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Tuesday, 29 May 2012
Page: 5951


Ms LEY (Farrer) (12:02): I rise today to speak on the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Amendment Bill 2012. I say at the outset that the coalition is committed to gender equality both in and outside the workplace. As a nation we must continue to strive to ensure that all Australians irrespective of gender are afforded the same opportunities. Our side of politics has led the way on a number of key initiatives that benefit women. For example, in 2003 we enacted the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act. We also introduced amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act to specifically identify breastfeeding as a potential ground of unlawful discrimination in the workplace. The funding of the Gardasil vaccine was another coalition initiative, and there were measures to address perinatal depression, funding for cervical cancer screening and numerous other initiatives. Our dedication to policy that specifically looks after women where required has not waned since we were last in government.

Of course, the coalition has proposed a paid parental leave scheme that is absolutely focused on equal opportunity for women. Our scheme would ensure that women are not being paid at less than their normal rate of pay when they take time off after the birth of their child. Our paid parental scheme has at its core a commitment to maintaining the financial security of women. Our scheme includes superannuation and pays real replacement wages, reducing the strain for many who would struggle to meet their financial commitments on Labor's scheme. By including superannuation we are ensuring that women will not be disadvantaged when the time comes for them to retire. These are not tokenistic measures but practical ones that assist in true equality.

We are also committed to flexible, affordable and accessible child care, recognising that paid parental leave and affordable child care are both key to encouraging women to return to the workforce. Yet this is something that Labor really struggle with. They have decreased the childcare rebate from $8,179, where it should be today, to $7,500, and their onerous red tape requirements for child care coupled with the increased staff-to-child ratios are seeing the cost of child care skyrocket. In my travels around the country I am constantly hearing from centre owners who do not necessarily disagree with increased staff-to-child ratios but wish that the government had listened to them when they asked for the changes to be rolled out gradually.

The government has also sought to burden them with a mass of paperwork, ironically reducing the amount of time a carer can spend focused on the children in their care as they are frantically filling out form after form instead of sitting on the floor and playing with the children. This Labor government is yet to learn that the way to go about gender equality is not through the imposition of draconian measures on business. Once again this bill sees Labor's cure-all as a plethora of red tape with a mass of reporting requirements for business.

Lest you think that I am putting my own interpretation on the bill, I refer to the Minister for the Status of Women and her second reading speech on introduction of the bill on 1 March 2012. By way of an aside, I suspect that it was designed to come into this place on International Women's Day, 8 March, and to be talked about when topics of gender equality around the world were a subject of discussion. But I cannot remember how many times this bill has been shunted to the back of the legislative agenda. Ten times I have been ready to stand up and speak on it and 10 times it has been moved away, so just how important was it really for the government to talk about these issues? We think there is another agenda at play.

But to come back to the minister's second reading speech: she told the House what this is really about. The minister made the point in that second reading speech that it is about closing the gap between men's and women's workforce participation, that it will improve gender equality outcomes and simplify reporting for businesses and that it is an important component of the government's workforce participation and human rights agenda, which is certainly giving it a grand scope. I have just made the point that workforce participation comes down to child care and paid parental leave that work for you and your family. But the objects of the bill are described by the minister as 'promoting and improving gender equality, supporting employers to remove barriers, promoting among employers the elimination of discrimination, fostering workplace consultation between employers and employees and improving the productivity and competitiveness of Australian business through the advancement of gender equality in the workplace'. Listening to those objects, you would think: 'My goodness, this is really serious stuff. I wonder what the actual operative provisions of the bill are that could produce these outcomes?'

I should say also that there are name changes. With Labor we always have name changes. When things look as though they need airbrushing, touching up and rolling out yet again, we have changes of name. This bill changes the name of the act to the Workplace Gender Equality Act, it changes the name of the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency and it changes the director's title to Director of Workplace Gender Equality. I cannot think of a woman who would want that job. 'Director of Workplace Gender Equality'—what does it all really mean? Well, the operative provisions are that employers must prepare and lodge a public report containing information relating to gender equality indicators. This bill is all about gender equality indicators. The jargon is proliferating—and we have not really even got into the detail.

If you are a business with 100 employees or more you come under this bill. If you are a business with fewer than 100 employees you will not be required to report but you will be able to access the agency's advice, education and incentive activities. I am sure they will keep the data on small businesses with fewer than 100 employees and perhaps in another iteration of this type of legislation those small businesses really will be crippled by these onerous reporting requirements—as if small business does not have enough to do.

The minister says, 'We will know exactly what is happening, and where, in Australian workplaces regarding gender equality, practices and outcomes.' That is a monstrous Big Brother statement to make. The gender equality indicators are set out in the act and include reporting on equal remuneration for men and women—they talk about what you are paying, how you are paying it and who is getting it. 'Over time,' the minister says, 'the legislation will enable the agency to develop benchmarks which will allow employers to consider their performance compared to others in the industry.'

But the key and most alarming statement coming from the government about this bill is this: 'The legislation will enable the minister to set industry-specific minimum standards in consultation with industry and experts. These minimum standards will have to be determined before April 2014.' I think there has been about a three-year lead up to this bill. But what this is actually saying is that this House should pass it, the Senate should pass it and then, before 2014, the minister will work out the industry-specific minimum standards against which employers will have to report. I know that the government will come back after my remarks and say none of this actually requires a certain rate of pay, none of this requires businesses to do anything about what they report. But I make two points: one is that just having to report on this sort of nonsense is a serious burden for business; the second is that, maybe, somewhere down the track, businesses will have to demonstrate that they have done the things that the government has set as minimum standards in terms of gender pay equality ideas, indicators et cetera that we really know so little about.

I am sure I read in here a veiled threat that a person would have to meet these standards in terms of government contracts, tender processes and other things or perhaps they will be named and shamed. In fact, in the second reading speech we come to three things: the inevitable checks, naming and consequences. It is like the government is an old school ma'am with glasses and with her hair scraped back in a bun, waving a pen at small business saying, 'You'll be checked, you'll be named and you'll have consequences.' In the current operating environment for businesses, families and the Australian economy why are we even debating this sort of stuff? I am confused.

Getting back to checks, naming and consequences: the minister says, 'Checks on a relevant employer may be undertaken and may, by written notice, require a relevant employer to provide information that is relevant to the employer's compliance with the act.' On naming: 'The consequences of a non-compliance without reasonable excuse, include naming the employer in a report to the minister or naming the employer by other means.' As for consequences, there are also possible consequences in relation to Commonwealth procurement, grants and financial assistance. So, following consequences, there are also threats.

The government wraps all this up with their determination to improve women's economic security. I come back to paid parental leave. The system that is proposed by this side of the House sees women's economic security absolutely take front and centre stage. We do not like this bill, Madam Deputy Speaker, as you may have gathered. We did not like the fact that businesses would be required to adhere to this new reporting framework, which they do not really have too many details against. They will have to report against the gender equality indicators in a publicly available report outlining the composition of their workplace and other aspects of their workplace profile.

The Labor Party has been a longstanding advocate of quotas. The coalition, on the other hand, believes in selection based on merit—not on gender, not to fill a mathematical quota, but strictly on ability. The setting of quotas will lead to tokenism and may impart the idea that some women's achievements are strictly based on gender, not ability. We would resist anything that would lead to the conclusion—anywhere, anyhow—that women's achievements are based on gender, not ability. I know that women have so much ability that they would never need to hide behind the gender card.

My first career was in air traffic control. I was often the only female air traffic controller in a room full of men. I cannot imagine if my employer, which I guess was a government department, to sign up to this completely would have been required to employ a certain number of female air traffic controllers. I had a career in the shearing sheds. I do not think a shearing contractor with many more than 100 employees would ever be able to meet requirements that might be determined on gender equality indicators, because I only met one female shearer in the entire time I worked in the sheds. By the way, she was very good. And so it goes.

There are protests from those opposite, but we do not know what the gender equality indicators are. We do not know how they might roll out in practice. I am not convinced that this legislation will achieve what the government intends it to. Indeed, I have concerns as to the chronic lack of information evident within this bill. Ultimately, this legislation relies on regulations that are yet to be drafted and ministerial directives that are yet to be made, in spite of the fact that there has been three years in which to do this work.. How important is equal opportunity in the workplace to the government?

The current act has been renamed and updated. It was amended in 1999, replacing the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act 1986. It has as its key focus the promotion of merit in the workplace, promoting equal employment opportunity, eliminating discrimination and encouraging consultation between employers and employees on these issues. Businesses are required to develop a workplace program—more time, more effort, more compliance, more pieces of paper to produce and show to someone who turns up at your business to look at your program and asks, 'What are you doing about the gender equality indicators that we have set?' All not-for-profit and non-government organisations with 100 or more employees are required to comply with the public reporting requirements of the act.

The Minister for the Status of Women proclaims the amending of this bill as an 'example of the significant inroads' that the Labor Party is making through its 'progressive reforms'. I beg to disagree. These so-called reforms are anything but progressive. Rebranding the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency is nothing more than window-dressing, another opportunity to waste taxpayer dollars on advertising and glossy logos, changing names on doors, changing the stationery—it all costs money.

Other 'reforms' are enhancing the agency's advice and education functions, and simplifying and streamlining reporting. How can there be simplifying and streamlining of reporting when there is so much additional compliance with reporting indicators that have not been set? Then there is strengthening the compliance framework. The government always has to strengthen the compliance framework. We so strongly disagree with the overemphasis on compliance. I am alarmed that we are expected to pass judgment on legislation that so poorly clarifies its scope. The financial and administrative cost to business will be harshly felt. Employers may well wonder what the real intention of the government is with this legislation.

The regulation impact statement states that the Workplace Gender Equality Agency will be vested with the authority to undertake organisational reviews, with the time burden for selected businesses estimated to be $1,300 where the business has up-to-date records. These compliance costs just further exacerbate the strain on businesses, many of which will be burdened by the imposition of Labor's carbon tax. I am further concerned by the prospect of the bill applying the general principles of the act to all employers. The effect of this would be to provide the Workplace Gender Equality Agency with a mandate to consider these businesses in their development of strategies and resources. I seek clarification from the minister as to what this really means for the small businesses of Australia. I look forward to advice on what 'a mandate to consider these businesses in their development of strategies and resources' really means.

The coalition does not support legislation which provides for such broad-ranging ministerial discretion in allowing the minister to effectively do what they like, further strangling business in red tape. This bill permits the minister to change the goal posts whenever the whim dictates, with no real parameters defined. Whilst the government may refer to this as 'flexibility', the reality is it proves that the government really has no idea what it wants to assess, so is leaving its options open. Three years on from the review undertaken by KPMG into the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act and Agency, it is quite frankly alarming that the government has not been able to commit to matters for one single gender equality indicator. Where will the government get its advice from? Who is the government trying to please? What is the hidden agenda?

The then Minister for the Status of Women, the member for Adelaide, announced in 2011 spot checks on business. That was truly alarming. This is a government that clearly does not understand or respect business. Given the university, union or otherwise backgrounds of the members opposite, it is no real wonder. Whilst I am pleased that this crazy idea was little more than a chance to embellish a media opportunity, I remain concerned about the ramifications. Having announced the possibility of spot checks of businesses, that really silly idea sank like a stone. But it demonstrates the minister's thinking. I am also concerned about the requirement for the minister to consult only with those stakeholders that the minister considers appropriate. It sounds like a union love-in will tick all the boxes for this government, with no requirement for consideration of the views of the business community.

Regrettably, with this bill, the government is brashly waving around a big stick, and there is not a single carrot in sight. Whilst this could present an ideal opportunity for the government to promote and reward businesses that meet all the government benchmarks, it has failed to embrace this.

The coalition has established a deregulation task force to identify unnecessary red-tape measures that are diminishing the productivity of Australian workplaces. As I said, as I travel around the country as the coalition spokesperson for child care, I see firsthand how centre operators are being overwhelmed with the administrative burdens imposed by this government. Instead of demanding that businesses devote hours to filling out reports just so another government agency can justify its existence, this government could focus on proactive measures to provide for improved gender equality—measures such as the superannuation component that the coalition has included into its paid parental leave scheme. If this government is honestly seeking equal remuneration for women then this would be an ideal step in the right direction.

When I think of women a generation older than me who live quiet and difficult lives in small country towns in the electorate I represent in western New South Wales, I realise there was nothing when they took time off work to look after their homes and children. They did not have the opportunities I have been so lucky to have. As I said, I look at the lives of poverty they are experiencing and I am determined that we on this side of the House will make sure that superannuation will continue to be an important factor for women as they go through the different stages of working and having children. If you step away from the workforce and from your superannuation contributions to take maternity leave or to stay at home and look after children, it does not take very long for that gap to really tell on your future retirement. So I think the government has a bit of a nerve talking about the rights of women at work when they are not thinking about the superannuation contributions that they miss out on through the government's very poor, second-rate Paid Parental Leave scheme.

I will be moving an amendment to this bill calling on the government to achieve equal opportunity for women by supporting the coalition's paid parental leave scheme. In addition, we will propose removing the discretion proposed to be granted to the minister specifically in relation to the determination of industry-specific standards in conjunction with the stakeholders of the minister's own choosing. We are not going to let this government frolic away on their own with standards that they have not yet determined but are going to determine after they—hopefully, in their minds—pass the legislation. We are going to stand in the way of that. I have a terrible vision of the unions placing their stamp all over these standards and manipulating this legislation to their own ends to collect the data they want, and feel they are missing out on, about workplaces.

I shall also move to reintroduce provisions allowing the agency to waive public reporting requirements for relevant employers. Why should employers have to publicly report against these standards, whatever they may be? Further amendments will be moved to give public acknowledgement to relevant employers who regularly meet compliance standards. Also, in our amendments, we will require the government to remove one regulation for relevant employers for each new regulation imposed by the act, because we are absolutely serious about red tape and deregulation. So, for every new regulation that is imposed, we will require the government to remove one, so as to not add to the regulatory burden for employers.

I expect that government members, in responding on this bill, will talk about it being streamlined, transparent, flexible and easy—those sorts of words—for employers. In that case, even if they do not support any of our other amendments, I look forward to them supporting that one. If they do not, they will be acknowledging that this will add considerably to the red-tape burden on Australia's small businesses.

Passing the amendments I will move would prevent businesses facing draconian levels of government interference and ensure that the bill is a more reasonable, palatable framework for business in the quest for gender equality. This is a government that has no understanding of or compassion for business. I encourage members opposite to adopt the measures and restore some semblance of common sense to this bill.

We are not rejecting the bill outright, in spite of the problems that we see with it. That would leave us open to the charge that we do not care about gender equality in the workplace, that we are not a party that supports equality and fairness for women, and that would be untrue. Our significant amendments would still leave in place the reality, which is that we are proud of our record when it comes to women in the workplace. We will not allow this government to tell a different story. Labor governments tax, spend and interfere, and this legislation is an absolutely perfect example of interfering.

I move:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House notes that if the Government was genuinely committed to achieving equality for working women, it would adopt the Coalition's better, fairer Paid Parental Leave scheme."

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Ms AE Burke ): Is the amendment seconded?

Mr Hartsuyker: I second the amendment.