Speech by Senator the Hon Amanda Vanstone

Opening Address – Senator the Hon. Amanda Vanstone ACCI National Work and Family Conference


Thank you Margaret (Throsby).

I am pleased to be here today to talk about work and family – one of the most important issues for us all.

Very few of us get through the week without thinking about the balance between these two at least once.

Work is important for most of us. It provides a sense of purpose, identity, pride and independence. It also provides food, clothes and the roof over our heads.

Most of us also care about family, about friends and our communities – the connections that help us cope with and enjoy life.

Getting the balance right involves us all – government has to do its bit, employers have to think about how to make it happen, and employees need to contribute positively as well.

Government’s record on families

I will talk in a minute about why I think that this is getting harder. First, l want to say that the Government understands the need to support families.

When the New Tax System was introduced more than $2 billion extra went into the pockets of Australian families. We now spend over $12 billion a year in family payments.

This support is now better structured so that families get help when they need it.

If people choose to stay home and care for young children – they get more support than ever. We’ve introduced Family Tax Benefit Part B, and the Baby Bonus to help families with one partner at home.

When people with young children work – there is more quality child care than ever before – AND its more affordable.

We’ve done this against a background of strong and sustained economic growth – more jobs, lower interest rates and low inflation.

Welfare reform

It is also important to remember that there isn’t much work and family balance without the work.

Before talking about what work-family balance means for families and employers, I want to comment on this point.

Despite the gains, we still have too many families where no adult works – in June last year, there were 435,000 Australian families in which no parent had a job.

This isn’t good enough, and it’s why we have invested so heavily in Welfare Reform.

Most people on our payments want work now or in the near future, and most have a work history.

Three quarters of people who claim Parenting Payment have worked and most only come onto payment when caring for young children or when they or their partner has lost a job.

They know and want the life work can afford. What stops them? Often it’s that they can’t find the support they need to have both a work and family life.

And often what people need to get into work is also what they need to stay there.

Our Helping Parents Return to Work Program is a $39 million investment in helping people on our payments make the transition to work, and in helping them stay in a job with re-training to ensure that they have the skills for today’s workplaces.

Work and family balance

As I have said, achieving a work and family balance is important, and it seems to be getting harder.

Employers need to deal with this reality as well as families. This means that they need to talk with their people – to know more about what they want. That is a two way street – which I’ll talk more about in a minute.

However, the first question is this: why is work-family balance getting harder?

Changing aspirations and pressures

The short answer is that families and work are changing.

We still want what our parents wanted, to do the best for our children, but we are under pressure to give them more than we had.

It is reflected in our housing.

  • In the 1970s and earlier there were on average more people in a dwelling than there were bedrooms. This has now reversed.
  • Our houses are larger and have more bedrooms than ever before and fewer people living in them.

It is also reflected in our transport.

  • The number of households without a car more than halved from almost a quarter in 1966 to just over 10 per cent in 2001.
  • The average number of motor vehicles in households has risen from just over one to over 1.5 despite falling numbers of people living in households.

Things that were once luxury items are now common – televisions, videos, computers and mobile phones.

This is possible, often, because most families choose to have two parents in work – at least most of the time.

The male breadwinner model is no longer the norm. If families do rely on dad to hold down the only job, it is usually only when the kids are young.

Most women leave paid work for a time, but they intend to return, and do so often by the time the youngest child is two.

In fact, two thirds of women with dependent children are in paid work at any one time. However, we also know that women move in and out of the labour force. Over a 12 month period almost 73% of women with dependent children participated in the labour force. That’s a lot of mothers working.

On the other side of the ledger, relationships are less stable. Marriage rates are falling and divorce rates are high – around 40% of marriages will end in divorce.

The net result is that Australians are having fewer children and having them later in life. The median age for Australian mothers at first birth is now almost 30 years.

Women are working more than ever before, and they are also better educated, but better and earnings actually lead to fewer children.

Young women say they want both a family and a good job by the time they are 35. However it looks like this can be hard to achieve for too many. About 25% of Australian women will end up never having children.

Pressures from these changes

It is clear then that young families face a set of pressures that are qualitatively different to those faced by families 25 years ago.

These pressures are not going to go away.

Women aren’t going to stop working and we definitely don’t want people who want children to feel they don’t have that option.

People need to know that they can prepare for and have a family without it meaning they give up the chance of interesting and well-paid work in the future.

Evidence from other countries suggests if it is hard for women to work and have families, then society loses. Fertility rates fall – that has a huge impact on our future social and economic prospects – nationally, for families and for workplaces.

This is being shown in countries like Italy, Spain and Greece which traditionally don’t tend to encourage female labour force participation. Despite the traditional importance of family in these countries; their fertility rates have fallen dramatically.

The Nordic countries and France on the other hand, which make it easier for women to work, have found their fertility rates stabilising and in small part, improving.

No one thing can be singled out as the magic bullet that makes it easier for women to work.

However it is clear that there needs to be community supports for families –child care needs to be available where and when it’s needed – and children need to grow up in child-friendly communities.

We also need to encourage relationship security – when things are working well at home, productivity is likely to be better. When things are going well at work, family life can be more enjoyable.

What does this mean for employers?

Importantly, we also need to make sure that people have a sense of job security – a job to return to if they have children – and that flexible and part time work is available.

In essence we need a flexible approach to get work and family balance right. It’s not a contest – but a partnership.

We need to get rid of any idea that employers and workers can afford to stand apart on this issue – that one side can win at the cost of the other.

That thinking is simply wrong – it damages us all in the long run. It means less cooperation, less flexibility, slower growth, fewer jobs, more family stress and a lower quality of life all round.

None of us want this, nor can we afford it. We need to shift our thinking and work out what a truly negotiated position might look like. How can we achieve the win-win that we’re after?

For employers that might mean….

  • Considering options for a new parent so that they could have a job to come back to beyond the twelve months statutory period – perhaps when the baby reaches 18 months or two;
  • Then it might be part-time or job-sharing – full-time but with flexible start and finish times – some work from home?
  • Keeping in touch with people – to help ease the transition back to work.
  • Reducing someone’s working hours temporarily while they cope with a personal crisis – giving them time to adjust.
  • Recognising that men as well as women have responsibilities outside of work.

For workers and their families, it might mean….

  • Recognising that whilst they have been away things may have changed – their own needs and preferences for a particular way of working. Work travel may no longer be practical.
  • Things might also have changed at work – the job may have changed, been converted or lost.
  • Negotiating hours that recognise workers are needed when demand is high.
  • Understanding that an individual’s situation does impact on managers and co-workers.
  • Shared care – so one parent doesn’t shoulder the caring burden – and neither does one employer. Knowing that if kids are sick – Mum’s work is important too.

That level of flexibility has to be negotiated locally – you can’t legislate for it – not everything can be an entitlement.

Yes – we need to keep the security and protection that our industrial relations system provides – but we can’t hand-tie employers and/or workers – it just will not work.

Family friendly workplaces

Better arrangements are being negotiated. Not only for professionals and the highly paid. We hear more of new, positive work agreements – in banking and retail – and in concreting! We hear about self-managed rosters that work – in hospitals and shops.

Often the centrepiece is not a large pay rise – but more flexible family-friendly arrangements. That is what people value most and what business benefits most from.

The best examples of work and family are where employers and staff have built on statutory conditions and negotiated a middle ground that works for both of them.

However, despite these changes, family-friendly work provisions are still, too often, seen as only being women’s business. While women’s participation in paid work has gone up – there has been nothing like the same redistribution of domestic work.

However, this isn’t simply a women’s issue. We know that 68% of Australian men think that they don’t spend enough time with their children, and for more than half, their job and family interfered with each other.

The good news is that around 65% said that in the last five years they’ve made changes in their work life to improve the quality of their personal or family life.

We also need to appreciate that what families need changes throughout their lives.

We need to support families with practical policies that help people at each phase of life – and the transitions between them.

  • With work, families need different forms of help when one parent enters or re-enters work after a break, when their circumstances change, and in the transition to retirement .
  • When families have babies their needs change as the kids grow and start school, when they become teenagers, in the transition to independence and adulthood.
  • And families needs change when relationships change through break ups or other crises.

So the picture is complex. The changing nature of families, their expectations, their aspirations and their choices around workforce participation, mean we need to look again at how to ensure we get the best work and family balance in place.

However, the changes all point to the need for flexibility – on both sides.


We know that there will be a smaller group of people working in the future, compared to the group of people they support.

Business will need to look at how to attract and retain the best and brightest young women you want to return to work when they’ve had children and the men who’ve worked out they want to do it differently to their fathers and be more involved in raising their children.

Security of employment is important for people when making decisions about whether they can afford to have a family.

Employers who also understand the need for flexibility and balance will reap the reward of attracting and keeping good staff.

Finally, we also need to recognise and acknowledge progress in this area.

This Conference does just that – showcasing employers and employees with the commitment and common sense to act together in their mutual long-term interests.

To help here, Australia is one of three countries taking part in an OECD comparative study of family friendly provisions. The OECD reports later this year.

Today I am delighted to be able to officially launch Australia’s Background Report to that study “Family Friendly Policies: The Reconciliation of Work and Family Life”.

It shows that in the last two decades we have seen steady progress in the workplace relations system to improve access to family-friendly provisions. For example, the entitlement to paid caring leave is becoming more widespread. It also shows how important child care is for working families.

It’s a mark in the sand – something for us to build on.

Congratulations to tonight’s award nominees. I’m proud to say that my Department is a finalist in the Government employer category – and really pleased to see some of these things in action. Congratulations also to you, those attending this Conference, who understand how vital the balance of work and family life is to our future prosperity.