Mr STEPHEN JONES (Throsby) (17:07): I am pleased to speak on the Paid Parental Leave and Other Legislation Amendment (Dad and Partner Pay and Other Measures) Bill, but I must add it is a great shame that the time allotted for this debate could not instead have been allotted for the government to introduce into this House a bill which would have provided much needed assistance for families by helping with schoolkid expenses. Whatever led those opposite to object to our bringing that legislation into the House is probably best known to them, but it does speak very loudly about their priorities.
The bill before the House is a good one. Australia's first national paid parental leave scheme began on 1 January 2011. It was a historic reform and a major win for working families, who had been waiting decades for a national paid parental leave scheme. Before then, Australia was one of only two OECD countries without a national paid parental leave scheme. Quite simply, we have caught up with the rest of the world.
I was interested to hear the member for Menzies say that the coalition has had a long and proud history of supporting measures such as this. Nothing could be further from the truth. I know that from my own experience, representing women in employment who have suffered attacks from those on the other side of the House when the previous government was attempting to take away their entitlements to paid maternity leave in areas of government employment. They stand here and say that our scheme is not as good as theirs and that they have a long and proud history, but nothing could be further from the truth. One of the more memorable contributions of the Leader of the Opposition to this debate, when he was the minister for workplace relations, was that paid parental leave would occur over his dead body. Unkind people might say that that was a win-win outcome, but apparently the Leader of the Opposition has done an about-face on this issue for reasons best known to himself.
I think the best way to judge a party's commitment is to look at their track record. The track record of the Labor Party is nothing short of exceptional. We were the party which, during the Whitlam government, first introduced paid parental leave into law in this country. We believed then that it would create the incentive for paid parental leave to spread throughout the rest of the workforce. Sadly, 30 years of history has shown that that spread has been very slow. The current Labor government therefore introduced paid parental leave legislation into the House, making it law from 1 January 2011. We did that for a very simple reason, a reason that has informed so much of our approach to workplace relations and so much of our approach to the relationship between government, family and work—we on this side of the House understand that a worker is not just a pair of hands, or a brain, that turns up to work five, six or seven days a week disassociated from the rest of the body, but that a worker has another life. We understand that a worker is generally part of a family and that the workplace needs to make adjustments and needs to be designed in a way that accommodates that part of the worker's life which is outside the workplace. Paid parental leave is just such an adjustment, an appropriate adjustment, and the bill before the House is another such adjustment.
The Paid Parental Leave and Other Legislation Amendment (Dad and Partner Pay and Other Measures) Bill recognises that a worker is not just a pair of hands, that they come with a whole other life attached to them. This legislation will give one parent the financial security to take time off work to care for their baby at home during the vital early months of their baby's life. It supports women in maintaining their connection with the workforce—in this regard, it boosts productivity and boosts workforce participation. The scheme also lets families make their own work and family choices. Parents can transfer the leave so that mums and dads have more options for balancing work and family.
Since its inception, around 2,500 families in my own electorate, covering the Illawarra, Shoalhaven and Southern Highlands, have taken advantage of the Paid Parental Leave scheme. Already, since the scheme began, around 126,000 expectant and new parents have applied for the payment. Half of the mothers—and this goes to the heart of the values which underlie the Paid Parental Leave scheme—who have received the payments, earned less than $43,000 in the year before their baby was either born or adopted. This shows that paid parental leave is particularly important for women on low incomes, many of whom do not have access to paid parental leave through their employer. Paid parental leave is an initiative which has done much to help families and it is a measure which Labor members are rightly proud of.
In the last 2½ years, the government has delivered many reforms driven by the abiding Labor values of fairness, compassion and responsibility. These values are reflected in our approach to family tax benefits and to education expenses, about which the Treasurer will have more to say when he stands in this place later this evening. Labor believes in giving parents work and family choices, Labor believes in the dignity that comes with people taking responsibility for themselves and their family and Labor believes in making Australia a fairer place and a stronger place.
Employers, I am pleased to say, have also embraced the scheme. Far from the horror story told by the member for Menzies in his frantic contribution to this debate, employers are embracing the scheme because they can see it adds value to their workforce. They actually believe in paid parental leave and they can see that it is good for them and good for their workers. That is why over 22,000 employers have registered to provide government funded parental leave pay to their eligible employees through their usual pay cycle.
All of this is underscored by a very important principle—that paid parental leave should not be seen as a welfare benefit but as something that is an integral workplace right. We have heard the Leader of the Opposition say exactly the same thing and yet his spokesman, the member for Menzies, has come in here today moving amendments which seem to deny that fundamental proposition—that paid parental leave should be and is a fundamental workplace right and not something to be seen as social welfare.
The government recognises the new dynamics of Australian families, particularly the approach that families take in the first year of a child's life. Gone are the days when a father's role in the arrival of any child was to be down the pub with his mates, wetting the baby's head. These days fathers are there in the birthing centre, in the hospital—there with their partners, with their wives, supporting them through that important milestone in a child's life. Now more than ever they want to be a part of those early days and weeks when their new child is brought into the world. We recognise that fathers want a more hands-on role in raising their children. We also recognise that the national economy will benefit from the boost to participation and productivity that these measures underpin. These are the values which are reflected in this legislation—an understanding that families have changed and an understanding that the father's role, or the partner's role, in the birth experience and those early weeks of a child's life has changed. We are responding to that.
This new dedicated payment delivers on a 2010 election commitment to give dads and other partners the chance to have two weeks off to support new mums at home and to be involved in the care of the baby right from the very start. This is good for the new dads, it is good for mums and it gives newborns the best possible start in life. Dad and partner pay will give eligible fathers and partners two weeks pay at the rate of the national minimum wage, the same weekly rate as parental leave pay, which is currently $590 a week before tax. This will be available to all eligible fathers and partners, including adoptive parents, who care for a child born on or after 1 January 2013. This means that, from next year, eligible families welcoming a new child into the world will be able to receive up to 20 weeks parental leave pay and dad and partner pay from this Labor government.
Dad and partner pay will be available to eligible full-time, part-time, casual, seasonal, contract and self-employed workers. The income test, work test and residentiary requirements for dad and partner pay will be consistent with those for the Paid Parental Leave scheme. Eligible fathers and partners must be caring for the child either as a primary carer or jointly with the other parent. They must not be working or on paid leave during the period in which dad and partner pay is paid because that would defeat the purpose, of course. Like parental leave pay, this new payment will be available during the first 12 months after the birth or adoption of a child. Claims for dad and partner pay will be able to be lodged from 1 October 2012, allowing families to get in early, as it were, to make those claims ahead of time, so there is no gap in payment.
Dad and partner pay also recognises the challenges faced by families who find it difficult to balance the family budget when a baby is born, including casual employees without annual leave entitlements and self-employed people such as tradespeople, small business owners and those working in a family business or farm. So the design of dad and partner pay is based on an understanding of these factors, and builds upon the independent expert recommendations of the Productivity Commission. Consistent with those recommendations, the payment will be available in addition to any employer funded paid leave but will not be able to be taken at the same time as paid leave—that is to say, if the employee has an entitlement through their workplace, enterprise agreement, contract or award to paid dad or partner leave, then what we are proposing to introduce through this bill will be in addition to that, provided that it is not taken at the same time as that. It extends their entitlement.
On Father's Day last year, the government invited employer and employee groups, small business groups, family and community groups and individuals to provide some feedback on the dad and partner pay proposal. These consultations and the feedback from the Paid Parental Leave Implementation Group have informed the development of the payment arrangements. Employers will have an important role in supporting their employees in accessing their unpaid leave entitlements so that they can receive dad and partner pay. However, employers will not have a role in providing dad and partner pay to their employees. That is essentially because it is a short-term payment. The government funded dad and partner pay will be provided in addition to employer funded entitlements, as I have said, and the government expects that employers will retain their existing parental and paternity leave provisions, continuing to set themselves apart as employers of choice—that is, family friendly employers—for prospective employees.
The bill also makes minor refinements to the legislation for the Paid Parental Leave scheme by making amendments to improve clarity and consistency, and making consequential amendments to the Fair Work Act.
The contrast between the policies of this government and the empty rhetoric of those opposite could not be more stark. What we see from those opposite, and what we heard repeated by the member for Menzies earlier, is that they have a scheme, at a grand cost of $4.5 billion a year, that needs a new tax from the Leader of the Opposition to pay for it. We heard recently, from members contributing to the debate on the matter of public importance, attacks on the government for introducing the minerals resource rent tax to fund superannuation and tax cuts for small businesses and important infrastructure initiatives—a proposal which is supported by all right-thinking Australians, but not by those opposite it would seem; they would rather give a tax break to the largest and wealthiest mining companies in this country and slug ordinary workers and struggling businesses with tax increases to pay for their scheme. That is not the right way to go.
The proposals that we have put before the House have the right balance between providing a fair and decent payment to mums, dads and their partners, ensuring that we do it in a responsible way, providing a benefit out of government revenues and, at the same time, transforming the way that workplaces, the government and the whole country think about these issues. So it is good legislation. I commend it to the House, and I commend those opposite who get behind it.