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Thursday, 28 October 2010
Page: 2003

Dr STONE (10:20 AM) —I too stand to support the Sex and Age Discrimination Legislation Amendment Bill 2010. It covers an area of significance in Australian society. Whether you are male or female, young or old, it is about the business of making sure that, whatever your racial or ethnic background in Australia, you are not subject to discrimination. We must make sure the laws of this country do provide equal protection. The bill proposes to make four substantive amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act, and I commend all of them. I would hope that they will actually bring about real change in the norms of our society and to the culture itself. It is one thing to have the right words in legislation but it is another to have those words become part of our daily living and for people to understand what a fair go in our country is.

The first point made in the bill is that we extend the act to ensure equal protection for men as well as women. This might sound a bit amazing given that typically women have been on the hard end of egalitarianism or equal opportunity, but it is important, as our family caring is changing with more men choosing to support the mothers of their children, that it is not seen as abnormal or something to be discriminated against when the father who is in a caring role—or sharing a caring responsibility with his partner—asks for family leave or for a flexible workplace or for part-time work. So it is an important extension of the act to ensure equal protection.

The second point is to broaden the prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of family responsibilities to include indirect discrimination toward both men and women in all areas of their work. That is very like the first point. We are saying it is discriminatory if a man or woman on returning from parental leave is given lesser opportunity in their workplace and denied access to the sort of mentoring or career advancement which was offered or available to them before they took parental leave. It is subtle but it is true that one of the biggest career limiters in Australian society right now is to have a baby. When a woman takes maternity leave and then return to work after a short or longer time of leave she very often encounters a different response to her as a committed and dedicated career minded person in that business or public sector position. That is not fair, and it is often indirect.

We have to make sure, as women become pregnant in our society, have their children and perhaps choose to exclusively breastfeed for the first six months at least, that they do not meet a new set of ceilings in their future advancement because they are seen as a higher risk in the time they will spend at work. There is an expectation that they will not be the first at work in the morning or the last to leave and that they should, therefore, be limited in their future careers in that place, with men or women without children given better opportunities. We have also got to make sure that breastfeeding is seen as something that is natural in our Australian society. It is the best for the baby. So there is a third element of the bill which establishes breastfeeding as a separate ground of potential discrimination.

The bill aims to strengthen the protections against sexual harassment in workplaces and schools to also include cyberbullying and electronic harassment. This is the fourth and final substantive amendment to the SDA. This is a very sad outcome of our new electronic communications age. Teenagers and younger girls can be subjected to the most horrific bullying and intimidation via their text messaging or the internet. We have to make sure that we keep up with the changes in technology and that parents are able to identify exactly what is going on in the lives of their children and how these new technologies can be used to make the life of bullied children hell. This is a very important addition to the bill to recognise that this is a growing and serious problem in our society as well as internationally in many developed countries.

In this whole business of sex and age discrimination, Australia is not doing well. Perhaps as a result of better reporting or more police awareness, we have growing numbers of women reporting domestic or family violence. Significant injuries and emotional distress are a consequence of family violence and it is often learned behaviour in the family so that it becomes intergenerational. If children see their mother being abused, it becomes the learned response of boys—and girls—in the family that how you act out your aggression, rage, impotency and sense of society rejecting you is to cause great physical and emotional harm to those nearest to you.

It is a fact that, when women go to the police or in some other way report violence being directed against them and their children, that is when they are often most in danger or at risk of that violence escalating. Often in these abusive relationships women are threatened that, if they tell the police or someone else who might intervene, they will be killed or it will get worse for them. The realities are that it does get worse for them. So we have to be much more determined as a society to go back to the beginning of the problem and understand how we are going to make sure respect for women is somehow transmitted and communicated to younger children where they are not learning this respect in the family. We have to make sure that our younger people growing up understand the rights of men and women, boys and girls—their rights to be safe, to be respected, to be treated as human beings who have the right to express their own independence and to develop and maximise their opportunities, that they are not to be owned by a man in a marital relationship and their every waking moment is not to dominated by a partner who may be abusive.

This government has not yet responded sufficiently to the national council’s call for a national response to domestic and family violence. We have not had adequate resourcing for places of refuge or support for women fleeing these very difficult situations. In my own area I heard recently of a program commenced under the coalition government called Bsafe—B stands for Benalla. It was a cost-effective program where women who had a restraining order taken out against partners who were abusive—and who had already proved through our legal systems that they needed protection—were issued with a fairly low-cost monitor. If they saw the abusive partner approaching, coming to their home or trying to break the restraining order in any way, they could press the button on the monitor and immediately, via a call centre, the call was directed to local police.

That was a very effective way to enable those women to tell their partners that help was on the way for them and that there were others who were aware that he was breaking the orders that were in place. The women found that there was then a lessening of attempts by abusive partners to break those orders. It gave the women and even some family members who also knew how to use the monitoring device a much greater sense of security. There were several instances where sons were able to use the monitor to alert the police when their mothers were not able to, so a very serious and dangerous situation was averted.

The tragedy is that this program runs out of funding at the end of this year. It involves only several hundred thousand dollars. It involves a coordinator who manages the use of monitors by some 70 women. At the moment, they have applied for new funding and they have been told that there is no funding to carry on this excellent program. The coordinator told me the agony she is going through having to tell this to these women, who have been given a life back through the use of these monitors and who can live safely in their homes and leave their homes with some sense of security. The coordinator has had to say: ‘Sorry, we’re going to have to cut this service off. We’re going to have to remove this monitor from you. We’ve lost the government funding. We know this program has been very successful and we can demonstrate that, but the Gillard government is not choosing to continue this funding.’

This is a very, very sad situation and I beg the appropriate ministers to revisit Bsafe. It involves very little money when you consider the great benefits that have come out of the program. One of the main benefits of the program is that women and their families can stay in their own homes. They have not had to relocate to a motel, a hotel or a refuge in another place, disrupting their children’s schooling and cutting them off from their peers, their friends and other supportive family networks. It is a cost-effective but very important program. It is something that should be expanded across Australia, not cut off when it is providing the means for a lot of women to regain a decent life and break the cycle of intergenerational abuse.

Australia’s gender pay gap is getting wider, and that is another very serious situation. It is astonishing to know that laws were passed in Australia for equal pay in the 1970s. But look at the situation now. For example, a woman accountant and a male accountant with the same qualifications and similar work experience receive pay rates that are, on average, substantially different. The average difference in pay for a first-year-out male law graduate compared to a first-year-out female law graduate doing similar legal work in a similar sized company is $7,000. And as they progress through their careers that pay gap gets wider.

The difference between the pay packages for men and women at the level of chief executive officer or chief financial officer in Australia can be up to 50 per cent. It is no wonder that a lot of women feel discriminated against and that their true worth in the workplace is undermined. Very often, the confidentiality agreements or secrecy agreements wrapped around these packages are specifically designed to keep women from knowing what their male colleagues are earning. This adds to the problem of full disclosure and transparency in the workplace to help ensure women get a decent go. It quite obviously affects the productivity of women. It affects their superannuation. It is one of the reasons that 73 per cent of single age pensioners are women. Women have a fraction of the savings and superannuation when they reach retirement, and are more likely to have to end up dependent on welfare. They live a poor old age compared to their male counterparts. Given that women are typically the carers of children, grandchildren and their older relatives—their own parents or their in-laws—this is a very, very poor outcome for a country like Australia that claims to be a land of equal opportunity and one that provides a fair go for all.

The percentage of women on boards is a disgrace—only 8.3 per cent of board members are women. Very few women hold directorships. In the top ASX 200 companies only seven women hold directorships. Looking at all that, we would have to say that Australian society does not understand that women have a biological determinism affecting their careers. Women are going to take time off when they are pregnant and when they are raising children. May it always be the case that women in Australia can choose to have families, but they should not be discriminated against in the workplace and blocked from becoming senior board members, managers or directors in companies because they have a work history which includes some time off or some period of part-time work. That is the case in Australia right now.

It is good we have the Paid Parental Leave scheme starting in January next year, but it is sad that it is not going to be a decent paid parental leave scheme like the one the coalition endorsed—and that we will bring into this country when we are next elected. However, it is a start. But it should not be the poor paid parental leave scheme that it is: no superannuation, for example. This just perpetuates the problems for women as they retire. (Time expired)