Pregnant with possibility

Times are 'very tough', but paid maternity leave is 'very cheap', argue lobbyists ahead of an imminent report by the Productivity Commission on just how much we can afford.

"WALK with the giant pregnant woman,” invites the Adelaide International Women’s Day flyer, and "Push, push, push.” There is no doubt that the call for one last push to deliver paid maternity leave has been the overwhelming theme in the lead-up to this year’s International Women's Day on 8 March. Thirty years of gestation is long enough and it’s time to induce, as Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick has said.

When the Whitlam government introduced paid maternity leave for Commonwealth public servants in 1973 it was seen as the first step towards universal provision in accordance with International Labour Organisation standards. Maternity protection was the subject of ILO conventions No 3 (in 1919), No 103 and No 183. Income replacement to enable mothers to recover from childbirth and spend time with newborn babies was seen as a basic entitlement for women workers.

None of the ILO conventions on maternity protection was ever signed by Australia, but a new low was reached when Australia sent an all-male delegation to Geneva for the review of ILO 103 in 1999. In 2002 New Zealand finally took the plunge on paid maternity leave funded out of general revenue. Australia was left isolated as one of only two countries in the OECD without such entitlements. Pressure built up with private member’s bills from Senator Stott Despoja and a campaign by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward; by June 2007 a Newspoll survey commissioned by the National Foundation for Australian Women showed 76 per cent support in the community.

The Rudd government was elected with a commitment to introduce over time a paid maternity leave scheme for all mothers and the Productivity Commission was duly asked to undertake an inquiry. In September last year the commission released a draft report recommending eighteen weeks of statutory paid parental leave at the adult minimum wage, to be taken by primary carers, and an additional two weeks for fathers. After thirty years there was jubilation that at last paid maternity leave was at hand and would arrive in the 2009 Budget.

The net cost to government is relatively small – estimated by the Productivity Commission in its draft report at $452 million annually and reduced still further in its final report. Employers would pay a total of $75 million to cover superannuation contributions during the leave period (the requirement for employers to cover superannuation may have been dropped in the final report, which is not yet public). Compare this modest sum, and the benefits to the economy it brings, with the cost of a new submarine (up to $35 billion to replace the Collins class submarines).

Then came the global financial crisis. Once again it was suggested that the economic times might not be right for paid maternity leave, and particularly not in the 2009 Budget. As Zelda D’Aprano, who chained herself to the Commonwealth building in protest against the 1969 "equal pay” decision, famously pointed out, somehow the economic times are never quite right for wage justice for women. The Productivity Commission’s final report was delivered to the government last weekend and will be tabled within 25 sitting days, but likely much sooner.

The mixed signals over whether the Rudd government will commit the money for paid maternity leave are reminiscent of events under the Keating government. Paid maternity leave was agreed to as part of Accord Mark VII but when the government needed budget cuts in 1995 the ACTU president at the time, Martin Ferguson, was happy enough for it to be dropped. He believed it was a middle-class issue and described those campaigning for it as "hairy-legged femocrats.” The ambivalence within the Australian labour movement over the rights of working women was manifested for many years in the defence of the family wage at the expense of equal pay. This ambivalence was also responsible for the anachronistic survival of the marriage bar in employment – the sacking of married women from pensionable positions. With strong support from the Administrative and Clerical Officers’ Association, the marriage bar lasted in the Commonwealth public service until 1966, longer than in any comparable country except Ireland.

While the government may still be giving mixed signals, the attitude of the more feminised ACTU under Sharan Burrow’s leadership is very different. A high-powered "Time to Deliver” campaign was launched at parliament house on February 24. The audio-visual razzle-dazzle included a video petition and a supportive cast including the very persuasive Elizabeth Broderick. Government and Green Party parliamentarians lined up to be interrogated by Burrow as to their personal commitments (no Coalition MPs were present). When, a few days later, Burrow responded to government nervousness by suggesting that phased introduction would be possible, perhaps over a couple of years, this was by no means comparable to the ACTU back-down of 1995.

The decision on paid maternity leave has become a litmus test of the Rudd government’s commitment to gender equity. So far there has been considerable room for doubt: for instance, the failure to take a women’s policy to the 2007 election; the failure to move the Office for Women back into a central location with a minister in cabinet; the failure to rescind the Harradine Guidelines which have crippled the delivery of family planning aid to the region. By contrast, Barack Obama moved immediately on taking office to rescind the equivalent rule restricting the flow of US funds to international family planning organisations (the so-called 'global gag rule').

The Minister for the Status of Women, Tanya Plibersek, is hampered by being outside cabinet. She has a National Council on Reducing Violence against Women and Children working on a national plan but other key issues are still in the government’s in-tray. For example, although the scrapping of Work Choices will bring benefits to low-paid workers (predominantly women), action on pay equity is the subject of a very long house of representatives inquiry. Submissions closed in late August last year; public hearings began in September and are scheduled to run until late June 2009. Meanwhile, there has been no restoration of a federal agency (such as the former Equal Pay Unit) to monitor the large pay gaps that have opened up in some industry sectors. Such gender pay gaps always seem to get bigger when no one is watching. Equal pay was the subject of Australia’s very first International Women's Day demonstration in 1928 and, as Mary Gaudron has reminded us, we are not there yet.

The Rudd Government has ratified the optional protocol to the UN Women’s Convention and has held a Senate inquiry into restoring the effectiveness of the Sex Discrimination Act. The current act needs a major overhaul, beginning with its objects provision, notable for the repeated phrase "to eliminate, so far as possible.” As the Women’s Electoral Lobby submission observed, we would not tolerate an injunction to drive on the left-hand side of the road "so far as possible”. It was hoped there would be a government response to the very thorough Senate report by the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Act (that is, by International Women's Day 2009) but this now looks unlikely.

In other areas such as childcare and retirement income there are major issues yet to be grappled with. The Howard government’s policy of diverting large amounts of public money to corporate childcare operators and relying on market forces to deliver quality childcare is now in tatters with the collapse of the ABC Learning empire, stranding many families. Female poverty is another major issue, with the majority of those reliant on the old-age pension being women and the single rate being particularly inadequate. Women are being penalised with poverty for the amount of unpaid caring work they have done during their lifetime, as well as for the relatively low levels of remuneration they have received when in paid work.

Much has been made of the government’s commitment to the participation of women in public decision-making and there have been some important steps forward such as the appointment of a third woman to the current high court and the first woman Governor-General. However, in comparative perspective Australia is more of a laggard. We have been consistently slipping down the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s global ranking for representation of women in national parliaments, arriving at 32nd place by late last year. We are ranked similarly in terms of the presence of women in the national cabinet, while women now hold only 8.3 per cent of directorships on private sector boards, according to last year’s figures.

So the May budget is an important test of commitment to the goal of equal opportunity for women. Let’s hope it is a test the government will pass. And that the prime minister will be better briefed than he was for last International Women's Day when he took pride in the fact that his government was "blind to gender.”

Marian Sawer is Adjunct Professor in the School of Social Sciences, ANU and co-author of the forthcoming Australia: The State of Democracy (Federation Press, 2009). The article first appeared on the Australian Policy Online web site.

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