Home - Claire Moore - Labor Senator for Queensland


Senator MOORE (Queensland) (15:26): I am going to add some comments on the questions that Senator Carol Brown asked Minister Fifield. I particularly want to comment on why this series of questions was important at the time we asked them. I want to put on record my acknowledgement of Minister Fifield's statement about the number of questions that were put on notice in the Social Security portfolio. Mr Deputy President, you and I both know that since we have been in this place there have been increasing numbers of questions put on notice at Senate estimates. I know we keep stats on that. It is difficult for departments when they have a large number of questions put before them in the Senate estimates process. That does not take away from acknowledging that questions need to be answered.

In this case the questions were quite straightforward. They were not complex. They were not calling for information or data that the department or the minister would not have expected to be asked for. That is one of the reasons I am particularly keen to rephrase why it is important that we have the answers. In this place we have an effective exchange of communication and data. Consistently though, particularly in the last few months-and I have said this a few times both here and in committee meetings-it seems that departments are not effectively prepared for their appearance at different committees and in the estimates process. We have built up a process over many years. There is an expectation that specific data questions will be asked around policies and legislation. I expect that departments, with trained professional personnel, would be aware of the kind of information that would be sought to justify a position and also that ministers in particular would understand, through their own experience on both sides of this chamber, how the system actually works.

The questions we have asked here are quite specific about the impact of the MYEFO changes to paid parental leave. There is no trick question in this bunch. It is straight data exchange: how many people will be impacted by the changes, how many parents and how many families will lose entitlement under these changes and what will be the average impact? These are the kinds of questions that are asked in every single hearing. When the Turnbull changes to paid parental leave were brought forward, it was obvious that this was the information that opposition and Independent senators would be wanting to know.

Senator Brown gave a very strong review of the background to paid parental leave and also the tension around changes to paid parental leave. Senator Brown talked about the process around the introduction of paid parental leave when our government brought it in. At the time when paid parental leave was brought in, there was an extensive committee process around what would be the impact, the cost, the number of families who would have entitlement, the number who would not, the fairness of the cut-off point and the overall payment processes for the families that would be able to claim their payments. All that data was expected to be discussed and known at the committee process before any decision was made on paid parental leave. For those of us who went through that process, there were always serious questions about what would be a fair entitlement.

It was clear at that time, at the introduction of the original scheme, that the 18-week payment was going to be a baseline payment. This was the safety net payment, and the clear intention was that people who were looking at planning families would have the option that, if they were in a workforce, they would be able to access the Paid Parental Leave scheme-that is, the government segment of a Paid Parental Leave scheme. The intent was always that families would be able to negotiate at their workplace level with their employers, through bargaining processes, an extension of paid parental leave to build up an optimum time for families to work together with their children in the very important first year.

There was an expectation internationally that a 26-week payment, or even a higher payment, would allow more flexibility for families to make these plans and to build the basis of strong parental relationships. We had data at that time from across the world about what the optimum time for parenting would be. Certainly, as always in this field, we were shamed by the evidence given to us by Scandinavian countries about the way they operate their family payment processes, actively encouraging fathers and mothers to work together, to share time and to build up, with work entitlements, up to two years in some of the Scandinavian countries. The 18-week first round introduction that we brought forward was always seen as being a first step: we would entrench this scheme, review how it would operate, see the impact on individual families, assess the costs and get an effective review of how the process operated.

Senator Brown, in her contribution, touched on some of the findings of that review, and they were very strong findings which indicated that workers were accepting their ability to take paid parental leave and to work effectively. I know Senator Bushby was particularly concerned about the role of fathers in this process, and absolutely, through the review of the scheme, the role of fathers taking effective paid parental leave was clearly part of the arrangements. In fact, one of the things that came out of it is that it would be good in the future to actually enhance the entitlement for fathers in this process, allowing even more time for families to have that option. From my background, I remember that, when we sought paid maternity leave in the old days, the clear intent of the change in the legislation was to change that into a parental focus so that the scheme introduced by the government was a paid parental scheme.

It was very encouraging to see the review and to discuss that in Australia. I know that our paid parental leave system was also part of international discussions. Whilst we were slow on the uptake in this area-one of the last Western OECD nations to put in place a paid parental leave scheme-there has been very positive review about the way it operated. We know that there were questions even at the start, when we brought this in, about the fairness of whether people would be able to have a double chance-having the government scheme as well as their own workplace arrangements-and whether that would give some workers more entitlement than others. That was clearly discussed in this place at that time. But we always held fast to the idea that some workers would have a higher ability to negotiate enterprise bargaining agreements than others, so we wanted to ensure that the guaranteed entitlement of workers who were able to access paid parental leave would be the 18-week Paid Parental Leave scheme paid for by the government.

We know that that was an issue when the government changed. Mr Abbott had his own views about how a Paid Parental Leave scheme would operate, and that caused a number of discussions in this place about whether the process being brought forward by the government would be the best possible scheme economically and also for people planning families in this country. The Labor Party at that time said that that scheme was overly generous considering the situation we were in. I always said that we should always look at the best ways of making payments and ensuring strong families and that we should consider in the future how we could enhance our scheme. We did not support the original Abbott scheme, and it went off the agenda for a period of time.

Then a new scheme was brought in which was the subject of discussion in this place and also another round of Senate inquiry, which was tweaking around the process, and that was what Senator Brown was talking about in her contribution. It was a really unpleasant time for debate, and there were things said which were taken by many women in this country to be a direct insult to them as parents. Whether that was meant or not, there is no doubt that there was wide-ranging commentary both in this place and through social media about how angry women were at comments made about combining a government scheme and a workplace scheme to give you an overall entitlement. That was being referred to by leaders in the government of the day as double-dipping. There was great outrage about that, and no-one can take away from the fear and anger which was clearly expressed in the Senate Community Affairs Committee hearing about the changes to paid parental leave. Anyone who attended those hearings, read the Hansard or listened to the media commentary about those hearings would be left in no doubt that there was anger about how mothers-and not just mothers-felt that they were being disrespected and that, in their role as parents planning their families, there was this allegation that they were somehow working the system unfairly and that they had not in fact just been taking their absolute legal right to their entitlements that were there in front of them.

After that debate, the proposed legislation, which we opposed on this side of the House, did not come to further debate in this place and that scheme around paid parental leave was put to one side. Then there were other changes brought forward by Mr Turnbull in the MYEFO process, after discussion with some of the crossbenchers. We knew that there was great discussion going on, trying to ensure that there would be some savings made around paid parental leave and, to be fair, the government did not hide the fact that they were seeking savings in this space. When you looked at their proposals, it was clear there were going to be savings harvested in reductions in the way the Paid Parental Leave scheme would operate.

This is where we come to the questions in front of us today. Senator Brown asked for the minister to provide details of how these savings would be found. When you look at the detail of the questions, they go particularly to this point. The questions are trying to seek exact information about where savings will be made in this particular change to the Paid Parental Leave scheme and how people would be impacted. How many families in our country, who thought they were eligible for paid parental leave under the existing scheme would lose under the new scheme and how much would they lose? These are not academic questions. These are questions of detail about what the impact of the proposed changes to PPL would have on families in our community.

One of the reasons I am most concerned that we do not have this detail, nor do we have any information from the government about what their intent is in moving forward with their PPL changes, is this lack of certainty and lack of detail is causing great concern for families who are currently making decisions about their families and about falling pregnant. I met with a number of women the other day who work in the Australia Public Service who are in the situation where they are looking at when they will have their next children. They had made plans around the current scheme, with the security of their current paid parental leave entitlements under the Public Service Act and also provision under the current PPL of being able to augment that with the government scheme, as that scheme now operates. They do not know at this time what entitlements they will have in making their forward planning around their families.

I am also aware of families who have asked Centrelink about what their entitlements into the future. As we know, when people are looking at having a family, they are looking into the future as to what their workplace entitlements will be, what their budget will be and, with all the added expenses that we know of when setting up for a first child and for subsequent children, exactly what their entitlements will be. These are real issues and up until the proposed changes to paid parental leave, people knew where they were at. The scheme had been operating for a number of years. People had made future plans based on what they knew their real entitlements would be. This was based on the government component of paid parental leave and also enterprise bargaining arrangements that they had been part of in good faith.

We asked questions to find out the details of the change. Minister Fifield has assured us, and I accept that this is his intent, that we will have the answers to those questions by the end of the week. That would be a good result. It is unfortunate that we did not have them earlier. Why I needed to speak in the debate on taking note is that I wanted to make clear the import of getting the answers to the questions. It is not just a great plan to build up a databank and to have lots of information from which to draw, it is really to find out the details of the scheme. Again, one of my concerns is that there were no surprises in the questions. The department should have had this data. The department should have known the questions that people would need to know. They are very similar questions to those we asked about the previous scheme when we had the Senate estimates hearings. They are similar questions about exactly what the impact would be. When you are getting a range of questions in areas from people through the Senate estimates process, I know that the department has very strong processes in place to receive questions, to prioritise questions and to see what methodology would be needed to respond to the questions. That system is long standing and it works relatively well. However, when we have the fact that the only question that has not been responded to, out of the batch to which Minister Fifield referred, you have to ask why. When the government and the department were formulating their changes and making the MYEFO changes, they would need to know the answers to these questions in order to effectively brief their minister, to go through the internal processes in government to cost the plan, to look at the proposed impact of the plan and to know what the consequences of the changes will be. This is basic information in the development of any new policy.

We would expect by the end of this week to know: the total number of eligible parents who will be adversely affected by the proposed changes to PPL; when the minister will be able to advise the number of parents who would lose part of their paid parental leave-not such a hard ask; and who would no longer be eligible for paid parental leave? When you are introducing a new program, or a change to a program-which is what they did in this proposal-would you not know how many people who are currently eligible for PPL who will no longer be eligible for any PPL? What will be the estimated average paid parental leave payment that people on a partial eligible payment will lose compared to the current arrangements? I know that sounds a little complex, but if you know what people are currently receiving I would think you would be able to work out the average PPL payment that people who receive partial payment now get. What would be the average that they would lose if you introduce the very changes that you have decided you will introduce? And what will be the estimated average PPL payment that parents will lose when they are not eligible for any PPL payment compare to the current arrangements?

If you are having your first child you can look at what you will get in paid parental leave under the current system. Under the proposed system, the general departmental resources of the day have been able to build together a new scheme. As part of building together that new scheme they would have been able to look at what the impact would be on people and if they would lose money. Indeed, they will lose money; there is no doubt. That is one thing about which there is no doubt.

In finalising, one of the things we have always said whenever asking questions to the department at any time in any Senate estimates process in which I have been involved on questions on notice is, 'If there is a problem in getting the answers back, just let us know. Let us know if there's a problem. Let us know what issues are difficult and then we will be able to discuss it, reframe the questions and come back and look at what answers we can get.' Just not giving us any answers at all is not respectful to the questions that were asked, does not look at the data that is needed and also makes us wonder whether in fact we will get the answers when we are told we will at some time in the future.

Question agreed to.