Paid parental leave in reach
Very few people dissent from the idea of making it easier for mothers to take leave from their jobs to care for their babies in the first months after they are born. The benefits for a baby of the proper care from his or her mother in those crucial early days are obvious. For mothers, too, time to bond with the baby, to breast feed if they wish to, and simply to spend time with the baby unhampered by the cares of work is in almost all cases hugely beneficial for their wellbeing.
Which is why an extension of paid parental leave is in principle agreed to by all parties. The issue has been before Parliament since a member's bill drafted by Labour backbencher Sue Moroney was drawn from the ballot for consideration by the House early last year. It was raised again on Monday by Labour leader David Cunliffe who made the extension of paid parental leave a central element of the package of child-welfare proposals he put forward in his state of the nation speech.
At present a parent may take leave from a job for up to a year to care for a baby after it is born. The leave may be shared between parents but it is predominantly taken by mothers. It is often constrained, however, by the fact that payment for it, which is provided by the Government, is available for only 14 weeks. Moroney's bill would not alter the total amount of leave, but proposes extending the period paid for by the Government to 26 weeks.
Almost all parties in Parliament support the bill and it would have the numbers to pass the House. Opinion polls also show strong support. National, though, last year said if the bill was passed it would reject it. As a member's bill requiring government spending, it can be vetoed by the Government. National's opposition was based not on any objection to it in principle but simply because it believed that at that point, with the Government's books still in the red, it was unaffordable. According to Finance Minister Bill English, it would cost $150 million a year and require $500m more in borrowing. With borrowing already at unprecedented levels, it was an unappealing proposition.
As the public finances have improved over the last year or so, however, the Government's line has softened. Late last year, it held discussions with Labour with a view to getting changes made to Moroney's bill to enable it to pass. After Cunliffe revived the issue this week, the Government again suggested that it would be prepared to consider a modified version of the bill. One proposal would be to provide for a shorter paid leave period but widen the numbers who would be eligible for it. At present, some parents, such as those without six months continuous work, miss out. Paid parental leave is desirable but it must, like all the other desirable things a government is called on to provide, be affordable. Other countries that New Zealand likes to compare itself to are more generous in their paid leave entitlements. The improvement in the Government's finances has created an opportunity to bring us closer to them with an affordable compromise on Moroney's bill.