Abbott unveils rosy parental leave plan

AUSTRALIA - Australia's opposition leader Tony Abbott has unveiled plans for one of the world's most generous parental leave schemes in a bid to get married couples to have more children, and to also boost his appeal among women voters.

A working woman whose baby is born on or after July 1, 2015, will enjoy up to six months of maternity leave with full pay, capped at A$150,000 (S$175,000) a year. Those who earn more than A$150,000 a year will get the maximum A$75,000.

The scheme, which Mr Abbott hopes will lead to a baby boom, will cost A$5.5 billion a year. This will be partly funded by a 1.5 per cent tax on the country's 3,000 largest firms - a move that has angered the business community.

Mr Abbott, who is on track to win the Sept 7 national elections, said he wanted to offer "workplace justice" for women and enable them to continue their career after having a baby.

"This is a pro-child, pro-family, pro-growth policy," Mr Abbott, flanked by his wife and one of his daughters, told reporters while campaigning in Melbourne on Sunday.

"If we want families to have more kids, if we want women to have a fair dinkum choice to have a family, and maybe to extend the size of their family and to have a career, we need a policy like this."

Australia has had a government-paid parental leave scheme only since 2011. It was introduced by the sitting Labor government and pays mothers 18 weeks on the minimum wage, or about A$622 a week. But this is less generous than schemes in other countries.

For instance, a working mother in Britain receives about 90 per cent of her pay for 39 weeks while Canada pays 55 per cent of her salary for 50 weeks. In Singapore, working mothers are entitled to 16 weeks of paid maternity leave.

Australia's birth rates have dropped since the 1960s but remained relatively stable for the past 30 years at about 1.8 children per family.

The parental leave debate has sharply divided political parties and emerged as a major election issue. A Galaxy poll on Sunday found 44 per cent of voters supporting Mr Abbott's scheme and 36 per cent preferring Labor's.

Other big issues include disputes on how to stem the flow of asylum seekers and over Labor's plan to roll out broadband via fibre-optic cables to all homes.

Labor said Sunday that Mr Abbott's parental leave scheme was too expensive and unfair to low-paid mothers. Several MPs warned big businesses would pass on the extra cost to consumers.

Health Minister Tanya Plibersek called it "incredibly unfair". "We don't give more to the people who already have more. We give more help to the people who need more help," she said on Sky News.

The Australian Industry Group, which represents 60,000 businesses, has warned that such a scheme will not attract more women to join the workforce and will disadvantage firms which have sought to introduce their own schemes as a recruitment tool.

Mr Abbott flagged the generous policy in 2010 amid a long struggle to combat his perceived hostility to women. As health minister from 2003 to 2007, he had likened abortion to murder.

More recently, then Prime Minister Julia Gillard famously labelled him sexist and misogynist in a speech in Parliament.

He has since tried to soften his image, partly by appearing regularly with his wife and three daughters and releasing a parental leave scheme that even some colleagues in the conservative Liberal-National coalition found excessive.

The women-friendly campaign appears to be working, with an opinion poll ReachTEL last week showing he was now the preferred leader among women, leading Prime Minister Kevin Rudd by 51 per cent to 49 per cent.

Mr Abbott admitted on Sunday he has changed his views since he declared about a decade ago that parental leave would be introduced "over this (John Howard) government's dead body".

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