Malcolm Turnbull has distanced himself from other government ministers’ rhetoric on parental leave, saying mothers were entitled to receive whatever parental leave was available.
The communications minister also said it was important to “show due empathy and concern” for mothers at an important time in their lives.
Turnbull’s comments stand in contrast to other senior ministers referring to mothers who access both commonwealth and employer schemes as “double dippers”.
On the weekend, the treasurer, Joe Hockey, agreed that taking parental leave through two schemes was “in many cases” fraud while the social services minister, Scott Morrison, said: “In many cases I think it is a rort.”
Turnbull underlined that Tony Abbott had “changed his mind” on his earlier signature policy to extend paid parental leave. Now more money was being diverted to childcare.
“I respect every mother and I believe people are entitled to use whatever benefits, claims and entitlements, if you like, that are available to them,” Turnbull said.
“But the reality is we live in a world of scarce resources in this vale of tears, as Tony Abbott often describes the world. We have to be real. We have to accept that we can’t spend as much money on everything as we would like and so we have chosen to reprioritise, to change spending.”
The communications minister said he was not going to get into the “rhetoric” of double dipping.
“I will decide what words I use and the manner in which I use them. As you can see, on that John Howard note, I will take my leave,” he said.
On Wednesday, Arthur Sinodinos suggested on Sky News that the Coalition’s parental leave policy change was about saving money. Sinodinos also said “having a go” at young mothers was “not a good look” and warned the government should be more empathetic.
In the budget on Tuesday, the Coalition changed the paid parental leave policy towards relying more on employer schemes, if they are available for women. As a result, nearly 80,000 women will lose some or all of their commonwealth leave payments.
Bill Shorten recalled in 2014 that at an International Women’s Day breakfast, Abbott had compared his conversion on paid parental leave to Richard Nixon’s visit to communist China.
“This is the person who had one thing he believed in above all else, the Tony Abbott stamp, this was it and of course he dropped it when the pressure was on,” Shorten said.
“This government is now so uncommitted to paid parental leave, so unfamiliar with what happens in the workplaces of Australia, what employees and employers do, that they have decided to go after a new group of villains in the community.
“A few weeks of extra paid parental leave and somehow these people are now rorters.”
The finance minister, Mathias Cormann, said most women had access to only the government scheme funded by the taxpayer while a smaller number had access to two schemes.
“What we’re saying is that it’s great if you can get access to a more generous scheme through your private or public-sector employer,” Cormann said.
“If you have access to a more generous paid parental leave arrangement then we don’t think it is fair to all of the women across Australia who only have got access to one scheme for the taxpayer to be required to pay for access to a second scheme.”
Cormann was asked whether his partner accessed two schemes when they had a child two years ago.
“The mother of my two-year-old girl complied with all the systems in place,” Cormann said.
Asked if he got “two dips”, Cormann said: “I have got to check with my wife”.
The independent senator Nick Xenophon said the language around the paid parental leave argument was ridiculous. He was critical of the government’s language of “double dipping” and the ACTU president Ged Kearney’s description of the budget measure as “stealing” leave from employees.
“The language in this whole debate about PPL has been just frankly quite ridiculous,” Xenophon said.
“If women made enterprise bargaining agreements on the basis they were planning to have a child in the next three or four or five years and they have been affected by this, that doesn’t seem fair.
“So we need to look at that closely. Any change, if there is going to be a change, would need to be transitional and the government has to step away from this talk of rorting and double dipping and to listen to Arthur Sinodinos on this one.”