Prime Minister Tony Abbott, seated beside UN Women's Donelle Wheeler, greets Opposition Leader Bill Shorten during the International Women's Day parliamentary breakfast. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has urged ''progressives'' to cast politics aside and embrace the Coalition's paid parental leave scheme as a watershed moment for feminism in Australia.
Mr Abbott spoke about his own conversion to paid parental leave at an International Women's Day breakfast in Canberra on Tuesday, comparing it to US President Nixon's historic 1972 visit to communist China.
''I believe a fair dinkum paid parental leave scheme is an idea whose time has come,'' Mr Abbott said. "Just imagine if a progressive had come up with this idea. The usual suspects would have been cheering and saying: 'About time.'
But because a conservative has come up with this idea so many people are saying there must be something wrong with it.
"Let's drop this silly guilt by association and let's get on with something which is unambiguously good for the women of our country, for the families of our country and for the economy of our country."
Mr Abbott said he opposed paid parental leave as a minister in the Howard government but his views changed after considering what would be best for his three daughters.
''It is a little disconcerting when a conservative, when a traditionalist such as myself, comes up with something which is not regarded as a conservative and a traditional position,'' he said.
"It is a bit like when Nixon went to China, conservatives thought: 'My God, has he suddenly abandoned the faith?'" he said. "Progressives thought: 'My God, is China no longer a progressive country?' The truth is this was a historic breakthrough. This was one of those moments when people from all sides of politics needed to realise that a watershed had been reached.''
Labor is opposed to the Coalition's scheme which would give a baby's primary carer six months leave on the mother's full pay up to an annual salary of $150,000. Some Coalition MPs are also opposed to the scheme, saying it is too costly and disadvantages stay-at-home mothers.
The scheme would cost $5.5 billion a year, funded in part by a 1.5 per cent levy on big business.
In his speech at the breakfast event, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten urged the government to tackle pay inequality and promote flexible working arrangements for working women.
"If we're serious about getting equal pay for women, we need to work to lift the pay of occupations dominated by women," he said.
"[A]s a nation, we've been tardy about recognising the emotional contribution of people at work, and a lot of that work is done by women.
"We need to help working women negotiate hours and arrangements that make it easier for them to juggle work and family, without trading away their workplace rights.
"We need to eliminate the idea that women who work part time or flexible hours are having a 'day off' or 'getting in late' when they're really just doing their other full-time job."