Why Parental Leave is a Moral Issue

The government has ordered yet another inquiry into a paid leave scheme for working Australian parents. This one, by the Productivity Commission, follows two similar ones by HREOC and a Senate Committee in 2002. What is left to examine, for heaven’s sake! It’s a leave scheme, not the first signs of life on Mars.

But PM Rudd may be more likely than his predecessors to stop yakking about parental leave, and actually do the deed. When he does, the most important decision he’ll make is who will be granted leave.

Let’s pray it won’t just be mothers. Because dads need leave, too.

The best idea is the allocation of 18 months of paid leave for parents to use as they please over the first five years of the child’s life, with one condition. Five months must either be taken by Dads, or sacrificed (a provision the Nordic countries have used successfully to help men resist being bullied out of time with their infant by a macho, all-hours work culture).

But those in favour of parental leave may need to fight to be heard. Politicians, commentators and even feminists have been talking about maternity leave for so long that the placement of the word “father” next to “infant” has developed radical connotations. Said the Government of the latest inquiry: “We want to explore ways to make it as easy as possible for working mums to balance their employment with the important job of raising a new generation of Australians.”

In part, the reactionary gloss on debates about paid leave-a policy that has long been central to the progressive goal of achieving equality between the sexes-is a legacy of the Howard years.

We all know what John Howard thought about working mothers (those who were married, anyway. The single ones he condemned as dole-bludgers). In a desperate attempt to swing the PM their way, feminists inside and outside the Liberal party tried to make a national leave scheme a small target by arguing that women needed it to be good women: so they could breastfeed longer, bond better with their babies and keep their young from the devil’s playground called childcare. Said then Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward, “It is very unusual to find women in Europe…going back to work with children under the age of 6 months as you increasingly find in Australia, with all the implications that has with breast-feeding, for the recovery of the mother and for the development of the child…[it is] a scandal that so many babies are being left in care…”

It didn’t work. Worse, it left us with an antediluvian way of talking about the kind of leave we want, and why we want it that threatens our capacity to win something worth having.

We need to start fresh. From the premise that both Australian men and women do work, want to work or need to work and that when they partner, most want to have kids. This makes the central policy question: how can we help them do both?

Such a gender-neutral frame presumes what most of us know to be true. That parents have a responsibility to share the work and pleasure of caring and earning. That they need to give their kids the benefits of being cared for by both parents and model for their children the capacity of both genders to move with ease and independence between home and the wider world.

Parental, not maternity, leave is the only moral policy choice.

Publication history

Why Parental Leave is a Moral Issue  Sunday Sun-Herald (Sydney)