On Saturday (7 September), it is highly likely that the Liberal and National Parties will together win at least 76 seats (and possibly many more) and that therefore Tony Abbott will be our Prime Minister when he wakes up on Sunday.
There are a range of things which he has promised which essentially amount to undoing, whether in part or in full, things that the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd Governments have done (eg the Carbon Price or the NBN), or simply taking things further in the same direction (such as the mistreatment of refugees). There have been very few major new policies or policy directions from Abbott and the Coalition.
However, there has been one major social policy commitment from Tony Abbott. Indeed, it comes with a substantial financial cost, and he has gone as far as to call it his ‘signature’ policy. That is of course Paid Parental Leave (PPL), for women who earn up to $150,000 per year, paid by the Government for 26 weeks (meaning that it is significantly more expansive in both the size of the payment, and its duration, than the existing Labor scheme).
The full details of Abbott’s PPL scheme were announced on Sunday 18 August, through a pre-release with News Corp papers, followed up by a policy launch, complete with a 14 page glossy document, outlining how the policy would operate in practice. It even included a range of scenarios, using different women’s names and estimating how much they stood to gain (and how much more that would be than the Labor scheme).
From an LGBTI activist’s point of view, however, there was a glaring omission: there was not a single mention of parents who did not neatly fit into a ‘traditional heterosexual/opposite-sex couple’. In none of the 14 pages was there a single mention of non-heterosexual or same-sex couples. Which left me, and countless other LGBTI people around the country, asking two questions:
- Are same-sex couples even covered by the scheme?
- If they are covered, how are their payments calculated? (which is a legitimate and not necessarily straight-forward question, given the PPL scheme states that, where a heterosexual father is the primary carer, he is entitled to PPL – but if he earns more than the mother, his payments are reduced according to the wage of his female partner).
On the morning of the 18th, I scanned both traditional and social media in an effort to see whether there was an answer to one or both of these questions. I could find very little outside of an assertion from Samantha Maiden on twitter that yes, same-sex couples would be covered – although that turned out to be based on nothing more than her assumption that they should be covered (I would post the full twitter exchange here except that it took a lengthy back and forth before establishing that she had absolutely no evidence for her original assertion).
I then turned to social media to ask questions directly of Tony Abbott, and, given he represents one of the most populous LGBTI electorates in Australia, Malcolm Turnbull, but neither responded. I even tried to ask the Liberal Party direct: nada. Eventually, in the evening, I managed to get an answer from Joe Hockey. I reproduce a screenshot of that exchange here:
Taking him at his word would mean that, for lesbian couples, if the non-birth mother is the designated primary carer, they would be able to receive the payments based on their own wage, even if it was higher than the birth mother’s. For male same-sex couples, the primary carer’s wage would apply irrespective of whose was higher (those are the clear implications from his response).
Wanting to have more to go on than just a tweet, through my involvement in the NSW Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby, I also helped to ensure that Paid Parental Leave, and specifically whether it covered same-sex couples on a no less favourable basis than opposite-sex couples, was one of the 42 questions which were asked in the 2013 Federal Election survey of the ALP, Liberal-Nationals and the Greens Parties. While both the ALP and Greens responses addressed this question, the Liberal Party response did not (in fact, the Liberal/Nationals did not answer the vast majority of the questions asked: see www.lgbti2013.org.au for more details, a topic I will be posting more on later in the week).
Anyway, that lack of response did not inspire much confidence in me either – both the formal 14 page policy document, and now the direct answer to a question from the NSW Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby, Victorian Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby, Transgender Victoria and Organisation Intersex International Australia, had failed to include any commitment that the PPL policy was intended to be non-discriminatory in its operation.
Which meant that Tony Abbott’s comments on Jon Faine on ABC Radio Melbourne on Friday 30 August were very welcome. From the Guardian Australia website:
“Abbott gets a caller during the Faine interview who is clearly unhappy with lesbian mothers – two of them – getting access to the Coalition’s PPL scheme. Will two lesbian mothers get the payment?
If they both have kids, fine ..
Abbott says the same would happen with the government’s PPL scheme. The caller says at least they wouldn’t get $75,000.”
At the very least, Abbott has committed that his PPL scheme will cover lesbian co-parents (and, given the policy document does include adoptive parents, by rights it should cover gay male co-parents as well).
As an additional source of comfort, on Saturday 31 August at the LGBTI Policy Forum held in Melbourne, the Liberal Member for Higgins, Kelly O’Dwyer, gave the following response to an ABC journalist:
JEFF WATERS: While you’re there, if I may – will the opposition’s paid parental leave scheme include both parents in same sex relationship who is have children?
KELLY O’DWYER: Our paid parental leave scheme is non-discriminatory. We believe that the carer of the child is entitled to the paid parental leave scheme. That is what we have announced. That is what we are committed to implementing. So the person who is going to be looking after the child will be entitled to the paid parental leave scheme which is capped to ensure that that child has the best possible start in life, and that families, all families, heterosexual families, homosexual families, all families are better off. (Applause)
Overall, despite the fact that it has been much harder than it should have been to get a direct answer from Abbott and the Liberal/National Parties on this issue, we are now in a position where they have clearly promised that same-sex couples will be included in its PPL scheme.
Which means that if, for whatever reason (aka Nationals and/or backbench revolt), they do not extend Paid Parental Leave to cover same-sex parents, it will be a broken promise, and on something which Tony Abbott has claimed is his ‘signature’ policy. That would be a massive blow to the credibility of him and his new Government – put another way, given he is likely to be moving into the Lodge next week, there is significant pressure on him to live up to his commitment for his PPL policy to be LGBTI inclusive.
PS Obviously, if there are other places where the Coalition or its MPs have committed to the PPL covering same-sex couples please send them to me and I will link them here. I would hope that Serkan Ozturk at the Star Observer’s interview with Malcolm Turnbull, which is expected to be published on Thursday, will also cover this topic and I will publish his response on this as well.