The cost of care
More than anything, paid parental leave is a reflection of just how far we’ve travelled since the days when the wages of a sole breadwinner could support an entire family.
Even so, the practice of paying employees to allow them the chance to care properly for their babies was always bound to antagonise the more conservative elements in the community.
That might explain the intense emotions evident in the House last week, when Labour MP Sue Moroney’s Bill to extend paid parental leave came up for its first reading.
In the most noxious of those exchanges, National MP Maggie Barry tried to sideline comments by Labour MP Jacinda Ardern on the basis that Ardern did not have children.
At issue was Moroney’s proposal to gradually extend paid parental leave from 14 to 26 weeks by 2014. National’s women MPs professed not to oppose the idea in principle – a claim belied by the inten- sity with which they voiced their opposition – but on the basis of cost, costs which Finance Minister Bill English has consistently over-stated as requiring an extra $500 million a year in borrowing to meet.
In fact, the Department of Labour has estimated that our parental leave provisions currently cost $170m and the additional annual cost would be $145m a year by 2014.
In the House last week, Moroney argued that such a sum could readily be found by trimming a few items of government expenditure – eg, by cutting tax breaks for those earning over $150,000 a year and by scrapping the estimated $56m in brokerage fees alone for the partial sale of state assets.
The potential social and economic savings further down the track are something else to consider, although much harder to quantify.
Last year, the government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Peter Gluckman issued research findings that strong attachments between parents and babies in their first few months helped children’s development all the way into adulthood, with related savings for later spending on prisons, remedial education and health problems.
Perhaps for that reason, most developed countries fund their paid parental leave provisions more generously than New Zealand does.
The government has said that it will eventually veto Moroney’s Bill, regardless.
By doing so, the government runs a wider political risk. For decades, the centre left had enjoyed a crucial advantage among women voters, a gap that Prime Minister John Key’s softline style virtually erased at the last election.
This year however, the government’s social programme has had a harder edge. As a result, the centre left seems to be reclaiming lost ground among women voters, when it comes to both the traditional home and hearth concerns and socially liberal issues.
The change is being reflected in the polls. Before the last election, the opinion polls showed that around 50 per cent of women supported National, but this has fallen to 39 per cent in recent polling. Besides Moroney’s attempts to extend paid parental leave, a Bill by Labour backbencher Louisa Wall that would allow same-sex marriage can only fuel the perception that the centre-left is making all the running on liberal social policy.
Significantly, Key has signalled that he will be voting for Wall’s Bill. Suddenly, it seems National has recognised that it needs to play catch-up on gender issues.