Policies for working women: How would an Abbott government compare?
Whether it's the women in Tony Abbott's life giving interviews about "the real Tony" or Julia Gillard sharing drinks with the power women of the blogosphere, the battle for the "women's vote" is already on. But what policies have been put forward that specifically target women?
Labor is heading into the 2013 election having introduced Australia's first government scheme for paid parental leave. Since January 1, 2012, most working women have had access to up to 18 weeks of paid leave. The scheme sees primary carers, most of whom are women, paid the minimum wage by the government for that period, with the pay administered through their employers. Partners can take two weeks of leave at the same rate. Women and men earning more than $150,000 per year are not eligible for the scheme.
While the scheme is shorter and cheaper than many other countries, and critically, doesn't include super contributions, the paid parental leave scheme was an important step forward for working women.
The Coalition under Tony Abbott proposed a much more generous parental leave scheme during the 2010 election. Abbott's scheme would pay new mums (or primary carers) their replacement wage and super contributions for up to 26 weeks. If the recipient's weekly wage is lower than the minimum wage, she will be paid the minimum wage. Replacement wages are capped at $150,000 per year, so anyone earning more than that would receive the rate for someone earning $150,000 per year. Partners would have access to two weeks' leave at their usual rate of pay.
The funds for the leave will come from a 1.5% levy on business earning more $5 million in taxable income. It would be administered through the Family Assistance Office, rather than employers.
There are a range of initiatives designed to make childcare more affordable and accessible being promised by both parties. Childcare quality is also a major focus after Labor introduced the National Quality Framework in 2012.
Heading into the 2013 election, the Gillard government has promised to continue the Child Care Rebate (CCR) of up to $7,500 per child per year. The rebate was introduced to cover half the cost of any out-of-pocket expense associated with childcare. After a rebate reduction and a freeze of indexation in 2011 and the following year of budget cuts, there has been some concern about the CCR being reduced again.
The Labor party has announced it will re-index the rate from 2014, effectively protecting the amount from being included in any budget cuts. The Coalition also intends to re-index the Childcare Rebate but hasn't specified a timeline for this yet.
The Labor government has reduced the $5,000 baby bonus to $3,000 for the second and subsequent children. The Coalition did not support the reduction. It has also created a schoolkids bonus, available since June 2012, granting parents $410 per primary school child and $720 per high school child per year to help cover costs.
For parents raising children with significant disabilities including sight and hearing impairments, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome or Fragile X syndrome, the Labor government will provide up to $12,000 until the child is seven.
The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) was introduced by Labor in 2012 and supported by both parties. Funding legislation is expected to be introduced at the May budget. The NDIS will not only benefit women living with disabilities, but also many carers.
Labor has created a set of new rules to better the quality of care in the sector. These include all long-daycare centres with more than 25 attendees must have access to a university-trained early childcare teacher. The party has also legislated new ratios of educators to children, with one educator to four children (under 24 months), one educator to five children (24 months to 36 months), one educator to 11 children (36 months+).
The Coalition's childcare plans include a Productivity Commission into childcare and reworking the National Quality Framework.
Steve Block, an advisor to Sussan Ley, the Shadow Minister for Child Care, told Women's Agenda: "Concurrent with this [the Commission], much of our attention is focused on assisting childcare operators, their organisational bodies and parents with the impact of the new National Quality Framework, particularly in relation to fee increases, increased red tape and staff shortages."
Other Coalition childcare policies, outlined in the party's 2010 plan for child care, include having the CCR paid weekly to daycare centres so families face fewer out-of-pocket expenses. There has been considerable debate and support for the Coalition's suggestions to extend the CCR to include in-home carers (nannies). However this initiative will be dependent on the findings of the Productivity Commission which will address this area.
While the Coalition is not opposed to the National Quality Framework, it promised in 2010 to assess the initiative and look to reject the public ranking system for childcare centres. It also plans to re-establish the Federal Planning and Advisory Committee.
The gender pay gap between men and women working full-time still sits about 17.5%, after a record low during the Howard government in 2004 of 14.9%. The pay gap has widened by 2.5% since Labor was elected in 2007. Neither party has outlined a coherent and ambitious plan for reducing this gap yet.
The government has also made several billion-dollar commitments to tackling pay equity through industrial segregation issues for the social services sector. These were made after the successful Fair Work case brought by the Australian Services Union and concluded in June 2012. The federal government made a joint submission with the union to Fair Work Australia.
Julie Collins, the Labor Minister for the Status of Women, claimed in a press release that the Fair Work legislation introduced by Labor had made the case possible. "It was this Labor government [that] allowed the case to be brought to the independent umpire through our introduction of the Fair Work Act and we are committed to meeting our share of the costs associated with the historic decision," said Collins.
The Coalition has not released a policy about equal pay or increasing the number of women in leadership yet. In response to the graduate pay gap identified by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency in January 2013, Liberal Senator Michaelia Cash, the shadow minister for the status of women, recently advocated for better education for women about the issue, what they can expect to earn and their right to negotiate.
The Gillard government launched Boardlinks, http://www.boardlinks.gov.au/ a network designed to get more women onto Australian government boards, in late 2012. The government has committed to reaching 40% women on government boards by 2015. The rate sat at 38.4% in June 2012. As governance experience is required for most board appointments, this initiative is a proactive step towards gender equality in leadership, an area Australia lags in.
The Coalition hasn't released a policy for increasing gender diversity in leadership, and has advocated against quotas. "Quotas do not drive a positive change in thinking. Rather, they give board directors and businesses a box to tick off on regardless of the outcome," said Senator Cash in a November 2012 press release. "Ultimately, you cannot legislate cultural change."
This article was amended 25 January to say that while the Coalition intends to re-index the Childcare rebate, it has not yet set a timeline for doing so. It was also amended to say the Coalition will ask a Productivity Commission to examine the use of the CCR for nannies and in-home carers.
Rose Powell is a journalist with Women's Agenda sister publication StartUpSmart.
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