COVER STORY: Paid maternity leave: who benefits?
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, January 11, 2003
Last month, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Pru Goward, released her 277 page report, A time to value, in which she proposed a government-funded 14 week paid maternity leave scheme, for women in the paid workforce.
The problem with this is: what happens after 14 weeks?
The unspoken assumption is that the mother simply returns to the full-time workforce, and the baby is, apparently, to be put into full-time childcare from the age of 14 weeks - usually at taxpayers' expense.
This highlights a basic flaw in the report: it institutionalises and aggravates the very problem it tries to address: the need for young children to have their parents, particularly mothers, with them full-time.
The hard reality is that a baby is just as dependent on the mother at 10 weeks, 30 weeks, or 50 weeks. And as anyone with children knows, a child often needs a full-time mother at the age of two, three or five years (and often at 12 years), as much as at one year.
Another problem with the Goward proposal is that it does nothing for Australia's fertility rate, which has declined steadily over the past thirty years to 1.73 children per woman. In fact, the only two countries in the OECD which have no paid maternity leave scheme, Australia and the United States, have among the higher fertility levels.
Yet the problem of declining fertility is one which Australia must address. If we do not address it, there will be two alternatives: high levels of migration, to counter the effects of fewer people of working age; or economic stagnation, as a consequence of the increasing welfare burden caused by an ageing population.
The most decisive criticism of the Goward approach is that it ignores what most mothers want: to remain at home with their children.
The most recent study of the employment preferences of mothers was published late in 2001 by Monash University researchers Dr Mariah Evans and Dr Jonathon Kelley.
Using Australian data from the International Social Science Survey and international data from the International Social Survey Programme, they concluded that "just two percent of Australian mothers favour full-time maternal employment when children are pre-school age. Some 27 per cent favour part-time employment.
"The great majority of mothers, 71 per cent, think that it is right to stay home when children are under pre-school age".
Earlier research undertaken by the Dangar Research Group in 1991 similarly found that "a high majority (86%) of mothers agreed that the financial situation has forced a lot of women out to work who don't want to, and 7 in 10 women support higher child allowances so more women could stay at home" to care for their own children.
Coincidentally, a few days after the Goward report was released, two Government Ministers, Senator Amanda Vanstone and Tony Abbott, released a discussion paper, Building a Simpler System to help Jobless Families and Individuals.
This report called for a simplified system of welfare payments, designed to remove disincentives to people, currently unemployed, entering the paid workforce.
The dimensions of the problem were summarised in the statement that "despite a decade of economic growth, the number of working-age people on income support has grown. In December 2001, there were around 2.8 million Australians under 65 on income support - that is, over 20 per cent of all working age Australians. Most rely on income support for a majority of their income."
Economic growth has largely been achieved by sucking an increasing number of mothers into the workforce, leaving the official unemployment rate stubbornly above 6 per cent, while the unemployment of hundreds of thousands of others is hidden in part-time work and disability benefits.
As a result of government tariff policies, employment in manufacturing industry has fallen to about 11.5 per cent of the workforce, compared to 19.5 per cent in other advanced Western nations of the OECD.
The cause of the high number of welfare recipients - not addressed in the discussion paper - is that on one hand, there are too few full-time jobs in Australia for those who need them (7-10 people are chasing each available job), while on the other, many women are forced to remain in the workforce though they want to care for their children at home.
What is needed to address the needs of both the unemployed and working mothers, are policies which develop and expand industries to employ more people full-time, such as the Government's recently announced $4 billion support scheme for the motor vehicle industry, and a realistic homemaker's allowance so that women can choose between being full-time homemakers or members of the paid workforce.
The question is: does the Government have the vision to look at the big picture, or will we again be looking at band-aid solutions to great national problems?
- Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council