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Tuesday, 14 May 1985
Page: 1876


Senator CROWLEY —My question is directed to the Minister representing the Attorney-General. As the Minister will no doubt recall, the sex discrimination legislation was passed through this place after considerable debate and many suggestions from the Opposition senators that thereafter the world would come to an end as they knew it. To address that fear and given that the legislation has been in place for many months now, can the Minister inform the Senate how many complaints have been received under the Sex Discrimination Act, from whom and about what? What has been the general public reaction to the Act? Is the Government satisfied with the way the Act has been operating? Does it have sufficient staffing in general and in each State and Territory in particular?


Senator GARETH EVANS —I do recall the sex discrimination legislation which was so ably steered through this place by my colleague Senator Ryan. A fine piece of legislation it was, and remains.


Senator Walters —The Human Rights Commission is asking for exemptions already.


Senator GARETH EVANS —Whenever I hear from Senator Walters I think of the opening lines of chapter 3 of Clive James's book Brilliant Creatures: A First Novel. As to the number of complaints received and the complaint handling procedures, I express the answer in the following terms: In the first six months of the operation of the Sex Discrimination Act 380 formal complaints were received from all States and Territories of Australia. Nearly two-thirds of the complaints were of discrimination in the area of employment on the grounds of sex, including significant numbers of sexual harassment complaints.

The typical complainant appears to be a young woman working in a traditional area such as in a shop, office or service industry. Large numbers of complaints have also been received regarding membership of clubs and discrimination in the provision of goods, services and facilities. Some complaints are received from men and they particularly involve discrimination on the grounds of marital status. Almost all complaints are resolved through negotiation and conciliation procedures. Some are resolved quickly, while more complex matters may take some time. At this stage only 1 to 2 per cent of complaints are unable to be resolved by conciliation.

Public reaction to the Sex Discrimination Act has generally been very positive in the experience of the Attorney-General's Department. There has been a consistent demand from members of the public for written information and over 300,000 explanatory booklets have been requested. Some misunderstandings have arisen about the provisions of the Act affecting primary school sport. These are gradually being overcome through discussions with interested organisations. The need for research into apparent performance differences between boys and girls under the age of 12 has been identified. There has been wide interest in the Human Rights Commission's inquiry into discrimination in superannuation schemes and many submissions have been received from professional bodies, women's organisations and members of the public in this regard.

Finally, I was asked whether the Government was pleased with things so far. Yes, it is. However, it is still early days as the Act has been in operation for only nine months. It is clear that the dire predictions made in some quarters simply have not come to fruition; for example, that the Act would force women into the work force in circumstances not sought by them or others. The number and varieties of complaints show the need for the legislation. The Attorney-General has not received a large number of representations, although there have been some concerns regarding the pension age for men and some regarding, as I said, discrimination in children's sport. The educative effect of the Act has been very important and is supplementary, but very important, to the complaints aspects of the Act.