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Thursday, 30 April 1987
Page: 2111

Senator HAINES (Leader of the Australian Democrats)(6.09) —The purpose of the Equal Employment Opportunity (Commonwealth Authorities) Bill 1987 is as set out in the introduction to the Bill: To require certain Commonwealth authorities employing 40 or more employees to promote equal opportunities in employment for women and members of designated groups by developing equal employment opportunity programs. The explanatory memorandum in the introduction goes on at greater length but basically the purpose of the legislation is to require certain Commonwealth authorities employing 40 or more employees to promote equal opportunity in employment for women and certain other groups. The Australian Democrats emphasised last year the importance of what is probably inexactly known as affirmative action legislation covering statutory authorities. We welcome this somewhat overdue move to extend the cover of that legislation to these authorities. In fact, last year, had we not been anxious to get the affirmative action legislation into operation as quickly as possible, as everyone is aware, we would have moved for the inclusion in that piece of legislation of the authorities that cover this--

Senator Walters —Why didn't you accept our amendments, then?

Senator HAINES —It would help if Senator Walters listened occasionally. I said: Had we not been concerned to get the affirmative action legislation into operation--

Senator Walters —Why wasn't it in the Bill in the beginning?

Senator HAINES —Indeed, I could not agree more. Why was it not in the legislation to begin with? But that was not the point at issue in May last year when the typical ineptitude of this Government's management processes meant that the legislation did not come up for debate in this place until after the House of Representatives had risen, and that any change to the legislation, whether to strengthen it or otherwise, would not have come into effect until some months after it was intended to. As far as we were concerned it was more important to get the legislation operating as far as was possible at the time rather than press the question of these authorities. In any event, the Government has now finally got around to doing something about it.

Overriding all of that-indeed, to mix a metaphor, thoroughly underpinning it-is our belief, shared by large numbers of people in the community, that freedom of choice in a person's job is a basic social right which should not be affected by criteria unrelated to that person's ability to perform the job. Apart from the basic individual right involved, equal employment opportunity benefits the entire community by enhancing the utilisation of talent and resources that are lost as a result of discrimination directed in the main against women. In other words, equal employment opportunity, by widening the field of access to talent, experience and abilities, makes good business sense. If that is the only way that it can be sold to some of the more recalcitrant members of the business community, I suppose we have to ignore the argument of basic right and sell it to them on economic and similar grounds. So, as with the earlier pieces of legislation on affirmative action, the programs to be developed under this piece of legislation will not lead, as some people suggest, to positive discrimination.

It does not require statutory authorities to employ women, or any of the other designated groups, instead of men. Rather, it requires them to employ people of both sexes and in all groups on merit. It is important to stress that this is the purpose of the legislation and that its purpose is not to implement some sinister plot whereby a system in which men are employed and promoted regardless of merit is replaced by one in which women are employed and promoted regardless of merit. Anyone who has any doubt at all about that should read the Bill properly and note in particular clause 3 (4) which states quite clearly that nothing in the Act shall be taken to require any action incompatible with the principle that employment matters should be dealt with on the basis of merit. Of course, this clause mirrors exactly the intention of the legislation before us, legislation that is an adjunct to the affirmative action legislation from last year which contained exactly the same clause, and it should receive the full support of anyone who believes that a merit based employment system is the best. In fact, a merit based employment and promotion system is the only system which should operate in a society such as ours.

The fact that in the past merit has often had little to do with employment and promotion practices in either the private or public sectors is something that we ought to be deploring, rather than arguing for its prolongation. The fact that in the past government authorities both State and Federal have had some of the worst records for employing on the basis of merit is why this legislation is necessary. For evidence of this we need only look at, for example, State government employment practices in professions such as teaching and compare the number of women who are employed in the teaching profession with the number of women who achieve senior positions within that profession, much less senior positions within the government departments that administer the teaching profession.

So merit indeed had little to do with employment and promotional practices in the past. To argue that this piece of legislation is social engineering is to ignore the fact that we have had social engineering practised significantly through employment practices and indeed in legislation in the past. Merit, ability, qualifications and experience often came poor lasts after consideration was given to such things as which school the applicant attended, who knew whose father, for instance, and the religion one belonged to. That was certainly an element for many years in employing practices within the South Australian Public Service, for example. Although it was never legitimated or put in writing it was there nevertheless. One's sex or marital status is something which has long stymied women's advancement in many professions in both the public and private sectors and at both State and Federal Government levels.

Social engineering, for example, was evident in legislation or awards which insisted that males and females employed lifted different weights or in the argument that certain facilities were lacking and thus employment, transfer or even promotional opportunities were able to be denied to some individuals. I believe it is hardly coincidental that these restrictions, both legal and historic, affected women's opportunities in life far more than was the case with men. Most of the arguments put forward over the years to justify limiting women's participation in the labour force and in the business community are not valid and were never valid, but they were able to be put into practice because there was nothing to prevent that. They were put forward by people who supported a form of social engineering, people who wanted men and women to conform to certain convenient, socially approved patterns of behaviour-patterns of behaviour which were considered not necessarily appropriate even when they were operating but which certainly are not considered to be appropriate these days.

To repeat: It is worth remembering that by law, for example, until recently women were paid less than men even if they did the same work. I can remember being outraged when I first went into the teaching profession to discover that, notwithstanding the fact that my husband and I had exactly the same qualifications, did exactly the same sort of work and taught exactly the same levels of students, my income was considerably less than his. Not only that, but when he and I married I was the one who had to resign from the permanent teaching profession and take on a temporary assistant's role. Along with that, I suffered from decreased promotional opportunities with no access to superannuation, because in the State Public Service that was available only to permanent staff, and married women teachers were not classified as permanent staff. It was not just in the teaching profession that that occurred in public employment; it extended right throughout the South Australian Public Service.

Senator Peter Baume —In 1978, in local government, someone in Rockhampton got sacked for getting married.

Senator HAINES —That is right. Certainly places such as Broken Hill have been less than enthusiastic about embracing the idea that women have as much right to employment, married or single, with or without children, and of whatever age, as men do. Not long ago we were paid less, we could not remain permanent employees and we had to retire at 60 years of age whether we liked it or not. This was an arrangement that I suspect had less to do with the capacity of a woman over the age of 60 than it had to do with the fact that if she was married her husband was probably a few years older than she and was going to retire, and we could not have a situation in which the women was still in the work force while her husband was home in enforced retirement. Women were required to retire and get by on whatever savings they had or whatever pension they were entitled to five years before their male counterparts were. Of course, in many professions and ordinary jobs women were prevented from enjoying the full scope of work available if weights of greater than 16 kilograms had to be lifted. I point out that 16 kilograms is about the weight of an average three- to four-year-old child. I do not know too many women who have difficulty lifting, or indeed who refuse to lift, a child of their own who is over 16 kilograms in weight. More importantly, I have not noticed too many men, who may have been party to making the awards or legislation that prevented women from getting employment in jobs where they had to lift more than 16 kilograms, rushing out of offices and shops to assist a woman walking down the street carrying a fractious three-year-old in one arm and a bag of groceries in the other on the ground that it was damaging to her health to be carrying that sort of weight.

There is no doubt that those restrictions were placed in order to limit the access that women had to serve occupations and hence, as a corollary, enhance the opportunities for men, who were considered to have priority right to employment and promotion in those jobs. Despite those ill-founded matters being changed by law-and they have been slowly over the last few decades-women remain grossly unrepresented in most spheres outside the home. Many of the entrenched social attitudes with regard to women working remain. There is still a strong belief that women's choices on marriage, in particular women's choices after the couple have a family, should be restricted. That is particularly regrettable. It is especially regrettable given that it ignores and certainly underutilises the many skills and talents that women have, some of which, but not all of which, they share with men. Some of the ones they do not share with men are particularly useful. For example, because women are brought up to be less aggressive than men, they often make far better negotiators than men because they attempt to sidestep conflict rather than wait for it to break out and then heavy somebody.

Senator Gareth Evans —I wish that was the way you ran your negotiations here.

Senator HAINES —Perhaps it takes a particularly strong individual to break through these sorts of barriers. Having done that and having met with some of the opposition that we meet in this place, it is not only difficult but also unnecessary to go back to being coy and docile. Women are more often managers in the home since they are doing the organisation of the budget, transport arrangements, educational planning and so on; men in the main have earned the income in the past. Women have had the opportunity to develop excellent organisational and forward planning skills. Most of the skills that women attain in the home are ignored by personnel officers when women are seeking a job after their children are off their hands, so to speak. Women develop skills-forward planning skills, the capacity to perceive problems before they reach crisis point and so on-which would make them extremely skilful and useful employees. These skills have been ignored in the past. The community generally can only benefit from acknowledging the differences between men and women, some of which are biological and some of which are socially induced and making use of the general skills, intelligence and capabilities and so on that women as well as men have. Changes have to be made because no country these days can survive with only 50 per cent of its people in the work force having opportunities while the other 50 per cent have their abilities ignored. The reality is that unless everyone who chooses to go into the work force is able to develop to the fullest, Australia is not going to develop to the greatest extent possible.

Given the urgent need for this legislation and the fact that it is about 12 months overdue, it is regrettable, if not extraordinary, to observe the antics of the Opposition parties in this matter over recent weeks. In the case of the National Party I suppose we could say that it is only to be expected. I suspect that the original decision made by the then coalition was made more as a sop to the National Party than because the Liberals actually believed that this piece of legislation was in some way intrinsically different, more horrendous and more dangerous than the affirmative action legislation from last year.

Mr Howard and the drier members of the Liberal Party did not seem to have a massive problem with the affirmative action legislation last year, so why they abandoned their support for this legislation in what I suspect proved to be a rather futile attempt to shore up the coalition partnership is beyond my comprehension. That they are continuing to do so now that the coalition is dead, if not buried, is even more surprising. I congratulate those people of the Liberal Party who are being consistent, objective and intelligent in their attitude to this legislation. In particular-I am sure it is not going to do him a great deal of good-I congratulate Senator Peter Baume on his belief in this principle. Indeed, his principles have led to his losing his position on the front bench. As he was probably one of the few sensitive and compassionate members of the Liberal Party front bench, the Liberal Party's loss is all the more to be deplored. Those small `l' liberals, wets, or whatever it is that people tend to define members of the Liberal Party who are to the left of Attila the Hun, are to be congratulated for attempting to offset the damage that the troglodytes in the National Party and the Liberal Party are doing. It is extremely unfortunate, if not actually shameful, that the machinations of somebody such as the Premier of Queensland should have led to the loss of the bipartisan approach that generally we have had in this place towards the treatment of women in the community.

The specious grounds being used by the National and by the Liberal dries are that the Bill imposes quotas. Somehow or other a quantitative analysis or assessment of how business is going to operate some time down the track is ipso facto, according to these people, the imposition of a quota. I do not believe that is the case and I do not believe that anyone who makes the same assessment of clause 3 (4) could argue that quotas could in any way result from this legislation. I urge those members of the Opposition parties who seem determined to oppose this legislation to reconsider the matter and to have another look at clause 3, and in particular sub-clause (4), and tell me and everybody else how that could possibly be ignored in such a way that quotas could be implemented. They know as well as I do that their claim is silly. I cannot imagine why they are clinging to it.

Sitting suspended from 6.30 to 8 p.m.