Dad and Partner Pay

Before parliament rose last Thursday, I spoke in favour of a bill to provide dad and partner pay. In fact, mine was the last speech before parliament rose (with the exception of some guy who trash-talked the economy for half an hour).

Paid Parental Leave and Other Legislation Amendment (Dad and Partner Pay and Other Measures) Bill 2012
10 May 2012

The work we do in this place impacts on people's lives—often far more than we imagine at the time. This bill, the Paid Parental Leave (Dad and Partner and Other Measures) Bill 2012, is one such example. I want to start off by sharing with the House the story of a friend of mine, Damien Hickman, and how he felt about the two weeks leave that he took when his first child arrived. Liesel Grace Hickman arrived on 23 June last year. Damien said: 'I just did not want to be anywhere else. My whole world shrank to this tiny four-kilogram bundle and the three-hourly cycles.' He said: 'It was like nothing I had experienced or could have prepared for. I was placed under this spell. She was the ultimate timewaster. I would just stare at her and half an hour would go by like 30 seconds. To be there for my partner, look after the house and be there as an extra pair of hands and support was pretty special.'

Damien said: 'I wanted to be part of it all. I was Liesel's dad and I wanted to be with, and care for, my little girl. I can still remember how scared I was the first time I gave her a bath. I remember how she would fall asleep on my chest, so small her feet barely made it to my bellybutton.' Damien said that for him the joy of being a dad was being there for all of those firsts; being there with Liesel and Kate was a great privilege. Liesel probably will not remember any of this but it is a memory that Damien will take to his grave.

That is why this legislation is so important: it allows dads and partners to take time off work and be at home to support new mothers in those crucial early days. It builds bonds that will extend to a lifetime of love, encouragement and support for children. It is the kind of encouragement and support that all kids need as they venture into life and face the challenges and opportunities that it presents—opportunities that are the foundation of the ideas and innovations that will inevitably drive a nation's prosperity.

Before outlining the measures in this bill let me share with you why dads being there in the early days is so important to their newborns and partners. Research from children's experts has found that, the more dads are involved right from the start, the better it is for the dad, for the mum and, most importantly, for the baby. Hands-on dads are important in developing social skills, independence, a strong moral sense and intellectual skills. Parenting expert Pam Linke of the children's, youth and women's health service in South Australia says:

When a man holds a baby they get a sense of security that's quite different from a mother's. While Dad's role may be only a supporting one for things like breastfeeding, it's absolutely critical in a baby's development.

Dr Kyle Pruett, clinical professor of psychology at Yale University, says, 'What dads actually do with their kids matters more than how often they do it,' so it is important that every dad gets time in the lead role. Pam Linke's advice is 'let him change nappies', and I can attest to having changed plenty of nappies in my few years as a dad. In fact, studies show that sons who are nurtured by their fathers are more likely to be more hands-on with their own children. Fathers who interact with their daughters reduce the rate of emotional problems in those girls when they reach their teenage years. Dads help daughters, even when they are young, feel competent—an essential prerequisite for self-esteem.

For us politicians, bringing up young children can come with additional risks. It might be apocryphal, but the story goes that the member for North Sydney received a phone call at home from John Howard after one of the elections. The former Prime Minister said, 'What are you doing?' 'Changing nappies,' replied the member for North Sydney. Prime Minister Howard apparently then said, 'I have something similar for you—industrial relations.' As the Work Choices episode shows, the similarity is more than passing.

I have found my own role as a politician and a father to be a constant and at the same time delightful juggling act. There are many challenges and changes with a newborn baby, and it is vital that dads can be there to support the partner and the child; to share the joys of the new baby; to give some respite—some time-out—for the partner to do little things such as take a bath, have a cup of tea and relax in front of the TV; and to share the responsibility for what is, especially to first-time parents, a vulnerable and mysterious creature. Liesel's mum, Kate, told me, 'It was so good to be home together as a family—to see her and Damien just be together. To see her respond to his voice or be fast asleep on his chest was just magical.'

After the 2010 election, Labor made a commitment to give dads the chance to have two weeks off to support new mums at home. The government's historic Paid Parental Leave scheme has now benefited more than 150,000 new mums. Labor's Paid Parental Leave scheme is funded by the government and paid through employers, so employers can stay in touch with their long-term employees while they are taking time off to care for a new baby. That was the approach recommended by the Productivity Commission after their extensive inquiry. It reflects the fact that Paid Parental Leave scheme is a workplace entitlement, not a welfare payment. It is critical that we maintain that link to employment, and it is maintained in Labor's Paid Parental Leave scheme as the Productivity Commission recommended.

Under this bill, eligible fathers and partners will receive two weeks dad-and-partner pay at the same rate per week as paid parental leave is paid, which is currently $590 a week before tax. Dad-and-partner pay will begin on 1 January 2013. The eligibility criteria for dad-and-partner pay—including the income test, the work test and residency requirements—will be consistent with those for parental leave pay. Dad-and-partner pay cannot be transferred to the primary carer; it has a use-it-or-lose-it provision to encourage fathers to take more time off work. It also signals to employers that a father's role in caring for a new baby is important. The government expects that employers will retain their existing parental and paternity leave provisions and continue to set themselves apart as employers of choice for parents. We are working with employers to provide fathers the maximum opportunity to take time off work so that they can be involved in their child's care from an early age. The dad-and-partner payment gives families more options to balance work and family commitments. It is good for dads, it is good for mums and it gives newborns the best possible start in life.

For the last two years, I have held a welcoming-the-babies event, which was originated by the Treasurer in the electorate of Lilley. Welcoming the babies is a chance to recognise Canberra's new parents and for them to meet other parents, connect with community services and find out what is available. For last year's welcoming-the-babies event we had a terrific weather, and around 150 parents and children turned up. They grabbed a coffee or a sausage sandwich, enjoyed the sunshine and chatted to stallholders about playgroups, breastfeeding, maternal health, immunisation, toddler sports and other supports. First-time dad Tito Hasan told me: 'It's been great to see kids having fun. My wife and I see the range of things out there for first-time parents. I'm looking forward to coming back next year.'

This year we had horrendous rain and Commonwealth Park was closed on the weekend of welcoming the babies, so, in lieu of us having the event outside, around 30 parents and children enjoyed morning tea in my electorate office, shared stories and met with service providers. They all took home a baby pack and a formal certificate. As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child, and now dads can stay in the village for another two weeks and enjoy this special time without having to worry about the family finances.

I have a story to share about my own experience of being a new dad. I remember that first hour of my eldest son's life. It was an extraordinary period, because my eldest son was born by caesarean section. For those who have not seen a caesarean section performed, what is most amazing is how quick it is. From the first incision to when the baby comes out is only about seven minutes but then the remainder of the operation takes about an hour. So, as a dad, you then have an hour on your own with the newborn.

I remember being struck by how relaxed and peaceful my son was. I just talked away to Sebastian. I babbled away and started to think about the advice that a father should give a son. I had never given father-son advice before, so after about 10 minutes of babbling, I finally settled on the one thing I wanted most of all: I wanted him to be curious. Five years later the conversation sometimes floats back to me—when he asks questions like: dad, why is the sky blue?—and I wonder whether I should have encouraged him to be quite so curious when he is in his cupboard-opening mode.

Those first weeks are an extraordinarily precious time, and encouraging fathers to spend more time bonding with their sons is a critical thing to do. It is a great privilege to be a dad. It is really important that we as policymakers encourage that bonding. It is good for early childhood and it ensure that dads enjoy that precious time with newborns, because a newborn child is too important, too precious and too loved to miss out on those early weeks with their father.

I commend the bill to the House.

Debate adjourned.

(For ease of reading, I've omitted the three times that the chair had to ask the opposition to quieten down.)

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.