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Second Reading: Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Flexibility Measures) Bill 2020, Senate, 11 June 2020

I rise today in support of the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Flexibility Measures) Bill 2020. This bill introduces changes to the Paid Parental Leave scheme aimed at better supporting working mothers and families—and working fathers—to access their payment more flexibly. There are around 300,000 births in Australia each year, with nearly half of all new mothers accessing paid parental leave. Our government understands the important role of paid parental leave in supporting the health and wellbeing of mothers and babies and in encouraging workforce participation.

To this end, the measures in the bill introduce greater flexibility to support working women, including self-employed women and small business owners who cannot afford to leave their businesses for 18 consecutive weeks. The Paid Parental Leave scheme provides an important safety net for nearly half of all new mothers, supporting them to take time off work to spend with their newborn or newly adopted children. Under this measure, we will continue to support the important objectives of the Paid Parental Leave scheme whilst offering families flexibility and choice about when to access their payment, in order to support them to find a better balance between family and work.

These changes support thousands of working women and men who cannot afford to leave their employment or business for 18 consecutive weeks. Currently, if a parent returns to work before they have received their full entitlement of parental leave pay they lose eligibility for the remainder of the payment. That is fundamentally unfair. We will continue to support women to rest and recover in the months immediately after the birth of their child by allowing them to use 12 weeks of their entitlement within 12 months of the birth of their child. Then the remaining six weeks can be used flexibly any time within two years of the birth or adoption in blocks as small as one day at a time. These measures will provide much greater flexibility and will benefit in particular self-employed women and women who are small business owners by providing greater flexibility as to when they can take time away from work. This increased flexibility and ability to balance work and caring responsibilities will, I am sure, encourage greater uptake of leave by secondary carers, in turn contributing to changing social norms around sharing care and also encouraging more men to take parental leave.

We know that not all families are the same, and this bill makes important improvements to the Paid Parental Leave scheme that provide inherent and much greater flexibility to ensure that we can continue to support that great institution in our society, the family, no matter what form or shape each person’s family comes in. So I commend these changes to the Senate and, of course, it reflects the ongoing work of our government in improving women’s economic security, which has been a very key focus of the Liberal and National government for the last six and more years.

As we know, we’re in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic and it’s a very challenging time for so many families. But our government is working around the clock to ensure that we focus on saving lives and livelihoods, and of course, on rebuilding our economy as soon as we possibly can. There has been a bit of discussion in the Senate this morning about the gender pay gap, which I am pleased to report is moving in the right direction—down to a record low of 14 per cent from 17.2 per cent under the previous Labor government. While, of course, 14 per cent is not good enough, we didn’t hear from Labor senators this morning any acknowledgement that it was actually quite considerably worse under Labor when it was in government and that we are in fact making some real strides under our government.

Despite this progress, there are of course some significant challenges. There are still around two million working-age women not in the labour force. Women are more than twice as likely to work part-time as men and, nearing retiring age, there is around a 32 per cent gap in superannuation balances. The new childcare subsidy is making child care more accessible and affordable for around one million parents, and that’s obviously a very important change that we have brought about, providing much greater equity and much greater support for families. And, of course, at the moment we know that we’re offering, as a government, free child care.

The childcare subsidy has been suspended during the coronavirus pandemic, and that is, of course, to support as many families and childcare centres as possible at this very difficult time. But I do want to place on the record that the Morrison government is investing record funding of something in excess of $8 billion this financial year and increasing this investment to $10 billion in the coming years to support child care. This has seen, on average, a 4.2 per cent reduction in out-of-pocket costs since June 2018 for families who use child care. The typical family is around $1,300 better off per child per year.

There are a number of other very significant ways in which we are supporting women in particular. The ParentsNext program is supporting vulnerable parents, mostly women, to break the welfare cycle and get back into work. There has been enormous investment in women’s safety, and we are very, very proud of our incredible investments in women’s safety. Some $852 million has been spent since 2013 to support women and children—and, I acknowledge, some men—who are victims of, or at risk of, domestic violence. That comes in a whole lot of different ways—from improving frontline services to supporting and funding specialist domestic violence providers.

There is a very significant investment in our National Housing and Homelessness Agreement. There are huge investments in improving the legal system, including in a very important initiative—one that I was a huge supporter of—and that is banning the direct cross-examination of family law proceedings where there are allegations of family violence. There have also been enormous investments in the better use of technology to keep principally women and children safe. We now have the National Domestic Violence Order Scheme as well. So an enormous amount of investment has gone into supporting women and children, and I don’t want to be gender specific on that. Of course, some men also suffer family violence. But enormous investment has gone into this issue to really improve the lives of all families.

I also want to acknowledge that our government has guaranteed a minimum entitlement of five days unpaid family and domestic violence leave per year for six million employees covered by the Fair Work Act. So it’s my great pleasure to support this bill. This is a very significant change, which will obviously bring about much greater flexibility and support for working parents. I commend this bill to the Senate.

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