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Tuesday, 5 June 1984
Page: 2501


Senator HARRADINE(3.45) —It is evident from the statement and from volume 1 and volume 2 of the policy discussion papers on Affirmative Action For Women that a number of people have been giving the very important matters a great deal of consideration. In the very short time that the paper has been available to us I can only state that there appears to be some attempt to obtain consensus and consensus appears to have been achieved in some key areas. However , despite that, I believe that the affirmative action paper does not address the major employment-related problem facing women in this country today. It does not address the key issue of choice facing women in this country today.

What is the major area of concern related to work facing women in Australia today? The answer to that is massive unemployment. The paper does nothing to address that problem. The real problem of employment is shouldered, very heavily , by those who are not equipped to face the crisis-that is to say, teenage girls between the ages of 15 years and 19 years. One in every three of those girls in my State is unemployed. This paper does nothing to help them. Almost every family is experiencing the tragedy of unemployment amongst those teenage girls. This paper does nothing to address that major problem. In fact, it could well be said that the combination of the sex discrimination legislation and affirmative action could make things worse for those teenage girls because all employers who are listed in the paper cannot, under pain of penalty, prefer an unmarried teenage girl for employment to a very well-off married woman.

I do not wish to detract from the positive elements in the document. I am only concerned that the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women (Senator Ryan) has left the chamber and is not present to hear the official response of the Opposition given by Senator Martin, nor the responses of other senators. All wisdom does not repose in the Government, in the Opposition or in me but, in my view, it is important to the integrity of the parliamentary system that if a Minister comes into the chamber and presents a major or even a minor paper on behalf of the Government, that Minister should not walk out of the chamber and ignore the debate that must inevitably ensue.

The second question that is not properly addressed in this document is the other major issue facing women in Australia; namely, the true freedom of choice of occupation. I agree that it is in that area where there should be some affirmative action. I remind the Senate that in the area of paid occupation I have been involved for many years in struggling against discrimination. I have been struggling on behalf of women to ensure that they have equal pay and equal opportunities. To the extent that this assists in that objective, I applaud the document, but it is inadequate if it seeks to address the very real issue of true freedom of choice for women to choose the type of occupation they desire- the type of socially creative work, if I may use the words of the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) in the John Curtin Memorial Lecture in Perth in September last year. If it is attempting to address that issue, it fails miserably. I quote from page 2 of the document which has been placed before the Senate by Senator Ryan. It reads:

The approach we now propose should ensure that women are no longer excluded from many occupations and concentrated at the bottom of the labour market. Women should now assume the place of their choice in our society. I should emphasise that this, we appreciate and recognise, will see many choosing a traditional role in the home.

Where in this document is the affirmative action required to ensure that that freedom of choice is available to those women who choose that role? In that respect I observe with concern and with not a little trepidation the comment made on page 21 of volume 1 of the policy discussion paper, which reads:

Social security and taxation policies and their effect in combination, can also affect women's decisions to participate in the paid labour force. The Australian taxation system, while based on the individual unit for income tax assessment purposes, continues to assume a secondary economic role for women in its allowance of a rebate for dependent spouses and its tolerance of family-based partnerships used to split incomes, and hence minimise tax liability. Some argue that both measures are potential or actual disincentives for women seeking to return to the paid work force.

I suspect that the Prime Minister was not aware of those two paragraphs in the document because they are non sequiturs. I ask the question of Senator Ryan, and I should like to hear an answer from her at some stage, as to why those words are there. Is it some gratuitous comment or a softening up process for the Budget-perhaps not this Budget but the one after? If it is, those who seek to undermine the tax rebate will be ultimately undermining the wages and prices accord. I put it to the Senate that this issue of freedom of choice-to quote the words of the document that 'women should now assume the place of their choice in society'-is a fundamental issue indeed which this document does not address.

There are a couple of other considerations. The Minister says in the statement that the Government has already taken such major steps as the enactment of the sex discrimination legislation and the appointment of more than 90 women to government boards and authorities, and now the introduction of an affirmative action program. I should like to know how many of those 90 appointees are women who have chosen to assume the place of their choice in our society-that is to say, the choice of being at a particular stage a full time mother. It would be interesting to see whether there is some affirmative action required in governmental appointments in respect of that question. I also note that the document, at the bottom of page 3, quotes from Mr Hawke's observations in the 1979 Boyer lectures:

There is still the unstated but operative assumption that women are not entitled to equal opportunity because their place is, or ultimately should be, in the home.

In my view that is not a proper assumption because it does not bear any resemblance to the factual situation. This sort of paper appears to assume that the women now in the work force will stay there until they are aged 60 and the women at home will stay there until they are aged 60. That is not the situation at all. Women may comprise 37 per cent of the Australian work force at present. That is the snapshot situation at the moment. But in two years time a number of those women who are currently in the paid work force will be full time homemakers and some of the full time homemakers will be members of the work force. They will be the same women. It is important that whether they are in paid or unpaid occupations they are not second class citizens. Whether they are in paid occupations or in unpaid occupations they are the same women and they should not be treated as second class citizens. Sad to say, because of the taxation system and the inadequacy of family support systems, those who have decided to opt at this stage for full time homemaker situations are at a very real disadvantage. A number of studies have been made on this which I commend to the Senate and to the Minister.

Again I say that one should not carp about this particular document. There are positive features to it. I notice that a good deal of consideration has been given to certain alternatives. One at least of those alternatives has, in the words of the Minister, 'been explicitly rejected'. That is to say, the American model with its system of court imposed employment quotas has been explicitly rejected by the Government. I again indicate, as did Senator Martin, that the Government on page 8 of this statement says:

The Government proposes that legislation should ultimately be introduced covering the introduction of affirmative action programs for women employees in private sector organisations with more than 100 employees.

I trust that there would be a consensus approach to that particular question if that is required. I certainly would like to be involved in that discussion process if it were at all possible, although I do not make any more claim than any other senator or member of the House of Representatives to consultation in that regard.

Another aspect is on that same page where the Minister talks about the working party which she will be chairing as the Minister representing the Prime Minister . That working party will include a number of other Ministers. It will also include the Australian Council of Trade Unions, the Business Council of Australia, the Confederation of Australian Industry, the Australian Vice- Chancellors Committee, the Australian Committee of Directors, principals of colleges of advanced education and women's organisations. I hope that the Minister adopts a more rational line when considering which women's organisations should be appointed to that working party. I feel that she has been less than gracious, even less than just, to some women's organisations which have proposed intelligent and realistic proposals in respect of this matter and a number of other matters relating to women's issues.

Last week I quoted from a submission sent to me and I assume to other honourable senators-I have talked to a number of honourable senators who received a copy-from the Women's Action Alliance. I was most interested in the document. It was a well researched, thoughtful document. We need to have that attitude of goodwill, thoughtfulness, respect for other views and, most importantly, the common good of this society at heart in these matters of great national importance.