Australian opposition leader Tony Abbott is fighting perceptions that he is sexist and old-fashioned in his attitudes toward women with a taxpayer-funded parental leave policy for working mothers that even his political allies have criticized as too generous.
Abbott's conservative coalition is tipped to win power in Sept. 7 elections after six years in opposition, even though he remains unpopular among women voters. But despite Australia's dwindling tax revenue in the aftermath of a China-led mining boom, Abbott on Wednesday defended his plan to spend 5.5 billion Australian dollars ($5 billion) a year to pay mothers to stay home with their newborn babies.
"Every social advance attracts its critics," Abbott told reporters. "This is a serious social advance. It will be a watershed for the women of our country."
"For the first time in our history, women will be given a real choice to have a family and a career at the same time," he added.
Under the plan, working women would be paid the equivalent of their usual salary of up to AU$150,000 a year to take six months off work with babies born after July 1, 2015. The maximum payment for six months maternity leave would be AU$75,000.
Australian mothers are currently entitled to AU$622.10 a week, the equivalent of the minimum wage, for 18 weeks for maternity leave.
The opposition plans to increase the tax rate for Australia's 3,200 largest companies by 1.5 percentage points to 30 percent to pay for the policy. The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a traditional supporter of Abbott's center-right Liberal Party, argues that business can't afford it.
Some lawmakers among the Liberals' junior coalition partner, the Nationals, have threatened to vote in Parliament against the maternity leave plan. But the Nationals' leaders are publicly supporting the policy. The Nationals represent poorer rural communities where few women earn AU$150,000 a year.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who leads the center-left Labor Party government, argues that the tax hike on big business would raise only 40 percent of the required funds. He challenged Abbott to reveal where a conservative government would make spending cuts to pay for the plan.
Rudd's skepticism was shared by The Australian newspaper's editor-at-large, Paul Kelly, who described the policy in a column Wednesday as "extravagant, fiscally dangerous and certain to inflict pain elsewhere."
Abbott, a 55-year-old Rhodes scholar and former Roman Catholic seminarian, has been struggling to improve his image among women voters by attending media functions with his wife and young adult daughters. He was criticized last week for praising the "sex appeal" of a female Liberal candidate.
Australia's first woman prime minister, Julia Gillard, was lauded by feminists around the world for a fiery speech in Parliament last October in which she branded Abbott a misogynist for a string of allegedly sexist comments he had made in recent years.
Gillard was replaced by Rudd in June by government lawmakers who feared they were headed for an election disaster under her leadership.