Belinda Townsend is a Research Fellow at RegNet. She earned her PhD in political science at Deakin University and has undergraduate degrees in political science (Honours), anthropology and public health.
Australia’s national paid parental leave scheme, announced ten years ago on Mother’s Day 2009, was a landmark social policy designed to improve women’s workforce participation, gender equality in work and at home, and maternal and child health. Evaluations of the scheme have shown improvements in these areas; however, Australia continues to lag behind many OECD countries in the provision of parental leave.
Research led by RegNet scholar Dr Belinda Townsend and colleagues in the NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence on the Social determinants of Health Equity finds that Australia’s scheme was always intended to be a stepping-stone and a policy that would be improved upon over time. Ten years on, however, the policy remains largely unchanged.
On Thursday 22nd August, researchers and policy influencers from around Australia gathered at ANU to explore ways we can improve our parental leave policy. In the room were many of the original architects of the policy, as well as new thinkers from various backgrounds. The morning provided a public forum of presentations on Australia’s scheme and the gaps that remain, followed by a networking lunch and closed roundtable of policymakers and academics in the afternoon.
“Policymakers always intended for Australia’s government-funded scheme, which provides 18 weeks’ pay at the minimum wage for the primary carer and two weeks for fathers and secondary carers, plus additional voluntary employer contributions, to be built upon over time,” explains RegNet Research Fellow Dr Belinda Townsend.
The scheme was hard fought, with advocates encountering significant resistance from many employer groups as well as social conservatives and economic rationalists from across the political spectrum.
In response to this resistance, the policy outcome was a pragmatic one to achieve a minimum scheme that would provide some support for women no matter where they worked so they could remain attached to the workforce and could take time out following childbirth. Ten years on, inequities remain in Australia for who can access leave, for how long, and at what pay. “More than half of employers don’t provide any employer-funded leave, meaning many parents can only access the minimum scheme, which is less than the World Health Organization guidelines for 26 weeks for breastmilk feeding,” says Dr Townsend. There is also a distinct gender imbalance. Dr Liana Leach, Senior Research Fellow in ANU Research School of Population Health explains – “our current system doesn’t encourage fathers to take leave, with just two percent of fathers taking leave as the primary carer,” says Leach. “Saying fathers should take parental leave is still a controversial idea, and it really shouldn’t be.”
Icelandic scholar Ásdís Aðalbjörg Arnalds also spoke at the forum and roundtable on the Icelandic experience which includes a progressive scheme offering both men and women three months paid leave each at 80% of their previous wage, and universal payments for non-working parents. It also allows an additional three months leave to be taken by either parent.
The Icelandic model was supported by all political parties, unions, employee organisations and the general public. This more generous allowance combined with social acceptability is reflected by in excess of 80% of fathers making use of the scheme. The effect of this more equitable approach to childcare has flowed well beyond the first year of the child’s life. The division of parenting between Icelandic mothers and fathers is more equitable for at least the first four years for those who make use of the scheme, compared to those who do not.
Discussions at the forum focused on the history of Australia’s scheme – how we got to where we are and what the next steps might be to improve the scheme for all Australians. These include opportunities to extend the duration of leave for all parents, as well as cultural change to support more men being able to take up leave.
“Cultural change is happening, but very slowly. Many Australian dads still find themselves the only one at the park or the playgroup,” says Leach. “The importance of fatherhood has been on the agenda a lot more in the last ten years. We need to value fathers’ care and support it with a more equitable paid parental leave scheme.”
Other policy options include reviewing the earlier Productivity Commission’s recommendation for a review of compulsory employer-funded superannuation. “In 2009 the Commission proposed a review after three years for compulsory super during paid parental leave, which is another option for next steps in Australia,” said Dr Townsend.
- Speakers at the event included Dr Belinda Townsend, NHMRC Centre for Research Excellence in the Social Determinants of Health Equity, School of Regulation and Global Governance, Professor Lyndall Strazdins, Research School of Population Health ANU, Ásdís Aðalbjörg Arnalds, University of Iceland; Prof. Marian Baird AO, Work + Family Policy Roundtable, University of Sydney; and Dr Liana Leach Research School of Population Health, ANU
** The event was supported by The Australian National University (NHMRC Centre for Research Excellence in the Social Determinants of Health Equity at RegNet, PHXChange at Research School of Population Health, and Gender Institute) and Families Australia, in collaboration with scholars from the Work + Family Policy Roundtable.