FAILURE to initiate a paid parental leave system in this year's budget would be a sign the Federal Government did not care about women in the workforce, according to the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick.
In a final plea for the scheme to receive funding, Ms Broderick said paid parental leave was fundamental to making sure the Government fully benefited from the money it was spending educating and training women.
“If you consider”, she told the National Press Club yesterday, “that $66 billion was spent on education in Australia in 2007-08 and over half of that is spent on females, the hard question we need to ask ourselves is: are we getting a return on our investment in women's education and training?”
Ms Broderick said a report by the World Economic Forum showed that Australia ranked first for women's education, but it was 40th for workforce participation.
“How can we claim to be tapping into the full productive power of women?” Ms Broderick said. “Attempting to force a female life cycle into a male career model does not work, has never worked.”
A government-funded parental leave system would make a significant contribution to the number of women in the workforce, she said. It would also mean more women would be able to retire with adequate superannuation instead of relying on the age pension.
Australia is the only developed country without a legislated parental leave system. The United States does not have a national scheme, but several states, including California and New York, do.
Last year the Productivity Commission recommended that the Government pay for 18 weeks of parental leave at $544 a week, roughly the minimum wage. The scheme would cost $450 million a year but much of that would be covered by scrapping the $5000 baby bonus to women who qualified for the scheme.
But the Government appears to have gone cold on the idea. Senior ministers repeatedly refer to it as something that might not be affordable in the deteriorating economic conditions.
Ms Broderick said paid parental leave was “symbolic” of the Government's attitude towards women. “This says that women matter in the workforce,” Ms Broderick said.
She suggested she might be open to a compromise such as immediately offering the scheme to low-income women only. But this would only be acceptable if the Government guaranteed all women would have access to paid parental leave.
The Greens senator Sarah HansonYoung has said she will introduce a private member's bill to provide for 26 weeks of publicly funded parental leave when Parliament returns next month.