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Abbott's paid parental leave assault will affect families for years to come

by Jenna Price - 12/05/15, 8:35 AM

Columnist and academic at the University of Technology Sydney

View more articles from Jenna Price

Women 'double-crossed' over paid parental leave

Women 'double-crossed' over paid parental leavePhoto: Stocksy

When my first baby was five weeks old, I went back to work. I had six weeks' paid maternity leave and nothing else.

I have spent 30 years wondering about the impact of that decision*. Finding childcare was nearly impossible. In the end, we shared a brilliant New Zealand nanny with two other families in a makeshift family day care arrangement.

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Other families didn't fare so well. They too were not able to access the mainstream childcare system and moved their kids from pillar to post, from one grandma to another, begging care where they could. Some of those women ended up dropping out of work. It was too hard to juggle.

Australia, I thought you'd come a long way since then.

I thought successive governments – including this one – had recognised that for families to be able to participate in the workforce, childcare had to be accessible and affordable, high quality and available to all kinds of women from all kinds of backgrounds. And if employers wanted loyalty, they needed to pay parental leave.

I was even a little bit impressed that the Prime Minister for Women – for that's what he claims he is – had devised a paid parental leave scheme which would include all working women. He promised we would have access to a universal paid parental leave scheme which would allow us to spend more time with our babies after they were born.

Now we know – as a gift on Mother's Day – what a terrible terrible liar the Prime Minister is. Paid parental leave, as he first conjured it for us all to see, would be universal, six months; at full income replacement wages up to $75,000 for that period. The first change was a cut to $50,000. Now, as we understand it, women will have to take their employer's scheme, and only access the government's scheme if nothing else is available or if it doesn't match.

Women will definitely lose time with their kids. Women will have to choose: be attached to your baby, or be attached to your job.

He did not deliver that scheme. Abbott says he is making these changes because of what he calls double-dipping.

That is a disgusting slur on new mothers, accusing them of charging twice for the same event. Nearly every single news outlet has unquestioningly used the phrase.

Looking after your baby for a longer period of time is not double-dipping. Women use those two periods of time to ensure they can spend more time with their kids – they want time with their babies. And the anything but Prime Minister uses that phrase as if extending the period of time with which you spend with your baby is fraudulent. We discover, after all that uterus-teasing, that Tony Abbott has once again lied to the women of Australia.

He's about as appropriate a Minister for Women as Scott Morrison is as a Minister for Families, that is, not at all. They are the frauds. All pretence at care but no real care.

Marian Baird, a professor of employment relations at the University of Sydney, is known for her composed demeanour. She is unrelenting in her criticism of these changes.

"There is enormous shock. This is double-crossing Australian women. After saying for years we need paid parental leave, now he turns around and does this. We are going backwards.

"Australian women will feel as if they have been duped."

This has an immediate impact on income and it will have a huge impact on whether women decide to return to work. If the trade-off is that we are forced to say we will come back to work, what do we do if the money runs out and we can't​ bear to leave our little ones?

As Baird says, there is absolutely no stability in this government's policy-making. It's all talk but the talk hurts families.

"You can't​ trust a government which changes its mind from a signature policy to this."

I predict that these changes will impact on family formation for years to come. Women will decide to put off having children or not to have children; or even worse, have children but leave their work because the parental leave will not be enough reward to remain in their old jobs. Any hint that we were improving the outcomes for women's attachment to their workplaces will now disappear.

Loyalty to work has always been secondary for new parents – now there will be no reason to stay loyal.

And Elizabeth Hill, also of the University of Sydney, whose expertise is in childcare, says there is a serious mismatch between the changed parental leave policy and the provision of childcare.

"In any kind of scheme, you really want a smooth transition from paid parental leave into quality childcare and you want to improve access to childcare but the new package won't deliver that."

These changes don't do that. Instead, they will put immense pressure on families. Almost 50 per cent of mums will lose government paid parental leave entitlements because right now, they can access parental leave payments both from the government and, if available, from their work. The government scheme, introduced by Labor in 2011, provides 18 weeks of leave at the minimum wage to primary care givers earning $150,000 a year or less.

And Hill is critical of the exclusion of some parents from accessing childcare rebates, which will be too tightly tied to workforce participation.

"The best systems are universal because that catches all children, including those whose parents might not work."

The government says it's about fairness.

I love those stories about lionesses being very protective of their cubs and savaging those who put them at risk.

I reckon the women of Australia will show this government that it's not fair to lie to voters. I'm well past the age of making babies – but believe me, I remember what it's like to be the mother of young ones.

Time to eat Abbott before breakfast. Or at the next election.

*She seems normal. But at 30, it may be too early to tell.

Twitter @jennaprice or email jenna_p@bigpond.net.au

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