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Wednesday, 11 May 2011
Page: 2336

Senator FEENEY (VictoriaParliamentary Secretary for Defence) (18:16): I seek to make a few remarks concerning the contribution made by Senator Brandis about the opposition amendments.

A key feature of this bill is to enhance protections from family responsibilities discrimination. The Gillard government is committed to help Australian working families, and the proposed amendments in the bill will assist both men and women to balance work and family responsibilities without fear of penalty. The proposed amendments implement a recommendation of the Senate committee's 2008 inquiry into the Sex Discrimination Act, which was based on evidence from various groups, including business representatives and human rights advocates, which supported the need to improve the current provisions.

These amendments will provide greater consistency with existing protections and therefore help to simplify the current regulatory approach. The government, as I indicated earlier, will not support the opposition's amendments.

We are disappointed that the opposition is seeking to limit these new protections to direct discrimination only so that working parents will not be protected from indirect discrimination on the basis of their family responsibilities. We do not accept the opposition's claims that these provisions are unnecessary or will unnecessarily impose additional burdens on employers. The protections do not discriminate on the grounds of family responsibilities and only applies to reasonable working arrangements. An employer must have legitimate reasons for their actions so as to avoid unlawfully discriminating on the grounds of family responsibilities.

For example, the new provisions would only apply to reasonable working arrangements. As an example, it would not be reasonable for an employee in a restaurant to be unavailable at meal times due to family responsibilities, as being available during these periods is evidently an inherent requirement of the position. In contrast, it may constitute discrimination if an employer decided to deny a worker the opportunity to undertake specialised training solely because that worker had previously taken time off to care for their sick child.

The opposition has suggested that these provisions require an employer to take into account an employee's disposable income or cost of living before making a legitimate business decision. This is quite simply not the case.

I now seek to make a few remarks about how the new family responsibilities provision interacts with the Fair Work Act and National Employment Standards. The National Employment Standards, found in the Fair Work Act, provide the right to request flexible working arrangements. Such a request can only be refused on reasonable business grounds. The Fair Work Act also prohibits an employer from taking adverse action against an employee, which can include a range of employment decisions, on the basis of family responsibilities. These amendments will ensure that the SDA is consistent with these provisions by: firstly, affording the protections to men and women equally; secondly, applying to all areas of employment, not just termination decisions; and, finally, including indirect discrimina­tion.

Prohibiting discrimination on the basis of family responsibilities in the SDA will bolster the protections afforded by these provisions. It will reassure employees that they can balance their work and family responsibilities without fear of dismissal or discrimination.

In terms of what impact the family responsibilities will have on business, we say that discrimination against men and women on the grounds of family or carer res­ponsibilities is currently prohibited under the Fair Work Act 2009 and, of course, also under relevant state and territory legislation. The amendments will clarify the obligations of employers, making them consistent at the federal level. We argue that the bill does not impose an additional regulatory burden on business. Instead, they will operate to reduce the existing regulatory burden arising from inconsistencies in legislation found at the federal, state and territory levels, a fact recognised by the Senate committee in its report.

Lastly, the government's project to review and consolidate federal antidiscrimination laws into a single act will focus on removing unnecessary regulatory overlap and making the system more user friendly. Put simply, the proposed provisions do not require employers to take into account the living expenses of people with family responsibilities. I commend the bill to the Senate.