Kernot suffers in boys’ sandpit

When my daughter was a toddler, we had a brief and unsuccessful flirtation with the local playhouse, where mothers minded each other’s children. She spent most of her time there cowering in a corner of the sandpit, terrified of the rambunctious boys who outnumbered the girls three to one. The boys dominated the play space, careering wildly around on trikes and turning the most innocent toys into fearsome weapons. Territoriality ruled, OK?

In the end, we gave up and waited for kinder, where her own sex had a critical mass and were able to fend off the worst excesses.

That’s the problem with “letting boys be boys”. It means that there’s no room for girls. There are times when that’s OK – girls need times with just their own sex too. But there are times when it’s destructive. Ask Federal politician Cheryl Kernot.

Kernot’s recent stint in the stocks disproves Naomi Wolf’s thesis that the “no-vagina rule” (which decrees that anyone with a vagina will be forbidden success in the workforce or in public life) has been replaced by a “no-uterus rule” (you’re allowed to be female and successful as long as you don’t dare try to also fit motherhood into your life – in other words, as long as you play the game the way blokes do, with long hours, etc).

Times have not changed as much as Wolf would like to think. Kernot has been described by Liberal MP Don Randall as having “the morals of an alley cat on heat”.

The basis for this? A serious relationship 21 years ago with a younger (but adult) man who happened to have been a former student of hers. Randall also made unsubstantiated suggestions of an intimate relationship between Kernot and Senator Gareth Evans.
The fact that such abuse can be heaped upon a female public figure in a formal forum suggests that, in some quarters at least, the double standard is alive and well. Any bright young woman who wants to enter the public sphere had better be sure that she marries as a virgin and remains monogamous thereafter. Anything that could be construed as at all untoward will be noted, broadcast and punished.
Contrast this with the treatment meted out to the leader of the Western World in recent weeks. If you believe half the women who have come out of the woodwork in the past few months, the United States President moonlights as an out-of-control garden hose.
This would be neither here nor there were it not for the way he has allegedly used the Oval Office as the door into a bulk warehouse of firm young flesh..

But no one has had the bad manners to stand up in Congress and call him an alley cat. His popularity rating with ordinary Americans has actually increased. Sexual encounters outside of marriage have always been more tolerated in men who hold public office than women.
But Clinton has escaped lightly (to date), partly for the same reason that the attacks on Kernot have served to bring her sympathy: no one much cares.

Randall is living in a time warp. Even the matronly Women’s Weekly finds the notion of the scarlet woman a bit of a giggle, sending it up with a cover picture of Kernot in a slinky red dress. Randall is talking to an electorate in which up to 30 per cent of wives have had extra-marital affairs and one-in-three women have had abortions. Boys will be boys, and girls will be tarts? That’s an awful lot of french pastry.
But boys are still boys in that they resent having to make room for girls, especially smart, capable girls who rival them for voters’ pet. Any girl who’s had to share the boys’ sandpit recognises when a tom cat is spraying his territory.

First published in The Age.

Mending a broken heart

THE YOUNG man on the table lies as still as death. His chest has been carved open and the great red cavity within – a sphere the size of a soccer ball – is empty. His lungs flop, spent balloons, against the sides of his rib cage. The only signs of life are mechanical; the blips and wiggles of monitors and the swish of the heart-lung machine that is oxygenating his blood.

A nurse takes away his severed heart – a huge, flabby, near-useless thing – in a clear plastic bag, the way you’d take a goldfish home from the pet shop. She delivers it to two research pathologists waiting next door. They turn the slippery lump of meat over in their hands and remark on its features like art collectors evaluating a curio. For the man on the table, John McLaughlan, it is the point of no return. No matter what happens in the next few hours, his sick old heart cannot go back in his chest.

He is 29. He was 26 when he first discovered he was ill, in January 1995. Woke up one morning coughing blood and struggling to breathe. Thought he must have caught a bug from the air-conditioning of the Queensland resort hotel he was working in. A doctor told him he had a virus, a lung infection maybe, and would get over it in a few days with the help of antibiotics. In a few days he was dying. Tests showed that his aortic valve was leaking badly. He was choking on his own fluids because the weak flutters of his grossly enlarged heart could no longer clear his congested lungs.

The Queensland cardiologist thought he had 6 weeks to live. By day seven, McLaughlan was back in Melbourne for open-heart surgery to replace the aortic valve and repair his aorta. For many heart patients that would have been the end of the drama. For McLaughlan, it was just the beginning.

Now he lies in the Alfred Hospital waiting for a new heart. Medicine’s cutters are rarely known for their people skills, but it seemed odd that his surgeon, Don Esmore, did not talk to him in theatre before he was anaesthetised. Esmore hovered out of McLaughlan’s sight, reading his file, chewing gum, barking at anyone foolish enough to ask him how he is at this late hour. “Tired!” he snapped. “I’ve already done 10 open-heart surgeries this week and I’ve got three on tomorrow.”

McLaughlan wouldn’t have worried even if he had heard. Esmore is renowned for his ability to function brilliantly on no sleep. Hours later, an obvious explanation for the surgeon’s distance presents itself. Esmore is methodically slicing away the last strands of tissue that connect this living, beating heart to its young owner. And he does not know whether the replacement heart will start up in its new home. He never knows.

John McLaughlan was his family’s changeling child. They are short and stocky, he is long and lean, with an armspan wider than he is tall. When he was younger, he had an operation to remove a bone from his pigeon chest and another to reconstruct his abnormally long jaw. If his doctors had been on the ball then, they would have realised that all his problems were due to Marfan syndrome, a congenital connective tissue disorder whose sufferers have distinctive physical characteristics. But they weren’t, and McLaughlan went on to develop an aortic problem common with Marfan’s. By the time it was corrected in that first bout of open-heart surgery, his heart had been irreversibly damaged.

It left him an invalid. When he returned from hospital, he did not have the energy or the oxygen even to walk from one end of his parents’ house to the other. Like the Elephant Man, he could not lie down to sleep. “I’d feel like I was suffocating, like I was about to drown,” he says. “I used to bang the walls with frustration. All I wanted to do was sleep, just to lie down and have a decent couple of hours sleep …” It was nearly as exhausting for his mother, Laraine, who spent night after night up with her youngest, her baby, while he struggled for air, urging him to “Breathe, John, breathe …!”

A few months later his life became more bearable when he was fitted with a mobile heart pump. It sat on his torso, the size of a small cassette player, with a tube snaking up to his right nipple and into the main artery serving the heart. It infused him with a drug that stimulated his body’s weakening pump into action. At the time of our first interview, in March 1996, it was his lifeline. “Twenty years ago, I would have been dead by now,” he said, grateful for that.

Instead, he was entombed by his illness. His world had shrunk to his parents’ house the way a prisoner’s does to his cell. “I still feel short of breath. I’m not allowed to work, I can’t drive a car in case I black out, and I can’t go more than an hour from Melbourne. I’m not allowed out on my own. I can’t go out in the sun too much because some of the drugs I’m on make my skin burn easily. I’m on fluid restrictions, and there are lots of things I’m not allowed to eat. I can’t read much because I can’t concentrate. If I walk half-way up the street, I’m exhausted.” Bad as this was, the prognosis was worse. Someone had to die if he was to live.

McLaughlan never wrestled with any doubts about whether to accept a donor heart. He knew he wanted to live. But at times he found the thought almost shocking. “Sometimes I think, ‘Oh God, I’m going to have someone else’s heart in my body!’ I just wish there was another way that it could be done. It’s pretty depressing to think that you have to sit around waiting for someone else to die for you to live. You think about the other person’s parents and their families, and how their misfortune is my fortune.”

Terminally ill people often ask, “Why me?” For McLaughlan the question took a different turn. Instead of “Why should this have happened to me?” it was, “Why should I to be saved?” Benefiting from another’s death imposed a moral burden: “Sometimes I feel that I have to prove myself to get the gift of life; to prove that I am a worthy person, that I’ll be a worthy member of society after the transplant.

“I do think that all this has made me stronger. I’m much more patient now. Not about little things, like waiting for a lift, but big things.”
But questions about some of the big things made him uneasy. Most twenty-somethings are not forced to confront their mortality. What had that been like for him? Did he have any religious belief? He moved uncomfortably. The answer did not come readily. He was accustomed to forcing himself not to think of his dread. He had come to the view that a good patient tries to keep his spirits up, tries to preserve his sanity during the long, uncertain wait for a donor.

Finally, he said, “I like to believe lately that you come back; reincarnation.” He chuckled nervously. “I don’t want to die. I don’t want to think about death.” Then, almost pleadingly, “My hope is for a transplant, not to come back as another person.”
BY 10.45 on this spring night, McLaughlan is on the operating table. He had thought his greatest fear was not getting a heart, but now that the moment has come, after two-and-a-half years of waiting, he shakes with a different dread. His old heart, that wretched murderous heart, pounds visibly under the yellow cotton blanket. A mellow Creedence Clearwater strums in the background, Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ on the river

His parents had stayed with him until he was wheeled into theatre. Everyone was brave for the sake of everyone else. McLaughlan hugged and kissed his father, Don. His mother said briefly, “Love you.” John assured her, “You too, Mum. Everything’s going to be all right.” The trolley began to move and Laraine folded her arms across her chest, holding tight; Don pressed his mouth with both hands. Laraine waved a final goodbye, smiling, then turned away, her mouth trembling.

Esmore expects the operation to be complex. “It’s a re-do. He’s already had surgery, so getting through the previous scarring and adhesions will take a while. He’s not a standard case. He’s waited a long time, he’s got a defibrillator, he’s a marphanoid. It’s only two years since his last op and it’s safer if it’s at least five years. And he has an abnormal aorta; he’ll have most of the aorta replaced tonight.” The surgeon’s impatience is growing. “The organ is almost here and we haven’t started . . . They deteriorate over time, which creates a psychological pressure to get moving.”
McLaughlan is awake for some of the prepping. Arterial and venous lines are inserted into his arms to monitor his blood gases. A catheter measures pressures within the heart. Now the black anaesthetic mask is over his face. “I’m feeling jittery,” he mumbles. “That’s all right,” says Anne Griffiths, transplant co-ordinator, holding his hand.

She leaves the minute he is unconscious. A nurse whips the blanket off. McLaughlan lies naked, intensely human and utterly vulnerable in this stark, harshly lit space. His is the only bare flesh in this room of gowned and masked figures, and it is so bare. But no one so much as glances at him except for those who must work on him. One doctor bends over his groin to insert a catheter into his penis. Another slides tubing down his mouth. A cloth is draped over his genitals. His chest and stomach are shaved and his eyes taped closed.
Green cloth is draped on frames to cover his face and the rest of his body until only his torso, covered in clear plastic sheets impregnated with iodine, lies exposed. The transformation from person to surgical subject is complete.

Esmore begins the incision with a scalpel and then switches to the electrical current of diathermy because it seals the blood vessels, minimising bleeding. A long, fine needle with a spark at the end brings sizzling and smoke and the smell of singed meat. The 30-centimetre incision parts the flesh and reveals bubbly layers of pink foam: fat.

Then comes the breastbone, which must be sliced down the middle and held open with a rib-spreader. Esmore uses a saw with a small serrated blade. It is louder than a dentist’s drill. Blood spatters over his gloves and the green drapes. A second surgeon wields a suction tube that makes slurping noises. The iodine sheeting is now awash. Esmore grabs a sterile cloth and wipes it down as if he were using a teatowel on a kitchen bench. Behind us, Tina Turner belts out Simply the best . . .

Esmore uses pliers to cut through the wires that have held McLaughlan’s breastbone together since his previous surgery, then forceps to pull them out. He moves with great care in case McLaughlan’s scarring has left the heart stuck to the underside of the bone.

By 11.34, the sternum is split. It is hard to work with because of his previous surgery for pigeon chest. “Absolute pain in the bloody arse,” curses Esmore, giving his chewing gum a vigorous pounding. By 11.42, the opening reveals a sac of white scar tissue around the heart. It looks like the film that connects raw chicken fillet to the surrounding skin. McLaughlan’s head moves under the drapes as the doctors’ hands move in his chest, even though Esmore snips away painstakingly slowly, “to avoid unnecessary complications”, explains an anaesthetist. “Like death!” says Esmore drily. He rubs an itchy nose against the cradle holding McLaughlan’s drapes.

Retractors haul the rib cage open, and there it is: the heart. It would be an unremarkable, graceless lump of flesh were it not for its extraordinary rhythmic pounding . . . baboom, baboom, baboom. The rhythm of life. It begins on one side and flows into an answering contraction on the other, like the swing of a saucy woman’s hips. The sight is as dramatic as childbirth. It is life at its most basic; raw, and bloody, and beautiful.
McLaughlan has been receiving an anti-clotting agent so that his blood won’t clog the tubing of the heart-lung machine. By 12.25, he is off the ventilator and on the bypass machine. Dark red liquid runs through two thick tubes out of his body and into the machine that will keep him alive for the next three hours. On one side, theatre sisters hang up bloody swabs like washing on a line and Simon and Garfunkel offer themselves as a Bridge over troubled water . . .

The new heart has been sitting in a small foam food cooler. It is hard to believe the old heart is inadequate; it is enormous. But it is so big because it has worked so hard, so ineffectively, for so long that it has stretched under the pressure, like elastic that has lost its snap. The new heart is firm and lumpy, with pockets of yellow fat, looking for all the world like a small Sunday roast. The team discuss the age of the donor, who was relatively young. What causes a sudden death at that age? “Cerebral haemorrhage?” suggests an anaesthetist. “Car smash?”

At 1.14, Esmore lifts the sagging lump out of McLaughlan’s chest. Then he works in a bowl of bloody water to trim the new heart to size. At 1.29, it goes into the empty chest. Esmore begins long-distance sewing with forceps that hold the curved needle and thread and tweezers that capture the thread as it is pulled through. Forty minutes later the heart-lung machine begins to warm McLaughlan’s blood, which has been running through tubes sitting in ice. Cool bodies need less oxygen. There’s not a cloud in the sky . . .

THE OPERATING table is adjusted so McLaughlan’s head is lower than his heart. It is about to be filled with blood, and any air that might be in the new heart must be prevented from reaching the brain. Now the bubbles will float safely upwards and spurt out, like the spouting of a whale, through a hollow tube called a cannula. At 2.17, as Esmore continues to stitch, the heart sputters, unprompted, into a mad tarantella – into life. To the medicos, it is spontaneous return of electrical function; to anyone else, it is resurrection.

Esmore must still use a defibrillator to regularise the beat and is pleased that it contracts with a big kick. Then he hands over to the assisting surgeons to install McLaughlin’s pacemaker, which will be wired to sit outside his body in case he needs help in the hours after the operation. Esmore finds a chair and sags into it, suddenly looking as tired as he must feel. He allows himself the luxury of a yawn. “It’s a lovely rate,” he says, with the quiet satisfaction of a mechanic admiring the purr of a newly tuned engine.

Later, he explains, “The thing that really screws you up is when the heart doesn’t work. We can stand here for hours at this stage and we can’t get them off the operating table and they die because the new heart just hasn’t taken over.”

The assisting surgeons partially close the huge wound and then open it again to check for bleeding. By now the two lungs are filling, surging towards each other over the top of the heart as McLaughlan inhales with the help of the ventilator. Then comes a truly gruesome stage. The surgeon weaves thick wire up one side of the sternum and then the other, pushing hard to force it through the ribs. Then he pulls the two strands together, twisting and snipping as he goes, to unite the bone. By 4.07, the chest is closed.

An hour later, McLaughlan’s parents glimpse him on the trolley as staff speed him into intensive care. Don says, “There’s our boy. There he goes.” Laraine says, with relief, “It’s a gift. The gift of life.”

The drama didn’t end there. Things went well at first. By day three, McLaughlan was on a high. He sat up in a chair like a spaceman, with tubes snaking in and out of his body, and his mother and father sat gazing at him with wonder and pride and relief, like the parents of a newborn babe. “I feel perfect,” he said exultantly. “Dr Esmore came to see me and said, ‘Oh, you’re dangerous now’!” He grinned, chuffed at the very idea, then sobered. “I’m not meant to die.”

But he came close. It was six weeks and three more bouts of surgery before he went home. His wound developed a massive staph infection. Staff milked a litre-and-a-half of pus out of his chest. He had two operations to clean up the infection, the second removing part of his breastbone. Doctors left the wound open so that they could watch it and, with nothing but a gauze dressing between his innards and the world, his chest wobbled like jelly on a plate. The fourth operation cut a muscle flap from his abdomen and positioned it where his sternum used to be. Said Laraine, with sturdy humor, “He should have had a zipper put in.”

McLaughlan will never be just like everyone else. For the rest of his life he must take drugs that will suppress rejection by repressing his immune system. He will be sensitive to sunlight and will have other minor physical problems. But he’s walking four kilometres a day and cycling five, helping with the household chores, and planning to be back at work by the middle of next year.

“Sometimes I feel sad for the donor’s family,” he says. “I often wonder what the donor looked like, what he used to do. I would like to meet the family, but that’s an impossibility. We spoke (at the transplant clinic) about writing letters to them, and they reckon a good time is close to the anniversary. Now is too soon, for me and for the donor family.”

There are other ways in which McLaughlan’s life will never be the same. “I approach everything differently. Every day is a bonus. I appreciate being able to breathe, being able to walk, being alive to see my nephews grow up.” The beat goes on . . .


‘PEOPLE who become organ donors are not ill,” says Bette Martyn, senior Victorian transplant coordinator. “They are people who go out in the morning – to school, to work, to recreation – and don’t come home in the afternoon. They don’t have a chance to say goodbye to their families. They are all sudden, tragic deaths.

“Most times, the people close to them say to me, ‘It’s all so senseless’. Organ donation can offer some sense of purpose. It’s not for everybody; if a family doesn’t feel comfortable when first approached about it, they should never be talked into it.

“That’s one of the reasons we set up the organ donor registry, so that people can make up their own minds and inform their families, so that if their relatives are ever faced with that decision in intensive care, they know how to respond. It isn’t their decision.

“When we first started transplanting, we got quite a lot of refusals. The two things people said ‘No’ to were the eyes, because of a sense that they have to see where they are going, and the hearts, because of a sense that that’s where the soul is.

“Other people can come to terms with organ donation if it’s going to be used for a transplant, but they don’t want it used for research. In fact, we are not able to use tissues for research unless we get specific consent for that.

“You can donate heart, lungs, liver, kidney, pancreas, cornea, skin, bone and heart valves. You can be 140 and die in bed and still donate your corneas and give sight to the blind. It’s the ultimate in recycling.”

Victoria’s organ donor register has 23,000 names; it needs more than 250,000 to cater for the need. Martyn is on the register. So is the rest of her family, including her baby grandson.

* The Organ Donor Registry can be contacted on 1800 645 899.

First published in The Age.

You & me, can we be partners?

It’s a romantic story. They met in 1948 in a queue outside a theatre in Exhibition Street, waiting to see Vivienne Leigh and Laurence Olivier in The Skin of Our Teeth. Mark Rowan was a shy country boy who really rather liked the look of the tall young man with blue eyes who seemed so urbane standing near him. Later, inside the the theatre, a mutual friend introduced him to the young man, Robert Jeffrey. “It was somehow important to have an introduction,” Rowan recalls.

They have been together now for 50 years. Their life together has been like that of any other longstanding couple. They own a suburban house together and have joint bank accounts. They used to love to share the gardening and the book club membership. They have grown old together, Rowan losing his hair, Jeffrey, his health.

For them, the Equal Opportunity Commission’s proposal to offer gay couples the option of formally registering their relationships, submitted to state parliament today, has come too late.

“For many years, I would have wanted that,” Mr Rowan says. “Robert didn’t care a fig. But there are so many weddings to which we have taken gifts and good wishes, and we have never been able to have that for ourselves. Just the other day, I had a cousin who had been married for 25 years, so I called him up and congratulated him. But I thought, ‘I’ve been with my partner for twice as long as you’ve been with yours’.”

He believes the length and closeness of their relationship is its own testament, there would be no point in formalising it.

“Now that we are in our seventies, it’s not a significant thing. What is significant is that we have loved each other for so long. We don’t need marriage to codify that.”

But the commission’s proposals to recognise same-sex relationships are about more than emotional fulfilment and social recognition. They will change the legal rights and responsibilities of gay couples, to bring them into line with the standard that already exists for heterosexual de facto or married couples.

The commission’s research suggests there is considerably more common ground between conservative lobby groups and homosexuals on the issue of gay rights than there used to be. Commissioner Michael Gorton says that, for the most part, even conservatives who opposed such options as gay marriage and adoption supported the general notion that same-sex couples should not be discriminated against in other ways.

“If you remove ‘marriage’ from the equation, it takes away the sensitive religious issues,” he says.

“We take great heart from this report,” says Janet Jukes, co-convenor of the Victorian Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby. “I think society has made enormous shifts in the past 10 or 20 years.

“I think gay men and lesbians should have the right to marry in the same way any other couples can . . . but I think the committee has been very pragmatic, recognising that this is a very emotive issue, and that many of the same aims can be achieved in other ways.”

The proposal seems to have satisfied most parties to the debate. Mary Helen Woods, national vice-president of the Australian Family Association, feels that what she sees as the special qualities of heterosexual marriage have been protected, as have the rights of children to a mother and a father: “I think there are plenty of single parents who do a wonderful job, but I think when it comes to IVF and adoption it is important to consider the needs of the child and limit it to the ideal.”

Lesbian mothers “Sally” and “Jenny” are pleased to see any step forward in gay couples’ rights. They each have two children from previous heterosexual relationships. The children still see their fathers, but Sally and Jenny are effectively co-parents of all four, who are aged between nine and 14.

“Jenny” is delighted by the proposal to extend de facto recognition to gay partners. “That sounds great. One of the problems we have as a couple is that, because we are not recognised, if one should die with no will in place, we would have big problems over the property rights and over the children.

“And something that worries both of us at the moment is that if one of us is injured and in hospital, the other one won’t have the right to be next of kin. If a fuss is kicked up, that means that the person I love may not have the right to be beside my bed.”

Greg Brown, president of Homo De Factos, says his group’s objective was to obtain equality for gay couples, and this had never meant aiming for the right to marriage. He says the Equal Opportunity Commission proposals adequately address the main concerns.

“It gives legal protection to those who register and a safety net (de facto recognition) to those who don’t. There had been concerns, all the way through the inquiry, that people who chose not to register would be left legless, but that won’t be the case.”

The changes should help eliminate or minimise problems such as those Brown suffered when his partner of 10 years died in 1994. “I had assumed that we were covered under superannuation, but we weren’t,” he says.

His partner had been a federal public servant. “I took the Commonwealth to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and I lost. The court decided that we had lived in a marital relationship but that they couldn’t give me the payout because we were the same sex. Heterosexual relationships are recognised automatically and rubber-stamped through.”

Jamie Gardiner is a long-time gay activist who was instrumental in getting homosexuality decriminalised in Victoria. He says the report has achievable aims, which is important because “social change is about persuading people” but, at the same time, it does not compromise any future claims, which he believes must eventually include marriage and access to adoption and IVF.

“It’s not a question of whether rights should be granted but a matter of justifying continuing to deny the legal form of marriage to same-sex couples,” he says.

He is optimistic about the long-term prospects. “It was only 30 years ago – in 1967 – that the US Supreme Court ruled that there was no ground for continuing to deny the legal form of marriage to mixed-race couples.”

Gardiner says recognition is very important on an emotional level for gay couples, because it means society acknowledges and respects the reality of their relationship ties instead of denying them: “It’s the sense of not being derided as outlaws.”

* Fictional names have been used for some people to maintain their privacy.

First published in The Age.

Australia and maternity leave

THERE has always been an obvious way to find the answer to Freud’s famous question, “What do women want?” Ask them. Ann Sherry did just that when she became a general manager at the Westpac bank and realised the cost to the bank of a high turnover of skilled female employees, especially after childbirth. “Nearly 70 per cent of our staff are female and most of them are front-line service staff, the ones who build relationships with customers,” she says.

First, she did the sums: “We had a look at their average length of service and their skill levels, how much the organisation had invested in them and how much they cost to replace.”
Then she asked women why they chose to resign when having a baby, rather than take maternity leave. Sherry discovered that many quit simply so that they could cash in their benefits to set up the baby’s nursery. “Having a baby is a high-cost exercise,” Sherry says. “You need millions of baby things and dozens of nappies at a time when your income drops.

“We realised that, by keeping their income going over that critical period, we would ease the pressure on them to resign. We worked out that if we increased our return-to-work rate by only 10 per cent, the cost savings to us would pay for maternity leave across the organisation. So we did it.”
Women at Westpac now have six weeks paid and 12 months unpaid maternity leave, and Sherry’s predictions have been proved right: “We keep more of our skilled people and we keep their commitment.”

This is a rare Australian story. Most women are in the workforce before they have their first child but only about 17 per cent are eligible for paid maternity leave.

In a recent survey, the United Nations named Australia as one of the world’s poorest providers of paid maternity leave (although it was one of the best with unpaid leave, with a national standard of 12 months). The report on 152 countries by the International Labor Organisation said Australia is one of only six that does not require that women be paid during maternity leave. (The other five are the United States, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Lesotho and Swaziland.)

The report, Maternity Protection at Work, estimated that women provide the main source of income in 30 per cent of the world’s households. In Western countries, more than 55 per cent of working women supply half or more of their family’s income. “Without cash and health benefits, many women could not afford to take maternity leave or might be forced to return to work before their health allowed,” the report said.

In Australia, the few private-sector areas with paid maternity leave, such as car manufacturing, tend to be those in which unions have won the benefit as part of award negotiations or enterprise bargaining deals. (Public sector unions have won the nation’s most generous benefits, with 12 weeks paid leave). Such proposals seldom come from management, where maternity leave is more often viewed as another cost to be avoided.

David Edwards, the chief executive officer of the Victorian Employers Chamber of Commerce and Industry, shares this more typical view. “One person’s paid maternity leave is another person’s job,” he argues. “The European countries that pay such benefits and have high levels of social services also have the highest levels of unemployment.

“The issue for Australia is how to balance the community’s need for better employment benefits and social services with issues of unemployment and with the competitive market we face in Asia, where there is no paid maternity leave.”

For Professor Belinda Probert, director of the centre for applied social research at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, the issue is not whether paid maternity leave should be introduced, but how best to introduce it fairly.

She dismisses Edward’s argument that it inevitably increases unemployment. “The Scandinavian countries had this benefit long before they had high unemployment,” she says. “It is true that some small businesses, for example, would find it very hard to pay for maternity leave, but no business is willingly going to pay when it knows that its competitors are not.”
In 1995, the Keating Government introduced a maternity allowance (currently a one-off payment of $950) upon the birth of a child. Because it is made to all mothers, including those not in the paid workforce, it is not, technically, paid maternity leave. It also falls short of what the ACTU had proposed at the time: an allowance of at least $140 a week for 12 weeks.

Overseas, payment systems vary. Some countries pay benefits through the social services system, others require employers to pay and a third group uses a combination of both. Denmark provides 18 weeks on full pay (social security), Switzerland eight weeks on full pay (employer) and Japan 14 weeks at 60 per cent of pay (social security).

Probert is concerned that Australia’s laissez-faire approach, which relies on each industry or workplace to negotiate its own terms, means that paid maternity leave will be introduced slowly and inequitably.

“The big policy question for Australia is the way we are making all these employment benefits hinge on enterprise bargaining,” she says. “That will only work for a few people in privileged industries, like education.” Probert fears that some workers will be forced to give away other benefits, such as sick leave, to win paid maternity leave.
She also fears that this could divide men and women, with male workers resenting losing established benefits so that females can have paid maternity leave. “In Scandinavia, maternity benefits are taken out of general revenue, so you don’t have to trade off something to get it,” she says.

There has long been concern that employer-paid maternity leave might discourage employers from hiring women. Linda Rubinstein, a senior industrial officer with the Australian Council of Trade Unions, says that when the ACTU pitched for unpaid maternity leave in 1979, it didn’t ask for paid leave for fear it would disadvantage women in the job market. This is no longer an issue because there are now comprehensive anti-discrimination laws, she says.

But she points to other barriers. Australia’s Constitution prevents the Federal Government legislating on employment conditions, making it difficult to introduce a national policy. And she doubts that any application for paid maternity leave would be approved by the Industrial Relations Commission in the current environment.

Anne Callanan, policy worker with the Council of Single Mothers and their Children, says that it is interesting to note which needs employers have no difficulty accommodating.

She has a friend who works in a large, competitive company: “She often talks about the different attitude that is taken when a man has to take time off for a sporting injury versus when a woman needs time off because of her children. He gets sympathy. She gets a lot of muttering about how `She shouldn’t be doing that; can’t she get someone else to do it?”‘

Megan Wahr, 37, founder and co-ordinator of the Australian Businesswomen’s Network, takes her four-month-old son to the office every day so that he can be held and breastfed while she works. She gave herself a week of unpaid leave when he was born.

An independent go-getter who has set up her own small business, Wahr used to believe it was up to individuals to make their own way. “I used to take the attitude that nobody owes you anything, that if you want children, you should pay for them.

“The reality of motherhood has changed my perspective. It’s not

something you can do autonomously. Suddenly you need people in a way you didn’t before. It’s been a great educator for me, teaching me that we are all links in the chain. The concept I had before was selfish and outmoded and completely unrealistic.”

For a woman running her own small business, “maternity leave is not very realistic. I planned four weeks’ leave with my first baby but only had about seven days because my secretary left suddenly. (Going back to work so soon) just killed me. You’re brain dead with lack of sleep.” Most small businesses could never afford to provide paid maternity leave, she says.

She is startled to learn that, in some countries, the government pays every mother during at least part of her maternity leave: “It’s a concept I’ve never considered … but I do think the community would benefit from women being paid to stay home for the first month or two, knowing that at least the minimum bills would be paid.”

Laura Young, 32, a spare-parts packer with General Motors-Holden, received six weeks’ paid maternity leave before taking 12 months unpaid leave to be with her third child, eight-month-old Murray. Holden subtracted from her maternity payment the equivalent of the maternity allowance she received from the Federal Government.

“This is my first paid maternity leave, so I know the difference between unpaid and paid. It means that I can stay off for a whole 12 months this time. It’s been lovely being home with the baby and being able to take the other children to school and to kinder.

“With my first child I could only take 10 months because we ran out of money. If I hadn’t got paid this time I would have had to go back by now. It’s so hard with a third; both the others are at school, so there are a lot of other costs – school fees, excursion levies, uniforms. They cost me $350 to get to school this year.”

Pip Knight, 29, public relations executive with a clothing company, is at home on 12 months unpaid maternity leave with her first baby.

“Until you actually have a baby, the issue isn’t of interest to you, but as soon as you get pregnant, you think ‘Oh God!’ You become acutely aware of what you don’t get.

“I wouldn’t expect an employer to pay for the 12 months you are at home, but I think there could be better incentives. I would like to see more things like job-sharing, that would allow you to be a mother and work as well. I think it would make staff feel more loyal and more contented … My employers have offered me a four-day week when I go back, which is better than five.

“Australia seems to be lagging behind. You read in magazines about how things are much more advanced in other countries, with maternity leave, job-sharing, creches at work. It would make the transition easier from workforce to motherhood and back again. I think the next generation will benefit from that.”

First published in The Age.