We asked Labour's Jacinda Ardern and National's Nikki Kaye: Are NZ's parental leave provisions adequate?
There are many things we should envy the Swedish for. ABBA probably isn't one of them, but their paid parental leave provisions certainly are. Let me explain...
A while ago, I visited Auckland University as Labour's spokesperson on Youth Justice issues. There were a team of researchers there who had spent some time looking at the factors that influence the kind of start that children have in life. That was the first time I had heard it so starkly put - the first 6 months of a child's life, based on research and evidence, are the most important bar none. If we don't invest enough in them at the very beginning of their lives, it can take a good four years to reverse the damage. And if we still haven't got it right by then, we'll either be playing catch up the rest of their adolescence, or worse still, it will come at a cost to us all if they eventually end up in the arena that I was working in; the criminal justice system.
Of course, that's not to say that every child that isn't given the love and care it needs when it is first born will end up a delinquent, but it's a solid enough indicator that we should be investing our energy into ensuring that at the very least, we're giving parents choices, and helping them to be with their newborn as much as they can in those early months.
And that's where the Swedes come in, with their enviable 16 months of paid parental leave.
Comparatively, we're a little way off. Currently in New Zealand, paid parental leave is available for 14 weeks at a maximum rate (as of July) of $458. Compare that to our neighbours across the ditch: Australia's relatively new paid parental leave system gives mothers 18 weeks at a maximum of $732 (NZD) per week, and it's easy to see that it's yet another area where we're lagging behind. But this isn't just about competing with the Aussies, it's about investing in the things that will make the biggest difference for children in the long run.
But while we're here, it would be remiss not to mention the other areas that we desperately need to improve, including flexible working provisions to allow parents to better manage the competing demands of home and family. We do a lot of talking in this area and not a lot of doing. If we're truly going to assist our parents, especially mums, to re-enter the workforce after they have had children, this would be a huge step in the right direction.
We've been spending a lot of time thinking about policy in this area. When we went into opposition, we left some unfinished business. Working for families, for instance, did make a difference in lifting children out of poverty- but not enough of one. That's why Annette King has spent the past couple of years getting a team of experts in the field of children and child development together to talk about where we need to go from here and how we give families more support and New Zealand kids a better start. The result is a comprehensive package and extending paid parental leave plays a big part.
But why wait for an election to campaign for change in this area, when it's so obvious that a need exists now? I guess that would be the challenge I would extend to Government. There's no reason that they cannot at least chart their intention to extend paid parental leave incrementally. That's what we have done. Labour has been very clear that extending paid parental is a priority for us, and that along with our full policy on children, we'll be clear how it will be paid for, and what we will reprioritise to get it done.
Besides, if we're going to beat the Aussies (or eventually even the Swedes) at something, I can't think of anything better than this.
We all know the benefits of having a parent home with a child in the first period of a child's life. While some countries have more generous paid parental leave entitlements than us we are in line with the majority of countries that have between 10-20 weeks.
New Zealand society is changing with more dads rather than just mums taking up this opportunity. Over the last decade we have seen a positive shift whereby families have had more choices to determine who is the best parent to stay at home. Recently, I was at a women's networking function and we were discussing whether people were more accepting of stay at home dads who look after the children.
The overwhelming response was that people are more accepting but that there was still a way to go. Personally, I hope those attitudes change as I think the decision should be based on what is best for their family not old fashioned views.
An important debate to continue having is how much our country values the work and contribution of parents who stay at home and are the primary carer of children. Valuing the contribution of parents who stay at home and look after children is not just a debate about how long the paid parental leave entitlement should be. It is also about employers enabling more flexible working practices. Some of that is the role of the government in terms of flexible labour laws but some of that will depend on the flexibility of the employer.
The recent controversy regarding Alasdair Thompson's comments about the productivity of women in NZ highlights that there are still pockets of prejudice. I think the comments were offensive and wrong on so many levels. However, we must be able to have a reasoned debate about the contribution both women and men make in the workforce and at home.
Currently parents eligible for paid parental leave in NZ are entitled to up to 14 weeks paid leave at a rate calculated on their average weekly earnings. This week the Government will increase parental leave payments putting extra money into the pockets of families with new babies.
I know that some other political parties have talked about increasing paid parental leave, but in the current fiscal climate it is difficult to determine where this extra commitment will come from. This would have to be on top of the extra spending we announced in the Budget of $54.5 million to support families with new babies. We believe extra funding is best spent where it is needed most - on maternity services and supporting more disadvantaged mums.
Of the $54.5 million extra, $33.2 million has been provided over four years to improve safety and quality of maternity services. $18.4 million will be spent on improving the safety and quality of services for mothers and babies by bringing all local maternity professionals together for regular clinical reviews of all births. This funding will also increase the number of midwives in hospitals, together with medical specialists on-site and on-call. There is $6 million to revamp new parent information services and $6.8 million to help vulnerable mothers access a fuller range of health and social services. It will also assist midwives to make appropriate and timely referrals to other practitioners.
A further $21.3 million will boost WellChild services, which are delivered by Plunket and Tamariki Ora, with a focus on first time mothers. This program currently provides two visits during the first two months of life. The additional funding will support midwives, nurses and doctors to improve safety and quality in maternity and WellChild services. The funding is also expected to deliver an extra 54,000 visits to around 18,000 mothers who need this additional support.
Some new mums do not have another parent to go to for help. For these mothers, the extra support will mean, on average, three additional WellChild visits up to the first two months of a baby's life. These three additional visits will ensure a smoother handover from midwives to WellChild providers and an even better start for mothers and their babies.
Ultimately there are probably many people who would like to see entitlements extended but with scarce funds we have to make decisions about where we think funds are best spent. As society changes, supporting parents is not just about changing laws and entitlements. It is also about changing attitudes so that people feel comfortable that their contribution as a parent is valued. That shift is happening but there is still a way to go.
Nikki Kaye is on Facebook and Twitter @nikkikaye
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