A personalised parliamentary spat between two high-profile female MPs and the launch of a new lobby group marked the first successful step of the controversial paid parental leave (PPL) bill’s passage through parliament.
Labour MP Sue Moroney’s private members bill, which aims to extend PPL from 14 to 26 weeks incrementally over the next three years, managed to pass its first reading in the house – despite fierce opposition from the government, which said it will use a special veto to prevent the bill becoming law.
The cost of the proposed extension was the issue for the government, according to finance minister Bill English. It would cost the government $500 million over three years, he said, but Moroney disputed that, saying the Department of Labour estimated the cost at $285.6 million over three years.
Government funds are a crucial issue in the debate because in New Zealand, unlike in many other countries, PPL is funded out of general taxation rather than through a levy on employers.
While most political players recognise the need for some degree of PPL, the National government has long insisted that it has to put other funding priorities before PPL. Opposition leaders said those priorities revolved around asset sale share subsidies for the rich or carbon tax breaks for industry, and also pointed out that New Zealand has the second-lowest paid parental leave entitlements in the OECD.
Along with the new lobby group, the 26 for Babies Coalition, the extension of PPL is supported by major child advocacy groups like UNICEF and Plunket – who said the extra expense would be outweighed by significant long term health cost savings.
Even the Prime Minister’s chief scientist Sir Peter Gluckman has pointed out that strong attachments between parents and babies in their first few months helped children’s development all the way into their adult years. “We not only get a better society as a result, we actually get to save money as a country because we don’t have to build so many prisons and put so much money into remedial education or the health system,” he said.
However, the government continues to dig its heels in on the issue and the debate looks set to get increasingly nasty as the bill progresses through the parliamentary process.
Currently, PPL is available to female employees who have worked for the same employer for an average of at least 10 hours a week in the six or 12 months immediately before they give birth. There are different entitlements available to employees depending on whether they meet the six or 12 month criteria.
Under the PPL legislation as it stands, employers – and, by proxy, HR – have to:
Inform employees of their parental leave entitlements.
Consider, then approve or decline employee requests for parental leave.
Accurately confirm the length of employment and income details on employee applications for the parental leave payment.
Confirm parental leave arrangements with their employees.