Paid Parental Leave Amendment (COVID-19 Work Test) Bill 2021

2 September 2021

This bill, the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (COVID-19 Work Test) Bill 2021, amends the Paid Parental Leave Act 2010 to assist people who have been affected by the economic impacts of the pandemic and enables them to still be eligible under the Paid Parental Leave scheme. The lockdowns and restrictions currently affecting many states have affected and are affecting the ability of many people to work. Some have been stood down or have seen large reductions in their work hours, which in turn can affect the ability of working parents to meet the work-test requirements of the scheme.

I am certainly happy to support a bill that seeks to address inequality in accessing the scheme at a time of great hardship for many. However, we also know that the Australian Paid Parental Leave scheme is far from best practice when compared to similar overseas jurisdictions, particularly Scandinavia and Canada. A great deal of inequality is embedded in the act and this needs to be dealt with. One area of inequality is that PPL does not extend to foster parents and kinship carers. These carers may be asked to look after a new baby or toddler at the drop of a hat. They don't have nine months to plan financially or otherwise for this life-changing event. They of course know the possibility is there because they've signed up to this, but that doesn't ease the financial burden.

We know from research that the first two years of life are developmentally very important for every child. They are the vital years during which a child forms secure or even insecure attachment behaviours which go on to dictate how they approach all other relationships in their life. They are the foundation of their future emotional security. Paying foster parents and kinship carers PPL would help a primary carer to afford to take some time off to bond with a new child in the family, whether that placement is for a few years or even a permanent one.

Opponents of this idea will point to the carer payment that foster parents receive, but this is a stipend that is not paid at even close to the level of PPL. More importantly, this money is for the child's careā€”and keep in mind that the child is often traumatised and has high needs. This money is not designed to sustain a family if the working foster parent elects to do the right thing and take leave. A number of top-tier firms in Australia have acknowledged this inequity by including foster carers in the paid parental leave they offer their employees, and it's time that the federal Paid Parental Leave scheme also ended its discrimination against this group of parents. To that end, Senator Siewert will be moving a second reading amendment on this on my behalf.

Another area the government has failed to correct is inherent discrimination, which penalises breadwinner mums and stay-at-home dads. The eligibility for the government's 18-week parental leave pay is tied to the mother's income except in the case of adoption. This means that if the mother earns more than $150,000 the family cannot qualify for parental leave pay, even if the partner earns under the cap or even if they earn nothing at all. This family unit gets nothing. They are financially punished. But where the mother earns less than $150,000 she can access the parental leave payment regardless of how much her partner earns. He could be earning a million dollars. We would all have to agree that this is manifestly unfair. This is not a debate about the cap. This is not another class war. But failure to correct the anomaly embeds discrimination and sexism in the paid parental leave system. High-earning women are penalised for being high-earning, as if this were something unusual. Surely the same threshold should apply to all parents, male or female?

I would hope that most of us here would agree that the view of the mother as the only primary carer is outdated and that this is a rule that penalises breadwinner mums and stay-at-home dads. It's a legacy of a scheme designed 11 years ago, when the notion of stay-at-home fathers was very much an afterthought. It makes absolutely no sense to stick with a policy that penalises family units that consist of stay-at-home fathers and breadwinner mothers. It needs to change now. That is why I propose an amendment that does away with this out-of-date component of the scheme. It is the same amendment I moved to the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Flexibility Measures) Bill in June last year. It was supported by everyone in this place except for the government and One Nation, who voted against it because of some vague assurances by the government of something of some kind coming down the line. I call on the government and One Nation today to support my amendment in this place and in the other place.

Modern parents don't define themselves as primary or secondary carers and neither should the legislation that supports and regulates their family life. By supporting this amendment, the Senate will bring the PPL scheme into the modern era. The amendment circulated in my name is framed as a request because it amends section 54 of the act, expanding the parameters of who can make a claim for paid parental leave. It was fully costed by the PBO last year, and the cost is relatively minor, an estimated $27.3 million over the forward years. These costings were again provided to government, the opposition, the Greens and the crossbench with plenty of time to consider them, and I would hope this chamber can unanimously support my amendment.

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