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Parental leave tweaks boost flexibility but fail gender equality test

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Previously, the primary caregiver could get 18 weeks of Parental Leave Pay in one continuous block within the first year of the birth or adoption, while the secondary caregiver could get an additional two weeks of Dad and Partner Pay. From July 1, the PLP will be given as 12 weeks in one continuous block during the first year, plus 30 days to be taken at any time during the first two years.

This should help families with the transition back to paid work. It can be overwhelming to be home with the baby one day and back to work the next day, while simultaneously trying to help a toddler – and their immune system – adjust to daycare.

While childcare is temporarily free, it will soon snap back to the old system. The cost can be eye-watering and fees are generally higher for babies and toddlers because of staff ratios.

Statistically, many women end up dropping out of the workforce at this point because it’s just too hard, with devastating effects for the economy at large and their own future financial wellbeing.

Meanwhile, over the past decade many businesses have become more accommodating of staff returning from parental leave who want to work part time or take days off. The government scheme should mirror that flexibility.

So much for the bouquets, now for the brickbats.

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The government and One Nation blocked important amendments put forward by Labor, Centre Alliance and the Greens. Greens senator Larissa Waters proposed an amendment to try to ensure women who lost their jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic would still be eligible for Parental Leave Pay. Labor had previously proposed a similar change.

Nearly 180,000 parents received Parental Leave Pay over the 2018-2019 year and Labor estimates that a family that loses eligibility would be as much as $14,812 worse off.

Women who are stood down on JobKeeper still get Parental Leave Pay. However, women who actually lost their jobs could fail the work test for parental leave eligibility depending how long they are unemployed before the baby arrives. It seems unnecessarily cruel since families have budgeted for the payment and it’s difficult to find another job in the middle of a pandemic, let alone when you’re pregnant.

Meanwhile, Centre Alliance senator Stirling Griff tried to fix an anomaly that discriminates against breadwinner mothers and stay-at-home fathers.

Parental Leave Pay is means-tested against the birth mother’s income only, except in adoption cases. If she individually earns less than $150,000, she can access the payment regardless of how much her partner earns. If she earns more, the family will never qualify. As the Herald has previously reported, this means a family with a male breadwinner would qualify for the payment, while another family with a female breadwinner and the same combined income would not.

A family with a male breadwinner would qualify , while another family with a female breadwinner and the same combined income would not.

Some would argue that the government paying parental leave to someone on $150,000 a year is middle-class or even upper-class welfare. Fair enough. My point is that wherever you set the cap, you don’t need to entrench gender inequality.

Labor, Jacqui Lambie and the Greens backed the change but the government had the numbers in the Senate, with One Nation on side. Minister Ruston told the Herald there was no time to consider any amendments because the bill needed to be passed quickly to take effect on July 1.

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I don’t buy that, given it is a known problem with an easy fix and it could be a long time before the issue is considered again. Senator Griff provided costings from the Parliamentary Budget Office suggesting it would only cost about $3 million a year.

The government has previously defended the structure of the scheme by arguing it is intended to support mothers with recovery after childbirth, breastfeeding and bonding with their baby.

These are all good things but men need to bond with their children too and these are decisions best left to individual families. Besides, women earning under the threshold can already transfer their entitlements to their partner.

Parents working from home during the pandemic lockdown have been renegotiating gender roles for months, with many families reporting they have bonded over this time.

In 2020, we should move away from the concept of “primary caregiver” and “secondary caregiver”. Both parents inherently have equal responsibility and can share the load as they see fit.

Caitlin Fitzsimmons is a senior writer, covering social affairs with an economics edge. Facebook: @caitlinfitzsimmons

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