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Here’s the happy news on paid parental leave

The reforms were hard-fought – and well overdue. Indeed, Australia was the second-last of all advanced nations to implement a national paid leave scheme for mothers. America remains the global laggard with no paid leave.

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So, what impact has the policy had on Aussie mums? Unquestionably good, according to the authors of a new study, The impact of introducing a national scheme for paid parental leave on maternal mental health outcomes.

Using data on about 1500 mothers, drawn from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey, Dr Anam Bilgrami, Associate Professor Kompal Sinha and Professor Henry Cutler, from the Macquarie University Centre for the Health Economy, found “significant” reductions in maternal depression rates in post-reform mothers.

Overall, they found a 14 per cent decrease in the likelihood of depression compared with pre-reform mothers, after controlling for a number of factors. Positive effects were greatest for first-time mothers and women who also had paid-leave entitlements from their employer (because they were more likely to get closer to the six months of paid leave that is considered by many to be optimal).

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Mothers with partners eligible for the two weeks of partner pay fared even better. “Their likelihood of depression was reduced by 18.5 per cent,” the authors found.

Why? “Concurrent access to partner leave may further boost maternal mental health by allowing mothers additional time to rest, seek medical attention and alleviate maternal loneliness and stress.”

Amen.

Importantly, however – and sadly – the authors found mothers with no access to employer-paid leave to top them up above the 18 weeks saw no significant boost to their mental health.

The authors conclude that increasing the national entitlements for PPL and the dad and partner payment for mothers with no employer entitlements “may further reduce postnatal depression and improve health equity in Australia”.

A decade on, there is no room for complacency in the way we treat new mums.

The Coalition’s track record is mixed. Tony Abbott, to his immense credit, was an advocate of extending paid leave to a full six months. But it was also the Coalition, as part of a 2015 budget savings drive, that floated the idea of stopping so-called “double dipping” by women accessing both their national and employer entitlements.

According to the authors: “While these plans were later abandoned, our results suggest they would have been counterproductive, as they would have potentially reduced or removed the mental health improvements realised by women with existing employer-paid leave entitlements.”

So, even as we celebrate a decade of paid leave, it’s time to look at how we could do better.

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Compared with other advanced nations – where leave is often paid at a woman’s actual wage, not the minimum wage – Australia still looks particularly miserly. Our full-time minimum wage represents 42 per cent of the average wage, meaning our 18-week entitlement is just 7.7 weeks of average full-time wages. That compares poorly with 26.6 weeks in Canada, 42.6 weeks in Germany, 40.4 weeks in Finland and 35.8 weeks in Japan. Indeed, of the 36 OECD nations, only two are stingier than us – America, of course, with zero and Ireland with only 6.9 weeks.

We’re also dudding dads. Our two weeks at the minimum wage for fathers is just four-and-a-bit days of the average full-time salary. In Sweden, new dads get paid leave equivalent to 10.8 weeks of the average full-time wage. In Portugal, they get 12.5 weeks, Korea 15.4 weeks and Japan 30.4 (although cultural norms mean a low proportion actually take it).

In arguing against state-sponsored leave, some economists have framed the decision to have children as a “private consumption decision”, one that consenting individuals freely undertake in the rational anticipation that the likely benefits will outweigh any costs. Those economists are usually male, by the way.

In reality, motherhood remains a pursuit actively encouraged by society and one through which women still disproportionately bear the brunt of the costs of raising children – often putting great strain on their mental health.

Rarely do we see a policy intervention yield such stunning results in improving the mental health of a key group of Australians, and one where further action would likely yield even greater benefits.

I’d start by giving mums with no access to additional “top-up” employer-sponsored schemes an expanded entitlement to a full 26 weeks of paid leave.

And let’s not make them wait another 10 years.

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