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Monday, 18 June 2012
Page: 6681

Mrs D'ATH (Petrie) (13:13): I rise to speak in support of the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Amendment Bill 2012, and I wish to briefly pick up on the point that the member for Mackellar just raised—that is, what many women, particularly mothers, are concerned about is making sure that they can make ends meet in relation to those cost of living pressures when you have a family. Certainly, as a member of this government I am very proud of our record of what we have delivered for working families—not just the paid parental leave but the dads' and partners' leave that has recently been introduced. You can also look at the increases to the family tax benefit B, the increases to the childcare benefit and the new schoolkid's bonus, just to name a small number of improvements this Labor government has made for working families and working women.

I know, as do all women of this parliament, how far we have come as a nation to instil quality in the workforce. The Labor Party has a very proud history of promoting and protecting equality, and with this amendment bill we aim to promote and improve gender equality in the workplace by recognising the vital importance of equal remuneration and family and caring responsibilities as central to the achievement of gender equality. Equality is core to the belief and purpose of the Labor Party, which was forged over 120 years ago out of a collective struggle for equality in the workplace, and as a government we have amended or introduced over 100 Commonwealth acts that eliminate discrimination. It is well over a decade since the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act was last reviewed and the economic, social and legislative landscape has changed significantly throughout that period. That is why Labor has acted. The former Minister for the Status of Women, the Hon. Tanya Plibersek, initiated a comprehensive review of the legislation and of the status of women and men in the workplace. That review found that the act needed to be updated and modernised to be fully effective in supporting and driving change in Australian workplaces.

I believe that gender equality in Australian workplaces is important for women, men, business and the economy more broadly. It has been estimated that closing the gap between women's and men's workforce participation could boost Australia's GDP by up to 13 per cent. Furthermore, extensive consultation has been undertaken with industry, employer organisations and the women's sector in the drafting of this legislation. We went to the people who will be directly affected by this legislation to find out what their needs are. That is why with this bill we have made sure that these changes are comprehensive, starting with the amendment of the name of the act to the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012 to emphasise the focus of the act on gender equality, thereby improving outcomes for both women and men in the workplace. The name of the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency has also changed to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency and the title of the director of the agency has changed to the Director of Workplace Gender Equality to reflect the new focus of the act. The objects of the act will highlight the expanded coverage to men, particularly in relation to caring responsibilities, as well as highlighting the importance of equal remuneration to gender equality. I think this is very important because in listening to the member for Mackellar's statement on this bill, at no point was it acknowledged that this bill actually picks up on men's caring responsibilities and equality across genders.

The objects also make clear the underpinning nature of gender equality to improved competitiveness and productivity, and the particular need to focus on removing barriers to women's full and equal workforce participation. Thus, this proposed legislation presents a new framework for promoting and encouraging gender equality in Australian workplaces. The bill fulfils a dual purpose of supporting improved workforce participation, particularly of women and carers, as well as reducing the regulatory burden on business. We heard the member for Mackellar claiming that this bill actually increases the burden, but this bill does not introduce more compliance measures, it is based on the compliance measures in the existing legislation, which the Howard government introduced. There has been some criticism raised about this bill creating too much red tape, but in fact the compliance measures in this bill allow for processes to be filled out online—and they are simple to fill in—which has been included at the request of business. It was business in the consultation period that identified that this type of compliance system was preferred and that is what this bill proposes, so I recommend that the members of the opposition actually go and consult with those employers about red tape and compliance because this change in the bill has come about as a consequence of what employers are asking for. Relevant employers will no longer need to provide descriptions of their policies and programs, but will report against gender equality indicators, focussing on tangible outcomes and practices. Reporting, while clearly easier for business, will also be more meaningful and useful. It will provide employers with the capacity to assess and understand gender equality within their workplaces, compared year by year and with other workplaces within their industry.

The agency's advisory and education functions will be enhanced. The contemporary data focus will allow the agency to see and target advice and education as effectively as possible as particular sectoral or industry issues emerge. Smaller organisations—those with fewer than 100 employees—will not be required to report, but will be able to access the agency's expertise and expanded online resources. Over time, the improved and standardised data set will assist the minister in setting industry specific minimum standards against the gender equality indicators. The minister will consult with relevant stakeholders, as she sees appropriate, in the setting of those minimum standards. These minimum standards will help the agency maximise the impact of its education and advice. The bill provides that the agency must provide any employers who fail to meet the minimum standard with assistance aimed specifically at improving their performance against that minimum standard. We heard from the member for Mackellar claiming that it is all about a big stick in cases when a particular employer does not meet the minimum standard, but what this bill does is provide those employers with assistance aimed at specifically improving their performance and meeting those standards.

In addition to the minister setting these minimum standards, the agency will set benchmarks in relation to the gender equality indicators, in consultation with relevant stakeholders, which will not be part of the compliance framework. The benchmarks are intended as a way for the agency to collect, analyse and express the data collected from public reports in a useful and meaningful way. These benchmarks will enable relevant employers to consider their workplace outcomes and practices in relation to their industry peers and compared to their own performance from year to year. The bill facilitates the engagement of senior management and employees. The chief executive officer, or equivalent, will be required to sign-off on organisations' reports. Consultation with employees is a defined gender equality indicator. This is to ensure that the legislation is not simply about filling out paperwork and reporting, it is about meeting real outcomes.

The bill also improves the transparency and fairness of the compliance framework and the consequences of non-compliance. The agency will be able to check compliance by seeking information from employers relevant to compliance. Employees and shareholders will be provided with access to the report, and employees and employee organisations will be provided with opportunity to comment on the report. There is nothing wrong with employees having access to reports that relate to their workplace and benefits for women in the workplace. The consequences of non-compliance build on the existing provisions, but with a focus on improving transparency and consistency of application. If an employer does not comply, without a reasonable excuse, they may be named in a report to the minister or more broadly. Employers may also not be eligible to compete for Commonwealth contracts, grants or other financial assistance. This is an existing policy, but work is being done within government to ensure greater consistency and transparency in its application. To enable employers to have sufficient time to adapt to the new framework, the provisions of the bill are being phased in. The first full new reports will be due in 2014. The new framework will also enable the government, policymakers and the community to have access to better aggregate information about gender equality in Australian workplaces. The bill provides that the agency report every two years on progress relating to the gender equality indicators. The bill achieves a clear balance in addressing the needs of business by making reporting simpler and more streamlined, supported by a new online interface. It also, however, ensures a much greater focus on outcomes to effect genuine and sustainable change over time.

The government has engaged in significant consultation with key stakeholders in developing the proposed legislation. In 2011, the government convened an implementation advisory group to assist with the improvements to the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act 1999. Membership of the industry advisory group consists of key representatives from industry, unions and business, as well as experts in the fields of gender equality and workplace issues.

This legislation is about supporting employers to achieve cultural change; it is not about punishing employers or setting unreasonable standards that they cannot meet. Since the bill was introduced on 1 March 2012, a number of organisations and individuals have indicated support for the changes to the legislation. This support has come from industry, employee organisations and the women's sector. This amendment is one piece of a broader Labor effort to build stronger and fairer partnerships in the workplace. I commend the bill to the House.