Thoughts on a Paid Maternity Leave Scheme

There are two main questions to ask about any paid maternity leave scheme: Who pays for it?, and, How long should it extend for? Perhaps most of the interest settles on the first question. All this will cost big bucks. How is it all going to be funded? There are two main options as to funding: the government (that is, the taxpayer), or the employer.

The recent Productivity Commission proposal to have at least 18 weeks of paid maternity leave argues for a mix of taxpayer funding and employer contributions. The Prime Minister is open to the idea, and calls are being made for leave to extend up to six months in total.

The financial questions are vitally important, but perhaps even more important is the question about how long parents should have off from work. That question really is more important as far as the child is concerned than the parent. Indeed, how does the well-being of children fit into all this? And a related question also needs to be asked: should this leave only apply to working mums or to all mums?

I have actually written on this topic some years ago, but what I said then may be relevant to today’s debate, so I present it again here:

Should we institute a scheme of paid maternity leave? I am going to argue neither for the affirmative, nor for the negative. Instead, I will seek to argue for a third way. The third way I propose is fairly straight-forward: I believe that if we are to offer paid maternity leave, it should be available to all mothers, not just to those in the paid work place. I offer four reasons for this:

First, the principles of justice and equity demand that we take this approach. Why should we discriminate against mothers who choose to stay at home? Not only do babies cost a lot of money for all women, whether working or not, but the stay at home mum chooses to forgo income for the sake of the baby and its well-being. Thus the woman in the paid work force getting paid leave would be receiving a double set of financial benefits, while the stay at home mum would receive none.

Indeed, one must ask why it is that families with working mothers should be subsidised by families with mothers who choose to stay at home. It seems that government policy should be neutral in this regard. Governments should not skew the debate by offering financial incentives to mothers to rejoin the work force, while at the same time penalising mothers who choose to stay at home.

We live in an age which puts a high premium on choice. However, in this debate, we are denying many women genuine choice. Mothers should be free to choose whether they stay at home with their children or return to the paid workplace. But if all the financial incentives are only going in one direction, then we can hardly talk about genuine choice.

Thus the principles of equity and fairness demand that we treat all mothers equally. If governments are going to get into the business of financing motherhood (and I think a strong case can be made for doing that), then they ought to treat all mothers the same, and not favour one over the other.

Secondly, there is a growing body of research to suggest that most mothers do want this kind of choice. Numerous surveys and studies have found that many mothers do in fact prefer to stay at home with their young children, but economic necessity in effect drives these mums into the paid workplace. It is simply too difficult these days to pay the bills and take care of the mortgage on one income. Thus economic conscription, rather than genuine freedom of choice, is driving many mothers into the paid workforce.

Many international studies could be mentioned here. British sociologist Catherine Hakim has done a lot of work in this area. She has capably demonstrated that women should not be squeezed into a homogenous, one-size-fits-all pattern.

Instead, she has found that when it comes to work-and-family issues, British women fall into three groups. One is primarily attached to work and career, another is attached to family and child rearing, while a third group is attached to family and child rearing but wants the option of part-time work.

Australian research suggests that the situation is similar here. A recent study by the International Social Science Survey shows that by far the largest group in Australia is the one attached to family and child rearing. More than two thirds of Australians believe that mothers of pre-schoolers should not be in the paid workforce.

In the study, 69 per cent of Australians said that being a full-time homemaker was the ideal option for mothers with children under six. And when asked what their personal choice was, 71 per cent of women said they preferred full-time mothering.

Melbourne University’s Dr Mariah Evans and Dr Jonathon Kelley, who conducted the study, said this: “This data shows that full-time home making is the morally preferred option by most people and it is the one that most women give highest rating to as an option for themselves”.

And a recent survey by the Australian Institute of Family Studies found that 83 per cent of women and 84 per cent of men felt that mothers should not work full-time, even when their youngest child is at school. Almost two-thirds of the respondents felt that families suffered if women work full-time.

Thus it is clear that for the majority of mothers with pre-school children, there is a decided preference for family and child rearing. Therefore, any policy which we decide upon should take these very strong preferences into account.

A third reason for making paid maternity leave available to all mothers is a very practical one, especially to business. Studies have shown that offering people real flexibility in the area of work and family makes for better, more productive employees.

When real flexibility is introduced into the workplace, employees become happier and better workers. Conversely, many studies have shown that people with family problems are people with workplace problems.

If employers want to keep their workers contented and productive, they need to do their bit to ensure that family life is a happy and satisfying place to be.

And given that so many families today are facing crises because of work pressures, debt problems, and limited flexibility in the work place, any company that can relieve some of these pressures will find themselves becoming beneficiaries, at least in the long run.

Finally, not only will business benefit from the offer of real choice to mothers, but so too will children and society as a whole. Once again, the social sciences can offer us a wealth of information in this regard. We know from a growing mountain of social science evidence that the ideal for very young children is to be able to spend time with their parents, especially mothers. This in turn results in children who seem to do better later in life, by a whole range of indicators. Important socialisation skills and relational abilities seem to best be formed in the home at an early age.

In other words, too much formal day care at too early of an age seems to result, generally speaking, in some negative outcomes for children. The more time children can have at home with mum in the early stages, the better they seem to be for it. And well adjusted children, for the most part, make for well-adjusted citizens.

Thus any policy which allows mums to have some extra time with baby is in the best interests, not only of the child, and not only of the family, but of society as well.


And what about the costs? How will such a scheme be paid for? Here I am sympathetic to the negative side. Business cannot pick up the whole tab. Small business especially would suffer greatly. Perhaps a mix of government and business support would be appropriate.

If we do pay all mothers, some current expenses would be abolished or lessened. The baby bonus would be replaced, for example. There would be less demand for child care. And unemployment benefits might be lessened.

Obviously some offset costs would not be incurred. We know that family breakdown costs Australia at least $3 billion annually. Part of the cause of family breakdown is work-related. For example, two parents up to their ears in work have little time for each other or for their children.

If fewer family breakups take place because of the greater flexibility offered with a universal maternity payment, we could save money on the other end: that is, on picking up the pieces of marriage and family breakdown. It’s the old principle: prevention is better than cure.

But if governments want something enough, they will find a way. We can find funding for our efforts in East Timor and elsewhere, the war on terror, and our Commonwealth and Olympic athletes. If we are serious about helping young families, we can find some funding here as well.

In conclusion, much of the discussion concerning paid maternity leave seems to centre on businesses getting their female employees back to work as soon as possible. Indeed, many proposed policies appear to be little more than bribes. The implication of the proposals goes something like this: “OK, we’ll give you a few weeks, or a few months off, under the condition that you return to the work place immediately thereafter”.

But mothers do not need bribes. They need real choice. Any government policy which offers real choice will have the support not just of the majority of Australian mothers, but, according to the research, of most Australians.

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8 Replies to “Thoughts on a Paid Maternity Leave Scheme”

  1. Hi Bill,

    I’ll admit I’m a bit surprised by your remark “I think a strong case can be made” for governments getting “into the business of financing motherhood” without delving further.

    I would agree that, if the above idea was supported, it should, obviously, be fair and give first consideration to what’s seen to be in the best interests of children – rather than employers or Governments.

    However, I still think it’s the wrong question, though, and am surprised you didn’t address it. We don’t need a nanny state.

    Jeremy Peet

  2. Thanks Jeremy

    I am strongly pro-family. I have been for a long time and have worked for a number of pro-family organizations over the years. I am also neither a libertarian nor an anarchist. I am however a conservative, so I generally support the concept of limited government, and generally disapprove of the welfare state. I think however that if governments are going to throw our tax dollars around, then helping make the institutions of marriage and family more viable would not be a bad thing. And doing it in such a way that does not disadvantage stay at home mums also needs to be insisted upon.

    The war on the family comes from many angles: cultural, ideological, political, etc. But economic pressures are also harming families. Elsewhere I have written of various government options to help families. It need not be in the form of handouts. Simply giving real tax breaks for families would be a start. This can come in various forms: income splitting, family unit taxation, and so on. Radically raising the tax-free threshold for families with dependents is another option.

    In the old days both Australia and America had what was known as a family wage. It had some merit. But if conservatives want to help families, while not becoming a nanny state, there are different options available, as I say. For further thoughts on all this, see some earlier articles of mine:

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. The Liberty and Democracy Party (to which I do NOT belong) has an excellent proposal to reform the tax and welfare system, the 30/30 system. This is a flat tax of 30%, but a tax-free threshold of $30k. Below that, the proposal follows Milton Friedman’s suggestion of negative taxation:

    For example, if you earned $0, you would receive 30% of $30,000 ($9000). If you earned $10,000, you would receive 30% of $20,000 ($6000). If you earn $25,000, you would receive 30% of $5000 ($1500). This would involve a cut in payments to the unemployed and an increase in payments to low-income earners.

    This would get rid of the current poverty trap that claws back benefits as the beneficiary earns money by working. I.e. they would keep 70% of what they earn, whereas under the current system, they might only be 20c in the dollar better off overall. Under this proposal, even those earning the minimum wage would be 31% better off, and those on half-minimum wages 21%.

    The more detailed proposal discusses family benefits, and is like Bill’s proposal in that it pays a benefit per child without discriminating against stay-at-home mothers and forcing them to subsidize wealthier double-income families. The LDP plan would simply raise the tax-free threshold per child by $6 or even $10k. This means that a family with a minimum-wage breadwinner and two children would be 17–24% better off than now.

    This proposal would also end the bureaucratic churning whereby benefits are taxed, i.e. the wasteful practice of the government giving then taking. The 30/30 plan means you either receive a benefit or pay tax, not both.

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  4. Hi Bill,

    I agree wholeheartedly with your comments here.

    I also have to say, that my girlfriend and I, (who are seriously discussing getting married next year), have discussed how we would like to bring up children if we are blessed enough to have them. Currently both of us work full time, but we would both be far happier if my wife did not have to work at all and was able to spend all of her time at home caring for our child(ren), such that we never have to use Child Care. The only possible reason we can see that would require us to deviate from this plan is finances. If I can earn enough to pay our bills, I would prefer my wife to never have to return to the work force if she didn’t need/want to..

    We have also watched our friends struggling to juggle their priorities, the family unit/children, employment/child care, finances/mortgage, etc. and it’s inevitably the family unit/children that suffers the most.

    Lastly, maybe we do need a “nanny state”, at least to some degree. Most couples nowadays seem to have no children, (and don’t intend to), or only one child and don’t plan to have more. So how do we expect to sustain our population with such choices?

    Our population seems to be happy to legislate and throw money around to abort children, but I think we should be throwing the money around to increase/save them instead.


    Glen Grady

  5. Gordon Brown, in case some do not know, is the UK’s Prime Minister. At this year’s Labour Party conference his great idea was to provide free nursery places for every two years old, costing a billion pounds.

    If he really wanted to free young mothers to go out and work there is already a government scheme running which is far cheaper and simpler. Why doesn’t he extend abortion from 24 weeks up to two years.? This would also mean that he could scrap the governments Surestart programme thus making even more savings.

    David Skinner, UK

  6. Lesbians who have used IVF or other means will now be able to dump them on the state; children will be denied not only the right to a father but a mother also.

    The magic word used by the left is “choice.” Harriet Harman, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party in the UK used it seven times in my previous link. It has according to her now become an “absolute.” We would agree that having freedom of choice gives us human dignity; but nowhere is there used the word “responsibility“. Those who do acknowledge a higher moral authority to whom we are accountable are now discriminated against. Moral absolutes that predicate “absolute rights” have become mere “cultural views,” a matter of private opinion.

    The Joint Council for Equality and Human Rights came out with a truly staggering statement, last year, with regard to sex education in schools: “In our view there is an important difference between this factual information [about sexual morality] being imparted in a descriptive way as part of a wide-ranging syllabus about different religions, and a curriculum which teaches a particular religion’s doctrinal beliefs as if they were objectively true. The latter is likely to lead to unjustifiable discrimination” (paragraph 67).

    So we can have “absolute rights” that are presumably “objectively true” but not absolute moral values that are “objectively true” – apart from, that is, the absolute right to believe that there are no moral rights.
    But even to not to “unjustifiably discriminate” will soon be shorn of its moral basis as it is replaced by the moral imperative to “diversify.” Ultimately it is the God hating tyrants in the labour party and Gordon Brown’s “clunking fist” whose personal views will now decide how we choose and how we diversify. (The poem read by Sir Ian).

    David Skinner, UK

  7. Some very good ideas Bill, but they won’t happen because Labor governments are not interested in good ideas. They are controlled by ideological tyranny which determines that the only rights are those which we say you can have.
    Roger Marks

  8. Dear Bill,
    Thank you for your lucid discussion on this issue. I agree with you. Many years ago I was in an organisation, Womens Action Alliance. Its main proposition was that women should have a “CHOICE” as to whether they “stayed at home” or went out to work.
    I am a great believer in a mother being the best carer for her child/children.
    I think it is quite ludicrous that women pay other (usually) women to care for their children.
    I understand that today it is very difficult to manage on one income, but my daughter and her husband have made the decision to manage on one not very high income. They are happy to “go without”. In the long run, the financial benefit will be, hopefully, in a happy, well balanced family.
    One of the main platforms of the WAA was income splitting for families. Nothing has come of this idea from anyone.
    Thank you for your time,
    Maria Farrell, Toowoomba, Qld

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