Sweeping changes to the paid parental leave scheme could make gender inequality worse, by disincentivising fathers from taking leave to look after their children, economists and advocates warn.
Under the budget plan, the Morrison government would stop affording dads and partners two weeks of paid leave to look after their children and would instead merge their leave entitlements with those handed to primary carers.
The new expanded paid parental leave scheme would allow eligible couples earning less than $350,000 to take up to 20 weeks of shared leave based on the national minimum wage, giving parents the choice to divvy-up the leave depending on their personal circumstances.
In his budget speech, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the changes form part of a $346.1 million five-year women’s economic security package aimed at boosting women’s participation in the workforce.
“Families, not government, are best placed to decide what works for them,” he said.
“More families will be able to access 20 weeks of leave and decide how they will share it.”
The changes also mean fathers and partners can access paid parental leave at the same time as any employer-funded leave, in the same way mothers currently can.
Single parents would also be eligible to receive up to 20 weeks paid leave.
Changes could ‘lock women into’ unpaid care role
However, advocates warn the changes, which are yet to be legislated, lack incentives to encourage fathers to take more time out to look after their children.
They say traditional gender stereotypes and wage disparities mean mothers would be more likely to take on the full 20 weeks of leave.
“The flexibility that is being afforded here is not going to change who does the unpaid work of looking after kids,” Equality Rights Alliance convenor Helen Dalley-Fisher told The New Daily.
“If it’s possible for mums to take the full 20 weeks that’s going to happen, because we know on average women earn less than men and there’s still that assumption that they will take on the responsibility of raising children.
“It also doesn’t do anything to incentivise men to think differently about their role.”
Impact Economics lead economist Dr Angela Jackson agreed that the changes could “lock women into their role as society’s unpaid care workforce”, arguing the government should instead maintain the distinction between mother and partner pay.
She said paid parental leave should be extended to 26 weeks, including six weeks of maternal leave, six weeks of partner leave and the remaining 12 weeks to be split as couples wish.
“Countries which have lifted paid leave taken by men have done it through the use of ‘use it or lose it’ provisions,” Dr Jackson said.
“Quebec is probably one of the best examples, where they introduced five weeks of leave for dads on a ‘use it or lose it’ basis and they saw a huge increase in the number of dads taking that leave.
“That led to an increase in women’s participation in the workforce and an increase in female wages as well.”
Government data shows the overwhelming majority of parents who use paid parental leave are women.
In 2020-21, fewer than 90,000 fathers and partners received dad and partner pay, which accounts for only about 30 per cent of births in Australia each year.
“What they should have done in the face of the policy not being taken up is rather than abolish it, is actually enhance it towards something that is more international standard,” Dr Jackson said.
“If you put in place something that sets out a standard for how many weeks men and women can take, then suddenly men will get that caring experience and the roles within the household will be shared more equally.”
The Australia Institute’s Nordic Policy Centre convenor Professor Andrew Scott agreed that fathers should have designated leave, albeit for different reasons.
“New mothers already have such a minimal amount of time so soon after giving birth,” he said.
“The idea that men or other secondary care givers would now take up some of those precious 20 weeks leave, paid at minimum wage, flies in the face of reality.”
Changes to come into force after election
Budget papers reveal the changes won’t come until after the election, with the government intending to introduce legislation to Parliament by March 1, 2023, following stakeholder consultation.
Shadow Minister for Families and Social Services Linda Burney told The New Daily Labor supported changes to paid paternity and parental leave that would support women’s economic security and narrow the gender gap at work.
“Parents should not have to face impossible choices between work and family,” she said.
“Labor supports increased flexibility in paid paternity leave, but the government is just tinkering around the edges of a scheme they’ve tried five times to slash.”