Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Extending paid parental leave

Labour has announced it will extend paid parental leave if they become government. Good. A study by the Families Commission in 2007 found that we have one of the lowest paid parental leave entitlements in the developed world, with only two countries below us. One of them, Australia, has just leapfrogged us, with a scheme providing for 18 weeks leave (and to a wider pool of people). Which leaves us right at the bottom, just above the US.

National will no doubt say that we can't afford it - money spent on paid parental leave is money that could be spent on tax cuts, and they'd rather benefit their rich mates than ordinary New Zealanders. But I think we can't afford not to. Paid parental leave isn't just a basic dignity offered by decent societies - its also a fundamental child welfare measure, which helps ensure that children get a good start in life. The evidence is pretty clear that investing in children early pays off massively later in terms of better health, education, and ultimately income, and lower rates of criminal offending; along with ECE this is part of that investment. But beyond that, business keeps reminding us that we live in a global labour market in which we must compete for talent. And you don't win that competition by offering worse pay and conditions than your nearest neighbour. The fact that Australia has a paid parental leave scheme combined with the high level of mobility and easy access to jobs across the Tasman means that we need to match it - or watch as it becomes just another reason for young kiwis to work in Sydney rather than Wellington.

The same applies to Labour's plans to increase Working For Families for under 2's - its an investment, and one which will pay off in the long term.

Labour is vague at the moment about how far they will extend the scheme (other than using Australia as an obvious benchmark), but I hope they will include some component of "daddy leave". This is both in line with the Families Commission's recommendations, and it has been shown to lead to greater sexual equality by levelling expectations around parental leave. And that is something that needs doing.

Quite apart from the merits, this is a perfect election-year policy for Labour. It wedges National against women, and shows that National's natural instincts run in the opposite direction from those of ordinary New Zealanders. National can only escape the trap if it announces its own extension - which is a victory for the left regardless of who is implementing it.