Political parties only starting to get the message

22 April 2013

Australia is experiencing profound demographic and workplace change. With more women in the paid workforce and an ageing population, the way we work and care for our families has become a serious policy challenge. But will these issues be addressed in the election?

Most Australians combine caring responsibilities with paid work. Recent years have seen some helpful changes - including paid parental leave and childcare reform - but more is needed. In the long run, productivity, growth and national wellbeing are all dependent on our ability to work and to care well. A group of 30 professionals from 18 Australian universities - members of the national Work and Family Policy Roundtable - published on Monday a series of evidence-based benchmarks against which election proposals can be assessed. Priorities for action include childcare, parental leave, job security, flexibility, pay equity, the tax/transfer system and superannuation.

Families are deeply concerned about the affordability, accessibility and quality of childcare. The price paid by consumers has increased at three times the general rate of inflation since 2009 despite growing government subsidies. Public investment is needed to support decent wages for childcare workers and making direct payments to childcare services that provide high quality care should be considered.

All political parties now support paid parental leave. It is a winner for parents, infants and long-term fiscal health and, there is a good case for increasing the period of paid leave, encouraging employers to top up the payment to usual earnings and making sure those who take it accumulate superannuation.

Provision of unpaid care is essential to national wellbeing. Public policies that rely on both the provision of unpaid care and increased labour force participation are unsustainable unless good quality jobs are available offering flexibility, security and predictable working time. This is critical for sole parents - including those with children in primary school - to ensure adequate income and time to care for children.

Despite some tweaking of the tax-free threshold from July 1, 2012, our tax/benefits system remains biased against women's workforce participation. More needs to be done to reduce the tax and welfare penalties for those in the middle-income bracket.

Part-time work is a central plank of work-family management for many. Unfortunately, much of it is casual, insecure and lacks paid leave. All workers engaged on a continuing basis should have access to paid care, annual and sick leave, which are essential to managing work and care.

Existing research also shows how important flexibility is to working carers. The existing right to request flexibility has not been effective, probably because it is only available to a limited number of workers and most don't know about it. It lacks any protection or appeal mechanisms for those who ask or are refused.

The right to request flexible work must be extended to all workers and include a rigorous appeal mechanism.

The gender pay gap remains a problem with no significant change in the past 30 years. Some female graduates experience a gap even as they leave university. This will not improve without leadership and a new national plan of action.

Recent changes to superannuation did not address one of the system's most obvious inequities: the gender gap. Women's super savings are about half men's, creating a new frontier of gender inequity. This demands action. The superannuation contribution tax rebate of up to $500 a year for lower earners is a positive step but much more is needed: for example, introduction of ''carer credits'' for those who step out of work to provide care to others.

The ageing population creates new policy challenges. Older workers are being encouraged to work longer and workplaces need to support older workers and those caring for the frail aged. A flexible and sustainable aged care system is critical - especially to women's labour force participation. Extending current respite services for the aged and chronically ill, and introducing new paid leave and flexibility rights for the increasing numbers of workers who are going to be affected, is essential.

Workers and families are facing unique new challenges that make the development of a fair work and care regime essential to Australia's future wellbeing, economic productivity and social inclusion. Australia is a wealthy country and well placed to become a global leader in the area of work, care and family policy. The election is an opportunity for positive new steps.

Dr Elizabeth Hill and Professor Barbara Pocock are co-conveners of the Australian Work and Family Policy Roundtable. Dr Hill is a senior lecturer in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney.

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