Abbott’s Paid Parental Leave Policy – was it really that mad?

Way back in August 2013, I posted a defence of Tony Abbott’s Paid Parental Leave Policy. I am posting it again because I still think it has merit – for any party to adopt. Indeed, Eva Cox, hardly an admirer of Abbott, commented in a Crikey article that it was ‘actually a very good idea.’

When Tony Abbott, then the leader of the Liberal Party and Opposition Leader, announced his Paid Parental Leave policy, people on all sides of the political spectrum were speechless. The Left, taken completely by surprise, were reduced to incoherent muttering because policy of this sort was their preserve, and Abbott’s was far more generous than the Labor Government’s. To make matters worse, Abbott’s policy was generous to an extent that nobody in Australian politics could have imagined. Politicians of the right and the business sector were affrighted by the enormous cost, but kept their reaction to a murmuring about how the hell such a scheme would be paid for. After all, Tony was their man and looked a good possibility for defeating the profligate Labor Government. There seemed to be hope on the left and the right that the whole thing would fall through and such a fantastical idea would remain just that – a fantasy. Such hopes were to be frustrated.

Tony Abbott did not promote his extravagant plan in an extravagant way, but quietly insisted that he was serious. In time, he announced the essentials of the scheme: A woman having a baby would receive 26 weeks at full wage up to $150,000. A levy on big business would pay for it. For a long time the Left appeared not to know how to deal with it, and hypocritically repeated the right’s cost objection until some bright spark in the Labor Cabinet suggested they resort to their trusted weapon of class warfare: the inequitable scheme disadvantaged low income women.

Health Minister Tanya Plibersek ran this objection hard. What a terrible injustice it was to dream up a policy that enabled a talented, well-educated, successful woman, in whom the taxpayers and her employer had invested thousands, to receive her real wage for six months, start a family, and continue to return on the state’s and her employer’s investment, all at the same time. Who could imagine a more shocking way of disadvantaging low income women or, indeed, women who had no income at all?

With the formal announcement of Abbott’s Paid Parental Leave (PPL) policy, his opponents went into overdrive. With a stomach churning performance of deceit and hypocrisy, Prime Minister Rudd blazed away with both barrels about the unbearable costs (which will result in loss of jobs) and the inequity of the scheme. The murmuring of some in the Liberal and Countries parties (LCP) and the business sector developed into full-throated yammering about the scheme’s prohibitive costs and possible rorting. In the Australian (21 August) veteran political journalist Paul Kelly mounted a full frontal attack. We can write off Kevin Rudd’s empty rhetoric for what it is, but when Paul Kelly goes into battle in full armour one had better look out.

Kelly, in very warm language for him, cited three issues with the policy. First, the policy was ‘extravagant [and] fiscally dangerous’. Second, it was a cynical self-serving adjustment, a ‘gesture to convince women that Abbott is their friend’ and a way to ‘resolve a weakness in his voting profile’. Third, ‘it is Whitlamism pure and simple… signature Whitlam style policies founded in better society idealism.’

I replied that the fiscal objection was mere assertion without more demonstration, and that Kelly showed himself ignorant of Abbott’s philosophical presuppositions. If he knew anything about Abbott’s Burkean conservatism, he would know that he (Abbott) could never be accused anything approaching Whitlamism, However, my explanation of Abbott’s conservatism is no longer relevant to a present discussion of the merits or demerits of his paid parental leave scheme. But Kelly’s criticisms could be levelled at anyone entertaining such an ‘extravagant’ scheme. I then went on to explain what I thought were its merits.

In the 1950s, the Menzies Government’s social policy was geared towards the family understood in the traditional way – the man was the bread winner, the woman looked after the home and children. The natural differences between men and women prescribe this general division, a division that is most capable of keeping the family together and providing for the healthy development of children. This explains, among other things, why wages were lower for females than for single and family men. It was (rightly) considered in the social context of the time that family men had far more costs in their daily life than an unmarried female whose way was largely paid for.

The Left’s ideas about the family and the role and men and women were directly opposed to this traditional idea of the family. They argued, they insisted, from the standpoint of discrimination and equity, which presupposed the materialist ideas of the 18th century. Marxism played, and continues to play a determining role in current ideas about men and women. Without going into a long story that most of us know, the Left’s ideas on the family and men and women have prevailed politically, legislatively and institutionally. People with traditional ideas about family have fought and continue to fight fiercely against the ideas of the Left which they deplore as unleashing sexual promiscuity, the breakdown of families, divorce, drugs and the high rate of criminality among the young.

Whatever the strength of the traditional person’s accusations against the Left, and the Left’s response, the undeniable fact is that circumstances have changed dramatically for families and men and women, which is not to say that everyone who accepts the changed circumstances is on the way to moral ruin. I think most people are trying to make their way through the changed circumstances while consciously or unconsciously holding to traditional ideas about men and women and maintaining what I would call their natural relationship. That includes women who are highly qualified and ambitious.

Today boys and girls enjoy the same education, in which the same aspirations are presupposed. A girl can aspire as much to being an engineer as a boy, for example, and expect an education and a career path to fulfil that aspiration. As many girls as boys are going on to university. In some academic departments, the percentage of females is higher than males. These prevailing circumstances are not going to change. Let’s face facts; they are unchangeable for the foreseeable future.

The concrete circumstances are what the Burkean politician must deal with: Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing) give to every political principle its distinguishing colour and discriminating effect (Reflections). Let’s take what would be a common case in these concrete circumstances for illustrative purposes.

A girl studies hard at school and is rewarded with an excellent pass. Her efforts, industry and diligence have taken her to one of the best universities where she enrols in the Commerce School. She majors in marketing and financial management and achieves a high pass. A major corporation recognises her ability and commitment and employs her. The same industry, effort and diligence have her rising through the ranks. She is given the chance to study for an MBA part-time. She takes it. At the age of thirty years, she has the best business qualifications and a position in middle management in a big corporation. She is among a number of young men and women in the same position. Like most young women she has met a young man whom she agrees to marry in response to being asked. Like most young women she wants a family, her work and career, as important as they are, not being her whole life. She now faces a dilemma which nature has put before her. In the present circumstances she is put in the position of having to choose between having a baby and maintaining the level of professional success she has reached.

The traditionalist says that having a baby is the biggest responsibility a woman will have. Leave work and devote yourself as a mother to your child. That’s nature’s prescription. If the young woman gives up her work and career – and many young women do in these circumstances – then there is a personal dislocation brought on by the big drop in family income and thus material security, likely resulting in strain upon the husband and wife in the changed circumstances. There is also the personal dislocation of having to leave the society of colleagues and business acquaintances. Here we have one of the big changes in the social life of women since the 1950s. In those days when most mothers stayed at home to rear family, the main social connection was with extended family and neighbourhood friends. Today the social intercourse is with work friends and colleagues and far less with the neighbours.

The dislocation of such a well-qualified and able employee is not only personal. The corporation loses out on the personnel side because the loss of an important cog in the business machine is disruptive. It also loses its investment of time and money in that staff member. The state loses out because the investment into that person’s education and ability has come to nothing on the productive side. Indeed, the outcome is damagingly counter-productive to the state’s economy, quite apart from any social consideration.

How then to resolve the dilemma for the state, for the corporation and for the young woman and her family prospects? Remember, as the Left frequently tells conservatives, there is no going back to the social circumstances of the 1950s. But that does not mean that the social standards of the 1950s have to be abandoned, and certainly not when it comes to the basic building block of society – the family. The whole thrust of Burke’s political reasoning was to apply enduring standards to the ever-changing circumstances the politician has to confront. Enter Tony Abbott’s Paid Parental Leave policy.

Surely Abbott’s PPL policy goes a long way to resolving the dilemma. It deals effectively with all elements of the dilemma – state, employer and personal investment. Most importantly of all, it offers protection and opportunity for healthy development of the family unit, and surely that is the most important goal for the conservative or traditionalist. Abbott’s PPL policy will lift financial and employment constraints on young couples and enable them to have their families earlier. It will bring the family into the workplace, directing more attention to the family and their issues. This is an important point, the full significance of which may have escaped Abbott’s thinking.

The atmosphere and environment of the business office in the 1980s and 1990s was oriented to the single person. I know because I was there. There was a disinclination for married people to talk about family matters. The action was with the single person. It was not what some people call anti-family. It was merely an atmosphere not closely concerned with family matters and ambitions. People who worked in an office during those times would have seen one or more of their married colleagues drift into relationships with other colleagues, sometimes leading to family breakdown and divorce. It was not uncommon. The inclination of young women to stay in that single person environment until the very last moment when they had to choose between work and family prolonged the circumstances for that drift. I have no doubt that a PPL policy like Abbott’s would be an obstacle to wandering by providing an incentive to make the decision earlier and by bringing the family into office environment.

Abbott’s PPL policy solves the elements of the dilemma for the three stakeholders while preserving his enduring principles about the family. Quite evidently he has reflected on the concrete circumstances in the way I have outlined. It is nonsense to call Abbott’s Burkean reasoning in his PPL policy Whitlamist. Likewise it is nonsense to claim he was just trying to ingratiate himself with women for the purpose of winning their vote.

What I have presented here is a sketch of the reasoning I believe is behind Abbott’s crafting of the PPL policy for today’s Australian society. If the arguments hold, and I think they do, then Abbott’s claim is correct. His PPL policy, because of its well-being and welfare benefits to the family, represents a major watershed in Australia’s social and political history. Moreover, the proper sifting, adjustment and development of the Abbott PPL policy will give a clarity and resoluteness to Liberal Party political reasoning that it had in the days of Menzies and his Forgotten People speeches. This brings us back to the question of costs and the budget. If the policy is a watershed moment, it stands to reason it should be given the highest budgeting priority. The money should be found, if need be, at the expense of lower priorities. Liberal Party members and supporters should recognise the seminal nature of the policy and cooperate instead of mindlessly complaining about costs and giving ammunition to those who would say or do anything to destroy Abbott.

Let me finish with two passages from Menzies’ speech ‘The Forgotten People’, given 22 May, 1942. I have made two adjustments to show just how in line Abbott’s political reasoning is with that of Australia’s longest serving prime minister and founder of the Liberal Party, Sir Robert Menzies.

My home is where my wife [and I] and children are. The instinct to be with them is the great instinct of civilised man; the instinct to give them a chance in life – to make them not leaners but lifters – is a noble instinct…

That we are all, as human souls, of like value cannot be denied. That each of us should have his chance is and must be the great objective of political and social policy. But to say that the industrious and intelligent son [or daughter] of self-sacrificing and saving and forward-looking parents have the same social deserts and even material needs as the dull offspring of stupid and improvident parents is absurd…