Why Parental Leave Isn’t A Bonus by Monica Dux

Last week, as paid parental leave finally became a reality in Australia, both the Age and Sydney Morning Herald couldn’t resist turning the development into a winners and losers story. Both papers featured two women with their newborns. One had given birth just after the toll of midnight, cleverly netting herself 18 weeks on the princessly sum of $570 before tax; the other wasn’t able to keep her legs crossed until the deadline had passed, lumping herself with the baby-bonus pumpkin instead.

Both stories were tacky and entirely missed the point of this important development… which meant that they were perfectly in keeping with the way paid parental leave has typically been debated and discussed in this country.

As many a weary feminist has pointed out in the eons it’s taken to realize this modest goal, the debate in Australia was never really about the cost to the economy, to small business, or to the taxpayer. It was about ideology. Just look at all the hyperbole and handwringing, all those Hanrahan-inspired “we’ll all be rooned” pronouncements. It’s middle class welfare! Why should women be paid to have babies? And what about those babies? Who’s looking out for them?!

This sense of looming catastrophe was epitomised in Tony Abbott’s prescient threat that paid maternity leave would only be achieved over the then government’s dead body. Of course the government did die, and the corpse back-flipped, quite spectacularly, but that’s another story.

All the bluster, all the bitter resistance to something that should be seen as a workplace entitlement, not a gift or a privilege or a “bonus”, is symptomatic of how uncomfortable we still are with the idea that a woman with a baby should be seen as anything other than a “mother”. So, paid parental leave is rarely described as being about working women wanting to maintain a relationship with the workforce after they become parents. Instead it’s about mums and babies.

The truth is, a robust parental leave scheme makes a statement: that women have a right to parent and to be an active part of the workforce. That motherhood need not be an all-consuming mono-focus, requiring a woman to discard everything else in her life. So, the law has changed at last, but have our attitudes? It was telling that on the day of its launch both Jenny Macklin and Julia Gillard emphasised that Australia’s paid parental leave scheme was “good for babies”. Why can’t it be good for women, plain and simple? Now that would be progress.

Monica Dux is a feminist writer who co-authored The Great Feminist Denial. She has spoken at the Wheeler Centre on perceptions of pregnancy in her Lunchbox Soapbox, The Happy Gestator.

Related posts