Tony Abbott was a friend of working women. Yes, you read it right

One of my favorite election moments was during this campaign, when a delivery driver from Sydney’s Seven Hills confronted the then-opposition leader about politics during a televised heads of state debate.

“The forklift driver in Mount Druitt shouldn’t be paying his taxes so a pretty little North Shore attorney making 180 grand a year can have a kid,” he told Abbott.

Zali Steggall, who ousted Tony Abbott from his Warringah seat, will submit a motion this week to propose an expansion of the current scheme.

Zali Steggall, who ousted Tony Abbott from his Warringah seat, will submit a motion this week to propose an expansion of the current scheme.Recognition:Rhett Wyman

The Greens supported Abbott’s policies, as did feminist legend Eva Cox.

But this was not the coalition of support Abbott needed, especially as his leadership was becoming unstable from Turnbullian forces at home.

Finally, politics died a silent death.

It was an interesting example of how the messenger can influence the message.

Abbott’s politics were viewed with suspicion by feminists because of his long history of sexist rhetoric and the atmosphere of vile misogyny he had conjured up around Julia Gillard.

It was difficult to trust his good faith when it came to advancing the cause of gender equality.

Then, when he won office, his treasurer, Joe Hockey, announced a 2015 budget measure to stop what he called “double dipping” — women using their workplace maternity leave programs along with the state-funded one.

It was perfectly legal, of course, but hockey made it sound like women were cheating the system by exploiting the rights to which they, um, were entitled.

I had skin in it – I gave birth the day before the budget handover this year.

When I was breastfeeding my newborn recovering from abdominal surgery, it was interesting to hear how the Treasurer compared me to a welfare scammer.

I mention this recent story because it shows how far we’ve come.

What was once considered outrageous and unworkable — a taxpayer-funded indulgence for “pretty little lawyers” — has now gone mainstream. The idea that a government could abolish paid parental leave is unthinkable.

Instead, Abbott-style extended parental leave is en vogue.


On Monday, Zali Steggall – the independent MP who defeated Abbott in Warringah’s 2019 election – will table a motion to propose an expansion of the current scheme.

The Greens have completed a private member’s bill proposing 26 weeks’ leave at replacement wages, capped at $100,000, a la Tony.

Both Steggall and the Greens want any expanded system to include provisions incentivising care sharing so that secondary carers (usually fathers) are also encouraged to take time off.

Australia still has the system we put in place in 2011 when Labor pulled the country out of the dark ages to offer anything, anything, to working women-mothers.


Under this system, primary caregivers (predominantly women) receive 18 weeks of paid leave at minimum wage with a $150,000 salary cap.

In the following ten years, this system has not been revised, although it is paltry compared to other OECD countries. This is despite Australia’s stubbornly low participation rate for women – just 62 per cent.

The average length of paid parental leave in OECD countries is around 55 weeks, and the majority of the 36 OECD members offer parents a wage replacement rather than a lump sum as is the case in Australia.

Says Steggall (herself a former “pretty little lawyer”): “If there was one resounding theme at the Labor Summit, from companies to unions and economists, it was that we need to increase women’s participation in the workforce.”

This should be done by extending paid parental leave, but also bringing forward the Albanian government’s childcare reform by six months, she says.

“But that’s the only area the government has gone: ‘Good idea, but let’s think about it.’ What else is there to consider? It’s a resounding case.”

Steggall points to the Grattan Institute’s modeling, which shows that an expanded system (with a specific design) would cost $600 million per year, but would result in a $900 million per year increase in GDP thanks to increased maternal labor force participation would.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers was extremely vague about extended paid parental leave.

“Conditions permitting, and budget permitting, there are some of these ideas that I would like to take up and implement,” he said after the jobs summit.

Most Australians would probably accept that knowing the global economic weather is uncertain.

But we should never forget that many advances in gender equality – from getting women into the labor market to tackling the gender pay gap – have been rejected on cost grounds.

In hindsight, these arguments only look like excuses to protect the status quo.

The Opinion newsletter is a weekly collection of views that challenge, support and inform your own. Sign up here. Tony Abbott was a friend of working women. Yes, you read it right

Joel McCord

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