The call by the federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Pru Goward, for a national scheme for paid paternity leave is a timely one. The issue transcends questions of sex discrimination. It also involves questions of population policy and the health of women and children.
On the question of discrimination against women, it is not enough that women who go on maternity leave get their job back. If maternity leave is not paid, it means women might postpone the decision to have children and that women will get further behind men in the wealth stakes.
The question is not whether there should be maternity leave; but who should pay for it. Prime Minister John Howard argues that the matter should be decided on an enterprise level. “”Some enterprises can afford it and some can’t,” he said. That may be true, but it is looking at the question the wrong way around. A woman’s access to paid maternity leave should not depend on whether an enterprise can “”afford” it. That has resulted in some women getting the paid leave while others in similar circumstances not getting it, just because they happen to work for a different sort of enterprise. Affordability is a movable feast. It depends on the profit level that an enterprise seeks. One enterprise seeking a 20 per cent return on capital might argue it cannot afford the leave. A similar enterprise seeking a lower profit level might be able to.
At present the system is that all businesses seek to maximise profits within the law – company law demands directors do that for shareholders. It means some community standards have to be imposed on enterprises. It should be like sick leave, recreation leave and long-service leave.
That said, there is a danger in imposing the costs of maternity leave on enterprises if it results in enterprises avoiding employing women of child-bearing age for fear of maternity-leave costs. This would be particularly true of small businesses which have no capacity to spread the load because one staff member might represent a third or a half the staff.
It means that the Government will have to step in.
Declining fertility in Australia is of major concern. So is the trend for women to postpone child-raising. There is evidence that later child-rearing results in a higher number of complications. There is a public interest in supporting greater fertility in place of higher immigration so that Australia can move to a sustainable, stable population. Present fertility rates – unsupported by immigration – would result in a declining population. In the long term that is as bad as a population growing too quickly.
It is probably that a government-supported scheme for paid maternity leave would be cheaper than the health and immigration costs of not having such a scheme – aside from the equity arguments that women should get a fairer slice of the cake and families bringing up children deserve more support, particularly families where women are productive elements in the workforce.
With declining fertility and concerns about a falling percentage of people in the workforce against the percentage of dependants, we should be encouraging and helping women have children earlier and to stay as part of the workforce. Paid paternity leave will help those ends.
It is more than a question of employment conditions.
And on a similar topic, policies towards better provision of high-quality, affordable child care should be developed at the same time.