The best present for fathers would be more paid parental leave - Grattan Institute

As dads around Australia are celebrated today, it won’t be the socks, undies, and power tools that really matter to them: it will be knowing that they’re making a difference in their kids’ lives.

If we really want to celebrate dads, we should give them a better chance to be great dads. Australia needs a better parental leave scheme that would help new dads to spend more time with their kids, and to form bonds that will last a lifetime.

Many countries have government-paid parental leave policies that encourage both parents to be involved – not just as a helper, but as a partner in the hard work and the joy of parenting.

By contrast, Australia has one of the least-generous government parental leave schemes in the developed world, and this is especially true for fathers and partners.

The so-called ‘Dad and Partner Pay’ is a mere two weeks, paid at minimum wage. And new dads need to negotiate unpaid leave from their employer, then endure Centrelink’s application processes before they can get it. No wonder only about a quarter of dads bother.

When dads miss the chance to jump into hands-on parenting in the early years, it’s hard to catch up. When mum knows more about nappy-changing, nap times, and what food and clothes are needed for outings, it’s all too easy to fall into the habit of leaving the tricky stuff for her to do.

On a holiday with my 6-month-old daughter, I was embarrassed to realise I had no idea what clothes to dress her in. I’d never had to do it, so I never learnt how. I resolved to do things differently when my second daughter was born.

I was fortunate to be able to take leave when my wife returned to work, and my relationship with both daughters is much stronger as a result. But not all families have the financial space to do this.

Our new Grattan Institute report shows how a better government scheme could help all dads enjoy these benefits.

The Federal Government should add six weeks to the current 18-week parental leave allowance as a ‘use it or lose it’ component for fathers or partners. To encourage leave sharing, this should be done through a 6/12/6 structure – six weeks for each parent, and 12 to share between them as they choose. Single parents should get the full entitlement – single parenting is a tough gig, and the extra cash would make a big difference.

To supercharge the scheme, we also recommend an additional two weeks of bonus leave – which could be used by either parent – if both parents take at least six weeks leave. With the government actively encouraging parents to share leave, what dad wouldn’t want to get on board?

And when dads do more of the caring, both dads and mums benefit. Evidence from many countries shows the mental and physical health of both parents is better when dads are more involved. Parents are less stressed, and they’re more likely to stay together.

Children do better too. Children with two involved parents – be it two men, two women, or one of each – have, on average, greater cognitive ability, superior emotional development, and better social skills.

And there are economic benefits too. When dads are more hands-on, it can free mums to head back to work, and to work more hours. This improves economic security for those mothers, but also benefits the country.

At present, even when a woman earns more than her husband, she’s almost always the one who drops her hours at work to care for the children. A more equal sharing of parental leave would free up families to make choices that best suit them, which would have immediate payoff for them and for the economy.

We estimate this scheme could cost the federal budget $600 million a year if it attracts good take-up. But it would deliver economic benefits as Australia’s highly trained women would be freed up to engage in more paid work. Add that to the longer-term benefits of better parental satisfaction, children’s development, and greater gender equality, and it’s a very worthwhile investment.

This Fathers’ Day, the best gift most dads could receive is more time with their children. And it turns out that would also be a great gift for mum, the kids, and the country.

Let’s hope Scott Morrison is taking wishes today.

Owain Emslie

Senior Associate
Owain Emslie is a Senior Associate at Grattan Institute. He has worked in the Transport and Cities, Household Finances, School Education, and Budget and Governance programs. He has co-authored reports on transport infrastructure procurement, female workforce participation, retirement incomes, and measuring student progress.

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