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Thursday, 26 March 1987
Page: 1564

Ms MAYER(11.58) —I must say that I commend the attitude of the honourable member for Boothby (Mr Steele Hall), which has been consistent on this sort of issue for a great length of time. The Equal Employment Opportunity (Commonwealth Authorities) Bill extends to the statutory authorities the requirement of establishing equal employment opportunity programs for women, but also for migrants of non-English speaking backgrounds, for Aboriginals and for the disabled. Those are very important additions to the major grouping with which this Bill deals, namely, women. I cannot say that I am anything but extremely happy to see equal employment opportunity principles and activities being extended to statutory authorities.

It is extremely important that the House take note of the fact that women have not been the only people disadvantaged by the attitudes of employers, both public and private. Certainly, Aboriginals have been disadvantaged-and Aboriginal women probably have been more disadvantaged than Aboriginal men. Disabled people have been disadvantaged, quite often because of pure and simple thoughtlessness or the neglect of employers to spend a little money on enabling them to employ disabled people. It is pitiful to see disabled people not in a position to carry out the work that they are quite able to do and qualified and experienced to do, simply because they cannot get a wheelchair into a building or have to have specific help to get into it. Although the Bill certainly does not require statutory authorities to change the nature of their buildings, if those statutory authorities are to carry out the provisions of the equal employment opportunity Bills, they really do have to think very seriously about the provision of appropriate facilities for disabled people. While that was raised in people's consciousness during the International Year of Disabled Persons, it has certainly not gone far enough in many buildings.

I want to take up, too, the question of freedom of choice. There are a number of attitudes in the community, which are slowly disappearing, that freedom of choice belongs somehow to those people who have had most of it for a large part of our history, that is, to the men in our population who take quite seriously their rights and even their responsibilities to equip themselves to do a paid job in the expectation of supporting not only themselves but also, at some stage, children. I think that women now need to be quite sure that they also have that freedom of choice because that freedom of choice establishes for women a responsibility that they too equip and qualify themselves for appropriate employment and careers and also have the option of making the choice to care for their children. If we have attitudes in this community which mitigate against the notion of parents caring for children and which put all the responsibility on one of the parents of a relationship, the children suffer and the person who has to accept the responsibility accepts too much responsibility and receives too little benefit from the arrangement. For women to have freedom of choice means that that freedom of choice has to be actual and practical, not simply theoretical and in principle.

Many employers have protested in the past that they do provide freedom of choice and employ and promote people on merit, but when one looks at records of employment and promotion practices one finds that merit is attached to males and that females do not have so much of it. That seems to be an attitude which has to be legislated for because we still have some of the arguments we have heard in the House today-women cannot be employed on merit; they can be employed only because somebody makes people employ them. I feel sad for the women in the lives of those men who have put up that proposition.

It is very important that the ability to perform a job is not obscured by the prejudice of an employer. There is no question that it has been in the past. There is no question that selection procedures in the Public Service also militated against that because selection panels asked women applicants when considering them for promotion or employment, how they were going to care for their children, whether or not they were going to take time off to have any more children and whether or not they had intentions that employers saw to be somehow threatening to the ability of the person to do a job. That is now a thing of the past for Commonwealth departments and it will be a thing of the past for statutory authorities once this Bill becomes law. It means that all employees have some chance of being treated equitably. Some of the chance of being treated equitably needed the sex discrimination legislation and the sexual harassment provisions because one of the non-policy or covert ways of preventing women from being employed in the jobs of their choice was the risk that they would be exposed to sexual harassment.

It is interesting to note that, of the cases taken to the Equal Opportunity Board in Victoria, those cases have not been as it was originally thought they would be-mostly high achieving middle class women. Most cases have been working women who found sexual harassment a normal part of their work place. It is interesting that those provisions in the Sex Discrimination Act in the various equal employment opportunity legislation in the States has worked to protect young women who work in the sorts of jobs that really do not have a whole lot of attraction for people.

It is very important in the selection procedures that those people who form selection panels be seen to be determining selection on merit. The criteria have to be established and stuck to. Everybody has to start thinking very clearly about what it is that a job actually requires in the way of qualifications, experience, record of performance and merit, because merit now is a principle rather than a selection on prejudice.

I draw to the attention of the House the elements of the EEO program which are contained in Part II of the Bill. We have set minimum requirements for programs and they are much the same as those that apply to affirmative action. Authorities are to inform employees of the contents of the program and the results of any monitoring and evaluation of it. First of all, authorities have to tell the employees that the program is there, what that program contains and what the results are of establishing the program. Part II also requires authorities to give responsibility to a person with sufficient authority and status to be able to develop and implement the program properly. That clause is there to prevent an authority-I am sure that none of the authorities to which this Bill applies would even dream of doing it-giving authority for the EEO program to somebody too junior to effect any changes. It requires authorities to consult with trade unions that have members employed in the authority who will be effected by the programs. The trade unions, in spite of the nonsense we hear in the House, do a very great deal of educative work with their members. Authorities are required to consult with employees, particularly women or persons in designated groups. Designated groups, I repeat, include migrants with non-English speaking backgrounds, Aboriginals and disabled people. Authorities have to collect and record employment statistics and related information that are relevant to the operations of the program. So we need a few facts too. Authorities, under their programs, are required to review policies and practices to identify those which discriminate against women and persons in the designated groups and any patterns of lack of equality and opportunity for them.

A review of those policies and practices must include not only written policies or practices about which there are instructions but also those sorts of attitudes which come out in conversations and discussions-those sorts of unwritten understandings which exist in networks between senior and junior employees and the sorts of taken for granted understandings which have always been such a barrier to the selection and promotion of women and which left us quite often fighting in the dark against things which we were told did not exist but which we knew very well did exist because of our experience of them. A review of those policies and practices certainly has to contain some genuine review of those unwritten understandings which are discriminatory.

The Bill does not contain any measure of positive discrimination. It does not require statutory authorities to employ women instead of men; rather it requires them to employ people on merit. We are not discriminating positively for women. We are not even discriminating positively for migrants, Aboriginals and disabled people. We are preventing negative discrimination against those people. We are not trying to tell authorities that because they had had bad practices in the past they now have to indulge in an equally bad practice and prefer employees simply because they belong to one of those designated groups.

The Public Service Board has a requirement to issue guidelines for the development, implementation, and review of the programs so that there is an outside authority that is keeping an eye on and monitoring the programs to see that some progress is being made. Clause 11 (1) provides that the responsible Minister or the Public Service Board can make a recommendation to an authority on action to be taken to improve the effectiveness of its program. Therefore, an authority which is slow, perhaps, to implement a program or is not putting sufficient energy into it can be jollied along, if it is appropriate, by the Board or the Minister. If an authority rejects a recommendation that is made by the Minister or the Public Service Board, it has to inform the Minister of its reasons for doing so. I guess that would leave it up to the Minister to say whether he or she agrees with the reasons. However, I think that they would have to be pretty good, for this Government at any rate.

The honourable member for Boothby talked about forcing the pace. I can understand why he said that. I can understand that some of the legislation which the Government has introduced, affecting the status of women and the position of women in the community at large, may seem as if it is forcing the pace. It may seem that there has been quite a lot of legislation-three Bills in four years, and then this Bill. There has been the Sex Discrimination Bill; the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Bill; the Bill which provided for equal employment opportunities in the Commonwealth Public Service; and now the Equal Employment Opportunity (Commonwealth Authorities) Bill. The introduction of four Bills may seem to have been forcing the pace. I think that most women would suggest that it is not forcing the pace and we are not acting too speedily. We are certainly not doing anything but that which has been demanded by women over many years. I do not think that one piece of legislation a year, which is how it works out, on average, which corrects imbalances and takes action to provide for equitable treatment for women is forcing the pace.

We may be running ahead of some attitudes that are found in very conservative ranks of men and in some very conservative ranks of women, but if we were to keep the pace as slow as those people would demand, we would never do anything at all. We would simply say: `In the course of time, these things will right themselves as people begin to understand that it is not quite nice'. That would probably lead us into the next millennium before we got anything done properly.

I know that Australia is ahead of the world in terms of some of the legislation which this Government has introduced. We have been able to benefit from the experience of other countries in the formulation of that legislation. I am very proud to be a part of a government in a country which has recognised, and has done something positive about, the discrimination of women at home-that is what the Sex Discrimination Bill had a great deal to do with-and at work and which had tidied up its own house and has put its own house in order. It has said: `We are responsible for the Commonwealth Public Service; we are responsible for the statutory authorities of the Commonwealth; and we will show, quite clearly, that it is not necessary to discriminate against women in order to operate efficiently'. Rather, the reverse is true. One certain way to operate inefficiently is to discriminate against women.

I am not only proud that the legislation has been introduced and that I am part of the government which has introduced it, but I also know that because of the effect of our legislation, both in the States which apply it and in the Commonwealth, we are being watched with considerable interest by other countries which also maintain discriminatory practices in the work force and in their legal systems. That interest is expressed when women from various countries get together. Whenever I have had an opportunity to talk to members of other parliaments who are visiting, and who are women, there has been an interesting exchange of information about attitudes and actions that have been taken. It is almost inevitable that those visiting members of parliament go away with a great deal of material from this Government because the legislation which we have passed has been both effective and the sort of legislation in which women all over the world are interested.

Mr White —Thank God they don't put it into effect.

Ms MAYER —I am sorry that the honourable member for McPherson feels that they do not put it into effect. Let me tell honourable members that he is wrong and that legislation outlawing discrimination against women is going into more and more democratic parliaments. In countries where there is not a democracy we do not find the same sort of understanding of the effect of discriminatory practices against women. In countries where discrimination against women is part of state-accepted religious practices, it will be a long, hard haul for those women to reach the point where they are able to make choices about their own lives, as equal partners in relationships-choices which give them a role and the respect of their children and which will enable them to contribute to their own nations according to their capacity to do so. That is something that the honourable member for McPherson (Mr White) might think about. He has had the opportunity in the past to contribute to his nation in a capacity of which I have no doubt he is very proud. It is time that women in this country were allowed to contribute in the same way. We certainly have women who are able to do so. I would like to see all Australian women able to take pride in the fact that their contribution to their country has been to the extent of their capacities and capabilities and has not been limited, crippled, by attitudes and by legislation which has not enabled them to do the things that they know they can do.

I commend the legislation to the House. I am very proud of it. I know that it will bring more efficiency and more creativity to the statutory authorities to which it will apply. It is just one more piece of very distinguished legislation for women in this country.