Editorial: Parental-leave bill worth nurturing

Last updated 05:00 12/04/2012

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OPINION: Not even the critics of Labour's paid-parental-leave proposals dispute the value of enabling working mothers to spend more time with their newborn children before rejoining the workforce.

The opposition to extending paid parental leave from 14 to 26 weeks is based on the $150 million cost of doing so.

It is a cost society should bear. This financial year the Government will spend almost $100 billion on taxpayers' behalf. Large sums will be transferred to students borrowing more than they need, fit and healthy superannuitants holding down fulltime jobs and well-off families.

All fall into Finance Minister Bill English's "nice to have" category. It is nice that some superannuitants can stash away a little extra before they retire, nice that former students do not have to pay interest on their loans if they remain in the country and nice that big, middle-class families have a little more to spend thanks to the Working for Families scheme.

But none of that expenditure has as much potential to improve lives as extending the time mothers have to spend with their babies before they are forced back into the workforce by financial necessity. Nor does it have as much potential to make a difference to society as a whole.

Whether mothers are entitled to three months or six months of paid leave makes no difference to the majority of employers. The cost of the leave is borne by taxpayers and temporary arrangements can as easily be put in place for six months as three.

However, mothers and babies benefit from extra time to bond and society benefits from well-adjusted children. They are more likely to turn into productive adults and less likely to become a burden to their fellow citizens. Society benefits, too, from making it easier for working mothers to have children. Who better to prepare kids for useful lives than parents successfully combining the responsibilities of parenthood and employment?

Labour's proposal is contained in a member's bill in the name of list MP Sue Moroney that has been drawn from the parliamentary ballot. It has the support of the Greens and is likely to garner the support of UnitedFuture, the Maori Party and NZ First, giving it the numbers to at least pass its first reading.

However, the prospect of it becoming law are slim. Mr English said yesterday the Government would use its financial veto to stop legislation Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson has described as "simply unaffordable" being added to the statute book.

Before doing so ministers should think carefully. There is no question New Zealand must trim its spending to match its purse. Evidence mounts daily in Europe of the perils of nations living beyond their means. But rather than ruling out a worthwhile initiative, the Government should focus on acknowledged areas of low-value spending that survive only because John Key's Government fears the political consequences of doing the right thing.

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Infants should not be discriminated against because they don't vote.

- The Dominion Post

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