On paid parental leave, the Right and the Left


The question of whether or not women should have the right to extended paid parental leave and the right to return to work has been, as Eva Cox argued last week in The Conversation, the subject of a long and bitter fight by feminists and the broader Left for decades. What then do we make of an apparently generous paid parental leave policy scheme coming from the Liberal Party? And how should we respond?

On the issue of the leave itself, Zoe Dattner, in her piece in Overland on Friday, argued that paid parental leave perpetuates ‘an idea that women should be “paid off” to go and have children away from the lives they have invested years in nurturing at work.’ She writes of paid maternity leave (not parental leave) as ‘a toxic and potentially harmful idea’ that should be talked about in greater depth.

While she raises some important issues, such as the difficulties many women face in combining work and child-rearing, an argument against paid parental leave (as distinct from women-specific maternity leave) is not the answer. There are a myriad of reasons why people may wish to raise children away from their workplace: whether because their workplace is not child-friendly; because they have had after-birth complications; because they would prefer privacy; or because they simply want to take the time out from whatever kind of labour they perform to spend their child’s first months in a different environment. But in a way, their reasons for wanting that is kind of beside the point.

That employees should have the right to paid leave to raise children and the right to return to work afterwards is an unequivocal step towards enabling women’s continued participation in the labour force, and it would be a mistake to argue against such a long-fought for workplace right that would benefit an enormous number of women – and men – on this basis. Dattner is absolutely right when she says ‘we need to normalise women’s relationship to work and parenthood. They are not and should not be mutually exclusive.’ Workplaces could – indeed, should — be more child-friendly, but we shouldn’t view paid parental leave as a counter proposal to that. Rather, by making it easier for women to decide to have children (or not) in the context of their job, workplace rights such as paid parental leave put pressure on companies to make the return to work smoother, more child- and parent-friendly, which then in turn gives parents greater control over where and how they combine both sets of duties.

So how do we respond to such a scheme coming from the mouth of Tony Abbott? Why is a proposition that appears to fulfill so many feminist demands coming from the Right of politics, rather than the Left?

Eva Cox argues that feminists are perhaps playing the man and not the policy, so to speak, when they criticise Abbott’s proposed scheme. And there are valid reasons for feminists and the Left to baulk at such a suggestion coming from Abbott in particular. It’s no secret that he believes women should be encouraged to have children for ultra-conservative social reasons. But there are party politics here too.

The Labor Party has spent so long attempting to prove themselves as business-friendly, to bolster their ‘economic credentials’, to cut away any relationship with the working class, that its leaders are slashing welfare payments and workplace entitlements at every turn. If the Labor Party put a similar scheme on the table, that would damage their standing with big money, which they can’t afford to do without a full retreat from the current trajectory altogether.

By contrast, there is no question about Abbott’s commitment to the desires of business. That is why his position on parental leave will not hurt him. And that’s the most depressing thing about this rightward march by Labor: they’ve trudged so far they’re being cornered on the Left, now, too. The Liberals own that (Right-wing) ground, no question, and they will bury the Labor Party there.

So this is not, as Cox argues, Abbott’s chance to show he’s ‘changed’. He is as he ever was: driven by the weird conglomeration of conservative social values and economic radicalism that characterises neoliberalism. The way to respond is not to applaud Abbott for being progressive (he is not), nor to support the Liberal Party for being ‘better on women’ (they are not).

Rather, we should be pushing for the Left to go, well, Left. In the realm of parliamentary politics, we should agitate our preferred parties – if such exist – to prove they are better on welfare and workers rights than the ultra Right.

It’s not hard: we want paid parental leave. We want the right to return to work for all carers, but particularly for women. But financed support for stay at home parents should not only be the domain of those employed: we also want substantial financial support for parents regardless of their employment status, not simply as a reward for being a high-flyer in the business world. We want welfare payments and social services for women and men who have to raise kids alone and can’t work. We want affordable and high-quality, well-supported community childcare, within workplaces and without. We want education to be free and accessible and of a high standard.

These are not separate issues: they are all part of the recipe for a world that values people over profit – one which is better for men, women and children alike.




Stephanie Convery

Stephanie Convery is the deputy culture editor of Guardian Australia and the former deputy editor of Overland. On Twitter, she is @gingerandhoney.

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  1. As an addendum: it’s worth noting this: http://economics.com.au/?p=9710 which suggests that the Liberal scheme as currently structured is even more regressive than it appears to be on the surface (big surprise).

    However, I don’t think that makes a difference to the core argument here. I rather think it gives the Left even more of an opportunity to structure a more equitable policy – and one that doesn’t go out of its way to reinforce gender stereotypes.

  2. I understand the argument from this author, but it also wrongly isolates PPL from other major policies that, without which, women can’t make clear choices about work and family.

    The support required to keep mothers in work and to share the care in an equitable way, is like a scaffold.

    You need the ability to leave work, and care for your child, without the financial penalty (both now and in retirement); hence PML or PPL schemes.

    Then you need anti-discrimination laws to be sure your boss doesn’t restructure, or sack you whilst you’re on leave, which happens a lot.

    But you also need a right to return to work, and an ability to request to return part-time or in a flexible way, and mostly these are temporary, not permanent, arrangements.

    Indeed, while you are at work, it’d be important to know your boss was considering issues that might be discriminatory or harder for women in the workplace, so they might create work policies to bring about change – like anti-sexual harassment protocols, or targets for women on boards.

    Without these things you need decent and humane social security to assist you to return to work without you and your children living in poverty.

    Also needed, is sensible support for childcare costs to make the money you earn whilst at work worthwhile.

    Finally, you need a tax system that doesn’t penalise you and indeed might even provide additional assistance (life for school costs) for families.

    And would you believe Abbott does not support many of the above?

    Voted against anti-discrimination changes, against workplace gender equality act, against many of the childcare and tax rebates and hasn’t said if he’d support requests for flexible work.

    I don’t care what Abbott’s PPL looks like, the package is what counts.

  3. I thought this was fantastic article Steph! I personally wasn’t that sure how to respond to the new Tony Abbott paid parental leave scheme and this is a very helpful way to think about it.

  4. In response to the opinion, “The way to respond is not to applaud Abbott for being progressive (he is not), nor to support the Liberal Party for being ‘better on women’ (they are not).

    Rather, we should be pushing for the Left to go, well, Left. In the realm of parliamentary politics, we should agitate our preferred parties – if such exist – to prove they are better on welfare and workers rights than the ultra Right.”
    I think that Abbott should be applauded and that it shouldn’t matter what party such a great policy comes from,..what matters is that is shows we are moving forward on the issue of ppl. Politics is about compromise and filtering through the good and bad policies on both sides is is just an extension of that put in our hands on election day. We have a party that had moved right where the right has now moved left showing a progressive fusion melting towards a better shaped reflection of the policies that encompass our feeling’s and attitudes as a nation. The compromises sway from big to small over the years but the lines generally are becoming more blurred as to where they stand on issues that define them as wholly left or right. I look forward to more progress over the years.

  5. Great article. We must also remember that whilst undertaking to giving well-paid women (amongst others) a decent wage to parent their newborns, the government was with the other hand taking away the parenting entitlements of struggling single parents in an attempt to effectively starve them back into the workforce.

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