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Tuesday, 31 March 1987
Page: 1533

Senator HAINES (Leader of the Australian Democrats)(3.34) —I must say that I find it rather extraordinary, not to say a trifle pathetic, to listen to Senator Durack trying to regain some of the ground that was lost by the Liberal Party of Australia last week in the deplorable display that it turned on in relation to the Government's equal opportunities legislation when it preferred to kow-tow to the multi-untalented members of the National Party of Australia rather than put into effect its avowed support for the women of Australia. The extraordinary performance put on by Senator Durack today was an attempt to paper over the gaping cracks that occurred in the credibility of the Liberal Party in the eyes of most women in Australia. Senator Durack's definition of a strident feminist as someone who does not seem to support anything that is in this report is rather odd. I would have thought that most of us in this place would classify ourselves as feminists and I certainly do, although Senator Durack left me out of his list. For many years now, we have been arguing for equality of opportunity in the work force, for equal treatment under the law, and for attention to be paid to the needs of women in a wide range of areas, and this report simply articulates those same views that have been argued by us for a long time.

The special importance of this document is that it actually quotes, as well as reflects, the concerns and aspirations of Australian women from a very wide range of age groups, ethnic groups, occupational areas and educational backgrounds. I suggest that their views are at least as important to governments-or should be-as those of any other group in the community. Indeed, I suggest that they are probably more important than the views of most groups that governments have a tendency to listen to because they reflect far more the real problems of society, the grass roots problems that affect Australian families at all income levels, in all social groups and in all ethnic groups. Women are a very important, constantly overlooked and frequently underrated element in Australia's social and economic well-being. To have in front of us the comments of ordinary women with the same sorts of aspirations that many of us have and have argued for, is particularly pertinent, very relevant and long overdue.

This document should be regarded as a valuable tool for government in the coming months and years. In the main the women whose views are expressed in this report are not speaking from vested interests, at least not the sort of vested interests that union and business representatives so often put forward. Instead these women are speaking out because of a genuine and well-founded concern about the lost opportunities, the discrimination, the violence, the stress and frustration that have faced them for many years and have continued to face them and their families in Australia in the 1980s. The issues that they raise through this report range from child abuse to child care. They relate to women's special health needs, their educational needs, the special problems facing rural, aged and migrant women, the difficulties facing women living below the poverty line following a marriage breakdown, for example, the resentment they feel at the low status given to the work done by women in the home, and the discrimination still facing women in the work force. Also they are concerned about the need for affordable housing, about women's treatment before the law and women's views about the environment and peace. All these matters are picked up in this document. Thus, the value and importance of the report come very largely from the contributions made the women themselves. These are not reports of what women want but statements by women themselves about what they want. The despair and the anger, as well as the hope that things might change, comes through very clearly in this document.

The Minister's statement recognises this contribution made by the women represented and quoted in the report before us, and acknowledges the report's importance. But unfortunately too much of it is simply rhetoric and far too frequently we have seen this Government's actions run counter to the needs of women and contrary to the Government's stated policies. Certainly they seem to run counter to the needs that are expressed in this report.

The delay in the normal November consumer price index increases to pensions last year, an action that was of course supported by Liberal and National Party senators, was, I would have thought, hardly the best way for this Government to have acted to help the aged and supporting parents, the majority of whom are women, get out of poverty and give their children and their families the standard of living to which they believe they are entitled. I would have thought that abolishing, even in a gradual form, the grant from the national community health program to the Nursing Mothers Association of Australia was hardly consistent with the Government's avowed intention of doing something to combat child abuse or to increase the status of women at home caring for children.

The Government argues on the one hand that it is concerned about recognising the value of the role played by women in the home and the importance of removing the sorts of stresses from families that lead to child abuse, yet the Nursing Mothers Association is deeply concerned that the counselling service it provides not just to nursing mothers and not just about breast feeding but to mothers with young children across the board, will be severely curtailed by the decision of the Minister for Health (Dr Blewett) to curtail and finally, I think by 1990, cut out the funding to that Association.

Senator Zakharov —There is competition for those funds.

Senator HAINES —Of course there is a lot of competition for those funds. Nobody is arguing about that, but this Association reaches a vast number of women in the community and it provides a telephone counselling service for volunteers not just about breast feeding but about how best to deal with the other problems that are regularly faced by women in the home. To deny funding to an organisation which deals with mothers from the time their children are born until the time the children are well developed is, I think, very much contrary to the Government's alleged purposes.

The $250 tertiary education administration fee, as everybody knows from every bit of evidence, both empirical and anecdotal, will impact most on female students, particularly those from low income or migrant families which do not rate education for women particularly highly, and it will have a quite significant impact on women who are working part time or are caring for children and who want to study part time.

The Minister's statement finishes with a reference to the Government's equal opportunity legislation. I, like all thinking women and men in the community I would imagine, certainly welcome the initiatives that the Government has taken over the last few years through the Sex Discrimination Act, through the affirmative action legislation and through the legislation which was debated so appallingly-from some sides of the House anyway-in another place last week. However, I think it is worth repeating something which has been stated in this place time and again from a variety of senators-that access to employment opportunities according to merit only and not according to sex, marital status or any other rather irrelevant criterion can go only so far to ensure that women are able to avail themselves of this access. Without child care, without access to educational opportunities-either initial education opportunities or retraining opportunities-and without more flexible employment opportunities, all the equal opportunity legislation in the world will not get women into the work force in the numbers in which they would like to be there.

Sadly, I suggest, this Government has not so far shown that it is prepared to hear and minister to the needs of women and their families to the same extent that it hears and grants the demands of some male dominated groups and, in particular, business groups. How else can it explain abandoning the proposed maintenance collection system or the proposal from some quarters in the Government to means test family allowances? Surely members of the Government must be aware that studies by the Institute of Family Studies and others indicate that the income earned by the male breadwinner is not necessarily shared by the rest of the family in an equitable way and that to simply means test according to that criterion will significantly disadvantage a large number of women and their children. Yet the Government is apparently listening to those sorts of proposals as a result of the demands from business groups that the deficit be cut in any way in which it can be in order to placate overseas money markets and, presumably, get back our AAA rating.

Rhetoric is fine, but women in Australia are entitled to more than that. They are entitled not only to be consulted but also to be heard in the most meaningful way in which governments can hear people's concerns. To do anything else, I would have thought, is to be condescending as well as patronising. An awful lot of women in Australia, including me, expect far better than that from a Labor Government which has pledged itself to improving the opportunities for women in Australia. There is still far too much to be done, and the last chapters of this report indicate that. The portrayal of women in the media still leaves much to be desired, still emphasises stereotypes which are decades out of date. We still do not pay enough attention to preventive health care, in particular as far as women's health needs are concerned. There is still much that needs to be altered in the law's attitude to women, and women's access to sport, in terms of numbers, is still well and truly out of alignment with men's access.

It is, as I said earlier, a fact that women, for a variety of reasons, are the group most concerned about peace and conservation, not only for their own sakes but also for the sake of their children, yet this Government is ignoring their pleas in continuing to do things such as selling uranium to France, allowing indiscriminate woodchipping and failing to protect many of the unique areas that Australia has to offer future generations. Women around Australia have made their views known in this report. I suggest that it is not only encumbent on this Government and future governments to listen to them; it is imperative that they do so.