Most Australian families have very little to gain from the recent parental leave pay reforms. Picture: iStock
Most Australian families have very little to gain from the recent parental leave pay reforms. Picture: iStock

The real changes needed to fix parental leave pay

It seems apt that only last month the Oxford English Dictionary decided the term "nothingburger" would be added to a list of new words.

According to its freshly-minted definition, it means "something that … turns out to be insignificant or lacking in substance."

Nothingburger arrived just in time, because it's exactly the word to describe Minister for Women Kelly O'Dwyer's supposedly "game-changing" reform for paid parental leave, giving new parents the ability to split the government's parental leave pay of 18 weeks. After 12 weeks, they can now choose to use the balance of the remaining six weeks at any time until their child turns two.

O'Dwyer has trumpeted the reform's "flexibility" - but that's really the only notable thing about it.

On close examination, it's the sort of well-meaning feel-good announcement that has little to offer the majority of parents.

Most women take longer than 12 weeks off after having a baby. The most recent ABS data states that the average time off from work for women is 32 weeks.

Minister for Women Kelly O'Dwyer announced her reform to parental leave pay this week, making it more flexible. Picture: AAP/Lukas Coch
Minister for Women Kelly O'Dwyer announced her reform to parental leave pay this week, making it more flexible. Picture: AAP/Lukas Coch

There is a possibility this newly "flexible" payment may be appealing for women who need to get back to work shortly after having a baby.

It's easy to assume women who are eager to return to work are high flyers - and some may be - but top-earning women aren't actually eligible for the government's paid parental leave, as it is only for those who earn under $150,000.

If women returning to work after 12 weeks are actually eligible for the government payment (which is set at minimum wage and totals $719.35 per week before tax) and need to return to work within a few months after giving birth, that decision raises its own questions about cost of living forcing women back into the workforce.

And while it's also been touted by O'Dwyer as good for women who own their own businesses, most women in that position scoff at the suggestion that they really have time off after a baby. You only need to look at Roxy Jacenko, who runs her own PR business and was pictured sending emails from her hospital bed - within hours of giving birth to her son Hunter in 2014 - to know that no business magically runs itself while women take maternity leave.

So who is this new policy really for?

It's a "reform" that seems born of PM Scott Morrison's much derided "Canberra bubble", and feels much more like a desperate fishing exercise for votes.

Most Australian women take longer than 12 weeks of maternity leave; the average amount of away from work is 32 weeks. Picture: iStock
Most Australian women take longer than 12 weeks of maternity leave; the average amount of away from work is 32 weeks. Picture: iStock

And that's because there are two things the government needs to look at more closely if they really want to help the majority of new parents, and make a true offer of "flexibility".

They need to simplify the shambolic Centrelink, which is responsible for delivering the government's parental leave pay, and make it easier for men to get the payment, which is currently assigned to women as the "birth mother".

These two issues are inextricably linked. Ask most new mothers about sources of stress, and many will regale you with horror stories of trying to navigate the muddled and messy Centrelink system to arrange payments. And if Centrelink do actually pick up - recent Senate estimate hearings detail the agency had 47.9m unanswered calls last year - it can equate to hours and hours on the phone, with capable women rendered mad and mute by the overly complex system that literally turns people away from its offices so they can hang on the phone for an eternity.

And god forbid women try to hand their leave entitlement over to a husband or partner - which should be a simple matter in a time when governments are keen to be seen making equality for women a priority. Technically the rules allow for it, but anyone who's tried will tell you it's a bureaucratic nightmare to make it actually happen.

If the government committed to fixing these two things, they would make a lot more parents happy than a spurious attempt at "flexibility".

Victoria Hannaford is a writer and producer for RendezView.



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