Mr HUSIC (Chifley—Government Whip) (17:18): I am proud to voice my support for the Paid Parental Leave and Other Legislation Amendment (Dad and Partner Pay and Other Measures) Bill 2012—proud because this bill builds on the historic government funded Paid Parental Leave scheme, the first of its kind in Australia, and proud because this very important social policy reform was introduced and delivered by a Labor government.
Last year’s introduction of the scheme followed decades of debate about the merits and affordability of paying mothers to stay home to look after their newborn babies. The scheme gives eligible working parents up to 18 weeks leave at the national minimum wage of around $590 a week before tax. More importantly—and I think this is welcomed by a lot of parents—it gives parents the opportunity to stay home and bond with their newborn children at a stage in their development which is most critical.
In every respect, the Paid Parental Leave scheme was a revolution in Australia, but we had long lagged behind the rest of the developed world. Around 1,000 people living in the Chifley electorate have already benefited from the Paid Parental Leave scheme and. For women on low incomes or in casual or part-time work, this was the first time they had ever had access to this type of support. When parents decide to take time off work to look after a newborn child, they do not need the added burden of worrying about how to make ends meet. This scheme ensures that Australian families no longer have to make the difficult choice between spending time with their new baby and earning an income.
Today, in this bill, we build upon the Paid Parental Leave scheme. At the last election, we gave a commitment to give Australian dads and other eligible partners the chance to join mothers in having time off work. From 1 January 2013, dad and partner pay will give eligible fathers and partners, including adopting parents and parents in same-sex relationships, two weeks pay at the national minimum wage to support mums to care for their babies. This reflects our belief that bonding with a new child is just as important for dads and other carers as it is for mums.
Most fathers do take time off work when a child is born or comes into the home, but usually it is at their own expense and they do it by either taking leave without pay or dipping into annual leave. Fathers often feel pressured, though, as the primary breadwinners to stay at work and maintain an income at a time when the household income has fallen. Dad may be, for example, a casual employee without annual leave entitlements or a self-employed business owner—such workers have not been quite so fortunate in the past.
Dad and partner pay will make an enormous difference for thousands of Australian families. Payments to dads and other eligible partners will be available in addition to any employer funded paid leave. This is consistent with the recommendations made by the Productivity Commission. Just like paid parental leave, a work test and a residency requirement will apply, and dad and partner pay will have the same income test for eligibility. Eligible fathers and partners will be able to lodge claims for dad and partner pay from 1 October this year. Their eligibility will not rely on the mother having been in paid work before the birth of the child or adoption. That means they may claim dad and partner pay even if the mother is not claiming paid parental leave. I think that is a fantastic move. Where the mother is not claiming paid parental leave and the father is claiming dad and partner pay, the family may also be eligible for other family assistance payments such as the baby bonus and family tax benefit. Dad-and-partner pay cannot be transferred to the primary carer. So if you do not use it you lose it. This should encourage fathers and other partners to take more time off work and will signal to employers that a father’s role in caring for a new baby is equally important. I am very supportive of this as I believe that in many instances, as I indicated earlier, there are pressures on new fathers from an income perspective. They wonder whether they have the time to be there at that critical point when a baby first comes home. Income should be less of an issue now for new dads and these measures should also ensure that there is an opportunity to bond with a new child at a very important time in a new family’s life.
Where a family chooses the father or partner to be the primary carer of a new or adopted child, the balance of the paid parental leave can be transferred from the mother to the father or partner in addition to the dad-and-partner pay. However, they cannot claim more than the 18 weeks maximum leave. It is important in the modern age that the scheme be suitably flexible in providing families with choice about who should care for the child and who should return to work.
In bringing this bill before the parliament, I am confident that the dad-and-partner pay is fair for families and businesses alike. Employer and employee groups were consulted, along with family and community groups, in an effort to get the balance right. As is the case with paid parental leave, dad-and-partner pay is fully funded by the government and will not rely on a new tax on business to pay for it. Without a new impost on business, dad-and-partner pay will not drive up the price of groceries as would the scheme proposed by those opposite, if it were adopted.
In conclusion, I am very pleased about this bill—and I have spoken in great support of it—but I am also pleased with a number of measures that were announced this week in the budget that aim to assist families with their cost of living pressures. In particular, I am pleased with the Schoolkids Bonus and the changes to family tax benefit. I think these are enormously important. I am particularly mindful of how important these measures are to families in my neck of the woods, where 15,000 families will benefit from the Schoolkids Bonus and approximately 19,000 families will benefit from the family tax benefit changes.
Obviously, every one of the families trying to make ends meet will welcome the extra pay. On occasion, in discussion with people from the electorate I represent—the electorate of Chifley—I have heard of cases where young people leave school early under pressure to add to the family income. These families feel that without children working they will not have the ability to make ends meet. It is concerning to me that in this day and age and in this country, as wealthy as we are, those pressures still exist. Certainly, the measures that we are taking and the comprehensive nature of these changes—changes for children from birth through to their teenage years—are important, not only in terms of being able to help families sustain themselves, but also for kids in my neck of the woods who are leaving school early to help build family income. I worry about the longer-term impact that leaving school early has on families in terms of the pressures placed upon them. Children leaving school early deny themselves the opportunity of maximising their own personal bank of skills or growing that personal bank of skills and there are consequences to losing those years.
So these types of measures that we are talking about, which help family life—the paid parental leave scheme, the bill that is before us now and the types of measure that are being introduced—are making our country fundamentally better from the perspective of families. The measures make it easier for families to meet their day-to-day bills and to enjoy the experience along the way. And I am proud that we have seen these measures take hold. There is room for these measures to grow and for us to build upon them. I commend this legislation to the House.