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Tuesday, 23 March 2004
Page: 26978

Ms ROXON (7:58 PM) —I am delighted to speak on the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Teaching Profession) Bill 2004. However I am astounded that the Minister for Education, Science and Training, of all people—and he is just leaving the chamber—is not on the speakers' list for this bill.

Mr Slipper —He is not the responsible minister.

Ms ROXON —No, he is not; but it is extraordinary. Despite my being the responsible shadow minister, at least two other shadow ministers take very seriously this issue and its impacts. The government's rhetoric on this bill is that it is about boy's education. It is very interesting that the minister not think that he should come in and argue why the government believes that this bill will deliver on an objective which everyone agrees is quite appropriate. However, the mechanism that is going to deliver it is very dubious.

The Attorney, for his second reading speech on this matter, could barely put together two pages. I am not surprised and I do not read into that any lack of understanding or integrity on the part of the Attorney. I understand that, even though he has carriage of this bill, he no doubt was not the one who ultimately made the decision to go ahead with it—because this bill is a stunt. I am going to take my time to go through why Labor opposes it. I will outline its technical, practical and principled problems, why it will not be effective in delivering what the government asserts it will deliver, and why, since its introduction, it is no longer even necessary for it to go ahead.

The first comment that I would like to make, particularly while the Attorney-General is here, is that the Labor Party seeks that this bill now be withdrawn. The reason for introducing this bill has been removed. I will take the time to go through the activities of the Catholic Education Office and the human rights commission, to deal with the history of this matter, to show why it is no longer appropriate to proceed with this bill and to go through the problems that we see with the actual operation of the bill as it is before the parliament.

As people would know, the bill is quite narrow and specific in its terms. It would add a new, permanent exemption to the Sex Discrimination Act to offer student scholarships disproportionately to one sex over the other, the purpose being to `redress gender imbalance in teaching'. The government claims that the bill facilitates measures to address the problem of an imbalance in the number of male and female schoolteachers, particularly in primary schools, and the effect of that imbalance on the educational outcomes for male students.

The Attorney-General in his second reading speech referred to a House of Representatives committee report Boys: getting it right. The committee was chaired, at least for some time, by the minister for education before he was on the front bench. He cites that report as part of the reason for introducing this bill. But mysteriously, after dealing with the very issue that the government says it is concerned about—the education of boys and role models for boys in schools—the report, released eighteen months ago, made over 20 recommendations, but not one of those recommendations suggested to the parliament that we should change the Sex Discrimination Act.

One question we will deal with as we go through this debate is why, after dealing with the detail of the substantive issue—that is, how to get more men as teachers into our schools—a report would not make this recommendation. I think the answer is going to become obvious, because this bill is not an effective way of achieving that outcome. There are many more things that the government could do that would have a serious and beneficial impact in this area.

I will show through my speech in the second reading debate that the Attorney-General, in introducing this amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act, is really seeking to make it look like the government are doing something in this area. It is certainly a good way to bring attention to it, and it was effective, as we saw two weeks ago in parliament. Congratulations to the government for raising that issue! It is interesting that they raise it just at the time when the Leader of the Opposition is successfully making the issue of boys' education a public one and a part of the national debate. We welcome that. But why is it that, just when that has happened, the government take virtually the only initiative in this area that can make them look like they are doing something—without them having to do anything through the education department, invest any money in these programs or look at all the research that suggests the many serious steps that could be taken? None of that research suggests what this bill proposes.

I should make it clear for the record, given that the Labor Party are opposing this bill, that we do not by any means oppose the objective as it has been described by the government. The objective of encouraging more men to go into primary teaching is supported by both of the major parties and, I understand, the minor parties. But this particular mechanism is not supported by Labor. We do not view it as an effective mechanism; we do not see it as dealing with the underlying issue of why men are choosing not to enter the teaching profession.

As someone who has worked in schools, Madam Deputy Speaker Corcoran, you would be aware that there is no glass ceiling preventing men from enrolling in teaching courses or progressing within the teaching profession. In fact, the statistics indicate that—and, if you looked at the report Boys: getting it right, you would find this as well—whilst there are fewer males in primary schools, a disproportionately large number of them are school principals. So it is hard to see how discrimination at the entry level is the problem. There might be difficulties in keeping men in the classroom and getting more of them into teaching courses, but this bill is not going to affect that.

Everybody in this House, even the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General, knows that it is not the general laws prohibiting discrimination in employment that are preventing men from becoming teachers. But the government has decided to act on these laws first. Why is that? I have suggested the possibility that it is because changing the act does not cost anything. The government can look like it is addressing the issue without having to put too many resources or too much energy into it. As I have said, symbolically it looks like some action is being taken to help boys in schools—at just the time when the Leader of the Opposition has identified this as a major social issue.

But this political opportunism, the action taken in introducing this bill, is riddled with a whole lot of problems. It ignores the fact that the measure will not necessarily deliver the outcome that the government say it will. As I said, it ignores the fact that a bipartisan parliamentary committee looking at this very issue made 24 recommendations that have not been acted on—I think with the exception of one—and none of those 24 recommendations were to change the Sex Discrimination Act. Those recommendations have not been acted upon by the government. We have to ask why they have decided to take this action first. I am sure that during the debate this will come up.

Labor's opposition to changing the Sex Discrimination Act and to the government using it as a tool to make it look like they are delivering something in this area when they are not has led the Prime Minister to call our view `a triumph of narrow ideology over commonsense and an ideological commitment to not altering a comma in the Sex Discrimination Act'.

Mr Slipper —That's what the community is saying.

Ms ROXON —I am not surprised that the parliamentary secretary at the table would raise this, because he has shown in many of his speeches that he has absolutely no understanding of the technical provisions of this act. If he is prepared to stay here, he might understand that, although the community might see this symbolic attempt to fix the imbalance in schools as a good idea, once they understand that this is not going to be delivered they will be sorely disappointed. They will be knocking on your door, Parliamentary Secretary, or on the Attorney-General's. They will be knocking on every other government member's door and saying, `Hey, hang on a second. That thing you did with such fanfare actually didn't deliver anything to us.'

Mr Slipper —Why not let it through and see if it works?

Ms ROXON —Why don't I take the parliamentary secretary through the substantive reasons why we think this bill will not work but will cause certain problems? For the sake of completeness, let us go through the reason for introducing the bill—why the government says it introduced it. The Catholic Education Office in Sydney indicated that they were keen to offer scholarships to men to study teaching, which they had identified as a way of getting more male teachers into schools. In August 2002 they applied for an exemption under section 44 of the Sex Discrimination Act so that they could offer 12 teaching scholarships that would be available only to men.

The application for the exemption was considered by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. On 23 February this year the commission declined to grant that exemption. The Catholic Education Office, as this House knows, were appealing that decision, and a hearing was set for next month. The government pre-empted this process by introducing in the parliament this bill, which contains a measure that they say will give more certainty to the Catholic Education Office and others that might want to take this sort of step in the future. Since the introduction of this bill, the Catholic Education Office have stated publicly that they did not seek and did not ask for an amendment to the act.

The human rights commission did go into quite a lot of detail—I will not take the House through all of it today—as to why they refused the exemption in the first place. Interestingly, they referred to the very report that the Attorney relied on in his second reading speech on this bill, noting that this report identified a range of reasons that men were not attracted to the teaching profession. As I have already said, none of those reasons identified the Sex Discrimination Act as a barrier. The report acknowledged that the main reasons identified for men not entering the profession were its low status, its low salaries, its lack of career opportunities and a perceived issue around child protection concerns in many primary schools. The human rights commission recommended that the Catholic Education Office undertake a further investigation of those issues and their possible solutions before returning with a new application for consideration. The decision also referred to other options and identified the possibility of offering equal numbers of scholarships to men and women as a way of still being able to get more men into the teaching profession.

Since the introduction of the bill on 10 March, new negotiations have been held between the Catholic Education Office and the human rights commission, resulting in the original application being withdrawn, the appeal to the AAT being withdrawn, a new application being submitted for an exemption and that exemption being granted by the human rights commission. I am not sure if it is already, but the full decision will be available on the human rights commission web site.

I think what this brief history highlights is that there are provisions within the Sex Discrimination Act that exist for the very purpose of giving an educational authority or others the capacity to seek an exemption under the act. They work well; they are granted often. While one application may not have been granted, it might have been because it did not present enough evidence or was not framed in the right way. The fact that there was an opportunity for the Catholic Education Office and the human rights commission to come to a sensible resolution is something that we should all welcome.

If the purpose of introducing this bill was to help deliver more male teachers to primary schools, or in fact if the purpose was simply to help the Catholic Education Office get the outcome it wanted, that has been achieved. That has been achieved through the existing act, through the existing exemption provisions, and I think it is irresponsible of this parliament to seek to permanently change an act when there are provisions that already exist within the act which can be used. I am going to spend some time looking at the damage that can be caused by putting in a new and permanent exemption rather than relying on the existing provisions—not just in the context of the Sex Discrimination Act, because that is not damage in itself; we need to look at what damage that might cause to the community and why that will be a problem in the future. I think it is worth going through those sorts of things.

The first point, Attorney, is that this bill is no longer necessary. The circumstances that drove the government to introduce this bill have been resolved—the most immediate circumstances have been resolved—and there is no need to take this measure. The resolution reached by the Catholic Education Office and the human rights commission shows that the bill is unnecessary and, I might say, highlights that the act has sufficient flexibility to allow these sorts of measures. The second point I would like to deal with in some detail—

Ms ROXON —clearly, for the benefit of the parliamentary secretary, who would like to have a lesson in the Sex Discrimination Act, which he is about to receive—is that there are two existing provisions which could be used.

The first is the exemption provision, which has now been used in the final resolution of this matter raised by the Catholic Education Office. The act already contains a very cheap and quick method of seeking an exemption from the commission. Sometimes, it is true, that does not work the way an applicant would wish; but usually, when it does not work, it is when the cases perhaps have not been prepared in the way that they should have been or where there is not the necessary link between the action that people want to take and the outcome they are trying to achieve that would justify an exemption under the Sex Discrimination Act.

I think it is easy to get hot under the collar because a first application was not granted, but when you read the later decision—and I am not going to put words into the mouths of either the Catholic Education Office or the human rights commission—the reality is that this outcome could have been reached if people had sensibly talked through the different options much earlier on. But we in the parliament should not change general laws because litigants or applicants for an exemption under a piece of legislation might get their application wrong. That is not a good ground for us to permanently change the legislation.

The second is the special measures provision within the act. This idea that the Labor Party will not change a comma of the Sex Discrimination Act is not proven if you look at the act's history. In fact, this special measures provision was introduced by the Labor Party in 1994 or 1995. I think that the Attorney-General was the shadow spokesperson at the time, and he agreed with and supported the amendment because it acknowledges that people may want to take actions that would technically be discriminatory but are actually to compensate for an imbalance that exists in society between men and women.

So it is possible to argue that if you took a measure, like offering men scholarships to go into teaching, that was aimed at delivering a substantive equality between men and women, the terms of these provisions could be used to make sure that your actions were lawful and would not breach the Sex Discrimination Act. Not very many people know that these provisions exist, but I know that the Attorney is one person who does happen to know because he has been involved in the carriage of the act before.

I think the most worrying thing about this bill is the question the parliamentary secretary asked before: `Even if you don't think this bill is effective, why don't you let it through? It's not going to cause any harm. You can still do the other things you want to do in government.' That is a good question. It is a question that the public are entitled to ask as well. One of the strongest reasons for not doing it is that including a specific permanent exemption in relation to scholarships in schools or for teaching will mean that this general provision will probably not be able to be relied on by anybody in the future who might want to implement measures regarding the imbalance between men and women in schools, though not the specific scholarship initiative that is being dealt with at the moment, and—the Attorney would know this—the legal interpretation of that would be: use the specific provision, not the more general one. So we might as a parliament be tying our hands in the future to all sorts of measures that we might identify as being a good way of getting more men into schools, when we have said the purpose of this bill was actually to deliver that outcome. In fact, it is picking up a very narrow provision. It is saying, `We'll make sure there is a permanent exemption for that one scholarship issue,' but by doing that we might be limiting the broader benefit of those special measures provisions. In fact, we had some legal advice to say that that is the way that similar provisions have been interpreted elsewhere.

That is a major concern for us. We do not think it makes sense to change a general act which prohibits discrimination for something that (1) might not be effective, (2) might tie our hands in the future and (3) is not necessary anyway now that this agreement has been reached between the Catholic Education Office and the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. I think that the potential damage that can be done should seriously be considered. As I said, if we really were convinced that this was going to deliver any particular benefit to boys in schools or even deliver more male teachers into schools, it may well be worth supporting. But, because there is no evidence anywhere from any of the committees that have looked into this issue or from the applicants who were seeking the measure to start with that this bill will deliver that outcome, we are not convinced that it is worth supporting.

Of course, another issue is that we would be putting a permanent exemption into the act. People would probably be aware that an exemption, when it is granted through the existing process, can have certain conditions and be set for a period of time—I think in this instance it has been agreed as five years. But this exemption in the act, if this bill is supported, will be a permanent exemption; it will be universal in applying to anyone that will fit within its terms and it will be unconditional. That means that in the future some educational authority could seek to introduce male only, or female only, teachers for particular schools, which may not be something that this parliament would wish to do. I would think that people on both sides of the House would have some serious concerns about giving an unconditional tick to those sorts of measures without being confident of who might be applying or how it would work.

So there are very serious issues. I know it is fun—it is good sport—to say that the reason we are opposing it is that we are all lefties who are stuck in time 30 years ago or something. I love it when I get accused of being stuck in the seventies, because I can always remind those on the other side who are older than me that I was still in primary school at that time!

Mr Pearce —Weren't we all?

Ms ROXON —Not all of the people on the other side—I should not be so unfair; that is true. But there are very serious issues that do need to be dealt with. The issues of how we deal with boys' education, how we get the best quality teachers into our schools, whether they are men or women, and how we make sure that our teaching methods are appropriate for girls and boys are serious matters that we should not demean by having a change to the act which really is more about posturing—more about the government wanting to make a symbolic show of this—than really delivering an outcome. That is really a problem.

Mr Slipper —Haven't you got quotas for women in parliament?

Ms ROXON —I think we should stick to the issues affected by this bill, because in the 10 minutes that I have, Parliamentary Secretary, I would like to talk about the matters before the House. In particular, I want to discuss the very serious issues regarding the recruitment of teachers, the pay scales of teachers and the career opportunities for teachers. They are the issues that should be under the spotlight here, not the sex discrimination legislation. Indeed, as I have said before, we know that there is not a barrier that prevents men from enrolling in teaching courses but that there are a lot of social and economic issues which are making them choose other options.

They are the issues that the Labor Party would like to see addressed. Our education spokesperson, the member for Jagajaga, will be speaking in this debate. She will no doubt spend more time on our policy proposals to ensure that we get more men into schools. And we will not be talking about getting 12 men into our schools; we will be talking about how we get thousands into our schools. On both sides of the House we know that is what is needed, not a measure that is only going to get 12. That is a fine place to start, but it is not going to deliver the sort of social change that is needed. We have to deal with the tricky issues like wages and status—all of these sorts of things.

In contrast to what the government is doing, Labor has a five-point plan to address this problem. As I say, the member for Jagajaga will go through this in more detail, but I will quickly identify those five issues. The first is a national campaign to attract quality entrants to teaching, targeting men with relevant skills and backgrounds. Some of our state colleagues have run such campaigns. Members from different states will have seen those campaigns, which have been quite successful to date. Labor will encourage more male mentors to work with schools and parents, particularly fathers, in reading to students, using technology, vocational education, music, drama and sporting activities.

Labor will look at providing incentives for quality teaching, including for teachers who have the skills needed to improve the learning outcomes for boys. Targeting improvements in teaching skills for boys in the Commonwealth's professional development program and in the development of the national teaching standards is another method that we think will be effective. Obviously, we think an important part of this plan is the issue of student discipline and welfare programs, much of which will be targeted to boys and which was identified by the committee as an area where we needed to do much more work in our schools.

I think that all of these options that Labor is interested in pursuing highlight that the lack of men in the teaching profession is not because of any systematic discrimination or disadvantage that they face in applying for teachers courses or positions but because they are choosing not to enter the profession for a range of reasons, many of which are legitimate. If we are serious about dealing with this issue, we should be addressing these reasons rather than being distracted by what we describe as simply a diversion.

In summary, Labor thinks that the government, in tackling this issue, has opted for an option which is not the right target. It will not deliver the outcome that the government seeks. It is not appropriate to narrow the effects of the Sex Discrimination Act when existing provisions should be used. In terms of the technical argument, I think that is the strongest point that should be made. If you can use existing provisions of a piece of legislation, why would you change it? Why would you change it and narrow it if you do not think that it is necessarily going to deliver any outcome and if you think that it could actually cause some damage by narrowing opportunities in the future? I think that is a very real issue that this House has to deal with.

We are convinced that if, on reflection, the government looks at these arguments and at the bill, it will see that it is not necessary to proceed with the bill and that it is actually a diversion on an issue that we can agree, across the House, it is important to deal with. We should not use sex discrimination legislation—or any antidiscrimination legislation, for that matter—to masquerade or to look as if we are doing something in this area when far more constructive and practical initiatives could be taken that would have a more significant, long-term and developmental impact on our education system. Let us address those real issues. Let us not get stuck in a debate about changing the Sex Discrimination Act so that you can feel good, rather than actually delivering something that is needed.

The particular set of facts that gave rise to the government introducing this bill have now been resolved. The Catholic Education Office did not ask for these changes. The Minister for Education, Science and Training—who, you would think, would have the strongest interest in this area—is not even going to debate the bill, and I think that is extraordinary. I urge the Attorney to use all of his powers of persuasion—which I know must be quite significant—to convince his colleague that this method of trying to achieve an outcome on which the government and the opposition agree is not the best one. General legislation that prohibits discrimination should not be used as a tool unless we are really confident that the social objective we are all trying to achieve can actually be achieved by this method. I urge the Attorney to consider withdrawing this bill. I urge him to talk to his ministerial colleagues—in particular, the minister for education—and to reconsider the action that the government is taking in this area.

The Labor Party will oppose this bill if the government persist with it, and I think that the community will fast understand—perhaps they will understand quicker than the parliamentary secretary at the table, Mr Slipper, who seems to be a particularly slow learner in the sex discrimination area—that just posturing about doing something, but not actually delivering, does not get us anywhere in the long run. It might be worth a cheap hit in the short term, and I acknowledge that the government have got that; and I acknowledge that our argument requires people to understand how the existing legislation works. But the Attorney has carriage and responsibility for this act. It should be in our interests in the parliament to explain to people how to use existing legislation instead of changing it every time a particular case is run in a way that does not get the outcome that people want. Let us educate people about using the existing provisions. They are strong enough and flexible enough to allow the sorts of initiatives that we have been talking about; in fact, they would give us more flexibility in the future than would a very narrow, specific exemption which might tie our hands when we seek to introduce some other initiative. I trust that the Attorney will take our advice and have those discussions. I look forward to hearing from the government whether they will reconsider their position on this bill and withdraw it.