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Paid maternity leave must be a workplace entitlement

By Natasha Stott Despoja - posted Sunday, 15 September 2002

In announcing last year’s federal election, the Prime Minister nominated "how we better balance work and family responsibilities" as a key issue for his Government and a top domestic challenge. The Prime Minister was right in naming this issue as significant, but the policy approach that has followed is disappointing.

The Coalition’s First Child Tax Refund, or Baby Bonus, offers only a low level of real support on the birth of a first baby and is biased towards higher income earners. It seems an unusual approach to take, given that clothing, food and goods for babies cost the same whether you are on a high income or a low one.

Families also have to wait until the end of the financial year before they receive it through a tax refund. The Australian Democrats believe the Baby Bonus is an ill targeted and inequitable scheme.


During the election, the Democrats proposed a national paid maternity leave scheme. In the months since, in contrast to the controversy the Baby Bonus has generated, it has been heartening to see the issue of paid maternity leave gather momentum at an industry, union and community level.

Even more heartening is the Prime Minister’s weekend endorsement of paid maternity leave, despite early scepticism from his Government. It was somewhat ironic to see one member of his ministry describe paid maternity leave as "middle class welfare" when the Baby Bonus is so clearly biased towards those on higher incomes.

Of course, workers with families need more than paid leave: parents also want secure part-time work; accessible, reasonably priced child care and flexibility in their jobs, but the Democrats see a national system of paid maternity leave as integral to work and family policy. It should be pointed out also, that we see paid maternity leave as a workplace entitlement, rather than a solution to the country’s declining fertility rate.

Only about a third of Australian women have access to any form of paid maternity leave. Most are in the public sector or work for large employers. The chance to stay at home with a new baby should not be confined to the well-paid in big workplaces. Paid maternity leave should be a right for Australian working women - not a privilege.

Through a Private Members’ Bill, I have introduced Australia’s first legislation to establish a system of paid maternity leave. With Australia only one of two countries to not have such a system in place, it was time to act.

The Democrats’ legislation proposes 14 weeks, Government-funded leave at the rate of the minimum wage, or if the female employee usually earns less than this, at their normal wage. There is also flexibility for this to be topped up through additional payments or periods of leave, locally negotiated between employer and employee. We estimate the cost of this program at around $352 million a year.


In developing this legislation, I consulted extensively with employers, unions, community and women’s organisations. It was widely agreed that small business could not afford the added cost of providing paid leave to their female employees, hence the role for Government.

I have had strong support for the Democrats’ model and via a Senate committee hearing into my Bill, some excellent ideas have been put forward about how we can further improve the legislation.

Many larger companies in Australia now recognise that it makes more sense to retain employees that have young families rather than lose experienced and valuable workers. Businesses cannot afford to lose the talent, expertise and productivity of working women, just because they decide to have a baby.

As business and the wider community increasingly recognise the value of paid maternity leave, the onus is on all of us to continue the debate about balancing work and family, to ensure the Government understands why paid maternity leave is an essential part of the mix. It is more than politics - we all benefit from the creation of the next generation – not just in terms of tax revenue and productive work.

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About the Author

Senator Natasha Stott Despoja was the Australian Democrats spokesperson on Foreign Affairs, Attorney-Generals, Science & Biotechnology, Higher Education and the Status of Women (including Work & Family). She is a former Senator for South Australia.

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