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Monday, 18 June 2012
Page: 6712

Ms RISHWORTH (Kingston) (15:18): I am very pleased today to speak on the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Amendment Bill 2012. This is a very timely and important bill to ensure that we progress gender equality in the workplace.

The campaign for women's equal representation in the workplace is one many decades in the making. We have seen various triumphs for women over the years at a national and international level. When I was researching this speech it was very interesting to hear many stories of women who have really put themselves out there to draw attention to this important issue. One of these was Zelda D'Aprano, who chained herself to the Commonwealth Building in Melbourne while campaigning to ensure equal pay. This was really important and the legislation before us today builds on the legislation and the many achievements that have gone before it.

The legislation goes back a long way, but in 1972 the big decision made by the courts was to grant equal pay for equal work. This was a very important decision because it put into law that women who were doing the same work as men, alongside their work colleagues, would get equal pay. We have continued to see some inequities in the area of equal pay, which I will talk about shortly, but that decision was a very important one in ensuring the start of equal opportunity in the workplace.

Twenty-eight years ago the Sex Discrimination Act was introduced and the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act 1986 was introduced two years later. This was important legislation and there have been some important inroads made in this area. There was a government review in 1999 which looked at this issue and again some improvements were made—but one would agree that more than 10 years after that review it is important that we review the act again. In 2008, the then Minister for the Status of Women, Tanya Plibersek, announced a review of this legislation. It was very important that this take into consideration the many stakeholders and interested parties to ensure that we got this legislation right for the next decade. The legislation in front of us today makes some important improvements to the legislation. In particular—and it does a number of things—the bill amends the name of the act to the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012, which emphasises the focus of the act on gender equality, thereby improving the outcomes for women and men in workplaces. The name of the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency will also be changed to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. This will be important to equip this agency to prepare to move into the future. As I mentioned, things have changed: we hopefully do not have to have women chaining themselves to Commonwealth buildings to get fair pay, but we still have to make sure that we are approaching and tackling gender inequity in our workplaces, and this sets the agency up to be very much focused on its task ahead.

The bill amends the principal objectives of the act to reflect on a new focus to promote and improve gender equality in the workplace, with special recognition of equal remuneration and family and caring responsibilities as issues central to the achievement of gender equality. While we have come a long way in remuneration and ensuring that women and men get paid equally, we still have a long way to go. It was only very recently that we were able to celebrate—and I certainly welcomed—the decision by Fair Work Australia in the fair pay case. That recognised that there has been systematic underpayment of women, depending on which areas of work they take up, and that the structural inequity must be addressed. That was a very important decision, one that I welcomed, but I am also proud to be part of a government that not only welcomed that decision and what it meant for many women workers around the country but also responded practically by putting its money where its mouth was in terms of fair pay for women. I encourage all the states and territories to do the same. We need to work with the states and territories to ensure that the fair pay decision becomes realised. I am very pleased that this Commonwealth Labor government has made that commitment.

Family and caring responsibilities are issues central to the achievement of gender equality, and so often it is women who take on the brunt or the burden of caring. Many women are very pleased to take this on, whether it be for children or older parents, and they are pleased to be of service and want to do this. However, we must recognise that this can affect the participation of women in the workforce. Without having the proper flexibilities and the proper frameworks in place this can, for many women, affect their participation in the workplace and does not allow them to achieve gender equity.

It is not just in the workplace that this is an issue but also in the future with superannuation. For many women who take on part-time roles and balance their caring responsibilities with their work responsibilities, who take time out of the workplace while raising children, there will be inequities in superannuation. This is a very important area that we must continue to focus on as to how we ensure that women are not disadvantaged—not just at work but also in retirement. I am very pleased that the objects of this act will be amended to ensure that family and caring responsibilities are issues central to the achievement of gender equality.

This bill also proposes to improve the coverage of the act to include men as well as women. Agency advice and assistance functions will not be just for those companies that are required to report. Under the legislation employers of 100 or more employees are subject to the reporting requirements. This suggests that only those organisations could get advice and assistance from the agency. I am very pleased that this bill will ensure that the agency's advice and assistance will extend to all employers. So if that employer is a small business looking at gender equality and equity issues it will also be able to access advice. I encourage those small businesses that may be interested in this area to get in touch once the new agency is providing this advice to get some ideas about this.

The bill also introduces a new reporting framework in which relevant employers are required to report against gender equality indicators. This will commence from 1 April 2013. Obviously, this provides employers with some time in which they can get their information together. It has a phase-in period. The requirement for the equal opportunity in the workplace program will be removed and the reporting will be simpler as well as more meaningful and more useful.

One of the really important things in this bill is that it will allow employers to both measure and understand gender equality within their workplaces but also compare themselves to other workplaces in their industry. I think this is important because it will allow the agency to target assistance and, over time, will also allow employers to really gauge how they are doing on issues of gender equity. Over time, the improved and standardised data set will also allow the minister to set minimum standards. This will be important to communicate clearly to businesses what these minimum standards are. They will be based on a standardised set of data, recognising that things change from industry to industry. The functions of the agency will be to develop industry based benchmarks in relation to gender equality indicators. The agency will also have specific roles in providing assistance and advice on improving performance against minimum standards. The bill also clarifies and improves transparency associated with compliance with the act and the consequences of noncompliance.

This bill builds on this Labor government's achievements when it comes to women's participation in the workforce. We have introduced key things. I have mentioned the fair pay decision and the commitment by this government to put money up to fund that decision. When we were first elected, we addressed the issue of childcare costs. We moved from a 30 per cent rebate to a 50 per cent rebate for childcare costs. That was very important. I was very proud to be part of a government that introduced paid parental leave for the first time in this nation's history. This paid parental leave ensures a continuing connection with the workforce for women taking time out of the workforce to have children, being able to re-enter the workforce if they desire. I am very pleased that this Labor government delivered that.

I think that this bill builds on a lot of advances that we have made in terms of gender equity in the workplace. I was very concerned to hear—back in my home state of South Australia—the state Leader of the Opposition, Isobel Redmond, say, when asked what she would do if she felt she was being discriminated against on the basis of gender, 'Look, I just put up with it and hopefully it will go away.' I do not think that is an appropriate response. I think it was a very concerning message to many women out there that they should just put up with it, that it should be just part of work. You feel discriminated against, you get passed over for promotion. There is not a sense that you are actually being recognised; you should just put up with it and ignore it. I do not think that is the attitude of most places. I do not think it is the attitude of most in this parliament. We need to ensure that there is gender equality in our workplaces right around Australia, that women and men get a fair go in terms of their time at work and ensure that their rights and ability to fully participate are encouraged.

On that note, I think this is a very important development on the bill. As discussed, a number of ministers have widely consulted on this and I believe this does strike a good balance in ensuring and progressing equity in our workforce but also in ensuring that it is easier for business to deliver.