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Thursday, 26 March 1987
Page: 1628

Mr WILLIS (Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations)(5.52) —In summing up this debate one must say that the performance of the Opposition has been quite extraordinary and one which, quite frankly, takes us by surprise. Although we know that the Opposition has been in a bit of chaos lately, we expected that, in line with the support given to the affirmative action legislation, where I understand there was no vote from the Opposition in either House against that legislation, we would get similar support for a piece of legislation which seeks to do much the same thing in respect of Commonwealth statutory authorities as the affirmative action legislation did for companies in private industry. It is amazing, at first, that we have heard debate of the kind that has gone on in this House today, where the Opposition has been trying desperately to find reasons why it should oppose this legislation.

That has not been true of all speakers from the Opposition. We have heard speeches which have indicated substantial support for the legislation, and we appreciate that. The reason that we have had those speeches from the members of the Opposition, particularly from members of the Liberal Party of Australia, is that they face a situation where the future of the coalition is in considerable doubt. They have apparently taken a decision to oppose this legislation to placate the people in the National Party of Australia and to try to keep them on side before they make their decision on the future of the coalition at the weekend. That is basically why we have had the most amazing convolutions of reasoning going on from the Opposition, trying to find reasons for opposing legislation which is eminently sensible and which is the same sort of legislation-slightly differently expressed, but no differently expressed in effect-which it found quite possible to support last year in respect of companies.

We had a pathetic array of excuses for opposing this legislation. The pathetic nature of that is made clear by the fact that some members of the Opposition have made it clear that they do not accept that line of argument. The honourable member for Boothby (Mr Steele Hall) has indicated that he strongly supports the legislation and he will vote in favour of it. The honourable member for Kooyong (Mr Peacock) indicated in an interview outside the House that he supports the legislation. Senator Peter Baume has resigned from the shadow Cabinet because of the decision that has been taken to oppose this legislation; and he cannot agree with that. Quite clearly we have a pathetic array of reasons from the other side. When one looks at those reasons, one sees how pathetic they are.

A major point, supposedly, that was made was that this matter had not been to the Business Regulation Review Unit; therefore this was some major deficiency in the legislation. It is true that this legislation does not have a regulation impact statement, but this legislation has been not to the Business Regulation Review Unit but to the businesses themselves. All of the statutory authorities which could be conceived to be businesses have been consulted about this legislation. It is not something which will be impacted upon them without their knowing anything about it, which could arguably be the case in respect of legislation for companies. So in those circumstances it is reasonable to look at the Business Regulation Review Unit and get some assessment of what the impact might be on companies at large. In this case we have been to the businesses themselves and they have had a chance to make their input and to tell us what the impact on them would be. The legislation goes ahead after full consultation with those businesses. It is an absolute absurdity to argue that because it has not been to the Business Regulation Review Unit there is some massive deficiency in it.

If one needs any convincing that this Opposition is desperate to find a reason to oppose this legislation, this is clearly it, apart from clear misconceptions about what is contained in the legislation. I think that they are apparent misconceptions, because I believe that the Opposition understands what is contained in the legislation but is trying to make out that there are differences. The whole argument about the Business Regulation Review Unit is a nonsense. The businesses themselves have been consulted; therefore there is a full appreciation of their position, and the Government puts this legislation forward to put its statutory authority businesses in the same position as businesses in the private sector. That should be a quite acceptable position for the Opposition, which voted for legislation of this kind to apply to the private sector.

The second supposed issue is that this legislation will impose quotas on statutory authorities. It is absolutely absurd to argue that quotas are involved in this legislation. First of all, it was made absolutely clear in my second reading speech on at least a couple of occasions that nothing in this legislation upsets the merit principle. I said that quite specifically. Indeed, it is contained in clause 3 (4) of the legislation, which says:

Nothing in this Act shall be taken to require any action incompatible with the principle that employment matters should be dealt with on the basis of merit.

So we start off with the fact that we have the merit principle which, virtually by definition says that there are no quotas because people will be appointed on the basis of merit. This legislation is about ensuring that the merit principle properly applies by eliminating discrimination and having people being able to apply for positions on the basis of merit. It does not impose positive discrimination by saying: `You shall have X percentage of positions going to women, Aboriginals, or whoever'. It does say that discrimination should be eliminated and that people should be able to apply for jobs and get them on the basis of merit. It says:

Nothing in this Act shall be taken to require any action incompatible with the principle that employment matters should be dealt with on the basis of merit.

How one can possibly get up and argue, as the Deputy Leader of the Opposition (Mr N.A. Brown) and other people have done in this debate, that there is some imposition of quotas is absolutely beyond me. I am just staggered that that kind of argument can be seriously made. Obviously, people on the other side who have spoken in this debate indicating their support for the Bill also see the absurdity of that.

The argument that we have quotas also proceeds on the basis that the wording in this Bill is different from the wording in the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act. It is slightly different. Perhaps that has created some degree of confusion. But I really do not see why that is so. Comparing the affirmative action legislation definition and the Bill's definition, it is exceedingly difficult to argue that there is any discernible difference. Section 8 (g) of the affirmative action Act sets out the contents of affirmative action programs. Remember, this legislation was supported by the Opposition. It states that one of the contents of affirmative action programs should be to set objectives and make forward estimates in the program. In section 8 (3) it defines what is meant by `forward estimate'. It says that it means a `quantitative measure or aim which may be expressed in numerical terms' designed to achieve equality of opportunity for women in employment matters being a measure or aim which can be reasonably implemented by the relevant employer within a specified time. So there is a requirement for the affirmative action program to set objectives and make forward estimates in the program, forward estimates being a `quantitative measure or aim which may be expressed in numerical terms'. That was acceptable to the Opposition when that Act was passed. Now the Opposition has a piece of legislation before it which says, as set out in clause 6 (g), that the contents of the program shall set:

(i) the particular objectives to be achieved by the program; and

(ii) the quantitative and other indicators against which the effectiveness of the program is to be assessed;

From this it is alleged that there is some movement to quotas. I find it absolutely extraordinary that an Opposition is prepared to accept in the legislation that it is okay to set forward estimates, meaning a quantitative measure or aim which may be expressed in numerical terms, but is not prepared to accept that the program shall set quantitative and other indicators against which the effectiveness of the program is to be assessed. One would really have to be bending over backwards, doing absolute cartwheels, to find any substantial difference between those two definitions. To say that what is in the legislation before us now is in any way substantially different from what was in the affirmative action legislation is an absolute nonsense. To complete this point, in the Public Service Act, in section 22b in the definition of `program'-again, this was acceptable to the Opposition- it says:

. . . the quantitative or other indicators against which the effectiveness of the program is to be assessed;

Of course, the Bill before us, in clause 6 (g) (ii), states:

. . . the quantitative and other indicators against which the effectiveness of the program is to be assessed;

That is the same as what is included in the Public Service Reform Act at section 22b, which was supported by the Opposition. One really has to be desperate to try to find a reason to oppose the Bill to say that something that one supported previously in relation to the Public Service Reform Act, which by any standards is the same, will not be supported now. If Opposition members are going to complain about anything they ought to complain more about the affirmative action legislation, which talks, about `expressed in numerical terms', rather than the legislation which is currently before them. But no, that was acceptable.

When Opposition members now get something before them which is in the same terms as in the Public Service Act, and no different in effect from what is in the affirmative action legislation which they supported, they say: `No, we have got to oppose it because it means quotas'. Really, I think this is quite an extraordinary performance and one which is not in any way to be explained by the real content of the legislation but rather by the political shenanigans of the Liberal Party in trying to find a means of keeping the coalition with its National Party colleagues together and hoping, by this means, to keep them on side next weekend. I think all that should be exposed and made clear to the Australian people. They have an Opposition here which is playing games and which is really concerned not with this legislation but with its political coalition. In the process of doing that it is stripping itself of a position of principle, putting itself in a position where it is opposing legislation which is exactly the same in its effect as legislation it has supported on two previous occasions. In so doing, I believe, the Opposition is demeaning itself greatly in terms of its standing in the community. Indeed, it is obviously concerns such as this which have led Senator Peter Baume to take his decision to retire from the Opposition executive and other members opposite to express their opposition to what their leadership wants them to do.

There are other matters which I should briefly refer to. The Opposition sought to dredge up the issue that independent contractors working for statutory authorities would have this legislation applying to them. That is not the case. Under the definition of `employee' all it simply says is that an independent contractor who was working for a statutory authority would be an employee, but any employees of that independent contractor would not be covered by this legislation. It imposes an obligation only on the statutory authority itself.

The other concerns that have been raised relate to the extension of `designated group' to groups other than women and I think those concerns are not such as should lead anyone to oppose this legislation. The fact that this legislation takes account of not just women but also Aborigines and disabled persons is a reason for Opposition members to support this legislation rather than to say that they will oppose it. There is no intention on the part of the Government at this stage to add to that list of designated groups. That is not in our contemplation. We do not exclude the possibility that at some future time there may be a reason so to do, but we have no intention of doing that at this stage.

Mr Nehl —At this stage.

Mr WILLIS —We will keep the position reserved so that if at some future time it seemed that there was a good reason to do that then we may well do it. It is simply a provision there in a contingent way. Really, one would have to be desperate to find that some sort of reason to oppose this legislation. Finally, there has been reference to the issue of costs and suggestions that this legislation is going to increase them. On the issue of costs I simply say that I do not think that the Opposition is really serious in suggesting that there is some great problem. Clearly, there is not. There is simply a compulsion on the statutory authority to establish an affirmative action program. The pace of that program is one which the authority will set. No substantial additional costs will be involved. Indeed, a number of the statutory authorities are already putting in place equal employment opportunity programs and the development of those programs will involve little in the way of additional costs.

This legislation is important legislation which the Government strongly supports. The Government believes that this legislation completes the trio of measures which will ensure that in all areas of Commonwealth Government employment and the private sector, except in the small business area, equal employment opportunity progress will be achieved through this legislation. It is legislation which should have the support of every person in this Parliament. I think it is disgraceful that various members of the Opposition, in their speeches today, have opposed this legislation, some for reasons which I find quite appalling and others I think for the shallow political reasons that I have described. That is the basic reason why the legislation is being opposed by the Opposition. I strongly recommend it to the House.

Question put:

That the words proposed to be omitted (Mr N.A. Brown's amendment) stand part of the question.