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Friday, 1 May 1987
Page: 2201


Senator RYAN (Minister for Education and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women)(3.27) —I rise to thank those honourable senators who have supported the Equal Employment Opportunity (Commonwealth Authorities) Bill for their contributions. This debate has been most significant and important because, despite the decision of the Liberal Party to resile from its previous commitment to equal opportunities legislation-a political decision understood, perhaps, by the Party, but very difficult for anyone else to understand-and to move away from decisions already taken, we have noted during the debate that some Liberal members of the Senate are determined to stand by the principles of liberalism, even at great cost to their own political circumstances.

It has always been the hope and the intention of our Government that matters of equal opportunity in employment should be dealt with on a bipartisan basis in this place. Indeed, we were able to achieve that, firstly, with the equal opportunity legislation applying to the Commonwealth Public Service and statutory bodies associated with it and, secondly, after a year-long pilot program-during which Senator Peter Baume representing the Liberal Party contributed in a constructive way-with the affirmative action legislation covering higher education in the private sector. It was only when we reached the third part of the package of equal employment opportunity legislative measures that the bipartisanship broke down, and that is to be regretted.

We have heard many spurious arguments from those Liberals who have resiled from their equal opportunity philosophy during the debate-none is convincing. It is not necessary for me to deal with them one by one because that task has been admirably performed by Senator Peter Baume, whose contribution to the debate was outstanding, not only as an act of political bravery, but also as a most precise and detailed analysis of the flaws in the arguments of those honourable senators on his side of the chamber who have decided not to support the legislation.

In closing this second reading debate, I must make a couple of comments. Senator Chaney, the Leader of the Opposition, said during his remarks that the Bill was not important; that the issues covered in the Bill were not really of importance at a time when the Government should be dealing with major economic issues. I simply remind Senator Chaney, and anyone who might have been persuaded to his point of view, that the legislation will cover about 250,000 employees, which is about half of the number of people employed by the Commonwealth throughout its Public Service departments, statutory bodies and commercial statutory bodies. It is a major section of the work force and one which, as those senators who had the opportunity to hear the contribution of Senator Giles will know, has not achieved equal employment opportunity. It not only covers women who will obtain better employment opportunities on the basis of merit as a result of this legislation, but also provides merit-based better employment opportunities for other minority groups such as disabled people, Aboriginals, Torres Strait Islanders and persons from non-English speaking backgrounds.

So, it was quite inappropriate and insensitive of Senator Chaney to suggest that the Bill is not important. It is important to our Government that all employees should have the opportunity to be employed, promoted and trained on merit. It is important in the broader economic context that all employees should be given the opportunity to be as productive as possible. I am surprised that Senator Chaney did not agree with that.

As I said, Senator Peter Baume dealt very adequately with the objections raised by Liberal senators during this debate. I remind honourable senators that, as far as the question of the legislation being examined by the Business Regulation Review Unit is concerned, the Unit was given the opportunity to comment on the Bill. The Unit reported on the operation of the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act which is that aspect of equal employment opportunity legislation which covers the private sector. So, that objection raised by the Opposition was quite inappropriate. Similarly, it has been pointed out that the Bill does not impose additional costs and does not require the appointment of additional staff. But the Senate should be reminded that significant benefits will accrue to the community as a whole through the effective use of the talents and skills of women, migrants, Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders, the physically and mentally disabled and persons from non-English speaking backgrounds.

A great deal of the debate, on the part of both those supporting the legislation and those seeking to oppose it, concerned the merit principle. But I think anyone making an objective assessment of the provision for the merit principle being the determining criterion in employment matters as set out in the Bill would agree, again, with the view put forward by Senator Peter Baume and recently endorsed by Senator Michael Townley, as well as by speakers on our side, that it is quite clear that in clause 3 (4) of the Bill there is an unambiguous statement that merit shall be the basis of employment and that nothing in the Bill or in the development of equal employment opportunity programs will interfere with merit as the basis of employment. Similarly, those members of the Liberal Party who are following the current Howard line tried to invent quotas in this Bill. Their attempts failed. There are no requirements for quotas in this Bill-quotas imposed by the Government, by the Minister or in any other way. This Bill, as with the previous legislative package, provides for the employing authority itself to set its own forward estimates as to how it believes it can best achieve advancement based on merit for the groups covered by the Bill.

Some concern has been expressed about designated groups. The Opposition, through its amendments, seeks to restrict any further designation of groups to be covered by the Bill. I simply make it clear that the designated groups are set out in the Bill. They are women, Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders, mentally and physically disabled persons and persons from non-English speaking backgrounds. The Government has no immediate intention to designate any other group. In time it may be established that some other group ought to be covered by the provisions of this legislation.

In summary, it has been a most interesting debate. I thank all honourable senators for their contributions and particularly note the brave and principled position taken by those Liberals who have indicated that they will stand by the principle of liberalism and equal opportunity, will not follow the current leadership of Mr Howard which regrettably has resiled from that principle and will vote with Government senators and endorse, at least to the extent they can, what ought to be the case-that is, a bipartisan attitude to the very important principle in our democratic society of equal opportunity in employment. The Government will not accept the amendment moved by the Opposition and I commend the Bill to the Senate.

Question put:

That the words proposed to be left out (Senator Chaney's amendment) be left out.