A new-year toast to paid parental leave

JENNY is 28. She's just started a new job. She has to tell the boss she's pregnant. "Oh," he says, "that's fine." Jenny sighs with relief.

The boss goes on: "I mean, my wife was back at work a fortnight after having our baby. You'll bounce back in no time." Ah.

Jenny worries for months. What will she do?

Eventually, her husband Ross, a schoolteacher, comes up with a solution. He'll take 12 months' leave.

Initially, the school objects, so Ross threatens to quit altogether, whereupon the principal agrees. Ross can stay home with the baby for a year while Jenny becomes the sole breadwinner. They eat a lot of toast.

"It all worked out, but it was a really tough year," Jenny Macklin says now of her experience back in 1981. "We had very little money."

Today, Jenny Macklin is one of the most powerful women in the nation, a senior federal Cabinet minister and - as of January 1 - the overseer of a remarkable victory for Australian women. On New Year's Day, paid parental leave will come into law.


Australian women have been working in paid employment since the 18th century, but until now have had no legal right to paid leave.

Generations of dedicated women - and some brave men - have fought for this, but both left- and right-wing governments were terrified of annoying big business, small business, elderly ladies and grumpy taxpayers (or all of the above).

During this year's election campaign, Julia Gillard was confronted with leaked allegations that she had once questioned the political risk of parental leave in a supposedly confidential Cabinet meeting.

The funny part was that, if the leak were true, Gillard was taking exactly the same line as John Howard, Paul Keating, Bob Hawke, Malcolm Fraser and every other prime minister who failed to make this happen.

Whoever leaked that information about Gillard wanted to stick his or her dagger right into the heart of Gillard's political persona.

The implied sting was this: Julia Gillard is childless, therefore she doesn't care about families. That is patently untrue.

Gillard was the first prime minister to go into an election campaign promising paid parental leave. She obviously backed the scheme, whatever her initial reservations.

Not really fair, is it? Well, it can be tough being a sheila in the workplace.

Labor's scheme provides 18 weeks' pay at the minimum wage of $534.78 a week, as long as the primary carer earns $150,000 or less.

It's not as generous as the scheme Tony Abbott took to the election - a full 26 weeks at the primary carer's full salary.

It was a clever move by an Opposition leader who knew he had a big potential "woman problem" - thanks in part to a remark he made in 2002, as the Howard government's employment minister, that compulsory paid leave would happen "over this Government's dead body, frankly".

In 2010, paid parental leave very nearly got Tony Abbott elected. It certainly helped him overcome the woman problem.

Abbott's support for parental leave guaranteed its success within Labor, too: ALP backbenchers couldn't really grumble about the "political risk" if the idea was also being promoted by the Coalition.

Funny how things turn.

Jenny Macklin's boss back in 1981, incidentally, was Brian Howe, who went on to be Paul Keating's deputy prime minister. Her work as a researcher for Howe's Labour Resource Centre in Melbourne led her into politics.

Macklin, who adores babies, would dearly love to be a grandma - but she is anxious to point out she did not engineer this fundamental rejig of the economy in order to encourage her own adult kids to reproduce.

It's all about policy and equity. It's the culmination of many decades of work by dedicated people - including Tony Abbott.

Whatever. We'll take it.






Jenny Macklin has truly put the runs on the board and demonstrated by her actions that she is a real leader.

She is a role model to the principles of parenting and in particular, the value of fathers as she went back to work while her husband took on the child care role.

Jenny Macklin is destined to kick many more goals and to set the examples that the rest of society not to mention the political world needs to use as an example of the way she conducts herself in every aspect of her life.

Lets hope she enjoys being a very successful grandma very shortly.