Thursday, September 5, 2013

One Good Policy

In Clementine Ford's article "It's hard to see how Tony Abbott's exorbitant plan will help mothers return to work"  she describes the Coalition's proposed Paid Parental Leave policy as an "exorbitant scheme [that] will operate as anything more than bribery for young women." (It is interesting that she fails to note, as do most commentators, that the Greens - the most progressive of the mainstream parties - has a very similar scheme on the table.)

The headline says it all. PPL is a policy failure because the data she presents shows that it does not promote the return of women to the paid workforce. As she argues, it is childcare policy that is key in keeping women with young children in the workforce not PPL. But what she fails to acknowledge is that PPL is about much more than female workforce participation, something that Julia Baird argues convincingly here:

"Parental leave is not about greed or a grab for cash. It's about a community response to protecting the first six months of a child's life. It's also about recalibrating a severe financial disadvantage women suffer by having children, including large swaths cut out of lifetime wages, super, and choked career tracks."

And according to Eva Cox the scheme proposed by Abbott is far more in keeping with feminist demands than the "welfare policy" approach of the ALP:

"The more radical basis for arguing for parental leave is to set it up as an ongoing workplace entitlement. Feminists have long argued for parenting time to be recognised as a legitimate employee entitlement, like holiday pay, sick pay and long service leave, as part of a wider effort to normalise parenting in workplaces."

Baird is right when she points out that the way the debate is now being conducted over PPL is making some question the need for any form of paid parental leave. When Ford says the following in making her case against Abbott's PPL, what is to prevent the same logic being applied to the weaker ALP scheme?

"Unlike members of the Coalition, I have actually met and spoken with mothers returning to the workforce. I've heard very little from them about the lack of money provided during their "time off". Instead, I hear a frustrated loop of complaints over the cost of childcare versus take-homes salary."

Ford is correct if her point is that childcare policy matters a great deal to working parents, and particularly mothers. (And Abbott's early childcare policy as revealed today is abysmal, cutting ratios of workers to carers, another great reason not to vote for the Liberals). But since when did it become an either/or game. Can't we demand both excellent government policy on childcare and PPL? Or as feminists are we only allowed to argue for one policy cookie at a time?

It is telling that the majority of Abbott's own team do not support his PPL but rather had it foisted on them. The scheme does not easily fit within the hard right economic approach of the Liberal Party nor does it suit their natural allies in the business community. It is as if the usual allegiances in the political world have been turned upside down (and it is this lack of support from the right, not the left, that makes many question whether this policy will actually ever see the light of day).

Abbott's scheme has been characterised by some as being in keeping with a conservative family values agenda; in fact it is antithetical to conservative family values in that it acknowledges that the state and has a role to play in financially supporting care work. Further, by entrenching PPL as a workplace entitlement rather than a welfare payment, the scheme would play a part in changing what Cox describes as "workplace cultures that demand women behave like male employees in attempting to separate paid work from other parts of life."

PPL and childcare are not the only policies that feminists should be paying special attention to. Both parties fall down when it comes to support for single parents, most of whom are mothers (Tara Moss outlines the impact of recent changes here). State support for single parents at living rather than poverty wages empowers women not by dictating that they re-join the workforce but by financially supporting care work, enabling mothers who would not otherwise have the means the option of electing to stay at home with young children without the financial support of a (male) partner.

It is puzzling to me that the fiercest opponents of Paid Parental Leave these days seem to be progressives and feminists. And while I think reasonable people can disagree on the details of the different schemes offered up by the two major parties, the level of vitriol being directed at one of the few policies that will overwhelmingly benefit women is in danger of undermining broad community support for any form of PPL. Rather than seeing it as a long overdue policy reform, PPL is now being widely talked as 'middle class welfare', a phrase that Cox notes here seems to be code for any policy that benefits women while policies that overwhelmingly benefit high income males attract little (if any) comment:

"Would we see the same issue raised were this not a payment mainly for women? Superannuation is an example of gendered policy, as some 30% of tax concessions go to the top 5% of income earners (almost all men). This is clearly unfair in gender terms, but remains an interesting exemption from the gendered criticism raised against this payment. High income women, who are relatively few, become the target of abuse if they receive any form of public assistance which suggests a deeply sexist set of assumptions underpinning these debates, as high income men are seen as entitled to tax concessions galore."

Given that we are likely to find ourselves under a Coalition government after this weekend's election it might be better that we ensured that along with all the harm Abbott is likely to do across a broad range of policy areas we hold him to this one good policy.

But between now and Saturday, FFS Don't Vote Liberal.