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Tuesday, 29 May 2012
Page: 5975

Mrs MARKUS (Macquarie) (13:42): I rise today to speak on the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Amendment Bill 2012. This bill would require medium and large businesses that employ more than 100 staff to report on their progress in gender equality.

Let me begin by emphasising that Tony Abbott and the coalition have a long history of supporting gender equality in the workplace, and I will draw on some of the examples that I have been proud to support during my time as an elected member of parliament. These examples more than demonstrate that the coalition's opposition to this amendment is not because we do not support gender equality in the workplace but rather that we do not support the Gillard government attempting to amend a bill to provide the minister with increased power of judgment and to impose greater red tape on everyday Australian businesses. Furthermore, we do not support legislation that provides broad-ranging statements allowing broad ministerial discretion.

Firstly, allow me to highlight some of the coalition policy positions and achievements that confirm our position with regard to gender equality and our interest in preserving the rights of women across the nation. While I cannot report on all, I would like to mention a couple here today.

If the coalition gains government at the next election it will introduce a comprehensive paid parental leave scheme. This scheme provides real time and real money to working women. We would offer eligible women 26 weeks at their replacement wage up to $75,000. Unlike Labor's scheme the coalition's paid parental leave scheme includes superannuation, which is an important step in addressing the chronic disparity between male and female retirement incomes. It will also address the three key challenges identified in the second Intergenerational report: productivity, participation and population.

The coalition will move an amendment calling on the government to commit to achieving equal opportunity for women by supporting this scheme. The coalition recognises that one of the most effective ways to increase female workforce participation is a solid parental leave scheme and affordable child care. As the Minister for Health and Ageing, Tony Abbott, along with the coalition, secured increased funding for successful screening programs for cervical cancer, resulting in a steady decline in Australia's cervical cancer rate. The then Howard government and Tony Abbott, as the then Minister for Employment Services, enacted the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act 1999. These are just a few of a long list of examples that demonstrate the coalition's interest in preserving the rights of women and securing gender equality in the workforce.

I and the coalition do not think that it is in the best interest of Australian businesses to interfere with business getting on with the job of employing people, a concept that the Gillard government cannot seem to comprehend as it continues to introduce legislation that adds further barriers and additional red tape to Australian businesses. It should go without saying—but this government seems to need reminding—that the more regulation government places on businesses the more time, money and effort businesspeople have to divert from real work, family and friends to fill in forms. This is exactly what this amendment seeks to do. It seeks to add additional paperwork to Australian business owners who are already being choked by this government's red tape.

The current Gillard government and the former Rudd Labor government have been obsessed with increasing the red-tape burden on business. Labor has introduced 18,000 new regulations in just over 4½ years, which equates to 11 new regulations every day. In today's Sydney Morning Herald the Chief Executive of the Business Council of Australia, Jennifer Westacott, in an open letter to the government regarding the enterprise migration agreements, has urged Labor MPs to 'avoid the knee-jerk temptation to tie it up in even more red tape and processes'. Jennifer is clearly concerned by the Labor government's red tape and quick-fix solutions, which are having a considerable impact on Australian businesses.

The amendment bill is drafted to provide the minister with an excessive amount of judgment and discretion. The initial review of this act was announced in June 2009 by KPMG. One aspect of this report recommended that the government detail the 'matters in relation to each gender equality indicator'. Essentially, the government has not detailed gender equality indicators as the report recommended, and as a result the minister will be able to create these indicators at their own discretion. Given the minister's failure to address these issues, it seems premature to be introducing this legislation. This is just one example of where the minister would be able to use discretion to apply the legislation.

Another example is detailed in the explanatory memorandum, which states that the minister will have 'the flexibility to consider all issues relevant to gender equality and to add new matters'. It is necessary to consider the scope and extent of these new matters. However, these new matters are not identified within the amendment. Will these also be left up to the minister's discretion? Understandably, the coalition is sceptical and does not support legislation which provides broad-ranging ministerial discretion to allow the minister to effectively do what he or she wants and potentially tie Australian businesses up in more and more red tape. This red tape will do nothing for the equality of women in the workforce but rather will detract from productivity and potentially cost Australian businesses time and jobs.

Furthermore, as reinforced by Peter Anderson, the Chief Executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, in March this year, businesses are concerned that the information that they provide to employers and shareholders could be 'misused for extraneous purposes'. The key concern is that unions will use information regarding wage levels at any particular company to ask for industry-wide wage rises. This will put further pressure on Australian businesses and Australian jobs.

While the department 'estimates' that the resourcing cost to business will decrease on average from approximately $1,200 per annum to $450 per annum, the regulatory impact statement specifically states that the reforms will result in increased compliance costs for businesses that have not previously been compelled to report. Prior to recommending a change to the way a business conducts itself, the government and the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency need to ensure that the change will not result in additional compliance costs being borne by businesses. The agency has admitted that it does not do this, which is of concern to the coalition, particularly given that the Productivity Commission has estimated that the rewards for Australia to cut red tape could be worth up to $12 billion a year. This amendment creates more questions than answers and more challenges than solutions. It is just another attempt by the Gillard government to micromanage and adds additional red tape to the businesses of Australia without making any real impact on equal opportunity for women.

My coalition colleague the member for Farrer will move amendments to ensure that Australian women achieve equality in the workforce. The coalition's amendments will seek to remove discretion proposed to be provided to the minister and reintroduce provisions allowing the agency to waive public reporting requirements for relevant employers. We will also seek to insert a provision for the agency to give public acknowledgement to relevant employers who regularly meet compliance standards, and we will also seek to require the government to remove one regulation for relevant employers for each new regulation imposed by the act. This is a promise that the government made prior to the last election.

The coalition has a real plan to ensure that Australian women achieve gender equality in the workplace—one that does not infringe on the everyday operations of Australian businesses. The burden that the Gillard government is placing on Australian businesses through increased regulation and red tape is causing businesses to divert their time, money, efforts and resources to complying with government red tape rather than creating jobs and opportunities for all Australians. In February this year I had the pleasure of hosting Senator Cash, the shadow parliamentary secretary for the status of women, in the Blue Mountains. We had a roundtable with a number of businesswomen from Biznet. One of the women raised with us the challenges that she was facing as a small business owner under the Labor government, particularly with the government's Paid Parental Leave scheme. She had spent several hours—indeed, some weeks—arranging paperwork, making phone calls and negotiating with government departments in an attempt to facilitate and actually manage the scheme for one of her employees. This is a burden which small business cannot and should not bear. Again this government says it is for creating jobs, but its draconian business regulation and spending cuts say otherwise, as more and more Australian businesses are forced into voluntary administration. The coalition does not support the introduction of drastic measures which are designed to increase the level of government interference in the workplace. A coalition government would support the right of employers to run their businesses efficiently and to employ people the way they should be employed, based on merit.

This bill does little to improve the status of, and equal opportunity for, women. It does place unnecessary burdens on everyday Australians who are endeavouring to provide opportunities for themselves, for their families and for their communities, including the women in their communities, and to improve the status of the workforce overall. I call on the government to look closely at the coalition's amendments and to seriously consider supporting them.