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Tuesday, 3 February 2009
Page: 99


Senator BARNETT (5:06 PM) —by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

The Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee report entitled Effectiveness of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 in eliminating discrimination and promoting gender equality was tabled out of session just before Christmas. I want to make a few comments on this report, noting in particular that there was a chair’s report and there was a Liberal senators’ report. At first instance I want to thank the committee secretariat for their assistance and professionalism in preparing the report. It was challenging to pull the report together in the time available. There were some time pressures. It is a substantial report. It was a big effort to have it done in the time allotted. I thank them.

The other Liberal senators who joined me in presenting the Liberal senators’ report include Senator Mary Jo Fisher, Senator Russell Trood and participating member Senator Helen Kroger. The chair was Labor senator Trish Crossin. I think it is important to note the Liberal senators’ report here in the Senate. We do support the administrative and technical amendments that are set out in our report and indeed the majority of the recommendations to improve the operation of such legislation. It was timely to review the Sex Discrimination Act. As a result of the inquiry’s work, some of those recommendations have been implemented.

The inquiry was limited in terms of time and in terms of the evidence that provided the foundation for the chair’s report, or the majority report, and its recommendations. We certainly were not convinced that the inquiry process was sufficiently rigorous. The chair’s report is very extensive in its ambit and does give rise to considerable concern, particularly if you look at the recommendations. In our view the committee did not hear from a sufficiently broad range of religious or educational organisations, which stand to be significantly affected if the recommendations in the chair’s report are translated into legislation. That is one of the reasons I am raising the concerns here today in the Senate.

In terms of Australia’s position, the act has I believe helped reduce discrimination against women. There is evidence of that in our report on page 168. In international comparisons Australia has an enviable record in relation to gender equality. Interestingly, the UN Development Program’s gender-related development index ranked Australia second in 2007-08. The index measures the extent to which countries are delivering equality for men and women by looking at factors including education enrolment, income and life expectancy.

We made a number of comments in our report regarding measures to redress the gender imbalance in teaching. They are set out on page 169. We are concerned by the evidence that some educational outcomes for boys are lagging behind outcomes for girls and consider that redressing the imbalance between male and female teachers is a key means of improving the outcomes for boys. At the moment the act prohibits targeted initiatives aimed at increasing the number of male teachers on the basis that that discriminates against women. This is a retrograde and disappointing situation to be in. Liberal senators noted the view expressed by Jim Wallace of the Australian Christian Lobby that the act should not prevent common-sense approaches to addressing the shortage of male teachers. We also noted the submission made by Family Voice Australia that the act should be amended as proposed by the coalition some years ago with the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Teaching Profession) Bill 2004.

We have made observations regarding access to assisted reproductive technology, surrogacy and adoption. We have made some very strong comments in regard to exemptions, and they are that they should remain. The passage of the legislation at the time involved a prolonged period of negotiation regarding appropriate exemptions from the prohibitions on discrimination under the act and those negotiations involved a complex balancing of different rights and interests.

I want to make an observation with respect to voluntary organisations. The majority report proposed the removal of section 39, which creates an exemption for voluntary organisations. This is something that we Liberal senators do not support. We think volunteer organisations provide an invaluable service to our community. They should be supported in every way, shape and form. They are undervalued and they deserve respect and support in every way possible. It would be disappointing to impose what some people might say are significance compliance costs on such organisations that would only lessen their ability to sustain their contribution. There was no evidence to the committee in our view that discrimination by voluntary organisations in relation to membership is a widespread problem. Rather, the arguments for removal of this exemption rested almost entirely on an ideological objection to the provision and the theoretical possibility of such discrimination occurring.

Liberal senators want to make very clear our view that we support maintaining an exemption for those with combat duties in the armed services and for sporting organisations. We disagree with the view expressed by the government senators that there were strong arguments for the removal of such exemptions with respect to certain religious institutions. Liberal senators recognise the importance of retaining appropriate exemptions for religious organisations. Freedom of religion is a fundamental human right and any restriction on freedom of religion should be limited to what is required to achieve a legitimate public purpose. The government senators make it clear in their report that there should be a review. They are interested in a review in that regard. We made our position clear that we support an exemption for religious organisations and that that should be maintained and that it should also be maintained for those with combat responsibilities and those involved in sporting organisations.

We do not support signing up to the optional protocol to CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. We believe, in short, that Australian law should be decided in Australia by Australians under our jurisdiction and that there are appropriate mechanisms for dealing with all forms of discrimination against women. You do not need to accede to that optional protocol and become beholden, at least to some degree, to a UN committee, which is in my view unrepresentative and certainly not democratic in its form. This is consistent with the Liberal senators’ dissenting report of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties which opposes the accession to the optional protocol to CEDAW. Of course, there are different views on these matters, but this is certainly the view of the opposition senators in that report.

The government announced after the tabling of the joint standing committee report that it has commenced the process required to accede to the optional protocol. That is disappointing. I feel an accession to that particular protocol is giving up rights and responsibilities which should be meted out here by Australians in our jurisdiction and in our courts. We have adequate judiciary and judicial mechanisms to ensure that can occur. There was no evidence received by the inquiry to justify providing an overarching level of appeal to an unaccountable UN body. On the contrary, it is clear that the avenues available under the Commonwealth, state and territory laws for hearing and determining complaints of sex discrimination are more than adequate.

In conclusion, yes, we do support a number of administrative and technical measures to improve the operation of the bill and we hope that the government will respond to those recommendations. If the government does proceed along the lines of some of the far-reaching recommendations in the majority report or the Labor senators’ report, then no doubt those legislative mechanisms will be forwarded to the Senate and they will no doubt be of concern to many people in the Australian community.

Question agreed to.