Editorial: Parental leave bill deserves a fair hearing

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Finance Minister Bill English. File photo / Ross Setford
Finance Minister Bill English. File photo / Ross Setford

The Prime Minister has a self-proclaimed reputation for finding elegant solutions to ticklish problems. All the more reason, therefore, that the response to Labour MP Sue Moroney's bill extending paid parental leave has been so jarring.

Within days of the bill being drawn from the members' ballot, Finance Minister Bill English said National would use its veto rights to scupper it even if it enjoyed majority support. That approach is as unsound as it is precipitate.

The Government has the right to apply a veto at the third reading if it deems any piece of legislation would have more than a minor impact on its finances. This power springs, quite validly, from the necessity for the Government to be separate from Parliament because only it spends money.

It must, as a matter of course, be able to control its expenditure. As Mr English points out, the veto has been used quite frequently in the past. But those uses have customarily been to thwart amendments to government legislation that would have had serious budget implications.

Blocking a bill that has the support of National's support partners, United Future and the Maori Party, is a different matter altogether.

Mr English justifies his stand on the basis that extending paid parental leave from 14 weeks to 26 weeks would cost another $150 million a year. More money would have to be borrowed at a time when the Government was trying to reduce its deficit. He does not, however, know that for sure. The select committee process is designed to fine-tune legislation, not least to meet financial realities.

Already, Labour's bill takes that into account to some extent by extending parental leave gradually by four weeks each year over three years. Further tinkering might result in a solution more financially palatable to the Government.

But, even more pertinently, a select committee would also consider a proposal advanced last year by the Children's Commissioner. Dr John Angus suggested restructuring the mix of parental leave entitlements and subsidised childcare, so they best met the needs of young children.

If this were done, extending parental leave even to 12 months need not imply substantially increase Government expenditure. Indeed, more spending to support care at home by the parent and less on subsidising infants to be in childcare would be almost fiscally neutral if income testing were introduced.

Any number of research papers show that very young babies and families benefit from having as much time together as possible. For that reason, the likes of Plunket and the early childhood teacher union, the Educational Institute, support Labour's bill. For the same reason, most comparable countries have longer periods of paid parental leave than New Zealand.

This is not an issue in which National and Act will find themselves lined up only against their normal opponents, Labour, the Greens and the Mana Party. There is substantial support in Parliament for an initiative that would underline the importance of caring for babies at home.

National should be prepared to allow the legislation to go through a select committee. It could then gauge public sentiment. It might also find that trade-offs and compromises produced a bill that was affordable. And it would be spared the embarrassment that would come from exercising its powers in a dubious manner to ignore the will of Parliament.

- NZ Herald

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