High stakes for working women

Too few oohing at Goward's baby
Anne Summers

The political stoush between the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Pru Goward, and the Howard government over the right of employed women to paid maternity leave is shaping up as a fascinating public battle.

Ten months ago, when she was appointed to the job and announced she intended to put paid maternity leave on the political agenda, many - myself included - scoffed. After all, Goward had had ample opportunity in the two years during which she ran the Office of the Status of Women (OSW) to do this and had failed to achieve that or much else as far as anyone could see.

But she has been true to her word, and in April produced a discussion paper, Valuing Parenthood: Options for Paid Maternity Leave, on which she has invited public comment. The paper, which said that "existing paid maternity leave arrangements are limited, haphazard and fall significantly below what could be considered a national system", has generated enormous publicity, almost all of it positive, and it seemed that momentum was finally building for this long overdue reform.

Goward was entitled to feel there was at least some government support as initial reports had both the Treasurer, Peter Costello, and Assistant Treasurer, Helen Coonan, making favourable noises. Goward was buoyed enough to claim that her proposal would be substituted in this year's Budget for the baby bonus promised in the run-up to last year's election.

It wasn't, of course, and it is from that point that things have seemed to go very wrong for Goward and the women she is championing. In the past few weeks no fewer than five federal ministers, including Costello and Howard head-kickers Tony Abbott and Nick Minchin, have either attacked or declined to endorse the concept of paid maternity leave. Minchin, the Minister for Finance, was the most savage, declaring the whole concept nothing more than "middle class welfare" that would cost $500 million a year and which would do nothing to help mothers not in the workforce.

Publicly, the prime minister has taken a statesmanlike position above the fray, ordering Goward's four options to be costed. "I'm not against paid maternity leave where it can be afforded," he said on radio recently. He then added: "I'm against it being imposed on small business. I don't think the great bulk of small businesses can afford it and therefore if it were to be extended into the small business sector then the taxpayer would have to pick up the bill."

Last week Joe Hockey, the Minister for Small Business and Tourism, went further and told a women's business forum that "if the small business sector is asked to carry the costs of maternity or paternity leave, they will simply avoid employing younger people".

This is the new mantra against paid maternity leave - that it would be an unfair impost on small business. It is also a total red herring. Small business already has to deal with the fact that 52 weeks' unpaid maternity leave is legally mandated for all employees - full-time, part-time and casual who have had 12 months continuous employment. Small business already has to find replacement workers - and to give women their jobs back after a year.

No-one is seriously suggesting that small business be required to bear the cost of these women's wages while they are on leave. The most equitable option is a government payment that replaces a part of the women's earnings lost because they are on maternity leave. This option would be neutral to small business.

The truth is that the government does not seem to want to go down the path of increasing the availability of paid maternity leave.

At present only 38 per cent of employed women are eligible and they are, overwhelmingly, highly skilled and highly paid, either public servants or work for large companies. They are invariably middle-class. Minchin got it totally wrong. It is the low-paid, low-skilled women, many of them concentrated in female employment ghettos such as the retail and hospitality industries, who are missing out. These are the women who will be winners if Goward succeeds in her quest.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given my uncharitable comments about her in the past, Goward refused to talk to me for this article so my assessment of where the politics of this are heading has had to be based on conversations with others.

A few years ago it would have been unimaginable for Goward to be on the same side as the ACTU, the ALP, the Australian Democrats and the women's movement against the government but that is how the forces are aligned at present. Goward, after all, was a Howard-sanctioned appointee to run OSW back in 1997, and is married to Howard's biographer, David Barnett.

But, friends tell me, she was stung by the criticisms when she was appointed to this job and was determined to prove she was no prime ministerial catspaw. She also apparently had a few scores to settle with several of his staff and senior bureaucrats whom she saw as having thwarted her efforts while she was at OSW. The Sex Discrimination Commissioner's job is a statutory appointment, for five years, and once she was in the job Goward was able to demonstrate an independence and a willingness to publicly go against the government that has surprised many of her former adversaries.

Both friends and foes suggest Goward was "naive" in thinking the government would ditch the baby bonus for her proposal. The baby bonus, which applies from July 1, enables first-time mothers who stay home to claim a tax rebate of up to $2500 of the tax they paid in the year before the baby's birth.

It is a policy which was apparently dreamed up by the prime minister all on his own and has no support, even from conservative women's groups who rightly point out it does nothing for mothers who are already at home. More radical groups say it is an insultingly low amount which fails to recognise the cost of having a baby, and the financial reasons why women have to return to work so soon. It is disowned by the bureaucracy which is charged with making it work. Don't expect it to survive a year.

The question is: will the $510 million set aside for the baby bonus be diverted to paid maternity leave?

My guess is that it will not. The government will stick to its conservative guns and not embrace a policy it sees as politically tainted. (Never mind that women like it.) What seems on the cards is that the $10 billion currently spent on family payments might be rejigged in some way to produce a cosmetic reform, delivered through the tax system, that will enable the government to claim it is addressing the cost of having babies.

Those in the know refer to a recent newspaper article by Barry Maley, author of Family and Marriage in Australia (Centre for Independent Studies, 2000), as a guide to current government thinking. Maley proposes a non-means-tested child tax concession worth at least $3000 a year per child. Apparently, work is being done on something along these lines.

Such an approach treats employed and stay-at-home women the same, and is more ideologically palatable to a Prime Minister who still can't bring himself to accept modern-day workforce realities. It is a diametrically different approach to maternity leave which, Goward argues, is "a workplace entitlement" and, as such, is not available to stay-at-home mums who get other forms of government assistance.

The battles lines are pretty clear in what is a highly ideological battle in which working women who want kids have a very high stake. Goward is putting their case. The question is: will the government listen?


Anne Summers, AO, is, among much else, a former chief advisor for women's issues to former Australian Prime Ministers' Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, and the author of several books, including the best selling and now classic Damned Whores and God's Police: The Colonization of Women in Australia (Penguin), which has been continuously in print since its first publication in 1975, and Ducks on the Pond: An Autobiography 1945-1976 (Viking, 1999). Anne writes a regular opinion column for the Sydney Morning Herald, where this article first appeared on 17 June 2002. The column has been reproduced with the kind permission of the author, who retains all © copyright privileges in the work, which is not to be reproduced without explicit permission. Image courtesy ICMI.


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Suggested citation
Summers, Anne, 'High stakes for working women', Evatt Journal, Vol. 2, No. 5, July 2002. <http://evatt.org.au/news/high-stakes-working-women.html>