Tony Abbott is hardly the first Liberal prime minister to face a
serious backbench revolt on an issue but the depth of feeling in his own
ranks against his paid parental leave scheme is still striking.
More typically revolts are over some specific item – for example a
budget measure – but this one is notable because it contests a signature
policy of the leader which he took to two elections.
Abbott, a convert to government-financed PPL, imposed his plan on the
Coalition rather than putting it through the party room, and defends it
passionately. Yet the internal critics are just as determined as he is,
in trying to derail what they see as an expensive and inequitable
policy that has little community support.
Coalition opponents include two core groups – very dry Liberals who
regard the plan as middle class welfare, and pragmatic Nationals who
believe their constituents have little to gain compared with higher
income earners elsewhere. Conservatives are also concerned that the
scheme, which Abbott sells as a work entitlement designed to boost
labour market participation, disadvantages stay-at-home mothers.
A number of the “dry” critics remain silent but will be pleased with their colleagues' attacks.
The Nationals have no reason to hold their tongues. They want to be heard by their supporters.
It must be beyond galling for Treasurer Joe Hockey to have to go out
to defend the scheme, while he hears Nationals backbencher John Williams
lecture on the need to be “conservative with the budget”.
In a folksy version of the message Hockey delivers on other issues,
Williams declared: “I see no point in borrowing money to give to a young
mum when the bub is going to have to pay it back with interest later in
life.” Williams - a senator from NSW whose willingness to speak his
mind puts him in the mould of Barnaby Joyce (in former days) – said his
daughter-in-law had found the current scheme, brought in by Labor, very
beneficial. He’s suggested a compromise that would extend the present
scheme from 18 to 26 weeks and add in superannuation.
Hockey didn’t believe in the Abbott plan in opposition but has had to
accept it (though at least budgetary circumstances forced the PM to
reduce the proposed maximum payout from $75,000 to $50,000).
Questioned on the latest report about rebel Nationals and Liberals
being prepared to cross the floor to defeat the legislation (not yet
introduced), Hockey on Tuesday argued that the PPL plan was “a no
brainer for regional Australia”.
It was “a massive win for farmers who don’t have paid parental leave
schemes. Farmers are self-employed and for a lot of the mums in a
farming household, they don’t get paid parental leave and now they are
going to have replacement wages plus superannuation”.
Hockey was being loose with the facts. Farmers can get PPL under the
scheme now operating, and the work test for the new scheme would be the
same as for the present one.
This work test is very liberal. A person must have worked for at
least 10 of the 13 months before the birth or adoption of their child,
and worked for at least 330 hours in that 10-month period (just over one
day a week) with no more than an eight-week gap between two consecutive
Jenny Macklin, shadow minister for families, who brought in Labor’s
scheme, says bluntly: “Joe Hockey is lying. Of course people who are
self-employed, including farmers, are already eligible for Labor’s fair
and affordable paid parental leave scheme. Anyone who fulfils the work
test gets Labor’s paid parental leave scheme.” She accuses Hockey of
trying “to trick” his colleagues.
The Abbott scheme would include superannuation payments, which the
present one doesn’t, and the longer time period. And of course, higher
paid women would get a bigger payout – the current scheme pays only the
minimum wage. But few farming women would fall into that category.
While the backbenchers are huffing and puffing, it is possible some
would pull back when the crunch came. It is serious matter to vote down
the leader’s pet project and arms would be twisted in a big way to stop
But the huffing and puffing might itself be fatal for the plan. The
government has considered the Greens its best chance to help get the
plan through the Senate. The Greens' policy has been to support such a
scheme (in a less generous form than Abbott’s original). But they are
now split, with some of them reluctant to back it. One condition they
are talking about is that the government needs to show it has the
support of its own ranks. If the Greens want a let out, signs of a
revolt in Coalition backbench would clearly give it to them.
More generally Hockey, frustrated that so many of his budget measures
are under threat, issued a warning to the Senate, as the new
crossbenchers prepare to take their places in July. “If it just
continually says no without any capacity to negotiate an improved
outcome, then the Senate becomes irrelevant.
“It is just simply a road black and we either have to smash through
that road block or the Australian people get the chance to change the
A double dissolution in the foreseeable future would be bravery with a capital B.