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Thursday, 28 October 2010
Page: 1997

Ms KATE ELLIS (Minister for Employment Participation and Childcare and Minister for the Status of Women) (9:53 AM) —I rise in the House today in support of the Sex and Age Discrimination Legislation Amendment Bill 2010. This is an incredibly important bill. It delivers on an election commitment to ensure that both women and men, regardless of their age, can confidently participate in the economic life of our nation without fear of discrimination. In making my remarks this morning, I would like to begin by commending the Attorney-General for bringing forward amendments of such significance, such importance and such impact.

One of my priorities as the Minister for the Status of Women is to achieve greater economic security for the women of Australia. Research shows that there has been a shift in Australia from a more traditional model of a family with a male breadwinner and a female caregiver to one of a family with two incomes. Yet, despite these shifts, we know that Australian women continue to do the greater share of unpaid caring and domestic work. We also know that there are in fact many men out there who would love to play a larger role in unpaid care and in spending time with their young children. Men want to be able to access more flexible arrangements. We know that the number of men undertaking this unpaid work is beginning to increase.

The amendments in this bill mean that more men can now seek these work arrangements to undertake child rearing or other caring or domestic work without fear of discrimination or reprisal in their workplaces. In order for women to hold an equal place in Australian society, we must consistently and systematically remove all barriers to women having a fulfilling working life. The unequal burden of caring responsibilities is one of these barriers and has meant that women have often had fewer options in their working arrangements or careers. This bill provides the conditions for families to make a decision about how their work and caring responsibilities can be shared between both women and men. Effectively, the amendments encourage greater participation for women in the workforce and greater participation for men in caring and unpaid domestic work—an excellent outcome for women and an excellent outcome for men and, importantly, ultimately an excellent outcome for our nation’s children. These amendments are part of the government’s continuing commitment to make flexible work options available to all Australians. We have introduced the new National Employment Standards under the Fair Work Act, which provide parents of both genders with a right to request a flexible work pattern from their employer. We have also announced parental leave entitlements for fathers as well as mothers to help Australian men increase their participation as caregivers.

More generally, the bill before the House also amends Australia’s sex discrimination legislation so that its protections apply equally to men and women. The bill also establishes breastfeeding as a distinct ground of discrimination, making it unlawful for people to be discriminated against on this basis. It also seeks to strengthen protections against sexual harassment and recognises that sexual harassment does take place far too often within Australian workplaces but that there are also changing forms of harassment with the advent of new technologies. I welcome these amendments as establishing a framework for working conditions that will allow women and men to pursue fulfilling work and family lives free from discrimination or reprisal.

I will now change hats briefly. It is also a priority, as the Minister for Employment Participation and Childcare, that we ensure that the labour market is accessible to all Australians, regardless of their age. This government has adopted particular measures to skill up our young workers and to support mature age workers to expand their career options. This amendment will, for the first time, establish a dedicated Age Discrimination Commissioner to advocate for the rights of older Australians in the community and in the workplace. I particularly welcome the establishment of this role as it relates to older workers who are experiencing discrimination in their workforce. We know that this is a huge concern and a significant concern for far too many Australians out there. The majority of age discrimination complaints received by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2008 and 2009 related to employment. The commission has also told us that unlawful age discrimination has emerged as a serious disincentive to mature age workers continuing in paid work. This is something that should be of grave concern to all of us, particularly given the composition of our workforce over the coming years and the demographics that we know that we are facing. This is a major issue which must be addressed.

Age discrimination can occur in a number of ways in the workplace—in recruitment processes, access to training, promotions, flexible work practices, targeted restructures and age based bullying. Unfortunately, age discrimination can go unnoticed too often. It is my hope that the establishment of this dedicated role will raise the profile of this issue and provide redress for a number of older workers. We know that mature workers bring significant benefits to the workplace, including a strong sense of loyalty, reliability and insight. The new commissioner will encourage employers and the broader community to appreciate these important qualities and the remarkable skills older Australians bring to the workplace and their communities.

This initiative builds on amendments made to strengthen the Age Discrimination Act in 2009. The establishment of a new commissioner will also complement the work of the government’s consultative forum on mature age participation. In the establishment of a new stand-alone commissioner, I would like to acknowledge the huge efforts of Liz Broderick in this role to date. In making these changes it is absolutely no reflection on the hard work that she has put in and the priority that she has given to this issue. It is, however, an acknowledgment that this is a huge and growing concern—that our demographic changes mean that we need to take the issue seriously. We need to bring about change to these cultures and that means we need a commissioner who can be responsible for overseeing this. This bill will create the conditions for a more equal and more productive workforce and will be in the best interests of all Australians. I would like to commend the Attorney-General for these insightful amendments and also commend the bill to the House.