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Thursday, 30 April 1987
Page: 2122

Senator KNOWLES(8.59) —I will start my contribution to this evening's debate by stating exactly what I stated on 20 August last year when debating the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Bill 1986. I, as both a woman and a Liberal, am totally committed to equal employment opportunity, but I am not committed to any form of discrimination against anyone in employment. I thought that it was rather interesting tonight to note, from the typical diatribe we hear so often from Senator Crowley, that she has not been able to prepare her own speech. She had to rely on a speech that was written by someone else from the other House. One of the key elements of the waffle she contributed this evening was that she continually stated how dreadful it was that some members of the Opposition may have the audacity to cross the floor and vote for the Bill. So what! She does not even have the courage to stay in the chamber and listen. That is one of the benefits of being a member of the Liberal Party: We have freedom of choice.

Look at what happened to Senator Georges with the Australia Card Bill and also last year's Bill involving the late Lionel Murphy. Senator Georges is not now a member of the Australian Labor Party. He did not have the choice of crossing the floor and voting the way in which his conscience told him. He had to vote the way in which his Party told him. Look at Tasmanian senators with the Lemonthyme and Southern Forests (Commission of Inquiry) Bill earlier this month. They did not have the courage of their convictions either. They could not cross the floor, because they did not want to be expelled. We at least have the ability to vote the way in which our consciences tell us. I do not think that we should be criticised or penalised for an ability that the Labor Party cannot extend to its senators or members.

Last year the Senate debated and passed the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Bill, which sought to provide equal employment opportunity. At that stage I was very concerned, and I expressed that concern, about the legislation being the thin end of the wedge making sure that we have equality of outcomes in preference to equality of opportunity. Today we are debating an equal employment opportunity Bill that has far more to do with affirmative action than did the Bill we saw last year. We have only to look at the reaction of groups such as the Women's Electoral Lobby last year which were absolutely furious that the Government had abrogated what they called its responsibility to trendy groups, such as WEL, to provide quotas-that it was going only to forward estimates and quantitative or other measures, not firm quotas.

It seems to be a bit of a habit of the ALP these days to avoid calling things by their correct names. In Western Australia, the State ALP Government passed an equal opportunity Act that is, in fact, a copy of the Federal Sex Discrimination Act. It is no wonder the public becomes confused. As a Liberal who believes in genuine equality of opportunity and in giving Australian women the right to compete with men and with each other on equal terms, I supported last year's legislation, although, I might say, with grave reservations. If anyone wished to read my speech last year they would find those grave reservations contained there and the reference I made earlier to it being the thin end of the wedge.

I expressed concern that, notwithstanding a declaration of belief in the merit principle, the same principle could be eroded by any stress on numerical indicators. This legislation this year goes one step further in that regard, and that is the main reason I cannot support it. It is a step towards what we have come to understand as affirmative action. We have seen it in operation in the United States of America. It has been a disaster in the United States. As with many other issues, this Government will not learn from any other country; it will not take heed of the disasters of any other country. No, we must experience it for ourselves and go down the gurgler in the same way as they have. The United States had legislation that involved numerical quotas and that achieved reverse discrimination. I do not want to see that for Australia.

Senator Tate —Neither do I.

Senator KNOWLES —Then it is a shame that Senator Tate and his Government have put together a Bill that will create reverse discrimination. It is a pity if Senator Tate is the only person on the Government side who does not want to see that happen. I hope that he will vote against the Bill. However, I know that he will not do so, because he cannot; he does not want to be expelled. If it were the intention of this socialist Government simply to extend last year's legislation to Commonwealth authorities, we would expect the same wording to be used in defining equal employment opportunity. However, that is not so; the wording has been changed. Section 8 (g) of the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act 1986 instructed employers `to set objectives and make forward estimates' in their equal opportunity programs. The equivalent clause in the Bill before us-6 (g)-is significantly different. The relevant authority is to set `quantitative and other indicators against which the effectiveness of the program is to be assessed'. This makes it clear that numerical targets are envisaged. How else can we explain a quantitative indicator? As my colleague Senator Walters has already said this evening, the vast difference between this year's Bill and last year's Bill is that last year there was an option; this year there is no option. This year it is not `quantitative or other measures'; it is `quantitative and other measures'. I will return to that later.

Clause 8 (3) of last year's Bill explained that a forward estimate was a quantitative measure that `may be expressed in numerical terms'. This is far less specific than an instruction to set quantitative indicators that are to be the gauge of the effectiveness of the program. It is this further step that, in my judgment, makes a mockery of clause 3 (4), which disclaims the intention to require any violation of the merit principle in employment matters. A little while ago we heard Senator Crowley rabbit on about this clause. It says:

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.

The words are `should be dealt with on the basis of merit'-not `must be dealt with on the basis of merit'. What a whole lot of rubbish! Once we are in the business of numerical indicators, there will be great and constant pressure to achieve them by bending the merit principle. I will not bend that merit principle for anybody. The bending of the merit principle can lead us very clearly down the path of promoting unqualified people. Proponents of affirmative action in this socialist Government would argue that, if this is avoided, the merit principle has remained. That is absurd. Rather, it is to be feared that a person's sex, colour, race, relationship to another person, disability or whatever-the whole raft of explanations in the Bill-will become the determining factor if he has the formal qualifications for a position when, in fact, he may not be the best applicant. Successful business women around Australia-they need not be the managing directors of corporations, partners in legal or accounting firms and so on, but purely and simply successful women-are absolutely staggered at this Bill because they do not want their jobs if they are to get them only on the basis of their sex. They want jobs and promotion because they are capable of both, not in terms of equality of outcomes. It is my firm belief as a Liberal that once an employer is prevented from selecting the best applicant, regardless of sex or race, we have sold out on that vital merit principle.

I repeat: If it were the intention of this Government only to remedy the anomaly that Commonwealth authorities were excluded from last year's Bill, we would expect to see the same wording in regard to equal opportunity programs. The only reason for significant differences in wording is the intention to move towards hard affirmative action by gradual and deliberate steps. One must hand it to this Government; this move has been consistent over the succession of Bills that we have had since 1984. Section 22b of the Public Service Reform Act 1984 states that the program must include the quantitative or other indicators against which the effectiveness of the program is to be assessed. That is a very broad definition by anyone's language. It has a bit of a legislative leaning as well as a degree of regulation. The 1986 legislation went one stage further with a more precise definition. It had a little heavier legislative leaning and still more regulation. Section 8 (3) contained the words `a quantitative measure or aim'-expressed as a general principle-and the words `or aim, which may be expressed in numerical terms'. It is all `ors' and a `maybe', but we can quite clearly see that the wedge is getting thicker and the door is opening a bit wider. Then we arrive at this year's Bill, the Equal Employment Opportunity (Commonwealth Authorities) Bill 1987, where we find a very precise definition, very actual legislative enforcement and a far greater degree of regulation. Clause 6 (g) and 6 (g) (ii) make the intention of this Bill crystal clear to anybody. It states:

. . . the program . . . shall provide for action to be taken:

(g) to set:

(ii) the quantitative and-

not or-

other indicators against which the effectiveness of the program is to be assessed.

If honourable senators are still in doubt, clause 6 (h) (ii) states:

to assess the effectiveness of the program by comparing statistics . . .

Then we go one stage further and, naturally enough, we get to a position where, if the Minister does not like what the statutory authority has done, he can change it. Clause 12 states:

The responsible Minister . . . may . . . give general directions to the authority with respect to the . . . Act.

It also states that the Minister can change the corporate plan and so on. Let us face it; we have different criteria. It is not just women; it is a far broader section. We have de facto quotas and we also have ministerial intervention. Some people believe these two Bills to be the same. What an absolute circus!

The second major difference in this legislation is the fact that it does not refer to equal opportunity merely for women but for `persons in designated groups'. Such a group can be designated by simple regulation and the Government may disclaim any intention to extend the benefits of this legislation to weird and wonderful sub-groups within the community, but this Senate should realise that they will be given the power to designate whomsoever they choose through this Bill. The people of Australia do want to see a fair go in employment for women and they are opposed to discrimination against racial minorities. It was proven in a Morgan gallup poll published in the Bulletin on 28 April that Australians do believe that women get a fair go in employment. When asked the question about job opportunities for women, `Do you feel that women in Australia have equal opportunities with men or not?', 56 per cent agreed opportunities were equal. Yet this Government keeps on telling us: `No, that is not so. The majority of Australians believe that women do not get a fair go, so we have to make sure that not only women but also everybody else have equality outcomes. We have to even up the numbers'. I keep on coming back to the point that there are an awful number of women who do not want the numbers evened up for the sake of evening them up. They want to make sure that they get out there, they get trained and they have equal opportunity and promotion if they wish and not because they have to.

The people of Australia do not, however, see why various racial and other minority groups should be given some kind of special consideration and why the merit principle should be bent on their behalf. Australians have to decide whether they want to have Commonwealth authorities staffed on a basis of efficiency, fairness and merit, or whether they want them to be some kind of exact mirror of the community in their staffing, to the exclusion of better qualified applicants. If this Labor Government is taking the latter path, it should be prepared to admit that there will be an ultimate cost in efficiency as well as equity.

The question I would like the Minister to answer-I will probably ask this in the Committee stage-is what jobs there are in statutory authorities for those, unfortunate as they are, who are mentally handicapped. I am not down on any of the handicapped people-in fact, I have done a lot of work with handicapped people-but this Bill includes the mentally and physically handicapped. What jobs is the Government going to give those people? I am concerned that in this Bill `discrimination' is extended in the interpretation clause to include the mentally as well as the physically disabled. No matter how anxious we may be to enable mentally handicapped people to integrate in the community, the fact remains that it is difficult for people with mental impairment-far more so than for those with a physical disability-to fulfil a job in real terms. I believe, as many of them do, that it is unfair to the mentally disabled to be saying that they must have equal numbers, along with all the other groups. Let us get them good jobs and proper jobs that they can fulfil. There are plenty of jobs that both the mentally and the physically disabled can do very well-we all know that-but to be putting a little piece of tokenism into a Bill such as this I think is absurd and nasty towards those in those categories. Avoidance of discrimination on these grounds may be a pleasant sentiment, but it runs the risk of making a total mockery of the merit principle.

Where there is a fundamental divergence between those of us in the Liberal Party who oppose affirmative action, and those in the Labor Party and the Australian Democrats who support this Bill because it is a step towards affirmative action, is in the fact that we believe that the most important form of justice is individual justice as opposed to group justice. Individual rights must prevail over any theories of collective entitlements. The great mistake made by those who would push us further along the road to hard affirmative action is their belief that disparities in incomes and or employment status between the sexes, between racial groups or in any other line of division occur because of discrimination in our society. Of course discrimination can occur, but so, too, it is often the case that women, for example, are underrepresented in high paid and also high pressure jobs because large numbers have made the choice that they prefer to have lower paid jobs in return for shorter hours or to spend more time at home with their families. Those women should not have Bills such as this trying to push them into positions that they do not necessarily want because we have a government that simply wants to even up the numbers, nor should it be considered racist or sexist to suggest that different aptitudes can result in different employment patterns.

The other great error made by the social engineers of affirmative action is the assumption that these supposed injustices can all be set right by political activity and government intervention to which employers in the private and public sector must conform. A quarter of a century ago in the United States of America, a very proper attempt was made to eliminate discrimination against American blacks. The 1954 Supreme Court decision that struck down legally enforced segregation in education was applauded by the full spectrum of political opinion, from the Left right across to thoughtful conservatives. However, we did not have to look too far because later on President Johnson, seeking to buy popularity from the radical wing of the Democratic Party who were disaffected by his Vietnam policies, instituted the Office of Federal Contract Compliance that in practice redefined `affirmative action' in terms of racial favouritism, compelling employers towards set numbers for minorities, and women. Employers were subject to effective blackmail by threatening the loss of government contracts that affect so many firms in both the United States and Australia. They were also threatened with legal action sponsored by the Equal Employment Opportunity Bureau that had redefined discrimination to include racial imbalance, going far beyond injustice to individuals.

I think honourable senators should be aware that quotas in the United States came into effect not because of, but despite, democratic legislation. Enforcement was in the hands of bureaucrats bypassing legislatures, so that by the 1970s the fear of being labelled racist by opposing quotas, and the massive cost of equal opportunity litigation, ensured that 86 per cent of large firms had equal opportunity programs with quotas as a safe option. Once again, this Government has not learnt one jot from the American experience or in fact the Canadian experience. It will not learn, it will not listen and it will not change its mind. Blacks and women in the United States will carry the stigma of not achieving promotion strictly on their own merits-that is where they have got to today. They are now experiencing reverse discrimination. They have said: `Enough is enough. We want the merit principle back, and unequivocally so. We do not want equality of outcomes'.

There are other aspects of this Bill which render it unacceptable in its present form. The definition of employee in clause 3 (1) includes those employed as subcontractors, and thus a threatened but essential class of small independent operators are brought within the social engineering net of this socialist government. This at the same time brings them into the closer ambit of any militant unions intent in forcing subcontractors to join them.

The question should also be asked as to why the Bill will apply to relevant authorities with as few as 40 employees, whereas the legislation of last year did not apply to businesses of fewer then 100 employees. That is another dramatic difference between the two Bills in two years. But no, this Government will continue to tell us until right at the end of this debate that the two Bills are the same and it will ask why we are not supporting them. We can question the sheer practicability of applying a nine point program to a smaller number, and some interesting fractions may appear among the quantitative indicators.

As a Liberal I strongly support the need to amend this Bill in order to give effect to the declared intention of this socialist Government. Senator Button stated on 9 January this year, going back a while-and they tend to change their minds every hour-that the Business Regulation Review Unit should examine any new regulations affecting business, and that the relevant departments should supply regulation impact statements. That is what Senator Button said on 9 January. However, only a couple of days ago in answer to a question in this place he said that the Business Regulation Review Unit had already looked at this; yet in the other place the Minister said that the Business Regulation Review Unit had not looked at it. So who do you believe? You do not know who to believe. Presumably the Business Regulation Review Unit has not looked at this. It was good enough in January for it to look at it but it is not good enough now. These conditions have not been fulfilled in respect of this Bill, and I would well consider that it should not proceed until such an evaluation has occurred. When for years this Government has been telling us that its statutory authorities are run on business lines, when they are supposed to operate as businesses in the market place, what excuse can there be for deciding after all that they are not businesses requiring a regulation impact statement?

This Bill, with its firm step towards quotas, will not improve the overall prospects of women or of unspecified, favoured minorities in Australia. It will create injustice in the future for applicants who fall outside these definitions. It will deny women, and others, free and fair competition based on their merit and suitability. It is rather ironic, I suppose, that those in our community who demand that jobs be available on the basis of group entitlement rather than individual worth should talk about choice when this will be increasingly taken away from Australian employers, in private business and in statutory authorities. This Bill is a gradual but firm departure from last year's legislation, and would be a major move, as was last year's Bill, towards the repeat of the United States experience in Australia. It should simply not be passed in this form. Of course, we still have socialist senators saying even in this place that the Liberal Party could not care less about women, so I will cover some of those aspects now.

Senator Powell —Absolutely.

Senator KNOWLES —Now we have an interjection from a member of the Australian Democrats, which do not have a policy about anything. All the Democrats can talk about lately is the Liberal Party. I do not know whether they want to join us, but I hope they do not because we would not have them.

Senator Walters —But they do send delegates to see Gaddafi.

Senator KNOWLES —That is exactly right. The Democrats do have a policy on terrorism. That is the important aspect. That is a very good point that Senator Walters has made; I am glad that she raised that issue. Yes, the Democrats do send delegates to have a chat with Gaddafi. However, I come back to what the Liberal Party has done for women. Let us take the parliamentary scene and the political scene as one. When the Liberal Party was brought together in 1944-45, women had been guaranteed parallel status with balancing male and female representation from executive down to branch level. They have all got their parliamentary seats because of merit, unlike the Labor Party which must have a certain number of women on its ticket and a certain number of women on its executives-all by direction.

In Tasmania the Liberal Party has a Senate ticket headed by two women-Senator Walters and Senator Newman. That is not by regulation of the Liberal Party. There has been guaranteed representation for women at all levels in the Liberal Party. In Western Australia there was no formal requirement to have a female Liberal vice-president, yet there has always been one. At the federal level, the Liberal Party has a female vice-president together with the input of the Federal Women's Council. Until the current decade women members of the House of Representatives on either side were a rarity. Yet the first female member was a Liberal-Dame Enid Lyons in 1943. Between 1966 and 1969 Kay Brownbill was a Liberal member of the House of Representatives for South Australia. The first female Minister was Dame Enid Lyons, a Liberal. The first Minister with full departmental responsibility was Dame Annabelle Rankin. The first Cabinet Minister was Dame Margaret Guilfoyle. All these women were Liberals. At least they achieved their positions on their own and without reserved positions.

In Western Australia we can boast the first Australian woman member of parliament of all Australian parliaments. In 1974 the Liberal Party also endorsed successful women candidates for rural seats: One of them is now the Opposition Whip while the other progressed to be a Minister from 1977 to 1983. So anyone who says that the Liberal Party has not looked after women does not know his facts. It was the Liberal Party which introduced the family allowance in 1976 with recognition of the needs of the family giving greater discretion to mothers.

Abolition of death duties occurred under the Fraser Government which, once again, looked after families and women. Our commitment to permanent part time work contrasts with the very slow moves made by the ALP in any area where there is a great demand from women because of the flexibility it brings. So no one can ever criticise the Liberal Party for not looking after women, because our record is clear. This Bill needs to be opposed on the basis that my colleagues and I have mentioned. It is not equality of opportunity, it is equality of outcomes.