Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

New Zealand Initiatives to Pay Parents: Possibilities for the Antipodes?

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

New Zealand Initiatives to Pay Parents: Possibilities for the Antipodes?

Article excerpt

Introduction

In September 1998, Laila Harre, an MP from a left-of-centre minor party, Alliance, introduced the Paid Parental Leave Bill as a private member's bill to the New Zealand Parliament. The Bill was unusual in terms of the broader political and institutional context from which it emerged. Whereas progressive private member's bills may not be unusual during periods of a conservative government being in office, these bills seldom receive committee consideration, or become legislation. In this case the Bill proceeded to the select committee stage because the conservative National Government had insufficient votes to oppose it. (1) As a result, public submissions were invited and considerable media attention was given to the Bill, enabling the issue to move from the political agenda to the decision agenda. This scenario was largely a result of the advent in 1996 of a proportional representation system of government, which, after the collapse of the National-New Zealand First Coalition government, left the Nationals as a minority government.

The Bill was significant in that no legislative provisions existed for new parents in New Zealand to receive paid leave. Given the considerable emphasis currently placed on the need to facilitate the mix of work and family responsibilities, there was significant public interest in the initiative. Opinion polls indicated that there was around 60 per cent support overall, with 85 per cent of those aged between 24 and 35 years in favour of the Bill. Furthermore, consideration by a select committee ensured that the Bill maintained a high profile through the calling for public submissions and subsequent coverage of the Bill's progress by the media.

This is not to say that there was no opposition to the Bill. The Ministry of Women's Affairs submission argued that between 700-950 jobs would be lost, with most of those being women's jobs. Opponents picked up on these figures, maintaining that the costs would be too high for small business, that employees should bear the cost, and that pregnancy was a personal choice, therefore neither the state nor employers should be liable. It was argued that the employer-funded aspect of the scheme would result in women of child bearing age being discriminated against, while others argued that mothers who stayed at home were being discriminated against by not having access to the payment. (2)

Ultimately, the Paid Parental Leave Bill was unable to attract sufficient support within the Parliament. Nevertheless, its brief history raised the profile of parental leave and sufficiently embarrassed the government in an election year that it responded with a budgetary initiative to assist low-income families on the birth of a child. However, this was no substitute for paid parental leave. The absence of this right continues to set New Zealand (and Australia) apart from most other countries, in spite of ongoing recognition by feminists and others in these countries that the scope of social policy provision is critical to the life-course decisions women make, particularly with respect to labour force participation and childbirth (Baker, 1997; Mitchell, 1998). Passing the Bill would have brought New Zealand in line with international standards such as the United Nations (UN) Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Maternity Protection Convention (No. 103), which have sought to encourage governments to provide paid maternity leave backed up by protection against dismissal.

This paper seeks to evaluate the extent to which the Paid Parental Leave Bill offered the possibility for a new approach to parental leave provision in New Zealand. Analysis of the Bill's provisions, and of the political potential for reform, is cast within the framework of the literature on welfare state regimes. Although New Zealand has received little detailed attention in this literature (for exceptions see Baker and Tippin, 1999; Castles, 1985; Castles and Mitchell, 1993), it has tended to be placed alongside Australia, Canada and the United States as part of the liberal welfare state regime. …

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