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Monday, 18 June 2012
Page: 6717

Ms COLLINS (FranklinMinister for Community Services, Minister for the Status of Women and Minister for Indigenous Employment and Economic Development) (15:44): I thank all of those people who made contributions on this important bill. The Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Amendment Bill 2012 amends the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act 1999, delivering a significant package of reforms promised by this government during the 2010 election. These reforms are aimed at improving gender equality in Australian workplaces. For improved workplace participation and workplace flexibility for women, these reforms will help to improve productivity and address current and future skills shortages. It has been estimated that closing the gap between men's and women's workforce participation could boost gross domestic product by up to13 per cent.

The bill has been developed in close consultation with key stakeholders including industry, employee organisations and the women's sector. The government believes the bill strikes the right balance between the views of these stakeholders. Since its introduction on 1 March 2012, the bill has received widespread support from across the sectors.

The government will not be supporting the opposition's amendments to this bill. The second reading amendment proposed by the opposition, that implies the government is not genuinely committed to equality because we are not adopting the opposition's paid parental leave scheme, really is laughable because it is this government that took the historic step of delivering Australia's first national Paid Parental Leave scheme. We now have more than 160,000 expectant and new parents who have applied for the government's Paid Parental Leave scheme. Our scheme is affordable. It is fair for families and fair for businesses. We waited 11 years for those opposite to deliver this important reform, but they said no. Now they are proposing a $4.5 billion plan that ironically, from what we have heard in their contributions to debate on this bill, whacks a tax on business to pay for itself. The detailed amendments moved by the opposition are inconsistent and impractical and have the potential to increase red tape for businesses and for the agency.

What the government is aiming to achieve through this legislation is cultural change—that is, change that will come from employers receiving education, assistance and support to make their workplaces more gender equal, and change that will benefit women and men, businesses and industry, and the Australian economy. A review of the current act by the Office for Women found updates were needed both to the act and to the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency to provide a contemporary response to national challenges. The review also made it clear that gender equality is essential to maximising Australia's productive potential and to ensuring continued economic growth.

The bill changes the name of the act to the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012 to emphasise this new focus in the act on gender equality in the workplace. Similar changes are made to the name of the agency, which is to be called the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. The government is providing the agency with an additional $11.2 million—a doubling of funds—a part of which will be used to provide practical help and advice to business.

The principal objects of the act are amended by the bill to reflect the focus on gender equality in the workplace, and include the promotion of matters such as equal remuneration, support for employers to remove workplace participation barriers for women in particular, and improved productivity and competitiveness of Australian businesses through the advancement of gender equality. Importantly, the coverage of the act is expanded to include men as well as women, particularly in relation to caring responsibilities.

Under the new, outcomes based, streamlined and more transparent reporting requirements, relevant employers will prepare and lodge public reports containing information on gender equality indicators for the reporting period commencing 1 April 2013. Smaller organisations with fewer than 100 employees will not be required to report. In other words, not one small business will be affected by the reporting requirements but they will still be able to access the agency's free advice, education and incentive activities if they wish. Relevant businesses will be able to complete and submit reports online using a secure web portal. Businesses have wanted this change and it will save them time and money.

The reporting changes will represent the first opportunity for the agency to gather and analyse a rigorous and standardised data set and will mean employers can measure their performance against other employers in their industry. This new reporting will mean less red tape. Businesses will no longer need to provide lengthy descriptions of the programs and policies they have in place. When an employer lodges a public report, employees and shareholders will be informed, and employees and employee organisations will be given an opportunity to comment.

Under the amended legislation, the minister will be able to set industry specific minimum standards in consultation with industry and experts. These minimum standards will be determined before 1 April 2014. The minimum standards will be evidence based, clear and fair, and will take into account industry characteristics and circumstances. We will be setting these minimum standards in close consultation with industry to make sure of this. This bill is not about punishing employers. These standards will be about identifying which employers need the most intensive assistance and education in order to achieve cultural change within their organisations. The bill also improves the transparency and fairness of the compliance framework and of the consequences for non-compliance.

Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, said in a media release that the bill was: 'a strong step toward improving women's workforce participation and, thus, closing the gender gap in Australia's workforce'. Westpac has also welcomed this bill. The Head of Diversity and Flexibility in the Westpac Group, Jane Counsel, said the reforms will provide a catalyst to drive concrete change through creating more focus, accountability and transparency to ensure all organisations are committed to delivering more inclusive and flexible workplaces.

The CEO of Citi Australia, Stephen Roberts, is happy to be on the record as saying he welcomes this legislation and the contribution it will make to improving gender diversity in the workforce. He says:

A diverse team is invariably smarter, more resilient and more productive—all of which is required for success in business.

The YWCA Australia executive director, Dr Caroline Lambert, has also commended the government 'for taking action to strengthen the tools for gender equality in the workplace'. She says:

YWCA Australia welcomes the focus in the Bill on caring responsibilities. This legislation will contribute to real change in the lives of women and men in workplaces across Australia, and we look forward to its passage in the Parliament.

Madam Deputy Speaker, I am pleased to say that time has arrived. This new legislation puts gender equality in the workplace in the spotlight and it shows the determination of this government to advance gender equality between women and men and to strengthen our economy.