EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
The maternity leave morass
, July 27, 2002
A campaign launched by the ACTU for universal paid maternity leave has put pressure on the Federal Government by raising broad issues of equity - between women working in the public sector and the private sector, as well as between working mothers and those who care for children full-time in the home.
At present, 12 weeks paid maternity leave is standard for all Commonwealth employees, for some state public servants, as well as some semi-government bodies, and in significant areas of local government.
The Federal Government is therefore hardly in a position to argue that people in the private sector should be treated differently from government employees.
However, it is clearly reluctant to support paid maternity leave in the private sector, as it rightly believes that it could have a serious adverse effect on the viability of businesses, and ultimately on employment.Birthrate decline
On a broader level, the issue ties in with the fact that government policy of encouraging mothers into the workforce over the past 30 years has contributed to the dramatic decline in Australia's birthrate, now well below replacement levels.
The issue was raised by the Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Pru Goward - a Howard Government appointee - who last April released an options paper calling for universal paid maternity leave.
Unless the Federal Government takes up the issue, the Industrial Relations Commission, which has already sanctioned a range of maternity leave agreements, particularly in the public sector, could well hand down a decision which will apply throughout the country.
If there is a way out of this situation, it must be based on the principle that all mothers - whether in the paid workforce or at home - should be treated equitably, and that governments should strongly support marriage and family formation, and encourage families to have more children.
Interestingly, the Liberal Party's Federal Treasurer, Malcolm Turnbull, recently supported payment of maternity benefits "which are applied to all women, be they working full-time, be they working part-time, be they staying at home with their children."
He reinforced the point by suggesting that Australia would be a stronger society if people married younger and had more babies.
For many years, the National Civic Council has advocated a homemaker's allowance, in recognition of the vital role of parents caring for children full-time in the home.
This could be done through a maternity benefit, such as that suggested by Mr Turnbull, which would be payable to all mothers with young children, whether in the workforce or not.
One of Australia's leading sociologists, Moira Eastman, recently raised the issue in this way: "Paid maternity leave followed by a rapid return to full-time work does not meet the needs of most Australian mothers and what most Australians feel is right for children (and mothers)." (The Age
, July 12, 2002)
She said that many workplaces already offer paid maternity leave, with the requirement to return to work. "Such schemes dramatically raise the percentage of mothers who return to full-time work within a year or so of giving birth."
Dr Eastman cited a recent survey that most Australians believe that mothers of young children should not be in the workforce, and "69 per cent of Australians said in 2001 that being a full-time homemaker was the ideal option for mothers with children under six."
An overwhelming 81 per cent of women expressed their preference for this approach.
Interestingly, a 1997 survey by the Australian Institute of Family Studies - hardly a supporter of stay-at-home mothers - found that 83 per cent of women and 84 per cent of men believed that mothers should not work full-time, even when their youngest child is at school.
The argument most commonly raised against a maternity benefit paid to all
mothers is that it is financially unsustainable. Yet almost every other country - we are told - has been able to pay maternity leave, in most cases for about four months, but in the case of Sweden, for a period of fifteen months!
It is clearly a matter of priorities.
Certainly, maternity benefits should be met from government revenue, rather than from employers, for whom it would be a tax on employment. Some employers would be unable to pay, leading to higher unemployment, others would be forced to pass on the additional cost in the form of higher prices. It would undoubtedly encourage further replacement of workers by machines.
One way of funding a universal maternity benefit would be to consolidate existing family payments into it, and adding the substantial government-funded child care subsidy which should be paid to parents, rather than child care centres.
Additional funding could be obtained by setting aside the existing taxation on superannuation funds for maternity benefits, rather than adding it to consolidated revenue.
Such a solution would treat all women equitably, and assist all families, not just those earning two incomes.
- Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council