Federal election 2016: Major parties accused of neglecting work and family issues

Negotiating decent maternity leave

Sydney mother Anouk Sireude is part of a new generation of women achieving flexible maternity arrangements with work.

Anouk Sireude resigned from her job when she was 12 weeks pregnant because another company offered her an extra month of paid parental leave.

Ms Siroude, a Sydney lawyer with two young children Billy, aged six weeks and Mila, 5, said she was the first woman in the new company to negotiate paid parental leave.

Anouk Sireude with her children, Mila Hauptmann, 5, and Bill Hauptmann, 6 weeks, in their Bardwell Park
Anouk Sireude with her children, Mila Hauptmann, 5, and Bill Hauptmann, 6 weeks, in their Bardwell Park Photo: Janie Barrett

As the primary bread winner in her family, getting an extra month of fully paid maternity leave on top of the 18 weeks she was entitled to under the federal government paid parental leave scheme was crucial to giving her six months with her baby before she returns to a high-powered job. Under new policies proposed by the Federal Coalition, women like Ms Siroude will be penalised for so called "double dipping" by getting their employer to top up their paid parental leave.

Ms Siroude said she was fortunate that her specialist skills as a maritime insurance lawyer were in big demand within what is a niche industry in Australia. But unlike her, most women are unable to negotiate the flexibility they need to return to high quality jobs unless they work full time.

"I started my new job when I was six months pregnant," she said. 

"That is a good deal because there are not many companies in the private sector that offer extra paid parental leave.

"It means that I will be able to spend six months at home with the baby before I go back to work in November this year."

However, like most other women, Ms Sireude said she was having difficulty finding a childcare place for her son nearby her home in Bardwell Park.

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Family and paid leave policies have been labelled the silent issue of the federal election, despite being essential to helping more women to more fully participate in the workforce.

A group of 34 academics from 16 universities have criticised both major political parties for failing to provide the right policies to improve labor force participation for women. 

Elizabeth Hill, a senior lecturer in political economy at the University of Sydney and spokeswoman for the academics who form the Work and Family Policy Roundtable, said the Coalition Government and Labor opposition had failed to tackle key social policy issues needed to build human capital.

University of Sydney academic Elizabeth Hill.
University of Sydney academic Elizabeth Hill.  Photo: supplied

"We have had an eight-week election campaign and very little public conversation around work and family," Dr Hill said.

"We have two childcare policies, but they haven't been presented in a holistic way and they are not joined up with paid parental leave.

"We have the Coalition standing by their cuts to paid parental leave and Labor only leaving the status quo and not developing it."

Anouk Sireude with her children, Mila Hauptmann, 5, and Bill Hauptmann, 6 weeks, in their Bardwell Park, Sydney home.
Anouk Sireude with her children, Mila Hauptmann, 5, and Bill Hauptmann, 6 weeks, in their Bardwell Park, Sydney home. Photo: Janie Barrett

Dr Hill said the Coalition's jobs and growth slogan had not been supported by policies that properly addressed the needs of people juggling work and unpaid care responsibilities.

"We have a Prime Minister talking about jobs and productivity, and Labor has done this before. But this whole area of policy has been left aside," she said.

The Coalition's proposed childcare reforms to be introduced in July 2018 included a more streamlined, means-tested subsidy paid directly to early childhood providers. However, the roundtable was critical of proposals for a new, more complex activity test it said would reduce subsidies for children of unemployed parents. Labor was also criticised for not addressing existing problems. 

Anouk Sireude with her children, Mila Hauptmann, 5, and Bill Hauptmann, 6 weeks, in their Bardwell Park
Anouk Sireude with her children, Mila Hauptmann, 5, and Bill Hauptmann, 6 weeks, in their Bardwell Park Photo: Janie Barrett

The Coalition's cuts to the paid parental leave policy were also criticised.

Marian Baird, a professor of gender and employment relations at the University of Sydney, said the Federal Government's G20 summit aim to increase female participation rates by 2025 could only be achieved with the right policies.

"Without extended paid parental leave and good childcare, as well as flexible work options, it is impossible for more Australian mothers to enter the workforce," she said.

Jo Briskey, executive director of The Parenthood, an advocacy group for parents with 47,000 members said greater government support was needed to provide more affordable childcare places in areas around the city.

​A Federal Labor Party spokeswoman said it was proud to have introduced Australia's first paid parental leave scheme and will invest $1.2 billion in reversing the Coalition's cuts to the scheme.

"Our scheme was designed as a safety net to ensure all new mothers or primary carers have 18 weeks leave paid at the minimum wage to have with their baby, that can be complemented by employer schemes," the spokeswoman said.

"The Liberals have called women who have entitlements to parental leave through their employment 'double dippers' and 'rorters'.

"The Government's childcare changes will make one in three families worse off, and they will have to wait another two years. Labor will boost assistance immediately - from January 1, 2017."

A Coalition spokesman said it wanted to maximise everyone's ability to participate in the economy.

"That is why the Coalition remains committed to providing parents with more choice and opportunity to work, and children with high quality early education, through the Jobs for Families childcare package announced in the 2015-16 Budget.

"This package will create a simpler, more affordable, accessible and flexible childcare system through investing more than $40 billion in childcare support over the next four years.

"Our package includes more than $3 billion in additional funding, to ensure families benefit from a simpler, more affordable, accessible and flexible childcare system."

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