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Monday, 25 March 1985
Page: 695


Senator WALTERS —My question is addressed to the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women. It deals with sex discrimination matters and is in two parts. Is the Minister aware that the Human Rights Commission has agreed to exempt two national sports meetings from the provisions of the Sex Discrimination Act, following complaints that the law would disadvantage young girls? Is it a fact that the Act requires that girls must compete against boys in sporting carnival events of under-12-year- olds? Was the exemption granted after complaints by the Australian Primary Schools Sports Association, a body with acknowledged experience of this subject? Has the Act in this instance been shown to be unjust to the point that it creates rather than eliminates discrimination? Will it be amended without delay, or does the Minister agree with the head of the equal opportunity unit of the Victorian Department of Education, Miss Deborah Towns, who advocates that schools should choose teams which represent the sexes, rather than select children on their merits? The second part of my question relates to media reports-


The PRESIDENT —Order! The honourable senator's question is getting quite long.


Senator WALTERS —It is very short. The second part of my question relates to media reports that thousands of school books have been withdrawn from the education system and will be given away by the Federal Government to South Pacific countries. Is it a fact that the reason given for the ban was that the books were considered to be too sexist and racist?


The PRESIDENT —Order!


Senator WALTERS —That completes my question.


The PRESIDENT —The honourable senator has asked a second question which varies or is completely different from the first one. I ask the Minister to confine her answer to the first question asked by Senator Walters.


Senator RYAN —Senator Walters asked a long and detailed question concerning the operation of the Sex Discrimination Act in its application to school sports activities for students under 12. It is the case that the Act has a provision, as a result of an amendment moved by an Australian Democrat senator, Senator Janine Haines, that enables children under 12 to apply for acceptance into teams on bases other than that of sex. The provision, of itself, does not prevent single sex teams. I make that quite clear. However, it does provide that where a 10-year-old boy or girl wants to apply for a team he or she should be judged on capacity to get into that team rather than on his or her sex. In some school systems, that has been interpreted to mean that there will be no more single sex competitive activities. That interpretation was criticised by the Australian Primary Schools Sports Association. As a result, that Association recently sought and was granted an exemption from that provision of the Act. The exemption is a limited one. It is to operate for one year and is limited to a swimming carnival to be held in Darwin next month and a track and field meeting to be held in Canberra in December.

The Human Rights Commission, in granting the exemption, has allowed more time to consider in greater depth the question of the performing capacities of boys and girls in sport and national competitions. As a result of the Sex Discrimination Commissioner reporting to me on this matter and discussing it with me, I have made the suggestion, which I have taken up with some of my ministerial colleagues, that we ought to fund a research project into the physical capacities of children under 12 years of age, because there are many views in the community but there is very little evidence. It may or may not be established that there are some significant sex differences which make it unfair to have mixed teams, but, because we do not know, I agreed with the granting of a temporary exemption. Depending on clarification of the situation, the Government will consider the matter further. Certainly there is no intention at this stage to amend the Act because there is simply not enough evidence to suggest that we ought to.

Although this exemption has been granted and there have been some complaints about the way the provision in the Act has been interpreted, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner has reported to me that she has received a large number of calls, particularly from parents of young girls, expressing satisfaction that young girls are now able to get into mixed sex teams. So it is not all a matter of complaints by any means. However, I think that we should look at the matter further before anything as extreme as an amendment to the Act is contemplated.


Senator WALTERS —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. The Minister did not answer the last part of my question, which was: Does the Minister agree with the head of the equal opportunity unit of the Victorian Education Department, Miss Deborah Towns, who advocates that schools pick teams which represent sexes rather than select children on their ability?


Senator RYAN —The short answer to that question is no.