Family friendly provisions cannot just be for professional women working in large corporations or the public sector. They must be available to all working women argues ALP Deputy Leader Jennie Macklin.

Thank you Peter, it’s a pleasure to be here today. It’s particularly significant because today, as I’m sure you’re only too aware, is International Women’s Day – a day when we recognise our past achievements and look forward to what needs to be done.

The recent debate about the need for a population policy has centred almost exclusively on immigration and ignored a key determinant of Australia’s population profile – our birth rate.

Immigration is important but in terms of lowering the average age of the population, you can’t get much better than a new child aged zero.

We are certainly having fewer babies. The birth rate in Australia has dropped from 3.5 babies per woman in the early 1960s, to 1.84 a decade ago, to 1.75 babies per woman in 2000.

Many women are delaying having a child until they have completed their education, established a career, and signed up for the First Home Owners Scheme. Women giving birth at 30 years of age are increasingly likely to be first time mothers.

Population policy, properly understood, is not about forcing women to have more children or keeping them at home. It’s about making it easier for families to have and care for children.

In the past, I have warned of the social consequences of not addressing our nation’s declining fertility rate including the threat of Australia becoming a ‘childfree society’ – a society intolerant of children.

Today I want to take the debate a step forward.

From today, the Labor Party is starting a dialogue with industry, trade unions and employer groups on the options that could deliver paid maternity leave.

And we don’t plan to stop there. Most women do not go back to work 14 weeks after having a baby. So we also have to look at how we can create options for families in the years before their youngest child starts school.

Many parents want to stay at home with their children for some time after childbirth. This needs to be accommodated in ways that strengthen family life, and encourage and equip parents to move back into the workforce when they are ready.

To achieve these joint goals we need to develop more flexible models of parental leave and income support and improve access to high quality, affordable childcare.

We need to look at the parental leave models that are on offer around the world and assess their relevance for Australian men and women.

Internationally, there is a noticeable trend towards granting periods of leave that can be taken by either parent, and allowing a partial return to work over a longer period of time.

Among industrialised nations, only Australia and the United States do not meet the ILO convention requiring a minimum of 14 weeks paid maternity leave with no length of service conditions.

Less than a third of our female employees have access to employer-funded paid maternity leave and these benefits are generally the preserve of women in the public sector and larger private organisations. There is little on offer to the large body of women who work in shops, offices, cafes and factories.

The Howard Government argued that the Workplace Relations Act would enable workers to reconcile work and family responsibilities but few enterprise agreements – and even fewer AWAs – contain work-family provisions. Put simply, the right to paid maternity leave is not being achieved through enterprise bargaining. According to research by Deborah Brennan, the 14 weeks recommended by the ILO is available in just three of 1866 Federal Awards.

In fact, the deregulation of the labour market has meant that previous entitlements to paid maternity leave can be removed, particularly where awards are being simplified.

It’s against this backdrop that the debate and discussion on paid maternity leave must seriously begin. In the past, Australia has shown it can be a policy trailblazer – from the introduction of Medicare to compulsory superannuation and HECS – all Labor initiatives and all now embedded in our culture.

Just as the doomsayers of the past prophesised that Medicare and compulsory super would send the country broke, there’s been too much talk about why paid maternity leave can’t be done and not enough about how it can be achieved.
Labor knows that nearly half of the women working in the private sector are employed by small business and we recognise that the cost of paid maternity leave cannot be disproportionately borne by small business. The last thing we want to do is impose disincentives to the hiring of women in any employment sector.

There is a range of models on offer internationally. Some are government-funded, some employer-funded, some a combination of both. There are clearly arguments for both parties making a contribution.

There are benefits to business from policy measures that encourage long-term attachment of staff and reduce turnover costs.

The Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA) found that the cost associated with recruiting, training, relocating and replacing employees is a major expense for most organisations.

Labour turnover costs can range from 50 to 130 per cent of the employee’s salary. Companies that promote family-friendly policies enjoy increased productivity and employee loyalty, and enhance their reputation and image with customers and staff.

For example, Westpac has reported that its retention rate of female employees increased from 54% in 1995 to 93% in 2000 as a result of introducing paid maternity leave.

Westpac had calculated that an increase in the return to work rate of 10 per cent in three years would cover the cost of its employee’s maternity leave. When the return to work rate went up by over 30 per cent it was a nice return on their investment.

When the connection between women and the workplace is severed the cost to business and the individual is high.
For the individual there’s the loss of relevant skills, difficulty in building a career and a drop in life-time earnings and superannuation.

Women today have much more to lose. They can’t afford to lose their skills and confidence in a rapidly-changing world where work is less secure, family breakdown more prevalent, home ownership beyond the reach of many single income families and superannuation tied to workforce participation.

And there’s the cost to the public purse when our investment in the education and training of women is not realised in a more productive economy.

In an ageing population with smaller numbers entering the labour market, we cannot afford to lose these skills.

Labor’s work and family policy must also give men the chance to participate more fully and equally in family life. This is what men are telling us they want.

A 1999 survey of 1000 Australian fathers found that 68% felt they did not spend enough time with their children. Nearly 60 percent saw barriers associated with the workplace – expectations of long working hours and inflexibility – as the most critical factor in preventing them from being the kind of father they would like to be.

While surveys suggest that only 6 to 7 per cent of women currently in their early childbearing years wish to remain childless, the current trends suggest that over 20 per cent will never be parents.

For a large pool of women an expressed desire to be a mother will remain unfulfilled.

We need to ask is this just a matter of poor timing – ‘Omigod I forgot to have a baby’ as the feminist bumper stickers used to say – or is it about poor policy? For my part, I have no doubt it’s about poor policy.

While the Howard Government mouths the language of ‘choice’ it’s policies reflect the Prime Minister’s fondness for a world in which men are breadwinners, women are homemakers and children are in the full-time care of their mother until they start school. This is not an assertion. The Government’s tax and welfare policies clearly favour single income families and create strong inducements for women to take an extended break from the labour force.

For example, the Government’s Family Tax Benefit B is available only to single income families. It is paid to the full-time carer who stays at home full-time and is at its most generous when the youngest child is under five. And now we have the ‘Baby Bonus’ – announced during the 2001 election campaign.

Contrary, to the Prime Minister’s claim, the ‘Baby Bonus’ does not offer “choice to families with young children”. It provides some financial assistance if a parent stays at home to care for their first child but is quickly dissipated if that parent earns any income.

Women are telling us they want a two-way street between work and family life, yet the Baby Bonus blocks off one whole lane.

The Baby Bonus offends all notions of equity. A parent who earned over $55,000 in the year prior to the birth of their first child receives an annual refund of $2,500 if they choose to stay at home, while a parent who earned just $10,000 receives $500.

And what does it all mean for the parent who would like to return to part-time work? For those who are going back to low or middle income jobs it means there is little financial incentive to do so. They may even end up worse off.

The simultaneous withdrawal of Family Tax Benefit B and the Baby Bonus, the means testing of the Child Care Benefit and the cost of getting to and from work all conspire against a gradual return to the paid workforce.

Our tax and welfare systems neither reflect nor support the desire of many families to combine caring and paid work.
So to put it simply, the separate planks of the Howard Government’s family package are designed, not to build a bridge between motherhood and the labour market but to actually fence mothers in.

A key challenge for the new century is developing policy that reflects the real lives of women. Policy must recognise that women’s participation in the workforce and their family and caring roles vary widely and change throughout their lives. That’s why there is no one solution.

Today’s women don’t fit neatly into pigeon holes and by setting up work and family as competing – rather than complementary – interests, the individual pays a heavy price.

But just as worrying is the cost to our society and our economy.

If we want to arrest the decline in our birth rate we have to provide more options for families – so women aren’t faced with a stark choice when it comes to children and work.

The signs are already there that women are shedding the Superwoman cape in droves.

The Superwoman, who in her purest form scaled the career ladder while she raised a Women’s Weekly family, set impossible standards. No wonder women are now saying: “if we really wanted to juggle we’d run away and join the circus.”

The policy imperative is to design policy settings that make work and family compatible – for all women. Family friendly provisions cannot be the exclusive province of professional women working in large corporations or the public sector. They must be available to women working in or running small businesses; to teachers and nurses; to women working in factories and restaurants, shops and offices.

We need to widen the work and maternity options for all women and watch the effect on Australia’s birth rate. That’s a population policy debate worth having.