Expanding Parental Leave

06 March 2023

Senator AYRES (New South Wales—Assistant Minister for Trade and Assistant Minister for Manufacturing)

(10:32): I want to make a short contribution on the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Improvements for Families and Gender Equality) Bill 2022, firstly to indicate that, while I think this legislation is an achievement of this government that is worth celebrating, and I trust that it will make its way through the Senate over the course of today, it is not just an achievement of this government; it is an achievement that really rests upon the shoulders of generations of people, particularly in the labour movement. In recent times in the labour movement, union leaders like Sally McManus and Michele O'Neil but also people like our own Linda White, who is now a Senate colleague, Jo-anne Schofield from United Workers Union, Julia Fox from the SDA and others have led this set of arguments. But I will not name all of the people who have been engaged in this. The point that I want to make is that their contribution rests upon the shoulders of, mostly, women in the labour movement who have been arguing the case for expanded paid parental leave for many generations. I recall that, in the short, happy period that I served on the executive of the ACTU in the late 1990s, women like Sharan Burrow and Jennie George—and, indeed, leaders like Greg Combet—were making the argument for this set of reforms.

It is also important to point out that leaders in Australian business have been making the case for these reforms as well. I point of course to Jennifer Westacott. She and many others have been making the case for this set of reforms. There are also dozens and dozens, if not hundreds, of business leaders in large businesses and small ones who not only have made the case for broader policy reform but have made changes in their organisations to set out better parental leave entitlements for women and men, for young parents, not only because they want to make their firms employers of choice in an increasingly competitive labour market but also because those business leaders have listened carefully to the debate from the academic community, to the international debate and to the trade union movement and have decided that leading the community debate is actually the right thing for them to do.

This is not the only community debate where the debate has been led by the trade union movement and by Australian business, and sections of this parliament have been left behind. In paid parental leave terms, the consensus across the economy and in the labour movement has certainly led this parliament to where it has got to. It has taken far too long for this set of reforms to come to the parliament.

I also want to make a few comments about the difference that this will make to young parents and to young people who are thinking about starting a family. They're thinking about their careers and their capacity as a couple—they need to work through the difficult choices—to support each other and their families and to make sure they have real career options in front of them. This set of reforms will ensure that workers and families are supported by the government when they make these decisions. So it will make a real difference in ordinary families' lives.

This reform is not just good for ordinary families; this reform is good for economic participation, productivity, economic growth and when we are dealing with some of the other significant challenges, particularly the different outcomes for women in the workplace and across their working lives. The gender pay gap is persistent. It has gone up and it has gone down, but it has persistently hovered around the mid teens for well over a decade. Most of the movements that have occurred in the gender pay gap over the last decade have really been a reflection of changes that have happened in men's wages. I've seen members of the previous government come in here fist pumping when the gender wage gap went down by a few decimal points. The difference to women's wages has always been as a result of diminished growth for men's wages, not as a result of serious policy reform.

Some of the decisions that this government took through last year have had some impact. The decision to support minimum wage increases has had some impact. Future decisions that are targeted towards workers in the care sector will have some impact on the gender wage gap. This set of reforms will allow more Australian women to develop careers and ensure their careers and connection with work continue, and that is a very good thing indeed.

I'm delighted to have an opportunity to make a small contribution to this debate. I know there are some amendments that are going to be brought forward over the course of today's debate. I just say that, from the government's perspective, this is a very important step forward; it is a very important set of reforms. The government is, of course, constrained in terms of what it can do, given the tight fiscal environment and the challenges in front of the country, in terms of the legacy we have been left by the previous government. I know those amendments will be agitated and developed—that is a welcome debate—but the government is constrained in terms of what it can do. This is a momentous, historic set of reforms that builds upon generations of struggle and advocacy and work. I want to use this small contribution to thank those people who have done that work.