The cost of care

Kapi-Mana News - - OPINION/NEWS -

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.

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