Gender Gap or Parent Trap?

30 March, 2023

Let me say that that was an excellent contribution from the member for Dunkley. It was considered. She canvassed many of the issues that are before the nation as a whole and have been for a long time. I'd like to associate myself with all of the remarks she made while I've been in the House listening to her. She obviously has a very clear understanding of the broader issues that we face as a nation in trying to get some equality for that cohort of people—women. Very clearly, we shouldn't forget the other stresses that are on women that are not on men. I think that was an excellent contribution to the debate. If anybody heard the member for Dunkley, they would be listening to someone who has actually canvassed the issues and is putting those issues out there for your consideration today. She didn't direct the traffic. She just said: 'Here are the issues. These are the issues we need to resolve.' She puts to the parliament that supporting the Workplace Gender Equality Amendment (Closing the Gender Pay Gap) Bill 2023 will go towards that. Nobody has said it will fix it, but it will go towards it.

Towards the end of her address, the member for Dunkley talked about women making choices that men do not have to make, especially in regard to motherhood. In a minute, I will go to what is in my notes about what they call the 'parenthood penalty', but first I want to say that, when the member for Dunkley spoke about choices, it was very clear to me that women make sacrifices when they make the decision to have children. There are women who choose otherwise. Women have an absolute right to choose otherwise, and I often speak about people making choices about their own lives and how they lead them, until they are interrupted by life's journey. In particular, I read that women who enter the workforce and who don't have interruptions resulting from those choices actually do equally as well in many areas as men as they progress. There's no doubt about that. The member for Dunkley said: 'Look, what are you talking about? I've got women in my business, and they get the same pay as a man at the same level, depending on how they negotiate.' I think some women don't negotiate hard enough. They haven't been trained to negotiate hard enough, and they put themselves down. There needs to be that area of interaction expertise, but, more importantly it needs to be that, all the way through the system, women are equal with men in those businesses. But the member for Dunkley then made another point: a lot of the women who we're talking about are not in those executive areas and climbing the executive ladder like every other person. Most women who we're talking about here today are in carer jobs—the carer jobs that are so important to our community. Again, the member for Dunkley—I was very interested in her address—said, 'The things that we used to do at home we no longer do.' We used to care for our elderly at home and we no longer do that. We cared for our young children at home and we no longer do that. We care for our very young children, yes, but even they are going into child care.

Then there's the care of the disabled who, sadly, 50 years ago were hidden in their homes in our communities. We didn't even know they were there in my community; they were on the farms and in their houses. We didn't even know they were there until we opened our own centre, which eventually I was head of. Then they came out of the woodwork. So caring responsibilities have changed in society dramatically, and government now has a very large role in those things—child care and disability care, through the sorts of care we give to people with disabilities. And there's care which we give in other areas.

One of the cohorts that I am concerned about is the largest cohort of people becoming homeless in our community, and that's women over 50. That the growth area of homelessness. That's not even counting those women who are couch surfing, staying with a friend for a while or moving interstate for a bit of a rest. It's hidden homelessness. In every address which I have given over the past few months I have talked about the buck stopping here in the parliament—nobody else, it stops with us. We are responsible for the outcomes that happen in and throughout our communities. We have a responsibility to address those issues, and if they're staring us in the face, like unequal pay, then we need to find ways to address them, as people and as parliament. We are representatives of our people and I know that my community doesn't want to live with the fact that there are women who find themselves homeless through no fault of their own.

In fact, I spoke to a woman recently, at a committee hearing. When parliamentarians do committee hearings, often other things come out of those hearings—interactions with the community that you wouldn't normally expect. This woman said to the committee, speaking to me directly: 'Russell, I was one of you not long ago. I was one of you! I was in a good relationship, I was in a beautiful home and everything was good. Then I had a health issue and then I had a relationship issue. I found myself without a home. It couldn't be me, because I was the one supporting the homeless only just a while ago.'

Things can turn around extremely quickly in life, so I now want to talk about the actual issue that we're faced with this evening in the parliament. I especially want to talk about the parenthood penalty. This comes from three margins: employment, the hours of work and the hourly wage rate. Men's and women's earnings follows similar paths—this is what the report said—until parenthood, at which point their earnings begin to diverge. The arrival of children reduces women's earnings by an average of 55 per cent across the first five years of parenthood. Men's earnings are unaffected by entering parenthood. Moreover, the motherhood penalty remains persistent for at least a decade into parenthood, although there's a slight recovery in the latter years. It's not just from the first child; it's other children. What do we want in this nation? We do want people to have children. We do want women to have children. We do want this place to grow and thrive and have a high birthrate, or a higher birthrate than we have at the moment. So I put to you that where we need to address the issue is for those women who have made the choice to have a family.

I know men have a greater involvement in the upbringing of the child than in the era when I came through with my children. But, importantly, we've been struggling since the Hawke years. I came here in 1990, and Brian Howe in the Hawke government was then the minister. He had what was called a family action plan, meant to address these issues. In the Howard government, John Howard had a family action plan of sorts, and that's where he got family tax benefit part A and part B. He tried to put money into households with children, to set them apart and increase the wellbeing of those households. The Howard-Costello government was one of the wealthiest governments in this nation's history since Federation. They actually had the money, and they were able to spend it on programs like that to make a difference to women and families in this country, and they did, and they were good times for families, and they were good times for the budget of this nation, not by our own doing but because of the fortunate place that Australia was in with its economy and the reforms that had been made by the governments of Hawke and Keating and then the Howard government. Those reforms put Australia in a very good position to do well, and the governments were able to funnel that money into families. We're far from that these days.

So we need to be addressing that in some way, and everybody's tried to do it. Income splitting is one idea that always gets rejected as too dear—directing money. Another idea is giving mums work as soon as their youngest child turns eight. I was on a committee that recommended that it should be 12 years of age before they have to cease the parenting payment and go onto the unemployment benefit, which is a great loss to women in this country. It should never have happened. But it is about allowing them to go into work. One thing that comes to me all the time, though, is: why is policy around women always about getting women into work and not about enabling them, in any way they choose, to look after their children, for those who want to stay home and look after their children and want to be there for their kids as they grow, from when they are very young to the juvenile to the older person? They want to stay home, but to do that they have to have some wealth. There has to be enough to pay the mortgage and to pay for the car and the fuel, especially if you live in a regional area, where it's more difficult. So the direction has to be, 'Oh, we've got to have two incomes.' Why can't governments have a focus on looking after women who actually want to look after their children as well, not just on forcing women to go back into the workforce?

I've just learned all about the ParentsNext program. I knew nothing about it before I went on the committee. A former committee that I was on had some very good support staff and made some very good recommendations about where the nation needed to be headed in regard to a certain cohort, especially women—some men, but especially women. I expect that those things need to be taken up in this time of more compassion and concern, because we have a responsibility not only to the women who have missed out over this time but also to their children, because they're the next generation. I don't want to be part of governments and oppositions that don't have their focus on our responsibility to the children as well. I think we do have a responsibility. It takes a country to look after its children. We're wealthy enough to look after our children through their parents. We're also wealthy enough to recognise that women play a greater role in the caring for and upbringing of their children than do most men. It's a fact. Don't walk away from it. They do a better job too. To all the men I've just offended out there: come and talk to me. In actual fact, their caring ability is something that's remarkable.

I think that we need to find innovative ways to give women a greater choice in what they want to do and find ways to increase the benefit to them in a way that's not offensive to anybody else and recognises their special status in Australia. I've had to say that a few times lately—'recognising women's special status'—in organisations, political parties and other areas of life. Let's not ever lose that fact.

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Russell Broadbent MP
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