While the changes proposed in the bill will increase flexibility for families, the Department of Social Services expects only around 4,000 parents to use the flexible paid parental leave (PPL) measures each year. This equates to just over 2 per cent of the 178,000 primary carers (mainly mothers) who accessed PPL in 2018-19. In this context, many submissions also noted that the changes proposed in the bill are modest, and have called for significant further improvements to Australia’s PPL scheme.
Many submissions called for an extension to the period of PPL available to parents. The importance of paying superannuation on PPL, as a contribution towards closing the gender pay gap and the retirement savings gap, was also emphasised by many submitters. The Queensland Nursing and Midwives’ Union (QNMU) said:
The QNMU have long advocated for the period of leave be extended to provide a statutory period of at least 26 weeks leave. We continue to advocate for superannuation contributions to be paid by the government at the prevailing superannuation Guarantee (SG) rate, as part of the PPL scheme.
Submitters also noted more recent policy developments in other countries, and in the private sector, which support a gender-neutral approach PPL. This has the benefit of supporting a more equal distribution of domestic and household work and parenting, by encouraging fathers to take more PPL. For example, the National Foundation for Australian Women stated:
Further thought is particularly required to ensure Australia’s PPL scheme is better able to advance gender equality and encourage the more equal division of paid and unpaid labour between women and men in Australian families… International experience, however, demonstrated that PPL is able to contribute to more equitable sharing of paid and unpaid labour between mothers and fathers, when it is designed specifically to do so.
Diversity Council Australia quantified the long-term impact of a gendered approach to PPL on women’s economic security:
The gendered nature of caring commonly kicks off with women being much more likely than men to access primary parental leave, and therefore to experience costly career interruptions. In 2016-17, just one in every twenty parents taking primary parental leave was a father. 85 per cent of fathers take fewer than four weeks leave. Career interruptions accounted for 21 per cent of the 2014 gender pay gap.
Encouraging men (in heterosexual families) to take parental leave means that they are more likely to take on a more equal share of parenting responsibilities.
Under the provisions of the bill, parents will be required to negotiate with employers on arrangements for accessing flexible PPL after the initial 12-week block. The Australian Industry Group stated:
It is important that the employee reach agreement with the employer on when the flexible PPL days will be taken or, at the very least, that the employer has a right of reasonable refusal to a particular patterns of absences, consistent with the approach in sections 65 (Requests for flexible work arrangements) and section 76 (Extending period of unpaid parental leave) of the FW Act.
On this issue, the QNMU stated:
The success of the proposed scheme lies with employers cooperating with employers to provide flexible return to work strategies. It should be emphasised that it is in employers’ best interest to offer flexible return to work arrangements, in order to attract and retain skilled staff who feel valued and recognised for their contributions to the workforce.
Labor Senators note that while the vast majority of employers will seek to support employees to take flexible PPL in a way that works for their families, Government needs to closely monitor the operation of these arrangements. Government has a responsibility to ensure workers do not miss out on accessing their full PPL entitlements because they are unable to negotiate time off with their employer.
Labor Senators note that all submissions to the Inquiry supported the changes proposed in the bill – but note that the bill does not go far enough in improving Australia’s Paid Parental Leave system.
Labor Senators support the recommendation of the committee report that the Senate pass the bill.
Labor Senators call on the Government to bring forward significant improvements to Australia’s PPL system, in light of the evidence provided to the committee and reforms that have been implemented in similar countries.
Senator Malarndirri McCarthy