As The Record goes to press, debate in the federal election has been made slightly more interesting by the arguments over paid parental leave.
This is a good thing. It helps to focus some attention on a vital yet largely-ignored area in Australian political life: the needs of women who are mothers and the needs of their families, but most of all the needs of children.
The Record does not endorse candidates or parties at elections, respecting the rights of readers to make their own choices.
But neither is The Record afraid of endorsing good ideas from any quarter – nor of addressing reprehensible policies such as, for example, the current common position of both Labor and Liberal parties on asylum seekers which is the subject of this week’s excellent reflection by long-time Record contributor Fr Anthony Paganoni CS (See pages 1, 10 and 11).
However, the ideas advanced by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott on paid parental leave are, in the view of this paper, laudable in some respects – if only on the grounds that they are a small step towards economic justice for mothers and their families.
As many readers will be aware, Mr Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme promises, if the Coalition is elected, to expand current maternity leave provisions for mothers who have given birth to six months, full-time, paid parental leave.
We feel this is laudable on the grounds that it is a small – albeit insufficient – step in the right direction towards recognising what Australian political life and the media who endlessly dissect it have failed to either recognise or consider over decades: the vital contribution that mothers and motherhood make not only to the economic life of Australia but also to the common good of our society.
The paid parental leave policy announced by Mr Abbott therefore acknowledges what should be a consistently primary focus of Australian life and treats with relative seriousness what should be regarded as among the most important issues of Australian politics on an indefinite basis.
Labor has, somewhat predictably, objected that Mr Abbott’s policy is unaffordable.
The federal government scheme being backed by Mr Rudd, it should be acknowledged, is somewhat similar but more modest in comparison, with Labor’s election website stating that “new mums can get up to 18 weeks’ pay at the national minimum wage while getting to know their baby… Under Labor’s Dad and Partner Pay, eligible dads and same-sex partners can receive an additional two weeks’ of government paid leave at the minimum wage to spend more time at home with their partner and baby”.
It has been reported that there is some disquiet within the National Party, the other party in the Coalition, on the grounds that a significantly higher percentage of women in rural and regional areas are unemployed, stay-at-home mothers who will therefore miss out on the payments that their relatively more affluent and employed contemporaries in suburban settings would receive under Mr Abbott’s policy.
This objection seems entirely reasonable and it seems indicative of the wider philosophical problem on which The Record has editorialised in previous editions that relatively little serious thought within Australia has gone into the importance of motherhood to the life and welfare of the nation.
At the very least, one would have thought that Mr Abbott’s policy drafters would have considered the situation and needs of women in rural and regional Australia.
If the policy is instituted as announced it will be an injustice to fulltime mothers.
The answer could be that full-time mothers in rural and regional Australia receive – at the very least – something along the lines of Labor’s national minimum wage figure of (approximately) $622 per week before tax for the six months of their maternity leave.
However, given that Mr Abbott’s policy is capped at the level of those who earn $150,000 per annum, it would seem more just to calculate a national average figure which is not merely based on a minimum wage for women who are already devoting themselves on an unpaid, full-time basis to their children and their families.
The message that full-time mothers can only receive the minimum wage compared to their already-employed contemporaries is that their full-time commitment is of merely minimal value.
The principal which should be driving policies on both sides of politics is that, of all occupations in the nation, motherhood is of maximal value – not merely economically but also socially and culturally.
The essential problem with both Mr Abbott’s and Mr Rudd’s respective policies is that they do not address the central philosophical principles at stake.
Neither goes far enough at all. Both leaders clearly believe that they are in the process of building a stronger nation but, while temporary six-month payments to mothers are a small step in the right direction, it is clear that what Australia should be considering are real and long-term measures which concretely support the primacy of the family and the vital contribution of (overwhelmingly) mothers.
As a nation, we should not so much be considering according some recognition to mothers over the relatively short term as considering how the nation can support mothers over years. Our politics has treated motherhood all too often as a second-class occupation. It is time to recognise it as vital on a long-term basis to all of us.