Time to induce paid maternity leave
By Elizabeth Broderick
Publication: Newcastle Herald, (Thursday 28 February 2008)
By Sex Discrimination Commissioner and Commissioner responsible for Age Discrimination, Elizabeth Broderick
Given that paid maternity leave has been on the public policy agenda for over three decades, the struggle for a universal paid maternity leave scheme can only be described as a protracted labour.
It is pleasing therefore to see the new government moving quickly on its pre-election promise to set up a Productivity Commission Inquiry into the matter, with the Treasurer’s recent release of the Inquiry’s Terms of Reference. The Inquiry’s terms are promising – they include consideration of maternity, paternity and parental leave models as well as work and family preferences and cost effectiveness. With a reporting date of February 2009, there is plenty of time for renewed public debate on the issue while the economists in the Commission undertake the detailed modelling necessary for informed decision-making by government.
The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission has long-advocated for paid maternity leave. In 2002 my predecessor Pru Goward undertook significant research and economic modelling on the issue, proposing a modest national scheme of 14 weeks paid at the federal minimum wage as a result. The beauty of this model is that it allays the concerns of small and medium sized business, who understandably fear the financial and regulatory burden of an employer-funded scheme.
Whatever the debate about how to best structure a system of paid leave over the next year, there can be no doubt about the need for a national scheme.
First and foremost, a national paid maternity leave scheme is a priority to compensate women for lost income at the birth of a child. Currently two-thirds of women have no access to this workplace entitlement. Addressing the inequality experienced by these women workers should be the key objective of any paid maternity leave scheme. The health and welfare of mums and babies is also paramount - women need time to recover from childbirth and establish breastfeeding, which is one of the most important contributions to infant health and development.
There are also important benefits to be gained from considering a broader scheme of support that recognises the role of partners. In HREOC’s It’s About Time: Women, men, work and family paper, released in March last year, we reiterated our paid maternity leave proposal as well as proposing a broader scheme of paid paternity and parental leave to support and encourage shared care of children.
At a minimum, we have recommended two weeks of paid paternity leave, followed by 38 weeks of paid parental leave which can be shared between parents. While this is an ambitious scheme, international evidence highlights the importance of paid leave entitlements in encouraging fathers to take a hands-on role in the care of their children. In Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Sweden, where paid leave quotas have been introduced for fathers on a “use it or lose it” basis, leave taking by fathers has more than doubled in recent years.
On my current national ‘Listening Tour’, I have heard from many parents who wish to share the care of their children. I expect that the Productivity Commission will hear from a fair few of them in coming months.
For more information on Elizabeth Broderick's Listening Tour visit www.humanrights.gov.au/listeningtour