Twelve years since its introduction, policymakers have the chance to reform Paid Parental Leave (PPL) and finally bring Australia’s scheme into line with the OECD average.
But we need a greater sense of urgency to make it happen.
The proposed amendments to the current government-funded PPL scheme are an excellent start, and sorely overdue, addressing some of the fundamental challenges around accessibility and flexibility that new parents face, as well as making it easier for parents to share the leave by removing ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ carer labels.
However, given how far Australia lags behind the majority of other OECD nations in terms of the length and amount of paid leave on offer – averaging 53 weeks for mothers and eight weeks dedicated for fathers – we have a golden opportunity to be bolder and invest in reform that would deliver greater economic and social outcomes for generations to come. Indeed, global research and modeling by experts have demonstrated that the return on investment of best practice PPL scheme far outweighs the costs.
So, what are we waiting for?
The proposed changes before parliament would see the current scheme lifted from 18 weeks to just 20 weeks with a gradual increase to 26 weeks by 2026, and no tabled changes thereafter committed. At the current pace of change, it’s unlikely we’d even hit the OECD average in the next decade.
And if we really want to encourage greater take up by men, we need to adopt a “use it or lose it” arrangement – ideally preserving up to 12 weeks for each parent to incentivize more families to share the care.
I had the opportunity to highlight some of these points at a Senate Committee hearing this week, and importantly, bring my personal experience to the Inquiry, having navigated the affordability of accessing parental leave from both sides of the fence; a small business owner and a parent.
The growing divide – the impact of the parental leave gap
While many progressive, often larger, employers have voluntarily developed their own competitive paid parental leave schemes to help them attract and retain their people, small business owners, understandably, have struggled to keep up and absorb these costs.
What we now have is a significant gap in the amount of leave families can offer, with some relying solely on the government’s minimum wage scheme, and others able to access far more generous leave provisions from their employers. It’s fuelling a growing divide of inequity across our society that is simply unfair leaving families health and financial wellbeing at risk. And its children and women who are impacted the most.
Accessing well-funded PPL shouldn’t have to depend on where you work and the nature of your employment.
This growing paid parental leave gap is and will have multi-generational consequences.
A lack of well-funded PPL impacts a parent’s ability to support the well-being of their child. What we know from research into early childhood development is that the first few years of a child’s life is critical to their health and developmental outcomes in later life. Parents are also impacted, with research into prenatal health estimating that one in five women and one in ten men will experience anxiety and/or depression during the perinatal period.
Australia’s progress on women’s economic participation and opportunity is regressing, according to the World Economic Forum. The gap in unpaid care and domestic work is limiting opportunities and choices for men and women, and ultimately then also contributing to the gender gap in retirement savings later on.
The road ahead
Implementing a world-leading paid parental leave scheme is good for businesses and families, and it deserves a greater sense of urgency from the government and employers.
We need to be far more ambitious starting with a move straight to 26 weeks, with a roadmap to reach 52 weeks by no later than 2030. We must also give more consideration to aligning the leave with a full replacement wage rather than the minimum wage, and paying superannuation on top.
We need to engage employers to be part of the solution and recognise the importance of investing in practices that support employees’ caregiving needs not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it makes business sense too. We urge policymakers to commit to further support to educate and incentivise employers to adopt more family-friendly policies that help to normalise employees’ caregiving responsibilities.
This is our opportunity to create a much fairer, more family-friendly Australia that invests in and values caregiving as something we all rely on and benefit from.