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Tuesday, 5 June 1984
Page: 2498


Senator MARTIN(3.34) —There has been speculation for a very long time about the nature of the Government's affirmative action program. A good deal of that speculation has been reported in the Press and during the debate on the Sex Discrimination Bill I seem to remember there was some speculation too. The paper that was presented today was not properly anticipated by anyone. As the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women (Senator Ryan) has indicated, the Opposition supports the affirmative action program outlined by her today. The Opposition has been committed to equal opportunity for women for a very long time.

I briefly remind the Senate that when we were in government we initiated and carried out many equal opportunity programs in relation to the appointment of women to government boards. Probably the best known of these was the appointment of Dame Leonie Kramer as Chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Commission. It was also the Fraser Government that initiated the National Women's Advisory Council which did much valuable work. The Government has indicated that it will abolish the National Women's Advisory Council and will set up a different consultative council. I think it is appropriate in the context of debate on this affirmative action statement to pay tribute to the National Women's Advisory Council for the very worthwhile work it did in the research area. Much of the Council's research forms the basis for the report that is before us today. The Council was not the only source of contribution. One of the great difficulties in the debate on the status of women in Australian society in recent years has been access to useful information on that subject, and particularly on women in the work force in Australia. I note that volume 2 contains a great deal of that sort of information which will be very useful to the Parliament and the public in general.

We have been committed for a long time to equal opportunity for all Australians . I quote briefly from the document 'The Way Ahead' which was published 10 years ago. It is worth reminding people what our policy has been all that time. There have been occasions-and I am not suggesting that the Minister has done this-when there has been some misrepresentation of the position of the Liberal and National parties on this subject. The document said 10 years ago, and this holds true of our attitude today:

The Liberal and Country Parties are dedicated to the pursuit of social freedom and the maximisation of equality of opportunity and status for men and women in the Australian community. Any form of arbitrary discrimination of social, economic, legal and educational nature is inconsistent with the philosophy of the Liberal and Country Parties.

I should interpose here that in these days one reads 'National Party' for ' Country Party'. The document continued:

Where such discrimination is seen to exist, it is the policy of the Parties to strive concertedly for its elimination.

Certain differences in status continue to exist between the roles of men and women in Australian society. These exist in both institutional and attitudinal terms. Where these differences are seen to arise from unfair discrimination or inequality of opportunity, a Liberal and Country Party Government is pledged to work actively for their elimination.

I referred very briefly a few moments ago to some of the things that we did in government that were in line with this statement. The document continued:

A Liberal and Country Party Government will promote, as a basic responsibility, those conditions in society that will enable all individuals to achieve their full potential.

We hope that the affirmative action policy outlined today is such a condition. The document continued:

One of the most important developments in the latter half of the twentieth century has been the major reassessment of the role of women. The advancement of technology, the greater availability of education and the continuing decline in the number of children per family has greatly reduced the demands on women to fill a totally domestic role. Therefore the options and opportunities available to women today exceed those of their counterparts in past generations.

Throughout the twentieth century women in western society have been granted greater legal, political and social status. There still remain areas in community life, however, where women have not yet achieved full equality with men. It is towards the eradication of these pockets of discrimination that the main thrust of a Liberal and Country Party Government's policy for women will be directed.

That is the reason we support the statement made today. The document continued.

Government, employers, trade union and education institutions are not fully attuned to the changing social attitudes and relationships in modern society.

The Liberal and Country Parties believe it is not sufficient to rely on slow evolutionary change to achieve full social justice for women. Rather, the Parties are committed to the active advancement of women's rights in the context of a broad and integrated women's policy.

Nobody would deny that the last decade in Australia has seen very substantial change in the role and status of women and in attitudes towards women and their role in Australian society. I refer briefly to the statement just given by the Minister to outline what is a persistent, hard-core and difficult area. I refer to page 3 of the statement where the Minister said:

Women today do not have the same diversity of occupational choices available to men. Sixty-four per cent of women workers are employed in only three occupational groups-clerical, sales and service, sport and recreation. Women in these occupations work largely as stenographers, typists, sales assistants, waitresses and cleaners.

Women are under-represented in administrative, executive and managerial positions, in agricultural work and in the transport and communications occupations. They are notably under-represented in trades, production process and labouring occupational groupings.

Even within occupations where women predominate, men tend to have the higher- level, decision-making positions.

I think this is an indictment. The document continued:

Indeed, among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, Australia has the highest level of occupational segregation of women and one of the highest levels of industrial segregation.

We welcome the co-operative approach that the Government has initiated in this affirmative action program and we support it. I think it is very clear that this affirmative action program requires the full support of trade unions and business. The Government must be gratified by the response of the corporations which were invited to participate in the pilot program. Perhaps, it is a credit to the men who run those corporations-it is men who run them-that they have been so prompt and willing to participate in this very valuable experiment. Mind you, those corporations will receive some benefit from this. One of the benefits they will get is that ambitious women will be attracted to apply for jobs with them. All employers like ambitious employees because they are productive, work hard and are innovative, if they have the talents at all. I believe that those who volunteer their corporations for this experiment will see the rewards. It is my hope that others will see the rewards that flow to those who have participated.

It should be emphasised that the statement applies to women in the work force. There is nothing in the statement that takes women out of the home and puts them into the work force. It is for women who are in the work force and it holds promises for women who will be in the work force at some time in the future. A number of bogies have been raised in relation to affirmative action. I have encountered a lot of questions about this in the community since the passage of the Sex Discrimination Act which the Opposition supported in principle. It is important that the message be made very clear that this affirmative action program does not discriminate against men. The policy discussion paper tabled by the Minister states:

. . . men may expect to face stiffer competition for jobs. This is not discrimination.

It is also important that this program does not involve quotas. I believe that most women do not want quotas, that is, preferential treatment over men of equal skills in employment. In my opinion quotas would cause hardship and resentment towards women in the work force. The whole principle of equality that so many women have been striving for and working for for a very long time now is to prove that, given an equal opportunity, they can be as good as their male counterparts and it is not preference that women have been seeking. We welcome the fact that there is no suggestion of quotas.

There are some other areas that perhaps Commonwealth and State governments should look at. Senator Ryan referred to some of the actions of government. It is interesting that, in the Public Service Reform Bill which is now in the Senate, there are some innovative measures which will be of particular interest to women such as permanent part time work. However, the matter of access to training and education to overcome a backlog situation that we have in our community which is, I believe, the source of that information in relation to our poor position as against other OECD countries is one that government should look at very closely. I believe that there are many women in the community who are intelligent and who would like to develop skills but who, because they were educated at a time when that was not encouraged, do not have and find great difficulty in obtaining access to that training now. I urge governments to look at what institutional impediments there are to equal opportunity for women and to take their own form of affirmative action of the kind outlined here today.

Finally, I want to make a brief comment on the possibility of legislation being introduced for affirmative action. The Opposition would prefer that there was not legislation. However, we will wait and see what comes out of the position. As the Minister indicated, the Government has decided that the shadow Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations who is also our shadow Minister on the Status of Women, the Hon. Ian Macphee, will be a member of the working party monitoring the implementation of the affirmative action program outlined today. That working party will also report and comment to government on the subject of the potential legislation. In accepting that appointment to the working party, which I think was a very good one, Mr Macphee did not commit himself to the objectives of legislating on the subject. Of course, he will be free to make up his own mind and to report as he believes is appropriate. The Opposition will be reserving its position on the matter. As I said at the beginning our feeling is that we would prefer that legislation was not necessary. I said some time ago that it is salutary that the position of women in Australia has changed as much and an amount of progress has been made in the last decade. For that I think tribute should be paid to many Australian men. I hope that the experiment that has been outlined to us today is successful. That in itself will be a great encouragement to other employers to voluntarily look at the possibility of the benefits of affirmative action programs for their businesses and for their employees.