Ms BYRNES (Cunningham) (17:34): The Paid Parental Leave Amendment (More Support for Working Families) Bill 2023 delivers on the Albanese Labor government's commitment to the Australian people to provide a system of paid parental leave which is accessible, flexible and gender equitable. Paid parental leave is vital for the health and wellbeing of families and this is why we are increasing the total number of weeks of paid leave to a family from 20 to 26 weeks. Children benefit from being able to spend more time with their parents. This bill does exactly that by increasing the amount of leave which a family can take by 30 per cent. Currently, up to 18 weeks are available for one parent, with two weeks reserved for the other parent. The increase to 26 weeks means that one parent can access up to 22 weeks of paid parental leave. It also doubles the period reserved for the other parent from two to four weeks.
Improving paid parental leave is a critical reform. It is critical for families, women and the economy. These reforms are part of a broad package of measures that have been introduced by this government for the benefit of Australian families. Investing in paid parental leave is vital to the economy as it helps maintain the participation of women within the workforce. The Australian government's Workplace Gender Equity Agency reports that 63 per cent of employers offer paid parental leave. This is an area of reform which has widespread support throughout the community. Paid parental leave provides real opportunities for families and real opportunities for women. Businesses, unions and economists all recognise that one of the best ways to boost productivity and maintain women's participation in the workforce is to provide more support for families. These reforms do just that.
The provision of support for families has been a feature of the Albanese Labor government. Under the Labor tax plan, the average taxpayer on an income of $73,000 will get a tax cut of $1,504 per annum. It is important to see this bill in the context of the government's reform agenda, which is seeking to create a fairer Australia. Of course, these aren't the only initiatives that have been undertaken by the Albanese Labor government for the benefit of families. The government has already made early childhood education more affordable, which has been of considerable benefit to families within the Illawarra. Labor's cheaper childcare initiatives have seen the childcare subsidy increase for nearly 16,000 families within the Illawarra, while child care is cheaper for 96 per cent of local families. This reduction in the cost of child care shows the government's commitment to middle Australia and the government's commitment to the support of families.
These initiatives follow the reform of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, which was one of the early priorities of the Albanese Labor government. The cost of the PBS copayment was reduced from $42.50 to just $30. Australian families have saved $220 million on almost 20 million cheaper prescriptions over the period of January to November 2023, with residents of New South Wales saving $69 million over the same period. Labor is also taking steps to deal with bulk-billing after 10 years of neglect by the previous government. In the first two months since we tripled the bulk-billing incentive, Australia's bulk-billing rate has risen, with an estimated additional 360,000 trips to the GP being bulk billed. This year, we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of Medicare, the great achievement of Labor. The provision of quality and affordable health care is part of Labor's DNA. The Albanese Labor government has taken concrete steps to increase access to affordable health care for all.
These changes also reflect the Albanese government's commitment to improve the lives of working families and to provide better outcomes for young children by allowing them to spend the first weeks of their lives with both their parents. To do this, we have increased the paid concurrent leave, which both parents can take, from two to four weeks. This increase and concurrent leave are to be phased in over the period from 2024 to 2026.
A case study provided by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency shows the impact which paid parental leave has on the lives on those that take it:
My wife took leave after our son Julian was born, but wanted to return to work as she had studied so hard to get where she was, and she wanted to keep up her skills.
I wanted to support my wife and help around the house but I also wanted to be a dad. I lost my father a couple of years ago - I didn't get to see him that much when we were growing up, because he was working long hours in a factory and I didn't want to miss out on time with Julian.
When I first raised the idea of taking time off work, people outside work were quite negative saying it would be career-limiting…
Good Australian employers increasingly see paid parental leave as part of their social obligations as an employer. This reflects a positive change in social attitudes and shows that business fully supports the concept of paid parental leave. But this isn't the only improvement in equity of employment conditions that has occurred. Eighty-one per cent of employers who offer paid parental leave now also pay superannuation over the period of this leave.
This bill also understands the complexities of family life and what it means to be a new parent. In our community, many mothers are also recovering from major surgical procedures following the birth of a child. They may have had a caesarean or other procedures, which leave them unable to lift and complete household tasks, but of course there is no opportunity for a rest when there is a newborn baby in the home. This bill is seeking to improve the lives of parents by increasing concurrent leave entitlements, allowing one parent to stay at home and look after their partner, who may be recovering from one of these surgical procedures. The extension of leave entitlements allows many mothers to receive much-needed care within the home, as not every family has support living nearby.
This bill provides support for families as they care for their newborn child and will make a positive contribution to the quality of life of families within Australia. The lived experience of one local family in my community illustrates the problems that many families faced under the previous scheme prior to its reform. One mother told me:
We had our first child in May 2021. At the time the only option for my husband to access parental leave was through the Dad and partner payment. In order to access this payment, my husband had to be on leave without pay from his job with only access to minimum wage payments.
This was a significant pay cut for him. With me taking maternity leave at half pay for a couple of months followed by leave without pay, it wasn't financially viable for him to take leave. We couldn't afford our mortgage repayments if we did this.
Previously, fathers could not take both paid leave from work and receive paid parental leave. I know from my conversations with new parents in my community that this has prevented some fathers from claiming parental leave, and this will no longer be the case.
This bill will have a positive impact on household income by not compelling the father to take unpaid leave before they can access paid parental leave. This is a real improvement in the circumstances of families. The Women's Economic Equality Taskforce recommended this increase in concurrent weeks, as it recognises that the raising of a child is a shared responsibility. The Albanese Labor government has seriously considered the taskforce's recommendations. The reforms contained within this bill are part of a process which is looking to improve the lives of families and increase the economic participation of women.
It is important to see the improvement of paid parental leave as part of a broad reform package that supports Australian families with the cost-of-living challenges. It has been known for a long time that paid parental leave increases the prospects of a woman returning to work. In 2018, the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that 74 per cent of people who took paid parental leave returned to work after at least four months at home with their child, which was up from 65 per cent in 2011. One in four returned to work after 10 months or longer, up from 21 per cent in 2011. There is every reason to believe that this extension of paid parental leave will increase the amount of time that parents stay at home with their children.
The extension of paid parental leave is a real win for families in the Illawarra. Business Illawarra estimates that approximately 25,000 people commute from the Illawarra to Sydney for work each day. This journey can add hours of travel to a working week and adds pressure to families. Statistics show that men have much lower rates of access and utilisation of flexible working arrangements and parental leave entitlements. According to the 2022-23 WGEA data, men make up 14 per cent of people who take primary carer parental leave. This bill is about providing options for parents and letting families make their own choices. It also includes a minor technical amendment to ensure access for fathers and partners who do not meet the work activity test requirements but who would have if their child had not been born prematurely. This provision is already in place for birth parents.
This is the largest investment in paid parental leave since Labor established the current format of leave in 2011. It is estimated that paid parental leave benefits over 180,000 families each year, and the economic value of allowing women to return to work after a period of paid leave outstrips this investment by the government. I am proud to be part of a government which is bringing into effect reforms that are delivering real benefits to the lives of Australian families.
When considering the impact of this bill, ACTU President Michele O'Neil said, 'We welcome the Albanese government's leadership and prioritisation of this issue.' She then went on to say:
This Bill is a significant improvement after a decade of neglect by the previous government by providing more paid leave and creating a more equal balance of caring responsibilities amongst parents.
The Business Council of Australia also welcomed these reforms, with the Chief Executive, Bran Black, stating:
The Business Council of Australia welcomes the Government's expansion of the Paid Parental Leave system that will bring more equity and flexibility to caregiving roles, boosting the economy and making it easier for new parents to stay in the workforce…
The Business Council has longed called for reform to the Paid Parental Leave system, and our recently released Seize the Moment report outlined our Paid Parental Leave proposal aimed at removing barriers for women to work and improving simplicity and flexibility. It is great to see the Government incorporate significant aspects of our proposal in its Bill.
This bill clearly has broad support within the Australian community. This bill is good for parents, kids, employers and the economy. It helps keep women in the workforce and builds stronger families.