18/03/2010 - 00:00

Lack of lateral thinking on maternity leave

18/03/2010 - 00:00

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The maternity leave plans of both major political parties leave a lot to be desired.

Lack of lateral thinking on maternity leave

THE political battle over maternity leave masks a deeper issue – what are our politicians trying to achieve with their policies?

In offending big business with his offer to fund six months of maternity leave at the recipient’s pay level, capped at an annual pay rate of $150,000 a year, Liberal leader Tony Abbott has gazumped Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s plan for 18 weeks of leave paid for by the government at the minimum wage.

As a political weapon, Mr Abbott’s move was audacious. Not only did it split big business from a far broader small business base, it overwhelmingly outbid the Labor offer to the point of making it look stingy.

While that may win votes, it is worth asking – is it good policy?

The nation has benefitted significantly in terms of productivity in getting more women in the workforce over the past 30 or 40 years but it pays a high cost, either in terms of losing those skills when mothers choose to exit the workforce, or in terms of family functionality if they decide to keep working.

But while the nation benefits from their labour, it is not necessarily as if every woman has a choice. Despite productivity gains, rising standards of living have to be paid for, especially the cost of housing.

Maternity leave, therefore, is welcomed by many, but is not a cure-all. Even Mr Abbott’s far more generous scheme – leaving aside the inequities of making big business pay for it – does little more than mollify the immediate financial impact of childbirth.

The problem is not six months of pay before returning to work, it is that families struggle to adjust to raising children with two working parents trying to maintain the income and lifestyle they had before kids came along.

In many cases, women don’t want to return to work, especially full-time work, after six months. It may be years after their last child is born before they have this desire.

Others may never want full-time work again. A small proportion will decide not to return to work at all.

In these cases, six months maternity leave is a handy pay-off but not necessarily likely to achieve any particular outcome the policy makers would like to think it represents.

Of course, there will be many cases where six months’ maternity leave at a generous level will make a huge difference, especially those who have to work and can’t afford to be out of employment if they aren’t covering their share of the family’s financial burden.

Nevertheless, I would suggest that this expensive policy is poorly targeted and will result in providing generous leave where, in many cases, it is simply not needed.

So what issues should the government be considering?

Firstly, in many cases, business has an aversion to a part-time work force. The issue differs from sector to sector but, in my experience, the better paid the position, the more likely that part-time work is difficult to obtain.

Therefore, if we want to get skilled women back into the workforce, the policy should be targeted at helping business overcome the administrative difficulties encountered by having their fully devoted staff turn into part-timers due to the new focus in their lives.

Shortages of child care places and their cost is also a significant issue for mothers taking part-time work.

Another area government could find more cost-effective than maternity leave is better helping mothers return to work, either part-time or full-time. From my experience, women who decide to drop out of the workforce for a few years to raise children often find it difficult to re-enter employment at the level they left it.

Assisting experienced and skilled people in returning to a productive, meaningful and tax-paying role after sacrificing their career to raise a family would appear, to me, as a very reasonable policy alternative to paying people to stay at home at a time when they may not want to be at work anyway. Do I see another HECS-style application?

Perhaps a mixture of settings could be offered to allow women a choice as they consider their own circumstances, and that of their family, when deciding how they want to mix motherhood and workforce participation.

That might achieve the policy outcome sought and, potentially, at much less cost than the one-size-fits-all being offered at the moment.

Entry level reception

THE arrival of the Queen Mary II at Fremantle last weekend has illustrated, yet again, how we fail to properly put out the welcome mat for foreign arrivals.

The Fremantle passenger terminal is a legacy of a past era and has become landlocked by ugly fences, car parks and a railway embankment that remove it from the quaint port town that plays host to these visitors.

As a gateway, it is just as inadequate as the much busier Perth International Airport, which still makes me bristle with irritation each time I return to Australia.

As the key entry point for foreign arrivals, the airport simply doesn’t deliver an entry statement worthy of a buzzing growth city like ours. It all starts at the baggage carousel – there’s only one but it takes an eternity to start working – and goes downhill from there.

I can’t help but compare Perth to Singapore, which I visited recently, especially the efficiency of the airport and relative charm of the rapid freeway journey to the heart of the city.

With that recent experience in mind, I had a chuckle when I saw Perth Airport crowing about its third place in an Australian Competition and Consumer Commission quality service survey of Australia’s airports.

Third out of five. It’s not a great achievement when you have a 60 per cent chance of a podium finish. As one online reader pointed out, our airports ought to be comparing themselves to Asia’s, which are generally regarded as world’s best.

In its 2008 and recently announced 2009 Airport Service Quality Awards, the Airports Council International didn’t list one Aussie airport among its winners or place getters, for any category.

 

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