Worst Dad Joke Ever: Paternity Leave in Australia


Words || Guy Webster

“I will find you. And I will kill you.”

These are the sexy, sexy words of a brooding Liam Neeson, a determined father who risks life and limb to save his only daughter from the hands of hairy European men. Of course, some morally questionable violence follows, but still, the sentiment screams dad goals. And he’s not alone in this example of paternal vigour. Hollywood has been increasingly dominated by the paternal narrative, the formidable father who risks all for the sake of his children. But beyond this, there’s also a greater representation of the emotionally available, doting dads. Films like Finding Nemo not only subvert the nuclear family structure, but also question the hyper-masculine, Liam Neeson father figure, instead offering a sensitive, anxiety-ridden fish who still risks life and fin for his son.

But how does Australian cinema hold up with this trend? Well, I only need to say “Tell’em he’s dreamin” to recall one of the most iconic Aussie Dads. And I know the entire population of Australia has collectively decided never to mention Baz Lurhman’s Australia ever again but with Hugh Jackman’s Dover, the distant Aussie battler was subverted in favour of a more caring example of fatherhood. Even T.V. has followed suit, with House Husbands continuing into its fifth season, not to mention the legendary Alf Stewart of Home and Away delivering ‘stone the flamin’ crows’ realness for years now.

So what does this discussion of fatherhood in cinema and T.V. mean for Australian fathers today?

In 2013 the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated that the number of stay at home Dad’s had doubled in the last 10 years; from 57,000 to 106,000. Then, in 2014 the Bureau completed a follow up study which placed this figure closer to 144,000. The number of stayathome dads is clearly increasing, not only in their representation on prime-time Aussie soaps, but in households throughout the country.

Yet despite this, Australia’s paid parental leave is one of the worst in the world, second only to the U.S. With the Turnbull government attempting to legislate further changes to our already struggling system, it calls into question not only how we treat mums, but also how we treat our Aussie Dads.

Despite accounting for 20% of Australia’s population, Aussie dads are only entitled to 2 weeks paternity leave at minimum wage. Of course there are options provided to fathers, including sharing 18 weeks of further leave with their partner, and this may sound more than reasonable to most. But because of the large difference between maternity and paternity leave, mothers are usually, and understandably, most likely to make use of this extra time. As a result, the Father assumes the role of ‘mum’s assistant’, seemingly incapable of assuming primary care.

This approach to paternity leave creates a toxic culture around Fathers who do not fulfil the bread-winning, coach potato archetype or who simply want to spend more time with their kids. To become the primary care giver, Dads have to sacrifice their employment altogether; or their child simply has to settle for a two-week crash course in fatherhood.

Perhaps this looks like I’m creating an issue where there really isn’t one. A lot of Dads are happy with two-weeks, and perhaps the other 16% of Dads who believe their work and family responsibilities are out of whack aren’t really enough to warrant a change. But this is an issue which effects not only Fathers, but also the labour market for mothers.

In 2000, Iceland, created a law which granted both Mothers and Fathers 3 months leave, at 80% of their income. In a surprising result, 90% of all Fathers took advantage of this extended leave. This not only challenged the assumption that Dads do not experience paternal instincts, it also enabled mothers to return to the workplace sooner. No longer the useless accessory to parenting, Dads were able to assume a more active role in providing care, moderating the responsibility imparted on mothers. It should appear as no surprise that Iceland was consequently ranked number 1 in the World Economic Forum’s 2012 Global Gender Gap Report.

This isn’t the only example of increased paternity leave overseas, with Denmark, Sweden, and Norway each offering more than 10 weeks payed paternity leave. Not only does this prove once again that Scandinavian countries are just, but it calls into question the archaic nature of Australia’s approach to new Dads.

Clearly, given the opportunity, father’s will pursue more time with their children. Outside of simply acting as a mother’s assistant, fathers can and will assume the role of primary care giver, meaning that mothers can return to the workplace faster with little fear of having to supervise an incapable Dad.

Australia’s approach to paternity doesn’t hold up well at all. With only two-weeks leave, and at minimum wage, we are creating a culture which prioritises the father as the primary bread-winner, devaluing their abilities as parents. This forces mothers to stay at home longer, perpetuating the Sophie’s Choice culture where women must decide to become a mother to the detriment of their professional career.
So what’s the answer?

Raising the amount of leave granted to Dads, and to Mum’s, comes at a significant cost, one which the Turnbull government is actively seeking to avoid. But at its core it is a cultural perception of Fathers, one which we as individuals can affect and change for the better. Fathers are not incapable assistants to parenting, are not devoid of paternal instincts, and ultimately they deserve a chance to pursue greater connections with their children.
So, help oppose the changes proposed by the Turnbull government by signing the petition below. Together we can give Aussie Dads a proper go, and reply to Malcolm Turnbull’s proposal with a collective:

“Tell’em he’s dreaming”.