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Thursday, 26 March 1987
Page: 1567

Dr HARRY EDWARDS(12.17) —I will comment later on some of the remarks made by the honourable member for Chisholm (Ms Mayer). But I begin by saying that the Equal Employment Opportunity (Commonwealth Authorities) Bill gives further effect to the Hawke socialist Government's penchant for social engineering in the employment field, notwithstanding the urgent priority that the Government should be giving to the quite desperate, quite dangerous, the crisis state of Australian families and the Australian economy.

The Opposition, not without some differences of opinion in its ranks, is opposed to the Bill in its present form. This is primarily because the Bill-making an overall assessment of it-has taken a definite step towards specific and quantitative equal employment opportunity programs which are in effect the equivalent of quotas. The Opposition is utterly opposed-particularly at this time of national economic crisis, when business is struggling to put its best foot forward in the adverse conditions of the nation's current extremity-to the regulatory excess involved in the imposition of compulsory quotas in employment for this group and that which in effect impose employment conditions which have been neither arbitrated upon nor agreed upon.

As the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, the honourable member for Menzies (Mr N.A. Brown), put it, this Bill is the third leg of a trilogy. In 1984, equal employment opportunity programs were applied to the Commonwealth Public Service proper by the Public Service Reform-so-called-Act 1984. In 1986, the so-called Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act was passed as a measure to promote equal opportunity for women in employment in the private sector and higher educational institutions. Now we have the third leg, the Equal Employment Opportunity (Commonwealth Authorities) Bill 1987 which seeks to cover the field and to apply to Commonwealth authorities equal opportunity in employment for women-but not only to women it applies also to other groups-and so-called `designated groups' which may be specified by regulation. That in itself-change by regulation-is a particularly unsatisfactory feature of this Bill. While the objective of improving the employment opportunity for women and these other groups and the removal of discriminations is desirable, it is the additional regulatory burden and interference with business of requirements moving in the direction of compulsory quotas and the erosion of the merit principle that particularly concerns the Opposition.

When the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Bill came before the House in April of last year, given our strong commitment to the objective of equal opportunity for women in employment my own position and, I believe that of many other Opposition members, was that the preferred way forward was by a voluntary approach. A mechanism was ready to hand. I believe this bears on the remarks of the honourable member for Chisholm in respect of the pace of change that can be achieved. In September of the previous year, under the auspices of the Business Council of Australia, a decision was taken to establish a private sector Council for Equal Employment Opportunity, as a positive self-regulation initiative with the objective of fostering the continuing goodwill of business and the securing of a genuine commitment in the private sector to equality of opportunity programs. In my view such a private sector, self-managed and voluntary approach had a great deal to offer in achieving effective and meaningful change towards greater equality of opportunity in employment for women. It would point the way, I believe, to any further steps in respect of the private sector. I will come back to that.

Nevertheless, the Opposition took the stance of not opposing the 1986 Bill which was duly enacted. In the Bill presently before the House, the Government's case is, no doubt, that it is simply extending to the remaining sector, that is Commonwealth authorities, the equal employment opportunity principle of the 1986 Act applying to the private sector and higher educational institutions-the Commonwealth Public Service proper covered by the earlier 1984 Act. However, as the Deputy Leader of the Opposition pointed out in leading for the Opposition on this Bill, a close examination of the Bill shows that the Government is proposing to apply to Commonwealth authorities a different regime from that applied last year to the private sector and higher educational institutions. While the present Bill is drawn and drafted quite parallel at many points to last year's Affirmative Action-ironically so-called-Act, yet at key points it is different, in particular in the provisions relating to the content of the equal employment opportunity programs-section 8 of the 1986 Act and clause 6 of the present Bill.

The fact is that it is impossible to escape the judgment that the present Bill has taken a definite step towards compulsory quantitative requirements; in effect a definite step towards quotas. It is true that the 1986 Act provides for the so-called affirmative action programs under that Act to set objectives and make forward estimates and in the definition in respect of `forward estimates' there was a reference to quantity. But it was a forward estimate as `a quantitative measure or aim, which may be expressed in numerical terms'. That was required-an objective to which the program should work. It was by no means a quota and certainly not a compulsory quota. In the present Bill, in contrast, under the corresponding sub-clause, action is to be taken by the Commonwealth authority to set-I emphasise that-`the quantitative and other indicators against which the effectiveness of the program is to be assessed'. Well, of course, it remains a matter of judgment but, for my part, this is to take an explicit definite step towards the imposition of compulsory quotas. Why otherwise is the language of the legislation so different at this point when, in other sub-clauses, it is substantially the same as the 1986 Act?

Taking the Bill as a whole and making an assessment of the thrust of it and what it is clearly seeking to achieve, there is no doubt in my mind that the requirements of an equal employment opportunity program have been pushed further in this measure towards specific and quantitative measures which are tantamount to quotas. I am aware that some would argue that that cannot be because the present Bill in the precise terms of the 1986 Act has affirmed the principle of merit. Thus in clause 3 (4) of the Equal Employment Opportunities (Commonwealth Authorities) Bill it is affirmed: Clause 3 (4) states:

Nothing in this Act shall be taken to require any action incompatible with the principle that employment matters should be dealt with on the basis of merit.

It would be contended-this is what I said some would argue-that if one has quotas, one cannot have merit; but if one has merit, as in this clause, one cannot have quotas. I believe that is an oversimplification. What this present Bill does, in effect, is affirm both principles, both requirements.

Mr Miles —Quite right.

Dr HARRY EDWARDS —Yes, as my colleague said, that is what it is about. It is somewhat akin to the 32 rights that were set out in the Government's Bill of Rights, of ill fame.

Mr Webster —Which the people made them kick out.

Dr HARRY EDWARDS —Which the people obliged the Government to back off, however not necessarily for all time. All the rights are affirmed but in many cases they inevitably conflict. For instance, the guarantee of equal access to public employment which might be negatived for some by a requirement of compulsory unionism under the right to associate. Inevitably judgments have to be made-by whom is a good question-as to precedence and priority, and similarly here.

There is no doubt in my mind from the wording of this Bill that the merit principle which we on this side regard as pre-eminent is eroded in this measure, and the requirements for quantitative measures-if not actual quotas-have been upped. Of course, the scope of the Bill is much wider than the 1986 Act and is applicable not only to women but to other designated groups which may be specified by regulation. As I said before, that latter is an adverse feature of this legislation.

My concern is where this is going to stop. With this push further-in these two dimensions-to which I have referred; towards quantitative quotas and to categories additional to women-in the case of Commonwealth authorities, some of which are competing with the private sector, my concern is: Will this not become something of a pace-setter? We have shades of Clyde Cameron of times past. Will we not have next, if unhappily the Hawke socialist Government should continue in office, a revamping of the 1986 Act to push its requirements this much further in these two dimensions I have referred to, in respect of the private sector-adding to the regulatory burden on business contrary to the explicit expressed objectives of the Government as enunciated by Senator Button as recently as 9 January this year? That is a point of significance. On that date the senator announced that there would be what he called a `strengthening of the Government's commitment to the reduction of unnecessary business regulation'. He stated:

Any new government proposal affecting business must be cleared with the Business Regulation Review Unit and, if necessary, the Department making the proposal is required to supply a Regulation Impact Statement.

It all adds up. This Bill is surely squarely within the ambit of what was intended by Senator Button's statement, but there is no evidence that it has been so examined, hence the Opposition's second reading amendment to this legislation. Going back to what I said a moment ago, we do not want this sort of pace-setting to extend to the private sector. In my view it is time to call a halt now. That is what the Opposition from this side of the House to this Bill, drawn the way it is, is about. It is important in concluding to affirm that we on this side of the House support genuine equal opportunity in employment-and the removal of discriminations-based on merit, and without positive discrimination. It has been put to me--

Mr Webster —It is common sense.

Dr HARRY EDWARDS —It calls for common sense. It has been put to me by some of my colleagues that if the Government does not meet some of the requirements laid down by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition in his speech and we are obliged to vote against this Bill we will be seen in the public eye as opposing genuine equal opportunity in employment and that will not go down too well with the electorate. I doubt whether there will be that perception.

But in any event I believe that the primary concern of the electorate is with the key issues of the serious plight of Australian families, the high and rising prices of food and everything else; the crippling interest rates; the barely-affordable any-more mortgage payments, and the up to $50 a week increase for a typical housing loan under this Government almost cancels out the effect of increases in wages over the past few years; ever-higher taxes; the lot. And at the back of all that it is concerned with the desperate, the dangerous, indeed crisis state of the Australian economy. It is a situation which the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) referred to last June as `a situation akin to war', but now neither the Prime Minister, the Treasurer (Mr Keating) nor any other senior member of the Government will any longer tell it as it is. My gut view is that the majority of Australians will see us getting into holts here over this legislation as akin to fiddling while Rome burns. I urge the Government to come clean about the state of the country and to come to grips with the real issues.