18 May 2015

Paid parental leave: Could the Coalition have been any dumber?

What a difference a year makes: Prime Minister Tony Abbott has come under pressure to consider an early election this year to capitalise on the public support while it is there.

It's the same kind of idiot who thinks it's a good idea to draw a line in the sand between the Coalition and Labor over super. Tony Abbott told Parliament last week there would be "no changes to super, no adverse changes to super in this term of Parliament, and we have no plans to make adverse changes to super in the future".

It was remarkable coming from a government whose Treasurer only six weeks ago reached out to Labor for a "bipartisan" approach on super, saying he had measures "under very active consideration".

Labor took him at his word, announced its own very mild position, and had the door slammed in its face.

Everyone knows something will have to be done soon about super tax concessions. The Henry tax review said so, the Murray financial system inquiry said so, and the government's tax discussion paper as good as said so. The cost of the concessions rivals that of the pension, and it is growing more quickly. To say that isn't so, after saying it was so, is to redefine reality.

On mothers, Abbott took to the election a proposal for six months' paid maternity leave. He picked the period of 26 weeks rather than Labor's 18 weeks "to support women to have the best chance to breastfeed and bond with their infant for the six-month period recommended by international and Australian health experts". The Coalition's policy still available on its website cites the National Health and Medical Research Council and the World Health Organisation as experts finding that the minimum recommended period of exclusive care and breastfeeding is six months.

In the meantime, Labor's paid parental leave scheme was ensuring that some women had more than 18 weeks. That was its aim. Its explanatory memorandum said the scheme would "complement" existing entitlements, being paid "before, after, or at the same time". Never intended as a substitute for employer-provided leave, it was an add-on that would bring some women close to six months.

The Fair Work Ombudsman puts the intention beyond doubt. "Employer-funded paid parental leave doesn't affect an employee's eligibility for the Australian government's paid parental leave scheme," it says on its website. "An employee can be paid both."

So it's hard to know what to make of the sudden quasi-criminalisation of mothers who do as the law intended to get paid leave approaching the six months that Abbott insisted was the minimum needed for breastfeeding and exclusive care.

Labelling them "double dippers" on Mother's Day and announcing that from next year they would be denied access to the government's scheme, Joe Hockey was invited by Laurie Oakes to agree that accessing both was "basically fraud". He replied: "Well, it is."

Almost half of the mothers who would have previously been eligible for government-funded leave will lose it; 20 per cent will lose it altogether and 27 per cent will lose some of it, offsetting whatever lesser amount of leave their employer offers them.

The move will devalue or make worthless existing employment conditions secured as a result of enterprise bargaining. It'll mean that next time there's an enterprise bargain both sides will see it in their interests to replace those conditions with ones that are actually worth something. Employer-provided maternity leave will be written out of many agreements. As Bill Shorten put it on Friday, the scheme that was meant to set a minimum level of paid leave will in many workplaces end up setting the maximum.

As the Coalition has dug in (for the sake of less than $1 billion over four years) its rhetoric has grown ever stronger. Employers who tried to substitute other benefits for paid parental leave would be trying "to scam the government", the Treasurer said. The Prime Minister accused public servants of "getting two lots of paid parental leave from the taxpayer", as if that were relevant. One is from their employer, obtained in lieu of wages or other benefits through bargaining, and the other is the government top-up.

It's all the stranger when you consider that the Coalition's proposal will never become law. The Senate isn't going to cut in half the number of people who receive a benefit the Coalition itself believed was insufficient. It's stranger still when you consider the billions the Coalition wants to amass in its Medical Research Future Fund. The fund would help find cures. Breastfeeding, as recommended by the World Health Organisation, would help stop people getting ill.