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Tuesday, 29 May 2012
Page: 5960

Ms GAMBARO (Brisbane) (12:41): It is always interesting to follow the member for Blair. Nevertheless, I want to speak to this government bill, the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Amendment Bill 2012, which amends the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act 1999. It gives effect to a 2010 election campaign commitment.

The coalition supports gender equality in the workplace. From listening to the member for Blair you would think that those of us on this side of the House oppose all of the gender equality measures, many of which we instigated in the past when we have been in government. The coalition opposes this bill as it is currently drafted on the basis that it imposes some really draconian measures. All they are designed to do is increase the level of government interference in the workplace and they would have the absolute opposite effect, possibly, to what is stated in the bill's aim.

The coalition is committed to supporting gender equality and we are committed to workplace participation and improving workplace flexibility through retraining and improving the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act 1999. The coalition values women and men as co-contributors to the economic and social wellbeing of Australia, and we recognise and value the many varied roles that women play across all sectors of Australian society. We are committed to achieving real and decisive progress to make sure that we remedy the gender inequality that exists in Australia today.

The fact is that in 2010 Australian females made up 50.2 per cent of the population and 45.3 per cent of the workforce. Increasingly, women are more educated than their male counterparts. More females are completing year 12 and many more are going on to university than males. In fact, in 2008 females made up some 55 per cent of students who were currently enrolled in Australian universities.

Australia is very fortunate to have so many high-achieving women who have made significant contributions in numerous fields and enterprises. We are also very fortunate to have so many quiet achievers. They are the Australian women who are the backbone of this country's economy. They are the ones that hold the key to greater productivity in Australia. Sadly, estimates suggest that closing the gap between men's and women's workforce participation could result, and has resulted, in gender pay gaps of 16.9 per cent. If we closed the gap between men's and women's workforce participation we would see an increase of 13 per cent in gross domestic product. We had a great improvement in closing that persistent gender wage gap during the Howard years. But sadly, as I said, it has gone up again and, at 16.9 per cent, it is the widest it has been for over a quarter of a century.

The coalition is very proud of having a record of creating economic opportunity for Australian women. Our plans for the future will continue the very important work we have done and will benefit every member of our community. Improving gender equality in Australian workplaces is essential and critical and, in particular, is a very important ingredient in lifting female employment and creating greater opportunities for Australian women.

Under the bill small business will maintain its exemption from reporting for now. However, the general principles of the bill are expressed to apply to all employers. The effect of this is that the agency will have a mandate to consider small businesses in the development of strategies and resources, which raises the question: what does the government intend to do for small businesses? Will they too eventually be roped into reporting? It is essential that changes such as the substituted reporting responsibilities do not create more red tape and more operational imposts on an already overburdened small business sector or, for that matter, on all businesses in this country.

The coalition believes in smaller government and in not interfering with businesses getting on with the job of employing people. That is why we established the deregulation task force, chaired by Senator Arthur Sinodinos. The more regulation that the government puts on businesses, the more time and money and effort that businesspeople have to divert from real work, family and friends to fill in forms. As a small business operator until a few years before I entered politics, I understood that only too well when I was running a family business. One of my family member's sole responsibility was to fill in the forms and take care of all the red tape. There was a form a day, I can assure those sitting opposite. It was a full-time job in our particular business.

We in the coalition support the right of employers to run their businesses efficiently and to employ people on merit. We do not support the placement of draconian measures which are designed to increase the level of government interference in the workplace. The bill proposes to expand those organisations which can comment on the public report. And it includes an employee organisation, which is not present in the current legislation and which has the same definition as that found in the Fair Work Act. There is a proposed new section, 16B, which gives employee organisations the opportunity to comment on the public report, and employee organisations may well target certain industries. We do not support legislation which provides a broad-ranging ministerial discretion to allow the minister to effectively do what he or she likes and potentially tie up businesses in red tape.

In 2007 the federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, visited every state and territory in Australia, and a report was published in 2008. Four years later, many of the equality issues remain unchanged today from what they were then. In her report Ms Broderick identified that many older women with limited retirement savings due to movement in and out of the workforce—and you have to bear in mind that many of these older women were in the workforce when there was no superannuation for women—had a considerable level of anxiety relating to poverty in their later years.

Pay inequality is a contributing factor to the gender gap in women's retirement savings. The movement of women in and out of the paid workforce due to caring responsibilities is another factor contributing to the gender gap in retirement savings. Of course, there are always structural and cultural barriers in the workplace which prevent women from balancing their paid work and their caring responsibilities, reducing their workforce participation and their economic independence. Pay inequality is also influencing decisions within families on the sharing of paid work and caring responsibilities. Those same barriers prevent men from taking on a greater share of caring responsibilities, with men sometimes finding it even harder to access flexible work due to cultural stereotypes about roles between parents.

The availability and cost of child care also remains a significant impediment and a negative factor for many women wishing to return to the workforce. The rising cost of child care is becoming a major barrier to people returning to work—in some instances it can cost more for a parent to go to work than to stay at home. There is also a limited amount of child care available for before- and after-school hours, and recent changes to legislation have resulted in even fewer places being available.

If the coalition gains government at the next election we will introduce a comprehensive paid parental leave scheme. The coalition's scheme provides real time and real money to working women, offering eligible women 26 weeks at their replacement wage, up to $75,000 per annum for six months. Unlike Labor's paltry scheme, the coalition's PPL scheme includes superannuation—which, as I mentioned earlier, is a real concern, particularly for older women. So this is a really important step in addressing the chronic disparity between male and female retirement incomes. It also has the ability to directly address three key challenges identified in the second Intergenerational report: productivity, participation and population

The amendment bill is drafted to provide the minister with an inordinate amount of discretion. For example, the bill gives the minister the power by legislative instrument to specify matters in relation to each gender equality indicator, as set out in proposed subsection 3(1). The public report must contain details of the matters specified in the instrument made by the minister. The explanatory memorandum also confirms the minister's broad discretion. As stated, this gives the minister the flexibility to consider all issues relevant to gender equality and to add new matters. Is it necessary to consider the scope and extent of these new matters? What are those new matters? Absolutely no indication whatsoever has been given about what these new matters might be.

The minister is also directed, prior to 1 April 2014, by legislative instrument to set minimum standards in relation to specified gender equality indicators, specified relevant employers and specified reporting periods. The newly named Workplace Gender Equality Agency is given the ability to check compliance by requiring a relevant employer to give the agency information that relates to that employer's compliance with the act or to the employer's performance against the minimum standards. Surely, this is a watering down of spot checks on businesses that were proposed by former Minister Kate Ellis in 2011. The only prescribed consultation is with the agency and other stakeholders 'as the Minister sees appropriate'. The minister should be required to consult with employers as they are the ones paying the bill for all these changes.

We are really concerned that the legislation also allows the minister to set 'industry specific standards'. There is no clear definition of an 'industry specific' standard. The minister in her second reading speech also gave no indication as to what these industries might be. As reported in the Australian Financial Review on 9 March 2012 under the banner headline 'Gender equity bill to spur pay claims':

… employers remained concerned that unions will use this information on wage levels at a particular company to ask for industry wide wage rises.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Peter Anderson recently said that employers were concerned that the information they supplied could be 'misused for extraneous purposes'. His spokesman, David Turnbull, said 'employers remained concerned that unions will use this information on wage levels at a particular company to ask for industry-wide wage rises'.

The initial review of this act was announced in June 2009. KPMG provided an extensive report on the review but, three years on, the government has still not been able to come up with the 'matters in relation to each gender equality indicator'. Given their failure to address these issues, it seems really premature to be introducing this legislation.

The coalition opposes this bill on the basis that it imposes draconian measures which are designed to increase the level of government interference in the workplace and which may well have the opposite effect to what is stated as the bill's aim. If the government were really serious about improving the productivity and particularly the rates of participation of women in the workforce, it would look at adopting the childcare policies of the coalition, which include re-instating the occasional-care funding which allows parents to work part time and not have to commit to full-time child care, and gives them the flexibility at different stages of their careers to move in and out of the workforce at different times and also to work part time to full time. That is what women really need. They need that great flexibility as their families increase and to then, as their families start work, be able to phase back into paid full-time work.

The coalition seeks to amend the bill to: remove the discretion proposed to be provided to the minister; re-introduce provisions allowing the agency to waive public reporting requirements for relevant employers; insert a provision for the agency to give public acknowledgement to relevant employers who regularly meet compliance standards; and require the government to remove one regulation for relevant employers for each new regulation imposed by the act.

I want to conclude by saying that all this bill does is add to the burden of red tape for businesses while doing absolutely nothing to improve the opportunities for women in the workplace. All Australians must continue to work together to ensure that the contribution of women in this country's workforce is properly valued, appreciated and rewarded.