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Tuesday, 29 May 2012
Page: 5964

Ms O'NEILL (Robertson) (12:56): I am very pleased today to have the opportunity to speak on this important bill before the House, the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Amendment Bill 2012. The bill reflects the Gillard government's commitment to supporting gender equality and the improvement of workforce participation and flexibility. It substantially retains the act but improves on it.

Before I commence my formal comments, I reflect briefly on the contribution of the member for Brisbane. There is a somewhat revealing pattern in what we have heard from the member. In her description of a problem many of the points which she made were points of fact and I think that we would be in agreement on the disadvantage that it is out there in the workplace for women. But in contrast with this government's initiative, what we get from those opposite is a do-nothing response. That is the argument we constantly get. It is an articulation of a climate of fear—be afraid of the legislation; be afraid of everything; be afraid of any possible cost; be afraid of any change; we cannot afford it.

We heard exactly the same sort of mode of operation from those opposite in terms of the floods in Brisbane. When there was a need for us to respond to a real and pressing problem in and around Brisbane, what did we hear from the opposition? Absolute opposition and no response to the real and pressing need. In contrast, this government enacted the changes that made $5.8 billion possible as support to that particular state at a time of need. I think this sums up the great differences between what the people on our side—the government side—have to say on the legislation and what those opposite continue to do, which is to negate everything and to act in ways which would give people no hope for the future, but tell us simply to leave things as a status quo.

I can report to the House that earlier this year on International Women's Day I participated in a recognition of that day with a number of girls from local schools in the Central Coast, including Narara Valley High School, Gosford High School, St Joseph's high school, and a number of great female agencies and wonderful female and male leaders in our community as well. We talked about the need to recognise and celebrate women's achievements, but also to continue to articulate striving for equality in all aspects of life. Indeed, the theme for this year's International Women's Day was the 'economic empowerment of women'. That theme is relevant to women everywhere. That is why this piece of legislation, very carefully constructed by this government, is a vital piece of our legislative program, and I am delighted to be able to reflect on that in some detail now. I commence my formal remarks by noting the very important change to the name of the act, which reflects changing community attitudes to notions of equality and equity in the workplace. When this bill is passed, the name of the act will be the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012. It follows then that the agency responsible for bringing this new legislation to life in the community and the director of that agency also receive new titles. When this legislation passes through this chamber and the other place, people will find a great deal of very helpful practical advice about gender equality at the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, which will be overseen by the newly named Director of Workplace Gender Equality. This name change is a marker in our legislative history, a marker of the success of those women and men who were such passionate advocates for women's rights in general and those who saw those saw those rights brought to life in workplaces across this nation to a degree.

Before I proceed with more a detailed consideration of the actual legislation, let us acknowledge what the original legislation achieved because it points to the power of legislation in supporting community articulation for needs to change and improve current practices. The original legislation was a vital historic step in raising awareness of unquestioned inequities that existed in workplaces, bringing changing community understanding alongside a developing understanding that, to make real our express belief that we are an egalitarian society, we need education but we also need structural change. The legislation was a critical tool in ensuring that businesses across the nation in all workplaces—from the backroom at a local distribution centre to the boardroom at the top of the MLC—had to take some time to understand and begin to alter longstanding and often unquestioned practices that put women at a disadvantage in the workplace.

Some businesses and organisations operating out of ethical values based models noted the opportunities to embrace the change in the context of that conversation. Without some compulsion and without raising the standards, some workplaces just knew that the right thing to do straight off was to actively change things to make their workplace a fairer place for women, striving towards making equality in the workplace common. But other businesses, whether by design or by a lack of interest, did not even see inequality. Others sought to maintain inequality for a range of reasons one hates to imagine.

In this mixed set of circumstances, the role of parliament in bringing forward and passing legislation is very important. This legislation before the House today reveals a commitment to putting in place the conditions that support equality in the workplace as part of our law. The type of legislation before the House in this matter very clearly expresses our beliefs about the equality of citizens, about the equality of male and female citizens in the workplace as well as outside of that workplace in the common place.

We believe that gender equality should be assured and that proof of this basic democratic belief should be evident in equitable outcomes. We commenced that with this legislation. There will be great businesses and organisations, both small and large, who understand that equity in the workplace creates an environment where people work better, where people are happier and where people are more productive. Successful, adaptive and ethical organisations know that their success depends on the quality of the people they engage and on the quality of the relationships within their working community. But, sadly, there will be businesses or individuals who fear change, cling to models of the past and no matter how unjust or inequitable they might be, can find an argument to stay just as they are, to do nothing.

There are people who think inequity is acceptable, but we in the Labor Party are not of that view. Interestingly, last week, on 23 May, a report in the Advertiser, that South Australian luminary publication, quoted the South Australian Liberal opposition leader as saying:

I think it is easier a lot of the time to just try to ignore the discrimination and get on with being the best councillor you can be, or the best whatever it is, and ask intelligent questions and … I think you'll find the discrimination will just disappear.

That is the policy of the opposition on this issue in a nutshell: 'If we do nothing, the problem will go away'. If only that was true. But it is not the truth, and it is not an appropriate response to inherit gender prejudice and exclusion from opportunity that sadly is still commonplace in our workplaces.

Let us just get some facts on the record here. In February 2010 the gender pay gap was 18 per cent. That is not acceptable to those girls who were at that International Women's Day with me. It is not acceptable to their brothers or their fathers or their future employers either. In 2009 a new male graduate had a median starting salary of $50,000; the girls who had started at the same time ended up with only $47,000. That is inexcusable. The average superannuation balances for Australians aged 15 years and over with superannuation coverage were $87,589 for men and $52,272 for women. In the ASX 200 only 10.7 per cent of executive managers are women. Women chair two per cent of ASX 200 companies and hold only 8.3 per cent of board director positions. This just simply does not match up with the reality of the success we are having with female graduates coming out of universities, and it certainly does not reflect the similarities between the genders in success that I saw amongst my own students.

Sadly, it is still the fact today that young women are up to fives times more likely than men to have average weekly incomes of less than $150 a week and twice as likely to have average weekly incomes of less than $600. In the prime working age, between the brackets of 35 and 64, the number of women earning above $1,300 a week is less than half of their male colleagues and women who earn about $2,000 a week make up less than 25 per cent of that group.

We have put the facts on the record, but what does this mean? Why does it matter? I want to make a few comments about productivity. We have increasing evidence that the benefits of gender diversity are absolutely seen in increased productive capacity for organisations and, through them, our economy. A recent report from Catalyst found that for four out of five industries in the United States, the companies with the highest female representation on their top management teams experienced a higher total return to shareholders than companies with the lowest representation of women. There is something about equity that creates fantastic productive outcomes. Growth in productivity is the main source of improvement in living standards and gross domestic product, and faster labour productivity growth enables higher growth for real GDP. The World Economic Forum clearly identifies the link between productivity and the better use of women in the workplace. There is a very strong correlation between the gender gap and national competitiveness, and a nation's competitiveness depends significantly on whether and how it educates and utilises its female talent. The reality is that we are currently in a place where we are not utilising that talent in the way we should.

It is very clear that this legislation significantly builds on advances that have already been made. Those on this side of the chamber are ready to take the necessary action that refocuses national attention on gender equity. This legislation moves us deliberately and responsibly towards the worthy goal of gender equity and the productivity and improved life outcomes that such a change offers.

One of the important points of the act's name change is to reflect community attitudes, which have changed very much to a desire to balance our work and our lives—for men and women to have the joy, the challenge and the growth opportunity of parenting or caring for older relatives or extended family or even members of their own communities who need our support, and to balance that important work in the community and their families with their work. This is another very important issue that is addressed by this legislation.

I would like to look quickly at some of the key elements of this bill. I know there has been a lot of noise in opposing them, but it is important that we have reporting on things that matter. People want to know the football scores at the end of the weekend; we do measure success in certain areas by numbers. The reality is that often it is what is measured that is seen to matter. That is why we need to have some reporting requirements to assist in this process. The requirement for organisations to develop workplace programs has been removed from this legislation. Employers will now have a much more streamlined set of gender equality indicators to help them focus on delivering outcomes rather than simply compliance. This is about changing the way that we work to improve our productivity, equity and equality to create the possibility of people getting the best out of their work-life balance. In terms of business assistance, it is also important to put on the record that smaller organisations and businesses with fewer than 100 employees are not required to report, but they can access this information—and they should access this information considering we know how much it will improve the productivity of all workplaces and that it is, in a way, simply an ethical practice. We know that that improves business productivity and the general tenor of a workplace.

Regarding compliance, the agency's improved resourcing will certainly make it easier for them to be able to check on how businesses are going with implementing these changes. It is important to highlight the employee engagement that has been a part of the minister's work leading to this day, where the legislation is now up for consideration to pass through the House of Representatives. Engagement with our employees and other business organisations has been a hallmark of the way in which this legislation has been advanced. It has also very much stood the test of whether we are an ethical international citizen that complies with its proclaimed support for international conventions on human rights.

In conclusion, the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Amendment Bill 2012 adds to the real and practical improvements to people's lives that this government is prepared to make through legislation. Once again, those opposite stand ready to say no to women, girls, men, boys, families, business and all who stand to benefit from this legislation. I commend the bill to the House. (Time expired)