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Thursday, 26 February 1987
Page: 784

Ms FATIN(12.45) —I move:

That this House, noting the Government's objective set down in the Governor-General's speech to direct welfare assistance to the needy, believes that poverty among women in Australia is unacceptably high and, accordingly, calls on the Government to:

(1) continue to pursue wage justice for women;

(2) give women a high priority in job creation and training programs;

(3) ensure that income security payments for supporting parents and children of pensioners and beneficiaries are increased; and

(4) continue its efforts to provide adequate child care facilities throughout Australia.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I want to address the Parliament this afternoon on what I and many others believe to be a very serious question confronting Australians today, that is: What can government do to make our society a fairer place for women? Before I examine each section of this motion in some detail, I must pay tribute to the Hawke Government for the proud record we have steadily built up over the last four years. In each of the areas I address in this motion, that is, job training, wage justice, training programs, income support and child care, this Government has acknowledged the special difficulties faced by women. We have at last started to recognise that the concerns of women, particularly women in poverty, can no longer be confined to the margins of political platforms and policy making.

The first point I want to raise is wage justice for women. It comes as a shock to many to realise that Australia has the worst record of any Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development country when it comes to equality in the work force. As I have reminded this House on several occasions, the majority of Australia's working women have remained in low paid, low status, segregated jobs. Wage equality is an extremely complex question. It has taken many years for women to overcome the status of `gentle invaders' in the work force. It will be some time yet before low paid, low skilled, occupations lose the tag of `women's work'. Additional problems in bringing about wage justice lie in the fact that as a society we still have a long way to go with the whole concept of part time work. The preponderance of women in part time work is a major contributing factor in women's lack of job security and career advancement, as well as the difference between the earning capacity of men and women. Obviously the issue of wage justice has to be tackled on a number of fronts. It is very closely related to improving women's labour market prospects generally.

There can be no doubt that women in general have benefited from the employment policies adopted by this Government. The historic prices and incomes accord with the union movement saw 634,200 new jobs created between 1983 and 1986. Of these, 433,000 were for full time employment; over 60 per cent of these new jobs have been taken by women, who have filled 47 per cent of the new full time positions. During the same three years, women's work force participation rate increased by 3.8 per cent to 48.7 per cent. While these are impressive figures which amply demonstrate the Government's absolute commitment to giving women equity in the labour market and the work force, there is still a long way to go. The fact is that in August 1986 women could only expect to earn on average 65 per cent of what men earned. A woman working full time was receiving about 80 per cent of male average earnings. Sixty-four per cent of women are concentrated at the lowly paid end of the clerical, sales and service occupations. In addition, women's earnings are diminished by their domestic responsibilities which tend to prevent them from working overtime. Women still predominate in areas which have limited award coverage which makes them particularly vulnerable to substandard wages.

Another factor affecting the ability of women to earn an equitable wage is the level of education attained by women. It is only in very recent years that women's education rates have begun to approach equality with men's. In purely practical terms this simply means that women are less qualified than men. Some interesting figures have emerged recently in issues paper No. 3 published as part of the Social Security Review. It appears that on average female sole parents have the lowest level of educational qualifications of all groups with children. More than 63 per cent have not completed high school. This compares with 55 per cent for mothers with partners, 49 per cent for sole fathers and 39 per cent for fathers with partners. Only 28 per cent of sole mothers have any post-school qualifications compared with 35 per cent of mothers with partners and 37 per cent of sole fathers and 51 per cent of fathers with partners. Obviously these figures are reflected in the employment statistics for women. Single mothers, for example, are much more likely to be in full time employment if they have high educational qualifications and not surprisingly they also earn more money from their employment and have a much wider range of options when it comes to obtaining work.

The second part of the motion under consideration here today raises the vital issue of job creation and training programs for women. A particularly concise and, I must say, impressive account of the Government's actions in this area can be found in the employment and industrial relations section of the women's budget program for 1986-87. The high priority accorded to women in the community employment program is reflected in the fact that women's participation in approved projects reached 51.2 per cent in the 1985-86 financial year. There is another reason for singling out the community employment program for particular mention in the context of increasing women's opportunities in the labour market. Research has shown that the CEP is remarkably successful in placing women in non-traditional occupations. In 1983-84, 29 per cent of women employed on CEP projects were working in non-traditional areas. In 1984-85 this number rose to 34 per cent. This compares with about 9 per cent of all employed women in non-traditional occupations in the general work force.

Women also reap significant benefits from the training programs run by the Department of Employment and Industrial Relations. In some areas, however, there is clearly room for improvement. For instance, in 1985-86 women accounted for only 11 per cent of all apprentices in training. Another disappointment is that the special trade training program which provides special courses for women who want to enter non-traditional trades has had quite a poor response. If women are going to break out of the poverty cycle associated with low status, poorly paid jobs, it is vital that these alternative employment avenues are explored. It is to be hoped that the Commonwealth-State working group on women and non-traditional apprenticeships can devise ways of increasing the appeal of these training programs to the women for whom they have been designed.

Let me turn my attention now to the issue of income security payments for supporting parents and the children of people on pensions and benefits. Last week, as many honourable members would know, members of the Campaign for Economic Justice and the Low Income People's Network visited Canberra. Honourable members had the chance to listen to spokeswomen from two of the most effective and articulate groups representing some of the poorest people in our society. There is always a danger in this place that we get caught up in abstracts and statistics. The women who came to Canberra last week brought the stark reminder that when we are talking about poverty and particularly about women in poverty we cannot talk solely in terms of statistics. They made it quite clear that poverty is a situation where people do not have enough money to meet the costs of basic human needs like food, clothing, heating and housing.

In 1976, 8 per cent of Australian children had parents receiving a social security benefit. By 1986 this number had nearly doubled. In all, 20 per cent or one in five children in Australia live in very low income families receiving income-tested payments from the Government. After years of neglect by the coalition parties the Hawke Government is tackling the poverty of these families in two ways. First, we have increased pensions and benefits in line with cost of living rises. The indexation of pensions by this Government is a most welcome move, as are the regular increases in the additional pension or benefit payable for children. No one on this side of the House would pretend that we have yet done enough to help single parents. The 81c meal we were provided with last week by the Campaign for Economic Justice and the Low Income People's Network showed honourable members in the most direct way what it means to live with a minimum level of income support.

There is a second vital way in which the Government can and will act to alleviate the poverty of the sole parent family. One of the immediate ways of increasing the income of single people with children would be to insist that non-custodial parents provide the level of financial support which the courts have determined. The current system of maintenance simply does not work. Recent research in this area has shown that the majority of non-custodial parents make no regular maintenance payments. It seems that less than 30 per cent of the people who are entitled to regular maintenance payments are actually receiving them.

Recognising the inherent problems with the collection of maintenance the Government has already made four in-principle decisions about reforming the system. First, a legislative formula, rather than the court, will determine the level of financial assistance to be paid by the non-custodial parent. Secondly, whenever it is practical this amount will be automatically withheld from the non-custodial parent's income at source. Thirdly, maintenance payments will be collected through the tax system. Fourthly, maintenance payments will be distributed by the Department of Social Security. There are still several issues to be resolved about the operation of these new arrangements. The community consultations that have been taking place around the new proposals have highlighted a number of possible options in various areas which are currently under consideration. Anyone concerned about the poverty of single parents, 90 per cent of whom are women, has to welcome these moves. Lack of accountability on the part of non-custodial parents is one of the major causes of poverty in our society. It is important to remember that it is legal as well as moral responsibilities that are being evaded at the moment.

A fairer way of assessing liability and a more effective way of enforcing collection are prerequisites in any strategy to alleviate sole parent poverty. It is not, of course, the only long term solution. The fact is that most women would not choose to be financially dependent on their former partners. A study by the Institute of Family Studies into the economic consequences of divorce found that there was a very great reluctance on the part of divorcing women to claim maintenance for themselves and their children. This is despite the fact that the law makes specific provision for them to do so. The study found that there was an overwhelming rejection amongst women of the notion that they should continue to be financially dependent on their former spouses. What the great majority of women want in the long term is economic independence. Here we come to the great challenge for any government. The truth is that the alleviation of poverty amongst women depends on the implementation of a wide range of co-ordinated policies covering not only the area of income support but also education, the provision of adequate child care facilities and training and retraining schemes. In other words, the Government must address the whole range of factors which, on the one hand, prevent women from achieving economic independence and, on the other hand, drive them into poverty. The Hawke Government has a proud record both in identifying the barriers to women's participation in the work force and in acting to remove these barriers.

I have already mentioned our achievements in the area of wage equality, job creation and training schemes. We have also taken very significant steps to increase the number and range of child care places. There are currently some 85,000 child care places provided by the Federal Government under the children's services program. A promise to create a further 20,000 places by the middle of next year is well on the way to being implemented. The supply of child care places has increased by more than 50 per cent in the last three years. The Labor Government has provided more funded child care places since we were elected in 1983 than all previous governments. The provision of adequate child care facilities is absolutely essential if women are going to overcome their disadvantages in the labour market. Governments can put job training programs in place to help them overcome these disadvantages, and our record in this area is impressive. However, if these programs are to be effective in the long run there has to be a rapid expansion of child care services of the dimensions that we are seeing now. The provision of child care has to be seen in the context of women's employment opportunities. Women's responsibility for children has been identified in the Social Security Review as a significant work force barrier. Increasingly, women are perceiving that the provision of adequate child care is as significant in the fight against poverty as the provision of adequate wages.

We have heard a lot recently about what governments can do to improve living conditions for women and children. Unfortunately, not all the talk stands up to the kind of scrutiny to which I have been proud to subject this Government's record. The so-called family policy released recently by the Opposition reads more like a romantic novel than a political statement of intent. As my colleague the honourable member for Phillip (Ms McHugh) noted in this place last week, the pages of rhetoric about mutual respect and togetherness contain not one concrete proposal to improve life for economically disadvantaged women and their families.

Poverty means a restriction of choice and the Hawke Government is showing what it means to expand people's range of options. We have done this both by giving people a degree of financial security and, equally importantly, by helping them to acquire the skills and motivation to become economically independent. The Liberal and National parties' family policy also emphasises choice, but there the similarity ends. The fact is that the dry, economic rationalists of the conservative parties cannot solve the problem of poverty amongst women because they will not tackle the root cause of poverty. They cannot see the structural discrimination women face when trying to gain economic equality with men. They refuse to recognise that women need child care as well as jobs, and training schemes as well as the motivation to work.

But there is an even more frightening prospect to be faced in the context of poverty amongst women. Monash University Centre of Policy Studies recently released an options paper on the possibility of bringing in massive tax cuts. The paper is concerned to spell out the real political issues which have to be addressed by any politician seriously advocating a relatively low, flat rate of taxation. I stress that the paper looks at the real political issues which are a far cry from the gobbledegook coming from some people in some areas of this country.

Let us take a look at the reality of introducing the kinds of tax cuts being advocated by the extreme conservative forces. First, the very big tax cuts go to the very high income earners-hardly a step in the direction of equality and equity, one might think. Second, cuts in government spending of about $8 billion to $9 billion have to be made to make up for the revenue lost by the tax cuts. Third, to quote Paul Kelly in the Weekend Australian, `the poor are sacrificed for efficiency'; that is, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. There is no way to prevent households with incomes below $15,000 from being hurt by cuts such as this.

What sort of spending cuts are the conservatives planning? According to the Monash paper they have to consider $5,000 tertiary fees; an end to Medicare; full cost recovery from direct charges by public hospitals; a reduction in assistance to the aged, the chronically ill and the disabled; pruning and means testing of the family allowance; far tighter eligibility criteria for unemployment benefit; and the abolition of many job training and labour market programs. In the light of what I have been saying about the causes of poverty amongst women, I probably do not have to spell out the disastrous implications of these measures for Australian families. It is truly frightening to think that a conservative government would sacrifice the disadvantaged women and children of this country. Imagine the effect of these massive education fees on the participation rate of women in education. Just think what the elimination of training programs would do for the participation rate of women in the work force. We already know from previous experience under a Liberal-National Party government what the abolition of Medicare means for the poor. All these policies spell disaster for the disadvantaged who would be pushed further and further into the poverty this Government is working so hard to alleviate.

In moving this motion I have drawn attention to several policy areas which need to be addressed in the context of poverty amongst women. In the course of doing so I have noted the significant steps taken during the last four years and paid tribute to the achievements of the Hawke Government. In closing, it only remains for me to urge honourable members to scrutinise the intentions of the conservatives and make sure that the Australian electorate is fully aware of the attack being planned on the needy and particularly on low income women and children by the Opposition.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Millar) —Is the motion seconded?

Mr Cunningham —Mr Deputy Speaker, I second the motion and reserve my right to speak at a later time.