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March 17th 2010 print

Bill Muehlenberg

Abbott’s maternity leave scheme

Why do politicians – especially those on the right – think that bribing young mums back into the paid workplace is so desirable? And what about the well-being of children? Dumping an entire generation of young kids into the care of strangers is hardly good for them, and is hardly a family-friendly policy.

Last week opposition leader Tony Abbott unveiled his plan for six-month paid maternity leave. He evidently surprised his own colleagues with this, and had to in effect apologise later for not consulting widely on the scheme.

Because I have written a fair amount on this topic over the years, I did not weigh into the debate. But with two important articles in today’s press, it is worth offering some further thoughts on this. The two main problems with this scheme are: it is a big tax slug on business, and it is all about women in the paid workforce, while stay-at-home mums get nothing.

Concerning the first problem, Peter Costello rightly points out the folly of the Abbott plan. He says this:

It’s hard to decide whose idea was worse. First was Kevin Rudd, who announced he wants 30 per cent of the states’ GST so he can ‘fix’ the hospital system. Then there was Tony Abbott, who announced he wants to increase company tax to ‘fix’ parental leave.

First to Abbott. He proposes a government payment to new mothers who leave the workforce of six months’ salary on full pay up to $75,000. It is billed as the most generous state scheme in the world after Sweden – which in itself should have set the alarm bells ringing. For Liberals, that alarm should have sounded like an air-raid siren once Bob Brown and the Greens lauded the scheme.

He continues, Companies that already operate maternity schemes will close them and encourage employees to go on the government entitlement. And why shouldn’t they? Otherwise they would pay twice – directly to their own employees and indirectly through increased taxes. So private benefits will be socialised, spending will rise and taxes will increase.

I have been to a lot of Liberal Party meetings in my life and I can honestly say I have never heard a speech in favour of higher tax. Sure, I have heard speeches in favour of replacing inefficient taxes with simpler ones (and indeed given a few of those myself) and I have heard people argue for better tax compliance as a way of reducing taxes for honest and enterprising folk. But the idea of increasing tax would be as foreign to the Liberal Party as voluntary unionism at the local ALP branch.

Costello notes that Abbott is said to need to appeal to female voters,

so he adopted the Crocodile Dundee approach. In the movie, a New York mugger pulls a switchblade on Mick Dundee. Our hero laughs at the blade, saying, ‘That’s not a knife, this is a knife’, as he pulls out his 30-centimetre hunting blade. The terrified mugger disappears into the night.

And the point of Abbott’s proposal is to tell the public that Rudd does not have a maternity leave scheme. ‘This is a maternity leave scheme,’ he declares. In this kind of politics, if your opponent has a bad idea you try to outflank it. Your opponent has a mildly bad idea, so you come up with a more extreme one and have a race to the bottom.

But it is not just the big new tax idea which is such a worry. The main problem with all such schemes is its discriminatory nature. These schemes are entirely focused on women in the workplace, but completely ignore mothers who choose to stay at home to look after their young children.

Angela Shanahan tackles this aspect in her column today. She rightly notes that this plan does not fit with the current choices of mothers:

Most of those part-time working mothers will also become full-time mothers, particularly if they have three or more children. This is something both sides of politics need to grasp. Most mothers are adaptive. For the mothers of children under two, the statistics haven’t changed much: only about 20 per cent of mothers try to work full time, mostly after the first baby (for subsequent children it is less) and many drop out, even those who work from home.

About 50 per cent work mostly part time but very few hours, and then those part-time hours are extended as children get older. Overall almost 30 per cent drop out of the workforce altogether. Full-time working mothers of infants are still in the minority. Until children are much older, women prefer part-time work, as all the surveys show, even the feminist ones, here and abroad, such as the seminal study done by British academic Catherine Hakim.

She continues, This scheme will allow low-paid women to get maternity leave after working part time, which is good, but because there is a work test a lot of mothers who belong to the same demographic, and who also once may have been employed, still feel they are being permanently left out simply because they are no longer employed.

The dissatisfaction from the Right on this matter cannot be ignored. This is not just a group of ‘back to the 1950s’ nostalgic whingers, as they are so often portrayed. Kids First Australia polled 500 voters in the marginal Queensland Liberal seat of Ryan in January and found that eight out of 10 respondents wanted neutral, equal payments for all mothers. Last month, another survey found that seven out of 10 voters in Kevin Rudd’s Queensland seat of Griffith also wanted neutral payments.

Why do politicians – especially those on the right – think that bribing young mums back into the paid workplace is so desirable? And what about the well-being of children? Studies consistently show that very young children need their parents, especially their mothers, in their first several years at least.

Dumping an entire generation of young children into the care of strangers is hardly good for kids, and is hardly a family-friendly policy. As I wrote some years ago:

Much of the discussion concerning paid maternity leave seems to centre on businesses getting their female employees back to work as soon as possible. Indeed, many proposed policies appear to be little more than bribes. The implication of the proposals goes something like this: “OK, we’ll give you a few weeks, or a few months off, under the condition that you return to the work place immediately thereafter”.

But mothers do not need bribes. They need real choice. Any government policy which offers real choice will have the support not just of the majority of Australian mothers, but, according to the research, of most Australians.

If Tony Abbott is serious about his pro-family conservative credentials, he should give this policy a flick and look at real family-friendly policies. Indeed, over the weekend we read of how Abbott is to consider a family-wage scheme. That, not paid maternity leave, is the sort of thing the Federal Coalition should be promoting.