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Thursday, 30 April 1987
Page: 2134

Senator COOK(10.15) —It is perhaps my unfortunate duty to speak in support of the Equal Employment Opportunity (Commonwealth Authorities) Bill 1987 after such an eloquent speech by a member of the Opposition, who has delivered a tough, logical, researched and, might I say, courageous address in support of his principles, principles which I think are eternal, which reach across this chamber and which should invite the common support of all parties here. During that address a number of my colleagues asked me to say that they, as well as I, admire the stand Senator Peter Baume has taken and which I understand a number of his colleagues will take in defence of those principles.

I said it was my unfortunate duty because my normal approach to debate is to take a tough and aggressive line with the Opposition on matters which I consider require that type of approach. But after hearing the speech by Senator Baume, which I regard in many respects to have been a sensitive as well as a tough speech, it is difficult to regard the Opposition as a bloc. Therefore, my remarks are directed to those who will be voting against this legislation. The first point it is necessary to make in such an address is that, quite clearly, this debate need not be held to the extent it is being held today and for the rest of the time it takes to get through the legislation were it not for the fact that in the political circumstances of Australia 1987 there is ferment and division in the parties of the Opposition coalition. Just this week we have seen the coalition formally split. Over the last few months we have witnessed the spectacle of there being two National Parties, a Queensland National Party supporting a prime ministership campaign by the Premier of Queensland and a National Party under the leadership of Ian Sinclair.

We have seen posturing for policy position in order to obtain what I regard as redneck support for a more reactionary policy. We have seen a purge of the Opposition front bench in order to cover internal party difficulty and remain, in connection with the National Party, in coalition. The front bench of the Liberal Party has been rearranged to reflect a more right wing, dry attitude. Some people whom I regard as being talented and capable spokesmen for the Opposition-I cite Mr Ian Macphee-have been removed. Mr Macphee was a spokesman in the very difficult field of industrial relations. He gave a human face to the debate in what is a very controversial and contested area and to what I regarded as being conservative and, some would say, right wing policies. Nonetheless, he applied those policies in a way which was more sensitive to the needs of the more practical work force than other spokesmen were able to do.

This debate need not have been held if that ferment and division were not facts of life. As we have heard, in August last year this Government gave an undertaking that it would legislate in the way it has, and that legislation we are debating tonight. It gave that undertaking to Senator Baume, who was at that time the spokesman on women's affairs for the Opposition, on the basis that that was the position which the whole Opposition took and not a position which simply Senator Baume took. Had the Opposition remained united behind its women's affairs spokesman, as he was at the time, this debate would have been a debate in which we were in torrid agreement with each other about the need for the legislation. We would not have heard the specious and ludicrous arguments that have been put by some Opposition speakers, most notably in this evenings debate by Senator Susan Knowles; arguments which are trivial, which do not apply and which are merely efforts to try to pervert or contort the meaning of the English language-to make it mean something other than it really does mean. It is perhaps sad that in the drift to find a constituency for an always right-leaning Liberal Party we have been forced into having this debate.

This legislation follows up the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Bill brought down last year, and it follows up amendments that the Government has made to section 22b of the Public Service Act, as I recall. We believe that it is legislation that stands in its own right and on principles which are broadly recognised in the Australian community, indeed in the world community, where rights of equality and opportunity are matters of intense scrutiny and debate. It is legislation that we in the Australian Labor Party are bound to. Moreover, it is legislation that arises from widespread community consultation, because the mode of operation of this Government has not been one of saying simply that because we have a platform commitment we will unilaterally impose that via legislation.

In 1983 this Government was elected on one of the principles of reconciliation, of a breakdown of the confrontationist mode of the previous Government, and we have applied the consultative approach in getting the basis of this legislation. We had a consensus report in October 1985 from a committee on which I understand Senator Peter Baume served and consultations with the Confederation of Australian Industry, the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Council of Trade Unions. There exists, therefore, in the field that this legislation is to be applied to in the labour market area, consensus support between the main players, the practical operators, those who have the coal face experience of real life in that particular area. Held against that support from the employment and employer community, it is idle indeed to listen to the trivial and specious arguments that have been put against this legislation by some of those who have appointed themselves to oppose it.

Indeed the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) 1986 legislation established the principles that this Bill seeks to extend into the public statutory corporation sector. It established those principles and it is therefore logical that it is an inconsistent pattern with those principles that this legislation should come forward. As that original legislation in 1986 set out, the private sector is now moving to comply with the terms set down under it. On 1 February next year enterprises with over 1,000 or more workers will be moving to apply those guidelines. By 1990, approximately over 4,000 firms in Australia will be moving to apply those guidelines. Yet it is said that this legislation unnecessarily interferes with the market and is interventionist in character and therefore should be turned out. At least that is said by its opponents.

I think it needs to be emphasised that this Government, the Hawke Government, has been loth in its economic policy to interfere with the market-place. I witness the legislation that we have brought down to free up the financial markets, the legislation where we have encouraged market forces to decide what happens. It is part of the record of this Government that it has been reluctant to intervene in the market. However, it has never said that that is the primary consideration. It has said often that that is the best way of achieving the best result, but if there are other principles at stake, intervention in the market becomes necessary.

We intervened in the market in order to reach a steel industry plan. We intervened in the market, in consultation with employers in the automobile industry, to have an automobile industry plan and we intervened in the heavy engineering field. More latterly, we have intervened in the textile, clothing and footwear area by bringing down plans for all of those industry sectors which had arisen from consultation but where, because of our inferior market position vis a vis international competition or because of mounting unemployment or the problems of the introduction of technological change, it had become necessary for government intervention to guarantee that the market acted fairly and that there was a reasonable outcome in terms of how the market was treated and how it treated the competitive forces afflicting it. Therefore in terms of intervention we have said that we would prefer the market to find the right level, but that if it does not, we then reserve the right, in consultation with the areas affected, to intervene to achieve the outcome. I think we have been spectacularly successful in applying that approach. Our approach has not been one of command, it has been one of negotiating guidelines.

When we look at the labour market and we see discrimination against the employment of women, Aborigines, migrants and categories of disabled people, we believe it entirely proper, where the market over the last decade or more has not corrected those imperfections, to provide sensitive intervention in a way in which the market can be guided by negotiation and consultation between its own internal players to an outcome which is reasonable and fair. We applied that type of approach when we set the guidelines for the community employment program. That program emphasises that applicants for grants for community employment should record on their applications what they are doing for the most discriminated sectors of the work force, how many jobs they have created for women, Aborigines, migrants or disabled workers, so that we can break down the encoding of those groups into the unemployable sectors or the areas where there is not sufficient opportunity for employment.

Because those groups of people are caught in the classic bind that if they apply for work and have not had a job it follows that they do not have the experience necessary to get that job. If they are not given a job then they will have no work experience, and if they have no work experience they cannot get a job. That problem needed to be confronted and broken through. That is what our labour market programs have done in areas where we have targeted them specifically to combat unemployment. This legislation guarantees that once people are employed they have an equality of opportunity in their particular chosen field, or that in fields which discriminate against that category of individual they have an opportunity to break into those fields and to achieve an equality with those who, by tradition, are the preferred style of classic employee. There is massive public approval for community employment programs because local government authority applicants for CEP grants have been very ready to apply those conditions to themselves. Since it is necessary to do that for the unemployed, as I have said, it is also necessary to do so in this case for the employed.

Since the end of the Second World War the percentage of females employed in the work force has increased massively. It now approaches the 40 per cent mark. Women have chosen to work or been forced to work, and often forced by economic necessity. More latterly, I think in times when we did not suffer from the level of unemployment that we now suffer from, women chose to work to achieve some self-fulfilment and to pursue a career. We have witnessed in Australia a change in social patterns because of that employment phenomenon. We have witnessed an increase in the amount of part time work. We have witnessed job sharing and we have witnessed a change in social and domestic roles between the men and women.

Senator Powell —Not much.

Senator COOK —As Senator Powell interjects, it is true that it has not changed much, but we are witnessing that trend, and that trend is a strengthening one and, I believe, an irreversible one. Nonetheless, it is not adequate to say that that trend exists if women continue to be encoded or segmented into low wage areas of the work force and are unable to break out of that encoding, or if Aborigines, migrants or disabled people find that they are relegated to the most unsatisfying and menial of tasks and do not have a chance to be regarded properly in terms of their full human abilities and thus to be given an opportunity to achieve employment outcomes for themselves that are desirable to them and, I think, desirable for the community at large. I recall vividly in 1972 that the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission brought down an equal pay decision. As I recollect, that case commenced before the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission under the then McMahon Government.

Debate interrupted.