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Thursday, 30 April 1987
Page: 2108

Senator BOLKUS(5.52) —I support the Equal Employment Opportunity (Commonwealth Authorities) Bill; it is an important piece of legislation. As the Senate may know, the purpose of the Bill is to promote equal employment opportunity in those areas of government employment that are not already covered by the recent Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act 1986 or by the Public Service Act 1922 and section 22b thereof. The purpose of the legislation is to cover statutory authorities which are not currently covered by previous legislation. Further, we should note that the Bill promotes employment opportunities not only for women but also for other designated groups in Australian society, in particular the handicapped, Aboriginal people, Torres Strait Islanders and non-English speaking persons. The Bill is long overdue. It is part of this Government's achievements and commitments towards social justice. The honourable member for Gellibrand and Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations, Mr Ralph Willis, said when introducing the Bill:

Equal employment opportunity assumes that freedom of choice of occupation is a basic social right which should not be constrained by criteria unrelated to ability to perform the job.

One can see how important it is for people such as those I have mentioned to have not positive discrimination in their favour but at least equality of opportunity when applying for employment. In essence, therefore, one can sum up the Bill by saying that it gives all Australians a fair go, regardless of their gender, ethnic background, or physical and mental criteria. One would have thought that, in doing so, it would not have received the amount of opposition that it has received from the Opposition parties in this chamber and in the lower House. When one looks at the commitment of Liberal philosophy and when one goes back to the sources of the principles of the Liberal philosophy in this country, one sees that there is probably no better authority than Sir Robert Menzies. Later I will take the opportunity to quote from his partial memoirs, Afternoon Light, which were published in 1967. He has also stated very clearly that the commitment of Liberal philosophy and the party that he set up was wide ranging but its responsibilities also included:

. . . by social and industrial legislation to provide a high degree of economic security and justice for all its citizens.

He continued:

My friends and I recognised the economic responsibilities of the State to assist in preventing the recurrence of large-scale unemployment by appropriate economic and monetary measures; to secure, through-

this is the important part-

social legislation, a decent and reasonable measure of economy security and well-being for all responsible citizens:

Basic to those principles, therefore, is security of employment, and basic to that is equality of opportunity. One would have thought that if the current Liberal Party was honest to its traditions, it would have taken a different attitude to this legislation. It has not been missed by honourable senators and the media that there has been an inconsistent approach by the Liberal Party to the Bill compared with its approach to the 1986 equal employment opportunity legislation. That inconsistency has led to wide-ranging public debate. However, what is highlighted by the inconsistency is the fact that we now have a 1987 version of equity Liberal-style. It is not isolated; it has not happened in this instance only. We have seen, in the area of tax initiatives and legislation, the approach of liberalism to equity Liberal-style. The Opposition has a tax policy, insofar as we can see it, the basic structure of which is based upon ripping pension increases off pensioners so that it can abolish the capital gains tax and give back free lunches, cars and other fringe benefit elements to millionaires and those who are well off in our society.

The second instance of equity Liberal-style 1987 is the one which we are addressing. This time the Opposition rejects a Bill which in substance, in principle, was before this chamber in 1986. It does so on the basis that it would cost too much, or that it has not been costed by the Government's Business Regulation Review Unit. One would imagine by looking at the Opposition's performance on the Bill, that its members are also officers of the Department of Finance who are out on a day-release scheme. The only attitude that members of the Opposition took when the legislation was considered in the lower House, and when it was discussed by the Leader of the Opposition (Senator Chaney) in this chamber today, related to the cost aspect of it. There has been no recognition of those great principles of social justice and social engineering about which Sir Robert Menzies spoke in his memoirs of 1967. What they are concerned about is whether the Bill has gone to the Government's Business Regulation Review Unit and whether the cost to industry, the private sector and to government is too much. The basic line is: What will it cost?

Let us consider this consultation with the business sector and the BRRU about which the Liberals are concerned. We should note that on Tuesday in Question time the Leader of the Government in the Senate (Senator Button) made it very clear that the Bill had been, albeit informally, before the Government's Business Regulation Review Unit. The Unit was given an opportunity to comment on the new regulations involved in the Bill. We understand that the Unit was not concerned about the implications of them. However, that was just the end result of consultation. In 1986, regarding a similar Bill which affected industry directly, a process of consultation which extended far over and above a 12-month period took place. The Business Council of Australia and other business representative groups were involved in those consultations. At the end of the day we came up with a piece of legislation which was acceptable to the private sector. It is curious, therefore, that when a piece of legislation has a direct impact on the public sector, the government sector, we are told that it should be sent back to the Business Regulation Review Unit and the private sector should be consulted further. It is clear that that process has been undergone in respect of similar legislation. I cannot see why the Opposition has pursued such frustrating tactics in respect of this Bill.

I take this opportunity also to refer to the question of costs to employers. The rather maverick Liberal member for Boothby (Mr Steele Hall) made this very clear in the lower House when he said that the Opposition's main quibble with the legislation was that, in his Leader's eyes, it had not been referred to the Business Regulation Review Unit and also that it cost too much. This sort of statement was pursued not only by Liberal Party members, but also by National Party members. We heard screams about the cost to business, the cost which this will impose on statutory authorities, and so on. If anyone pretends to understand the process of government in this place, he will know that a piece of legislation such as this would not be allowed to pass the eyes of those in charge of departments or statutory authorities unless those people made a very close scrutiny of the implications of such legislation on their particular organisations. Not one has complained, not one has put a position to government objecting to the implications of the Bill. so we go back to false arguments once again. We also go back to the fact that equity Liberal-style in 1987 not only means catering to millionaires in the taxation system, but also means catering to millionaires in the pursuance of social justice. Those great principles of Sir Robert Menzies have been abandoned.

We are also given the argument of the current economic climate, cost efficiency and so on. Speaker after speaker in the lower House said that the Government had failed to come to grips with the real issues, that the real issue we ought to look at was cost efficiency, and that our economy cannot afford the implications of this particular legislation. Let us remember, when we address those sorts of issues, that it is legislation that was called for and was in essence demanded of the Government by the Opposition when the previous Bill, the 1986 Bill, came through this place and the House of Representatives. The cry then was that we were attacking the private sector but leaving the public sector untouched. There was no immediate consideration of cost effectiveness on the private sector at that particular stage.

The other point that comes out of the whole debate so far, both in the media and in the lower House, is that when one is pursuing social justice, it seems, the dollar always comes first. The commitment to the principles of social justice is never deemed to be appropriate when there might be some sort of cost involved. But if the debate in the lower House does expose one factor, it is the fact that members of the Opposition just seem to see this particular piece of legislation and this approach to the problems of people in our society from the wrong end. They have never really had to look at it in terms of the handicapped, in terms of those who cannot speak languages adequately and in terms of women. They cannot look at it in terms of those who do not stand on equal footing in our society. They talk from a position of privilege, and the attitudes and the policies that they present to us emanate very much from that position.

As I have said, this sort of attitude was not always so and last year we had support for the Government's legislation from the private sector. We have also now got legislation which the Liberal Party asked for. But it is not only the principle of the legislation about which we have criticisms from the Opposition. We also have criticisms based on spurious fallacies. We are told that this legislation represents a back-door attempt to get quotas into statutory authorities. If anyone wants to know about back-door attempts in terms of getting old fashioned pork-barrelling and obtaining privileges and indulgences, the National Party, the Queensland branch particularly, would know about that. After all, its basis in the white-shoe brigade is very much borne and fostered on that particular criterion. But if one was to have an honest look at this particular Bill, if one was to be sincere and truthful to himself in doing so, it would be very clear that this Bill is not a back-door attempt to get quotas into statutory authorities. To suggest so is grossly to misrepresent the Bill.

It is clear that there are in the Bill provisions which require authorities to set quantitative and other indicators. But the provisions in this Bill do not go past the provisions of the Affirmative Action (Equal Opportunity for Women) Bill 1986, which members of the Opposition supported less than 12 months ago; nor do these provisions go beyond section 22b of the Public Service Act. We are also told that this Bill acts against merit and destroys the principles of promotion in employment on the basis of merit. The fact that this argument is a lie was exposed in the lower House by the honourable member for Boothby. It was not very hard for him to find sub-clause 3 (4) of the Bill. I will quote this sub-clause particularly for the benefit of Senator Walters. It states:

Nothing in this Act shall be taken to require any action incompatible with the principle that employment matters should be dealt with on the basis of merit.

That is very clear and very succinct. It is not hidden in the back of the Bill or in some interpretation clause of the Bill. At the front of the Bill there is this emphasis on the preservation of the principles of merit. That was noticed by Mr Steele Hall--

Senator Walters —It is right in the interpretation, which is a good spot for it.

Senator BOLKUS —It is obvious then that even Senator Walters can see it, so let us not have any arguments from Senator Walters about this Bill destroying promotion and employment opportunity on the basis of merit. In principle, therefore, we are looking at a Bill which does not require authorities to employ women instead of men. Nor does it discriminate positively for migrants, Aboriginals or disabled people. It prevents negative discrimination against these classes of people.

I will not speak much longer, but I do want to make this particular point: It is interesting that the National Party has been consistent on this legislation. Last year it opposed similar legislation; this year it does the same. It is members of the Liberal Party that have switched. It is quite obvious why they have done so; that is, to pander to the wishes of the National Party in the coalition which was then held together very loosely. In the process, they have lost one of their front benchers and they are also in danger of having their back benchers defect in this Senate either today or when this Bill comes to a vote.

That is not the only area of defection. I think it has been made very clear to the Opposition in recent weeks that the electorate, and particularly women in the electorate, are not going to accept their current position on this piece of legislation. Let us face it, this is not legislation on which to go to the barricades, but it has led to a massive swing of female support from the Opposition side of this Parliament. In the Times on Sunday of 5 April in an article by Kate Legge, Spectrum Research is quoted as having conducted a poll of 1,200 people in mainland capital cities. It showed that 24 per cent of Liberal voters were less inclined to vote for the coalition because of its stand on this issue. It also showed that the strongest views of opposition to the Liberal Party on this particular issue was amongst women between 18 and 34 years of age. It is coincidental that in the week that poll was taken the standing of the Opposition in the polls decreased quite substantially-by between 3 or 4 per cent. I believe the women of Australia have made it very clear that this sort of abdication of principle by the Opposition, this sort of abdication of responsibility to them and other sectors of the community, will not be tolerated.

In closing, I do not believe this Bill is about compulsory quotas; it is not about the erosion of the merit principle; it is not about positive discrimination; it is about the eradication of negative discrimination. Let me also ask members of the Opposition in voting on this matter to look very closely at those principles set out in Sir Robert Menzies' partial memoirs, Afternoon Light, those principles which committed the Opposition to a degree of social engineering in the pursuance of equality of opportunity.