I'm very pleased to stand today to speak on the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Improvements for Families and Gender Equality) Bill 2022. The opposition will be supporting this bill for a number of reasons, and we are glad to see the government has chosen the implement the former coalition government's reforms to paid parental leave which we announced as part of our March 2022 budget. The bill will provide increased flexibility, improve choice and ensure the Paid Parental Leave scheme is fit for purpose for modern families.
The bill increases the total number of weeks of available paid parental leave from 18 to 20 and removes some of the constraints around the two-week period of dad and partner pay and the 12-week/six-week paid parental leave period breakdowns currently in place. We understand the importance of these changes because we know parents make household decisions around caring arrangements to reflect their own personal circumstances, so increasing the number of weeks from 18 to 20, with enhanced flexibility on how those weeks can be shared, reflects this need for choice and flexibility in modern households. It is also important both parents are able to spend the time they choose to spend with their new child, and the increased flexibility encourages both parents to have a period of leave.
The bill removes the notion of primary, secondary and tertiary claimants, taking away some of the rigidity that exists—about who takes the leave, when and how—between the two parents. This bill also expands access to the scheme by introducing a $350,000 income test, which will ensure household income is considered when determining eligibility for PPL, rather than just the individual income of one of the two parents. We strongly support the increased flexibility this bill achieves, which allows parents to use the leave over a two-year period in a way they choose. This allows parents to take leave in one block, in multiple blocks or in whatever way works best for them and their particular family circumstances.
This reform goes to the heart of what the former coalition government sought to achieve in enhancing PPL, which is why we're pleased that our announcements from the March 2022 budget are included in this bill. The coalition has a strong record of supporting government funded paid parental leave, and through my former role as minister for social services I was very proud to be part of a government that made important amendments to strengthen paid parental leave during the last term of parliament. Our PPL scheme gave families flexibility in choosing how they accessed their payments, giving either parent the option, depending on individual households' circumstances, with the last six weeks being able to be shared or taken any time. Importantly, we introduced special circumstances, allowing a parent to meet the work test if they'd been impacted by family and domestic violence, by a natural disaster or by a severe medical condition. We allowed JobKeeper and the COVID-19 disaster payments to count towards the work test for PPL to prove a genuine connection to the workplace, and we introduced indexation on the income threshold for the first time since the scheme was introduced.
As this legislation implements, in the Women's Budget Statement in March 2022 we again underlined our strong commitment to the social and economic benefits of paid parental leave by announcing enhanced paid parental leave. Our enhanced paid parental leave represented an investment of $346.1 million over five years to expand PPL, giving working families full choice and control over how they used their 20 weeks of taxpayer-funded paid parental leave.
So, once again, the coalition will support this bill, given the vast majority of changes reflect the important reforms that we announced as part of our last budget to enhance the scheme and ensure parents are able to make their own caring arrangements based on their individual circumstances. We will support the government in any sensible measures that seek to support Australian families, particularly where those measures reflect the former coalition government's policies. I'm proud the coalition was a real steward of paid parental leave in government, and our enhancements to the scheme saw it become a mainstay in every Australian life. But, where there are enhancements and improvements that can be made, we will absolutely make sure that we stand with those improvements if they are to the benefit of Australian families.
At its heart, paid parental leave should make it easier for parents to make decisions that work for their particular families, that give them the opportunity to spend important time with their new child, unencumbered by the pressures of work where they choose to do so. The changes in this bill that provide greater flexibility for families to determine how they use those 20 weeks of leave reflect the changes in modern families, but this legislation also maintains what is a timeless aspect of paid parental leave, and that is the need to give parents time with their child. We absolutely understand the importance of paid parental leave in alleviating some of the additional pressures felt by families with the birth of a child, and we know that those pressures are particularly strongly felt at the moment, with cost-of-living pressures only rising under this government.
Of course, we'll support good and sensible reforms to paid parental leave, to ensure families are supported through the scheme to take off some of these significant pressures. We'll happily support this bill, acknowledging that a huge number of the changes and a significant proportion of the increased flexibility that this bill delivers were adopted from the policies of the coalition, who announced these important reforms in 2022. I commend the bill.
I rise to speak on this important bill, the Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Improvements for Families and Gender Equality) Bill 2022, and I do so as part of a government filled with so many incredible women. In the week of International Women's Day, it's a pleasure to speak on such an important bill for Australian women and for Australian families. I think back to last International Women's Day and, especially, the one before that, and I think how much things have changed for Australian women—not only for women across Australia but also for women in this place.
Our government took to the election very real commitments that had positive impacts on Australian women, from improving access to child care and making child care cheaper to closing the gender pay gap. Since the election, we've also made commitments to ensure that we end gendered violence within a decade. I know that some of these reforms are ambitious, but our government is committed to delivering them and to bettering the lives of Australian women.
It starts with bills like this one today—bills that level the playing field and make things fairer and more equal for all families. The Albanese-Labor government is getting on with the job of delivering for Australians. The bill is just the start of the largest reform to paid parental leave since Labor introduced it back in 2011. It is really good economic policy to deliver these types of reforms. It will see fairness and equality in the way parents take leave. It will also see more flexibility in how leave is taken and will ease transitioning back to work for parents.
I thought I would share a personal point of view for this bill. It's almost exactly a year ago that my wife and I welcomed our first child into the world. We celebrated her first birthday a few days ago. We had a really beautiful christening and family celebration. It's been a really busy year. It is really a time when you look back and think about those first couple of weeks, those first couple of months, and how important that time is together. When you have a new, little baby, it is an incredibly stressful time, and you want to spend all of your time with this new, perfect human. You don't really want to have to worry about going back to work.
I'm incredibly lucky, and my family is incredibly lucky, that my wife works in a heavily unionised industry with a very good enterprise agreement which already allowed for flexible parental leave arrangements, meaning that she could take maternity leave while also having days that she could return to work. I think it's that open employer-employee relationship that allowed her to stay connected to her colleagues and her role that really made transitioning back to work easier. This transition option helped ease both my, and my wife's, mind in such a new and vulnerable position. I'm so grateful. Some families don't get that opportunity.
People will tell you, time and time again, that babies are only little once and that time spent with these little, tiny humans is so important. It's so important for mums. It's so important for dads. It's so important for every type of family. Most of the time, though, it is mothers who are left without that work connection, deepening the economic gap between men and women in our country. That's why this reform is so important.
We have also heard this, time and time again, across the country, particularly at the jobs and skills roundtables I held in Far North Queensland last year. We held forums in Mareeba, Cairns and Townsville. The No. 1 thing that was coming up was women returning to work—how difficult it was to get childcare places but also how difficult it was to manage the transition between paid parental leave and returning to work. I had women tell me that, even though they were the larger income earner, the system worked against them, making them take leave instead of their partner. We heard it again in the successful national Jobs and Skills Summit our government held last year. We listened and we are acting.
Right now, the current scheme does not do enough to provide access to all parents, whether they're mothers or whether they're partners. It limits flexibility for families to choose how they take leave and transition back to work. The eligibility rules are unfair to families where the mother is the higher income earner. Our bill fixes these issues. It gives more families access to government payments, it gives parents more flexibility in how they take leave and it encourages parents to share care to improve gender equality.
From 1 July 2023, the bill delivers six key changes. It will combine the two existing payments into a single 20-week scheme. It will reserve a portion of the scheme for each parent to support them both to take time off after the birth or adoption. We will make it easier for both parents to access the payment, by removing the notion of primary and secondary carers—which, I have to say, in a same-sex relationship is something that's quite interesting. But it's a really helpful idea that not one parent is the primary carer because we know both parents play an incredibly important role. We're expanding access by introducing a $350,000 family income test, which families can be assessed under if they exceed the individual income test. We are increasing flexibility for parents to choose how they take leave days. We are also allowing eligible fathers and partners to access the payment irrespective of whether the birth parent meets the income test or residency requirements.
This bill goes a long way for Australian families. Around 181,000 will benefit from the changes in this bill. That's including more than 4,000 people who are eligible under the scheme. While the former government had an attitude of 'let's make some announcements just before the election', the Albanese Labor government are listening to Australians, and we're delivering this change in our first term of government.
We are listening to businesses who are also crying out for these changes to support their employees, including the women in their workplaces. We are fixing and improving our systems that just aren't functioning the best way they can. We want Australians and their families to get ahead and not be left behind. We want parents, especially mums, to have good, secure jobs and families, and not to have to choose between work and taking care of their kids. That's what this bill will achieve.
The changes in this bill send a clear message that treating parenting as an equal partnership supports gender equality. Our government value the care that men do as well, and we want to see that reinforced in workplaces and our communities. When fathers take a greater role from the start, it benefits mums, dads and their kids. We know this and we know that there are so many fathers out there that will really welcome the introduction of this scheme. The government's Paid Parental Leave reform is good for parents, it's good for kids, it's good for employers and it's good for the economy.
I couldn't be prouder to be part of an Albanese Labor government, with its ambitious yet practical reforms that will change the lives of Australians for the better. It will particularly change the lives of Australian women for the better. It's always Labor governments that bring the country forward. It was a Labor government that introduced Paid Parental Leave back in 2011, and it's a Labor government that is today delivering a fairer and more flexible scheme.
I commend this bill and I thank all senators who will be supporting this bill today. Parents will be better off. Women will be better off. Men will be better off. Employers will be better off. And this is just the beginning of delivering for Australian women.
Long debate text truncated.
Date and time: 12:18 PM on 2023-03-06
Senator Pocock's vote: Aye
Total number of "aye" votes: 12
Total number of "no" votes: 31
Total number of abstentions: 33
Related bill: Paid Parental Leave Amendment (Improvements for Families and Gender Equality) Bill 2022
Adapted from information made available by theyvoteforyou.org.au