Last month, Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Pru Goward, released a 120 page report, Valuing Parenthood, in which she called for the Federal Government to legislate for paid maternity leave for women.
Ms Goward outlined various options for paid maternity leave in order to encourage debate in society and avoid what she called “a fertility strike”. One option put forward is a national paid maternity leave scheme which would support working mothers at the time of the birth of their child.
She said many women put off having children until late in their thirties because of mortgage and HECS (tertiary education fees) commitments, which results in fewer children being born as women have less time to fall pregnant.
Ms Goward claimed paid maternity leave involves “valuing parenthood”, and would have a beneficial effect on the country’s population.
In saying this, she echoed comments by Barbara Pocock, Director of Adelaide University’s Centre for Labor Research, who wrote in the Melbourne Age, “If we are serious about increasing our birth rate we would do well to start with a look at maternity leave. It is a first plank of a decent birthing policy. We lag well behind the international pack by failing to provide paid maternity leave to most women.” (March 26, 2001)
The Democrat leader, Natasha Stott Despoja, told ABC radio’s PM program on November 19, 2001 “Even in Afghanistan, women have around three months paid maternity leave.”
At the time the survey was compiled, the Taliban regime prevented women from receiving an education – let alone paid work!
The same silly statement appears in Appendix B of the Sex Discrimination Commissioner’s document, Valuing Parenthood, under the heading “International Comparison of Maternity Leave Benefits”.
Paid maternity leave is a form of income maintenance for working women. As the Australian Services Union says, “Paid maternity leave is an essential right for working women. Women represent the fastest growing component of the labor market and, as such, should be able to have children without fear of their livelihoods being threatened and without being economically penalised or forced into a situation of dependency.”
But paid maternity leave goes only to those women who return to work, and discriminates against full-time homemakers.
The principle should be that all mothers are treated equally. A maternity payment should go to both those in the workforce, and those who are full-time homemakers.
While the Howard Government professes to have addressed the needs of mothers through its so-called $500 million “baby bonus”, once again, the benefits of the bonus (in the form of a tax refund) go to those who have been in the workforce, with nothing going to mothers who have been full-time homemakers.
This is additional to the large subsidies to working mothers provided through government-funded child care.
The weakness of the current debate about paid maternity leave is that the voice of full-time mothers is not being heard.
As Bill Muehlenberg, Vice-President of the Australian Family Association, noted in these pages last July, “A number of surveys have found that most mothers would prefer to be at home with their small children. Many feel they are conscripted into the paid workforce against their wishes, but tough economic times often compel them to do so.”
He pointed out that a majority of mothers with young children have consistently said that they would rather be at home for the first year or two of their child. “One survey of 4,511 adults found that 69 per cent of respondents preferred that the mother stay home when she had pre-school children.”
A study at ANU found that only four per cent of people felt that women with pre-school children should work full time, while only 31 per cent thought they should be in the labour force part-time.
“Another survey discovered that one-third of working women who put their infants in child care centres would prefer not to work if they had the choice.
“A comprehensive study undertaken in Britain showed an overwhelming preference for home. The study found that 81 per cent of mothers would choose to stay home if they could afford to. Only six per cent said they wanted to continue working full-time.
“A 1997 survey by the Australian Institute of Family Studies found that 83 per cent of women and 84 per cent of men believe that mothers should not work full-time, even when their youngest child is at school. Almost two-thirds of the respondents felt that families suffered if women work full-time.”
The evidence also shows that higher participation of married women in the workforce reduces the birth rate, family size and national fertility levels.
As Australians, we must be concerned about the problem of Australia’s falling fertility levels, the causes of which are both cultural and economic.
If Australia is serious about this problem, it would be far better to give women a real choice as to whether to work or not, through the payment of a homemaker’s allowance, to all parents of young children.
- Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council