Abbott’s Maternity Leave Scheme

Last week opposition leader Tony Abbott unveiled his plan for six-month paid maternity leave. He evidently surprised his own colleagues with this, and had to in effect apologise later for not consulting widely on the scheme.

Because I have written a fair amount on this topic over the years, I did not weigh into the debate. But with two important articles in today’s press, it is worth offering some further thoughts on this. The two main problems with this scheme are: it is a big tax slug on business, and it is all about women in the paid workforce, while stay-at-home mums get nothing.

Concerning the first problem, Peter Costello rightly points out the folly of the Abbott plan. He says this: “It’s hard to decide whose idea was worse. First was Kevin Rudd, who announced he wants 30 per cent of the states’ GST so he can ‘fix’ the hospital system. Then there was Tony Abbott, who announced he wants to increase company tax to ‘fix’ parental leave.

“First to Abbott. He proposes a government payment to new mothers who leave the workforce of six months’ salary on full pay up to $75,000. It is billed as the most generous state scheme in the world after Sweden – which in itself should have set the alarm bells ringing. For Liberals, that alarm should have sounded like an air-raid siren once Bob Brown and the Greens lauded the scheme.”

He continues, “Companies that already operate maternity schemes will close them and encourage employees to go on the government entitlement. And why shouldn’t they? Otherwise they would pay twice – directly to their own employees and indirectly through increased taxes. So private benefits will be socialised, spending will rise and taxes will increase.

“I have been to a lot of Liberal Party meetings in my life and I can honestly say I have never heard a speech in favour of higher tax. Sure, I have heard speeches in favour of replacing inefficient taxes with simpler ones (and indeed given a few of those myself) and I have heard people argue for better tax compliance as a way of reducing taxes for honest and enterprising folk. But the idea of increasing tax would be as foreign to the Liberal Party as voluntary unionism at the local ALP branch.”

Costello notes that Abbott is said to need to appeal to female voters, “so he adopted the Crocodile Dundee approach. In the movie, a New York mugger pulls a switchblade on Mick Dundee. Our hero laughs at the blade, saying, ‘That’s not a knife, this is a knife’, as he pulls out his 30-centimetre hunting blade. The terrified mugger disappears into the night.

“And the point of Abbott’s proposal is to tell the public that Rudd does not have a maternity leave scheme. ‘This is a maternity leave scheme,’ he declares. In this kind of politics, if your opponent has a bad idea you try to outflank it. Your opponent has a mildly bad idea, so you come up with a more extreme one and have a race to the bottom.”

But it is not just the big new tax idea which is such a worry. The main problem with all such schemes is its discriminatory nature. These schemes are entirely focused on women in the workplace, but completely ignore mothers who choose to stay at home to look after their young children.

Angela Shanahan tackles this aspect in her column today. She rightly notes that this plan does not fit with the current choices of mothers: “Most of those part-time working mothers will also become full-time mothers, particularly if they have three or more children. This is something both sides of politics need to grasp. Most mothers are adaptive. For the mothers of children under two, the statistics haven’t changed much: only about 20 per cent of mothers try to work full time, mostly after the first baby (for subsequent children it is less) and many drop out, even those who work from home.

“About 50 per cent work mostly part time but very few hours, and then those part-time hours are extended as children get older. Overall almost 30 per cent drop out of the workforce altogether. Full-time working mothers of infants are still in the minority. Until children are much older, women prefer part-time work, as all the surveys show, even the feminist ones, here and abroad, such as the seminal study done by British academic Catherine Hakim.”

She continues, “This scheme will allow low-paid women to get maternity leave after working part time, which is good, but because there is a work test a lot of mothers who belong to the same demographic, and who also once may have been employed, still feel they are being permanently left out simply because they are no longer employed.

“The dissatisfaction from the Right on this matter cannot be ignored. This is not just a group of ‘back to the 1950s’ nostalgic whingers, as they are so often portrayed. Kids First Australia polled 500 voters in the marginal Queensland Liberal seat of Ryan in January and found that eight out of 10 respondents wanted neutral, equal payments for all mothers. Last month, another survey found that seven out of 10 voters in Kevin Rudd’s Queensland seat of Griffith also wanted neutral payments.”

Why do politicians – especially those on the right – think that bribing young mums back into the paid workplace is so desirable? And what about the well-being of children? Studies consistently show that very young children need their parents, especially their mothers, in their first several years at least.

Dumping an entire generation of young children into the care of strangers is hardly good for kids, and is hardly a family-friendly policy. As I wrote some years ago:

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.

If Tony Abbott is serious about his pro-family conservative credentials, he should give this policy a flick and look at real family-friendly policies. Indeed, over the weekend we read of how Abbott is considering a family-wage scheme. That, not paid maternity leave, is the sort of thing the Federal Coalition should be promoting.

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23 Replies to “Abbott’s Maternity Leave Scheme”

  1. and it is all about women in the paid workforce, while stay-at-home mums get nothing.

    As I noted to Mr Abbott myself in the email I sent him the other day. I’d like to see what would happen if, through tax breaks and the like, the gov’t were to make it a real choice for women to remain at home. I’ll bet more women would choose that option than currently do.

    How anyone can seriously think that a business ought to pay a woman up to $150,000 for doing absolutely nothing for that business is beyond me. And the Feminists are so deranged they would see this as showing how independent women are! LOL!

    Louise Le Mottee

  2. a family-wage scheme

    Sounds like a really good idea, but this would probably have the unintended consequence of making married men with children somewhat less desirable as employees. What do you think, Bill?

    I see that the cap on paid mat leave is $75k not $150k as I previously wrote. Still pretty bad and would also, presumably, make female employees less desirable as workers. Maybe that’s Mr Abbott’s grand strategy!

    Louise Le Mottee

  3. Actually, maybe Mr Abbott wants nobody in the workforce. At this rate, nobody will be a desirable employee!
    Louise Le Mottee

  4. Hi Bill,

    If only Abbott would heed Phillips’ advice, as you reported just a few weeks ago:

    Phillips focuses on Australia’s new opposition leader Tony Abbott and urges him to stay true to the conservative vision. She refers to “the truly astounding fact that a conservative will most likely win power by remaining unambiguously true to conservative principles.”

    I hope Abbott learns from this and quickly gets back on track.

    Mansel Rogerson

  5. When discussions like this come up, I really wish staying home was a more realistic option. Maybe for some people, but I think ahead to when my [future] children will be older – If they’re in school, I’d love to be able to resume IT-related work (I love what I do!)… but if I haven’t been in the workforce for several years I haven’t got much chance.

    As much as God can do miracles, it’s still a scary thought.

    Having six months’ paid leave could be both very good and very bad – bad from a business tax perspective, perhaps, but also sometimes from a mothers’ perspective. If your leave is officially “six months”, is that inciting extra pressure to return after (only) six months? Or could it actually be seen as an extension of much greater than the six weeks paid that some leave entitlements provide, encouraging a later return to work?

    Alison Keen

  6. What seems to have been lost in all of this is that as part of the government’s policy on this entitlement, it is really the children who matter. Hence to provide only working mums with the payment is to discriminate savagely against the children of non-working mums. Similarly, with child-care payments; the children of non-working mums are penalised. A voucher system, based on the children involved, would go a long way to redressing the inequity, avoid the political grandstanding, and remain revenue neutral.
    Dunstan Hartley

  7. As an employer/senior manager, I can see all sorts of unintended consequences of Abbott’s plan.

    I assure you, it is a dud, and as analysts digest it, it will bit Tony on the backside, REAL HARD!

    Somethng out of left field Bill. Re the discrimination against stay at home moms – Ultimately, with same sex and defacto couples freely using their non-marital status to enjoy unemployment benefits even when the spouse/partner/whatever (hard to know what term to use these days) and marrieds unable to, this discrimination will get worse and worse.

    Ultimately, if govts simply treat all adults as individuals for govt benefit purposes, it may just have a chance of cutting through the gordian knot of benefit problems it has.

    Might sound crazy, but husbands would lose their tax benefits for kids which would partly offset the benefit the stay at home wife would then get, but not totally.

    This is very general, but worth exploring in a total revamp of the nightmare we currently have, and puts stay at home moms on equal footing with others – and then of course, there is NO NEED for maternity leave schemes 🙂 the woman simply moves from paid work to benefits and then back.

    Rob Robertson

  8. Thanks Rob

    You are right to suggest that there are many major problems with the current system. As to the best way ahead – that is a good question. It is certainly vital that we think long and hard about it all however.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  9. The best thing, I believe, is not to argue for equal redistribution of wealth to stay-at-home-mums but to argue against ANY kind of redistribution of wealth of this kind.

    The whole problem gets started because bureaucrats and feminists get control of our money and decide to implement their ideals and demand we live accordingly.

    Better we got a tax cut and then we can do with the money as we see fit.

    Also, everyone who supports the Coalition that reads this blog should contact their local Coalition member as Jake Zanoni did and write a protest email;

    Damien Spillane

  10. Yes Bill, – and Tony has failed on the ‘long and hard’ aspect of this – just imagine the screams from the $30k a year mom about the $70k a year mom ‘getting more than her!’

    I don’t at all lean towards this extreme socialist redistribution philosophy, but IF they want to head that way, it seems inevitable that the end result is that each and every individual in our society will ‘stand alone’ vis-a-vis welfare, tax, benefits etc. That’s the only general principal that would seem to have ANY (socialist leaning) logic 🙂

    Damien, have written to Tony expressing my disappointment.

    Rob Robertson

  11. I agree with Damien Spillane. Probably the best tax/welfare policy I’ve seen is from the Liberty and Democracy Party, which uses Milton Friedman’s idea of negative taxation. This would vastly streamline tax compliance and the welfare bureaucracy, and also remove discrimination against fluctuating income and one-income families.

    For child support, there is simply a raised tax-free threshold per child. It leaves it up to the parents how to use that: whether a parent wants to stay home, pay for daycare, give something to the grandparents, or whatever. Leftards want to subsidize daycare, which amounts to poor single-income two-parent families subsidizing rich double-income familes.

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  12. Just when Abbott was getting a better perception in the electorate he does this. The Liberals are notorious for shooting themselves in the foot when in opposition. We should also remember that he was given a roasting by his backbench over speaking out before consulting with them, so it is to be hoped that when they work it out before the election that they take all concerns into consideration. I did note that some small businesses are quite happy with it. I also noted that the Spoilt Brat of the Liberal party – Sophie Mirabella – has been very quiet over this issue.
    Wayne Pelling

  13. Being on Mr Abbott’s email list, I received an update on the health policy yesterday.

    So I seized the opportunity to remind Mr Abbott that good policy is often undone by bad policy, and pointed out a few home truths about maternity leave.

    No acknowledgement as yet, but it is the weekend.

    John Angelico

  14. Both these schemes are stupid because they start from the wrong premise.

    The first question any politician should ask themselves “bearing in mind that having a mum and dad who are there to care for the child is the best and cheapest option, what can we do to enable mothers (or fathers) to stay home with their kids” instead of “what can we do to currry favour with parents who want to abandon thier children to surrogate parents so they can re-enter the workforce and earn heaps of money to buy things.”

    Now that would be really scary to think like that or as Sir Humphrey Appleby would say “corageous.”

    Roger Marks

  15. As a stay at home mother for most of the last 20 years of 4 children I would like to make a few comments about the very vexed issue of government payments to support mothers.
    Firstly, I find a lot of the debate assumes that all pregnant women (particularly first time mums) will continue to work in their regular job doing their regular hours until practically the moment they give birth. My observation is that this is rarely the case. A friend for instance had severe morning sickness throughout both her two pregnancies and was completely unable to work during pretty much the whole 9 months as a result. Also many women are having high risk pregnancies these days – often as the result of waiting till later in life to start a family – with threatened miscarriage or twins etc. It would be an extreme risk to these women and their babies health to continue in the workplace past the first few months – if at all. Many have to give up work within weeks of getting pregnant if they want to give birth to a healthy baby and stay in good health themselves. How would the maternity leave time and amount be worked out for these women? If you haven’t been able to work for your employer for many months because of a difficult pregnancy how would the 6 months paid maternity leave be worked out? Would you be eligible at all?
    I feel the real underlying problem is that Governments (of whatever party) consider women who stay in the home to do the work of bearing and raising children (also caring for elderly relatives or handicapped children or relatives) as “non-productive” members of society who should be shamed into doing some “real work” and contributing to the “real” economy. The unpaid “economy” of (mostly) women carers working damn hard to care for their small children and other family members (increasingly, elderly relatives too in an aging population) is ignored because there is no money value attributed to this work.
    Maybe we need a whole new view to be introduced about what a “working person ” means and recognise that it doesn’t necessarily always mean that a person contributes a monetary wage. When you start to look into it you can see that a vast amount of unpaid work is contributed to our society by mums, family carers of elderly or handicapped workers and volunteers in various community and church based services. If all these unpaid workers went on strike tomorrow our society would collapse!
    Let’s start giving unpaid workers like stay at home mums and other unpaid and volunteer workers the recognition for the very real (non-monetary) contribution they make to the community! Why not assume that a mum at home with young babies and children is doing a job worth a certain minimum amount of money – regardless of what wage the mother previously earned in the paid workforce, and allow that as her “wage”? The value of mothering should not be determined by what a women earned in a previous paid employment – mothering is employment worthy of a wage from the community in its own right.
    This would be much fairer to all mothers as recognition for the contribution to society they are making. Working in a high paid career until you give birth does not make you a better mother worthy of greater maternity payments in my view!
    Gail Gifford

  16. Thanks Gail
    You gave me something to think about. I totally get what your saying. I dont think anyone in there right mind wouldn’t under-estimate the role of a stay at home mum. And you enlightened me about the problems of a difficult pregnancy. Will they say to those mothers, oh sorry but no we cant help you? I have a niece who says at 8 months pregnancy, yes im going back to work after 6 months. I was shocked, so I said, so off to childcare hey? She said yes with a depleting tone. Not sure how that will pan out but I’ll be praying for her and her husband.
    Bless you.
    Daniel Kempton

  17. Its certainly a good idea to pray for your niece Daniel – also encourage her to retain an open mind and not automatically assume she will be ready or happy to go back to work after only 6months. It may be worth considering alternatives first.
    I have seen many new mums struggling to cope with going back to work when their baby is still only a few months old. Often bubs is still not reliably sleeping through the night so mum is quite sleep deprived. I have had serious concerns about the safety of some new mothers coping with work and broken nights as there is considerable evidence that chronic sleep deprivation associated with mothering small children can be a safety risk in the workforce. When my children were little I had a serious car accident once because I was simply so very tired. Luckily me and the kids got away with just a few cuts and bruises though the car was written off. I feel not enough consideration is given to the effects on a womans health and safety of having to adjust to/cope with both inflexible workplace demands and the effects a small baby has on your sleep patterns – though typically nobody ever gives much consideration to mums health and wellbeing! Mums are just supposed to cope aren’t they?? I was so grateful I was able, as a stay home mum with a supportive husband, to have a regular afternoon nap to catch up on lost sleep while my babies slept too. I certainly learned I needed to look after myself this way!
    I believe I was a far healthier, happier mum for this. This, I feel is another fact that is often overlooked. Studies on babies in childcare always only consider the health and development of the children – I have never seen a study that examines if mothers who are trying to cope with raising a small baby AND work full time at a career have increased health problems as a result. My observations of mothers is that combining full time work commitments and raising small children leads to many stress related disorders and chronic illnesses. Mothering is NOT a job that combines easily with a 9-5 work routine.
    Gail Gifford

  18. It sound like there are a lot of people who are ‘not in their right minds’, politicians included!
    My daughter (mother of three,8, 5 1/2,and 4 year olds) is being ‘looked down upon’ because she does not go out to work and because her mother (me) was a single parent who did not go out to work until they were older ie according to them content to be just a house -wife. I preferred to raise them myself with my values and moral standards instead of someone elses.
    Would anybody be able to give me some good arguments for my daughter in defense of being a stay-at-home mum as well as some prominent/famous examples.
    Linda Ure

  19. I agree with Jonathon with regard to child support which, if I recall correctly would in effect go back to the old method of payment per child. As you said, it would allow greater flexibility to the recipients, stay at home or work etc.
    Yes, yes, Roger. But would they ever do that, it is just not the modern way. It is not seen as progressive.

    And thank you Gail for your heartfelt comments. Having been in a similar situation I understand.With my first child I worked until 8 months but in retrospect do not think it a good idea…not a very peaceful or toxin-free environment (I worked as a lab tech at a Tafe). I took 12 months unpaid maternity leave but soon found that there was no way that I would return to paid work.

    Then I was left a single parent of three children ages 10, 6 and 3 and was very fortunate to be given a ‘sole parent pension’ and because their father worked for the government, a small monthly child support payment which enabled me to pay my mortgage, bills and stay at home to be a full time mother. It was not easy but we survived with the help of our Church family as well as my family. The situation was not ideal because I believe that having a father (present in the home) is vital to the health and wellbeing of all children so they missed out and are still paying the price even though we had some wonderful male role models at church which softened the blow.

    I ‘ll do all in my power to support my girls to be full-time mothers

    Linda Ure

  20. Yes Damien, why all the rebates and subsidies anyway. Childcare payments to the very rich? And now talk of Nanny rebates, please stop to throwing out of money to anybody and everybody, it should only be for those in need. What is healthy about sticking a child into long day care with strangers and 40 other sniffling, coughing, dribbling kids all wanting to know who their parents are? We had four children and play groups were wonderful, 12 hour days in childcare with strangers, well, why would you unless you were desperate, and it`s the desperate ones we need to help out financially.
    John Archer

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