on those paid parental leave plans after all. That’s a bad result for women, which makes it a bad result for business, the economy, and the country as well.

Does your company offer paid maternity leave? Have you had positive experiences as a mum at work? What do you think of the government’s changes to paid parental leave?

image: Getty / Sally Anscombe

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