OPINION: Abandoning Paid Parental Leave takes us backward

OPINION:  AFTER a brief spark of recognition in the value Australians place on basic human rights, the federal Coalition government has reverted to putting cuts before common sense.

Paid Parental Leave is a glaring example of the federal government's refusal to listen to powerful and sensible arguments.

The sensitivity shown towards desperate Syrian refugees has subsided as the new Turnbull government turns away from compassion.

The purpose of the current paid parental leave scheme and its 18 weeks at minimum wage is to provide as many women as possible the opportunity for their children to have the 26 weeks optimal for proper bonding, breast-feeding and rearing as recommended by the World Health Organisation.

From endorsing a rolled-gold parental scheme in Opposition, the federal government now wants to strip back paid parental leave - new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull included - to levels that our Human Rights Commissioner calls "inconsistent with our human rights obligations".

Instead of listening, Social Services Minister (and now Treasurer) Scott Morrison chose to fire back at critics. Such concerns about parents spending enough time with their new baby, he said, were "first world problems".

That slur joins "double dippers" and calling PPL a "rort" as stains on the Coalition's already spotty approach to the issue.

A previous Labor government gave us the universal paid parental leave scheme for parents, which was designed to be a basic scheme upon which employers would top up through enterprise bargaining to take the amount up to the woman's salary.

Now the federal government is in the final stages of an attempted full-scale retreat from paid parental leave. 

About 80,000 mothers will be prevented from accessing the current universal PPL scheme because they have negotiated a workplace scheme with their employers.

This represents nearly half of all the families presently eligible for the scheme. Many of those families will be up to $11,500 worse off after the government's changes.

Troublingly, the employer schemes were negotiated through enterprise bargaining, meaning that working parents made concessions to reach those agreements with their employers, and yet businesses say their arrangements will now likely be wound back.

Even friends in the business world are none too happy about a federal government barging into the middle of a mutually-beneficial negotiation.

The Chamber of Commerce and Industry Western Australia, which represents more than 9000 businesses, is concerned proposed changes to eligibility for paid parental leave entitlements are a "backward step" that will disadvantage businesses and employees.

It rightly questions how the so-called Fairer Paid Parental Leave Amendment Bill could achieve "fairness" when reducing the ¬entitlements of some employees.

University of Sydney working women researcher Dr Marian Baird said most countries saw such entitlements as a "social investment". Indeed, US multinationals like Adobe agree, and are increasing the amount of paid parental leave offered to their female employees.

They see the value in "supporting employees during major life events" to nurture a competitive workforce, as Adobe's senior vice-president pointed out.

So while the rest of the world moves forward on paid parental leave, the government takes Australia backward.
Even faced with the prospect of electoral oblivion, the federal government frequently needs to be frog-marched back into the mainstream of community values.

See former speaker Bronwyn Bishop's helicopter, former Education Minister Christopher Pyne's $100,000 university degrees and former Employment Minister Eric Abetz forcing jobless kids to wait six months for unemployment benefits.

Tellingly, the cross-bench Senators are reluctant to be part of legislation that removes rights to paid parental leave instead of retaining them. Especially important human rights like mothers spending time with their new babies.

The Parliament has read the mood of the people to accept Syrian refugees, because they know Australians value a fair go for those that need a hand. Australians recognise that it makes a better society for all.

Australia should be expanding the borders of paid parental leave, not shrinking them, to provide the best environment to nurture young Australians and their parents.

Ros McLennan is the General Secretary for the Queensland Council of Unions

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