The worst thing about the PPL backflip is that voters love it

First published by Women’s Agenda and Crikey, 27-28 May 2015

When Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey announced an end to two sets of maternity leave payments for “double dipping” mothers, it almost seemed wise to stay quiet. Abbott and his ministers appeared to be doing a good job of burying their new policy themselves. There was their seemingly ill-advised language (mothers were “frauds” and “rorting” the system), the hypocrisy (Liberal ministers were forced to admit their wives had “double dipped”) and political backflips (Abbott had made his maternity leave scheme of six months at replacement wages his signature policy at the 2013 election).

Yet a new Essential Report poll, out on Tuesday, shows that a majority of voters are actually applauding the decision. This was the question posed:

Working women currently receive taxpayer-funded paid parental leave (PPL) of $641 a week (the minimum wage) for up to 18 weeks. In the Federal Budget, the Government has proposed women who can access employer-sponsored PPL schemes will lose all or part of their taxpayer-funded PPL. Do you approve or disapprove of this proposal?”

A whopping 56% of those polled agreed that those women should “lose all or part of their taxpayer-funded PPL”. And the numbers didn’t split clearly along party lines either: while 73% of Liberal voters approve of the change, so did 47% of Labor voters and 37% of Greens voters. Men were marginally more likely to approve of the cutback than women (60% to 52%) and older voters were more likely to support the policy than younger voters (59% of 35- to 54-year-olds compared to 42% of 18- to 34-year-olds).

As the Essential Report’s Peter Lewis told me, the result shouldn’t be that surprising: “the ‘double-dipping’ metaphor was a perfect pitch to voter-land”. Given how well received the decision to cut PPL entitlements has been, it’s worth unpacking just what might be going on here — and taking a look at how feminists might want to repackage maternity leave policies to a seemingly unsympathetic electorate.

The most charitable interpretation of the poll result is that it’s an expression of a desire for equality, the idea “that no one is on a better wicket than me,” as Lewis says. To win the policy debate, feminists need to better sell the message that parental leave doesn’t have to be a win-lose scenario: just because someone else gets a better deal, that doesn’t mean I have to lose out. As any unionist will tell you, someone else’s better deal just sets a higher benchmark, one that makes it easier for me to point to when I’m bargaining for myself.

The Abbott government is playing a classic game of divide and conquer: set up a fake argument between groups that are already receiving little and watch them fight among themselves — thereby diverting their attention away from looking at who has the real power. We need to keep taking the debate away from their preferred playing field.

We also need to communicate better the message that, as the explanatory memorandum to the Paid Parental Leave Bill 2010 said, it’s a scheme that was designed to “complement” other entitlements. Though it’s in some ways a complicated message to get across, the two PPL schemes — the government and employer-funded schemes — satisfy two competing, but arguably equally valid ideas about PPL: one is that it’s a payment to help all families and parents with new babies take time off work, with all babies being treated equally (hence the government-funded scheme of a flat payment, at 18 weeks at the minimum wage) and secondly, that it’s a workplace entitlement just like any other, like annual leave, sick leave, carers’ leave and long-service leave.

The second issue I think we have to confront is the way that, despite the name, “paid parental leave” — and despite the fact that the government scheme is also available to men, if they happen to be the primary carer — feminists have oversold the idea of PPL as a mother’s entitlement. It’s true that there’s an unarguable case that, in the first few months after a baby’s birth, time off work for mothers should be the first priority — after all, it’s mothers who need time to physically recover from birth, and who are encouraged to breastfeed babies wherever possible for the first few months of their lives. But after that, who cares for a new baby should be up for grabs.

But in arguing the case for maternity leave, and continually talking about parental leave as if it were only, or at least mostly, a mother’s right — including a push by the ACTU to extend the current 12 months off work to two years — feminists have not only let fathers off the hook and taken on the vast bulk childcare duties as if it were a badge of honour, we’ve lost an opportunity to get “buy-in” from the other gender. If a portion of paid parental leave were reserved for fathers, and fathers only (on a “use-it-or-lose-it” basis) some of the envy and heat would be taken out of the equation: let’s see how many men take up paid leave to look after a messy, crying baby and still want to call it a “rort”.

The third key thing feminists need to confront when faced with a poll like Essential is that voters seem resistant to the idea that motherhood and money go together: it’s as if there’s a real aversion to the idea that commerce enters the baby picture at all. Deep down, I think many people would prefer to imagine that, like breastfeeding, mothers and babies should be natural, free and all about maternal love and self-sacrifice.

As Tony Abbott said last Mother’s Day, the day he announced the backflip, mothers are apparently people who “always put themselves last”. But of course, babies cost. And while crossbench Senator and libertarian David Leyonhjelm may prefer to think of children as merely personal choices, paid for from the pockets of families who choose to have them, feminists have got to do a much better job of communicating that they are also little economic units that go to your coffee shop for babycinos, who will go to the university where you teach, or work at the business you own, or the nursing home where you end up in your final years. They might be one of the causes of climate change (particularly when they are young and churn through clothes and nappies at a great rate), but they are also the generation who might just find the solution to climate change.

We might live in families, and we live in an era that worships the individual. A policy like this one, as Essential’s Peter Lewis says, “is playing to people as consumers of government, not citizens”. But there is no getting around the fact that we still live in a society.

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