High stakes for working women

Too few oohing at Goward's baby

Anne Summers

The political stoush between the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Pru Goward, and the Howard government over the right of employed women to paid maternity leave is shaping up as a fascinating public battle.

Ten months ago, when she was appointed to the job and announced she intended to put paid maternity leave on the political agenda, many - myself included - scoffed. After all, Goward had had ample opportunity in the two years during which she ran the Office of the Status of Women (OSW) to do this and had failed to achieve that or much else as far as anyone could see.

But she has been true to her word, and in April produced a discussion paper, Valuing Parenthood: Options for Paid Maternity Leave, on which she has invited public comment. The paper, which said that "existing paid maternity leave arrangements are limited, haphazard and fall significantly below what could be considered a national system", has generated enormous publicity, almost all of it positive, and it seemed that momentum was finally building for this long overdue reform.

Goward was entitled to feel there was at least some government support as initial reports had both the Treasurer, Peter Costello, and Assistant Treasurer, Helen Coonan, making favourable noises. Goward was buoyed enough to claim that her proposal would be substituted in this year's Budget for the baby bonus promised in the run-up to last year's election.

It wasn't, of course, and it is from that point that things have seemed to go very wrong for Goward and the women she is championing. In the past few weeks no fewer than five federal ministers, including Costello and Howard head-kickers Tony Abbott and Nick Minchin, have either attacked or declined to endorse the concept of paid maternity leave. Minchin, the Minister for Finance, was the most savage, declaring the whole concept nothing more than "middle class welfare" that would cost $500 million a year and which would do nothing to help mothers not in the workforce.

Publicly, the prime minister has taken a statesmanlike position above the fray, ordering Goward's four options to be costed. "I'm not against paid maternity leave where it can be afforded," he said on radio recently. He then added: "I'm against it being imposed on small business. I don't think the great bulk of small businesses can afford it and therefore if it were to be extended into the small business sector then the taxpayer would have to pick up the bill."

Last week Joe Hockey, the Minister for Small Business and Tourism, went further and told a women's business forum that "if the small business sector is asked to carry the costs of maternity or paternity leave, they will simply avoid employing younger people".

This is the new mantra against paid maternity leave - that it would be an unfair impost on small business. It is also a total red herring. Small business already has to deal with the fact that 52 weeks' unpaid maternity leave is legally mandated for all employees - full-time, part-time and casual who have had 12 months continuous employment. Small business already has to find replacement workers - and to give women their jobs back after a