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Monday, 18 June 2012
Page: 6678

Mrs BRONWYN BISHOP (Mackellar) (12:58): On 9 March, when this legislation originally surfaced, I said when I was acting spokesman on the status of women that this new so-called diversity regime was the sort of thing you would expect from a totalitarian regime which would lead to 'tokenism and the promotion of women simply because they are women'. I further described the proposal as 'heavy-handed, half baked and wasting $11.2 million', which was part of an agenda to strip away the rights of employers to run their businesses efficiently and employ people on merit. I stand by those comments.

It is interesting to take a look at the explanatory memorandum prepared by the government to support this bill and read some of the interesting material that is in it, which actually undermines the manner in which the government is attacking this issue of equality in the workplace, which we on this side of the House thoroughly support. We acknowledge that the contribution of women in the workforce is essential to the performance of our economy. But the snapshot proposals that are published in the government's own explanatory memorandum make statements like:

Women are more likely to be clerical, sales and community and personal service workers, while men are more likely to be technicians and trades workers, machinery operators and drivers and labourers. Women are still substantially under-represented in the manual trades in Australia, with the number of women in manual trades being less than 2 per cent.

Australian women are more likely to work under minimum conditions and be engaged in low-paid, casual and part-time work. It says:

Women workers are concentrated in the sectors of health care and social assistance and education and training (30 per cent of all female hours worked). When combined with the retail industry, 44 per cent per cent of total female hours worked are concentrated in just three industries. There is not a single industry in Australia in which women are paid more than men.

It also says:

A woman is approximately 50 per cent less likely to be employed as a manager, despite being equally likely to be in a full-time role in a professional capacity.

I think those comments are very pertinent in setting the scene to take me back to a report in December 2006 of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Human Services, which I chaired, entitled Balancing work and family: report on the inquiry into balancing work and family. It was in that report that we made many important findings which are very supportive of the policy which is referred to in the amendment moved to this bill by the member for Farrer stating:

… 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 …

which of course has something on the poor leave scheme that the government has put in place—minimum payments only and only for a lesser period of time than the coalition proposes. It also includes superannuation payments, which, of course, the government does not include.

In that report that I referred to we took evidence from a vast number of people, but one was from the Family Matters journal, where Matthew Gray and Professor Bruce Chapman investigated the issues of average loss of income for a hypothetical woman who completes secondary school and then commences having a family at the age of 25 with the option of further children. They said the simple fact of having a child reduces a woman's lifetime chance of being employed by seven per cent. The authors calculated that on average this hypothetical woman would lose 37 per cent of her lifetime earnings by having a child. They said the results for women with differing levels of education are similar. They went on to talk about the weekly earnings of an average employee who faces a decision, five years after finishing their education, whether to finish work, do part-time work or continue to work full time. They said employees who stay full time continue to increase their earning capacity. Those who change to part-time work or plateau and employees who leave the workforce face a reduced salary when they return, with the reduction increasing for the amount of time out of a job. In other words, at every turn there is enough evidence to say that real policies to see women remain in the workforce are gauged at enabling them to have a child, to be able to provide for that child in those early weeks with good financial backup and to feel that they can then go back into the workforce and not miss out on the important aspects that lead to increases in pay and not plateauing.

I think it is interesting to look at the statistics that came from one of the witnesses who gave evidence to us about what happens to women when they are using the education they have gained in more professional and higher-paid jobs. For instance, the Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers Australia noted that, of their female membership, 69 per cent did not have children. By comparison, the current estimate for the Australian population generally is that 16 per cent of women are likely to remain childless. They said the very high proportion of childless female professionals found in the association's surveys reflects the reality that professional women with children are leaving the workforce or reducing their level of workforce participation due to family responsibilities.

It highlights one of the main reasons the government likes to criticise the proposed paid parental leave scheme that we are introducing and that would allow women to have 26 weeks at their replacement wage of up to $75,000: it would mean that we are acknowledging that there is important economic empowerment in higher-paid jobs as well as for those who are in lesser-paid jobs. This sort of inverted snobbery that the government likes to engage in does not recognise more women are now graduating from university than men. This potential to waste that education remains unrecognised by the government and, worse than that, in this legislation potential employers are being penalised.

The sort of additional red tape that this legislation imposes in its reporting requirements and the potential for so-called union involvement in investigating what is happening in small firms in particular means that people are going to be less likely to want to employ women at a higher level because of the nature of the legislation. I go to the point that we make: the failure to recognise that we want women who are utilising tertiary education to be able to do it in a way that they do not lose their place, dare I say it, in the pecking order.

When you look at the penalties that this legislation intends to impose upon firms, the Minister for the Status of Women has said:

Government trade with a non-compliant organisation will not just be discouraged, it will not be allowed by law.

Non-compliant companies will miss out on industry assistance, grants and government contracts—

and they will be non-compliant if they fall short of industry benchmarks or fail to improve over a two-year period. They will also be in breach of the rules if they fail to lodge a report as required, or fail to substantiate their report.

The fact of the matter is that this is to apply to any firm with 100 employees or more. These are the firms where we would hope that women with high qualifications would be seeking employment, yet the explanatory memorandum of the government's bill points out:

The workforce participation of mothers in Australia is low by international standards. Of Australian mothers with their youngest child under two, 82 per cent worked part-time and nearly half (45 per cent) worked 15 hours or less per week.43 The main barrier to full participation in paid work for women is difficulty balancing paid work and care responsibilities.

That is precisely what the opposition's policy is: to solve these problems so that women can continue in the paid workforce, utilise the education that they have acquired and see the statistics change so that they are not concentrated in the low-paid areas but are utilising that education to move up.

Red tape and penalising firms by preventing them from having government contracts is not the way to go. Nor is pumping $11.2 million of taxpayers' money into creating yet another piece of bureaucracy, this time called the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. It may be a make-work program for a number of people in the public sector to have yet another quango, but the fact of the matter is it is not going to assist women who are coming through education, as I said, at a greater rate than men in tertiary qualifications, yet this is not yet being reflected in workplace attainment.

The way forward is certainly not the red tape way in which this heavy-handed legislation is proceeding, but by accepting that the legislation—which, should we be elected, the opposition will introduce in government—for a fairer paid parental leave scheme will be one that will give real assistance to women to utilise their skills and not to find themselves plateaued or, indeed, falling behind and not making full use of those skills. Indeed, when we did this report back in 2006—and I have mentioned this before in a speech—we commissioned Access Economics to do an appraisal of women's participation in the workforce and what will happen if we do not improve the number of women who are in full-time work as distinct from part-time or indeed failing to participate.

The Access Economics report is at the back of the report I mentioned, and it simply shows that unless we do increase the number of women moving from part-time work into full-time work our economy will be seriously disadvantaged. So I say to the minister and I say particularly to women on the government side, particularly those who have got here by affirmative action: you do tend to make yourself a permanent second-class citizen if that is the way you wish to proceed. Women in Australia, as I see them, see that there is an opportunity to succeed on merit and to have the opportunity to utilise the skills that they are gaining. But it is not being done and it is not being helped by this heavy-handed legislation that is before the House.

I ask the government to reconsider the way it views women as being a political tool, and start looking at them as individuals who want to achieve and who aspire to contribute to the overall economy as well as being fine parents. Any publication you pick up about parenting shows that the number 1 concern people have when make their decision as to whether or not they wish to become parents is whether or not they can financially provide for that child. This sort of heavy-handed legislation does nothing to alleviate those concerns, but the splendid policy that has been put forward by the opposition for a fairer form of paid parental leave does answer many of those questions, and I would commend our policy rather than the government's as the way to proceed.