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Friday, 1 May 1987
Page: 2163

Senator NEWMAN(10.48) —I had not intended to speak on the Equal Employment Opportunity (Commonwealth Authorities) Bill 1987. I had simply intended to vote against it. However, last night in debate my colleague Senator Peter Baume took what I feel is an unfortunate step by describing the position that the Liberal Party of Australia is taking in regard to this Bill as a position that he found discreditable. I am offended and I am hurt by this. Senator Baume said:

It is my Party which has moved in that eight months from a civilised stance to a position which I find discreditable and which made my position impossible.

He went on at some length on that theme. I do not intend to pursue it further but, as I have said, I am hurt by that and I am offended by it. I have no reason to take exception to Senator Baume having his principles. I, too, have mine. My colleagues and I who intend to vote against this legislation have very strongly held views that we should not support it. I do not feel that it helps the debate at all to justify his position on the legislation by denigrating our views and principles, too.

I am sad to be obliged to speak on this legislation because of those comments by my colleague. In this Party, we pride ourselves on the right of members to disagree with the Party and to vote against it, and I would strongly and fiercely defend the right of Senator Baume and his colleagues to vote against the Party's decision. However, I, too, have my views, and I am now bound to set out, as simply as I can, why I will vote against the legislation.

I have not been newly converted to a feminist viewpoint; I have held one for many years. I was a foundation member of the Women's Electoral Lobby. I founded and helped to found two women's shelters in one of which I have continued to be involved for about 12 years. I have practised in the areas of marriage and probate law where, traditionally, women have great involvement and are often at a great disadvantage. I understand very well the problems that women face in our society.

However, I believe that equal opportunity in education is the key to giving women a fair go in our society. We have equal opportunity in education and, increasingly year by year, more and more girls, by their own bootstraps, are winning their way into the places that they desire to go. Some desire to go to the top, some desire to go to the middle-just as men do-but all citizens can progress in life if they have equality of opportunity in schools. Women need skills, just as men do. It is only by acquiring skills that they acquire the confidence to go to where their ability will take them. Coupled with that, we have sex discrimination legislation in this country that makes it illegal to discriminate against somebody in the work place, or in many other situations in life, on the grounds of sex. Section 14 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 states:

(1) It is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against a person on the grounds of the person's sex, marital status or pregnancy-

(a) in the arrangements made for the purpose of determining who should be offered employment;

(b) in determining who should be offered employment; or

(c) in the terms or conditions on which employment is offered.

(2) It is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an employee on the grounds of the employee's sex, marital status or pregnancy-

(a) in the terms or conditions of employment that the employer affords the employee;

(b) by denying the employee access, or limiting the employee's access, to opportunities for promotion, transfer or training, or to any other benefits associated with employment;

(c) by dismissing the employee; or

(d) by subjecting the employee to any other detriment.

It is, therefore, very clear that this legislation is not needed. I object to it for a number of reasons. The argument has been made that we have supported previous legislation. When the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act 1986 came before this place, I was a brand new senator. I was concerned about it then, as were my Party and my State. I spoke to Senator Baume at that time about my reservations, but-and I am sure that most of my colleagues would agree that he is a very persuasive gentleman-he persuaded this new senator that her concerns were unnecessary.

Senator Crichton-Browne —You should have consulted me, my dear.

Senator NEWMAN —Yes, I should have. I am now convinced that my concerns at that time were correct.

Senator Puplick —It is a patronising comment-`my dear'.

Senator NEWMAN —Yes, but he is a friend, is he not? I took the honourable senator's comment to be a friendly interjection. As I said, I am convinced that my attitude at the time was correct.

I am glad that we are now saying that enough is enough. I suspected last year that that legislation was a foot in the door; I am quite convinced of it now. Last year, the legislation was directed at employers with 100 or more employees, and they were subject to that legislation even if the number of employees dropped to 80. Now the employer-even though it is a different employer-has to have only 40 employees to come within the scope of the legislation. It is clear that, eventually, all employers in Australia will be subject to this kind of regulatory legislation.

There has been a great deal of discussion about targets and quotas, but I am not prepared to go into that today as it has been well canvassed. However, I direct attention to the fact that a target that has not been met can be pursued by the Minister and the authority can be directed to revise its corporate plan. I draw attention to clauses 11 and 12. Under clause 11 the Minister, having considered the authority's report, can:

. . . make a recommendation in writing to the authority lodging the report on the action to be taken by the authority to improve the effectiveness of its program.

Clause 12 provides:

Where . . . a relevant authority submits a corporate plan to its responsible Minister . . . if that Minister considers that the corporate plan should be revised for the purposes of giving effect to those obligations, shall direct the authority in writing to revise the corporate plan accordingly.

That is a pretty enforceable kind of target, whatever one calls it. It is an unattractive form of government interference in an independent statutory authority, which in itself is unacceptable. It is also delving far too deeply into the regulation of that body.

Women who have started from the bottom in any enterprise will say that they would hate to think that they got there on anything other than their own merits. Only yesterday I was talking to a number of women from around Australia who came here in a delegation from the Australian Chamber of Commerce. Some of them went back to the work force, after having had families, with no pieces of paper to their name. They struggled through boring jobs to improve their qualifications so that they could rise to the top of their occupations. They were adamant that they never wanted to think that they had achieved that simply as part of somebody's target. It was important to them, to their self-confidence and to their pride in their achievements to know that what they had achieved had been solely on the ground of merit. Yet clause 3 (4), which has been discussed at some length, provides for merit, but does not guarantee that merit will be the sole requirement. I find that objectionable.

It has often been found that women who have reached a particularly elevated position are smeared with the suggestion that they got there because they were token women-that they had to be the `statutory women'. We all know of that situation, and this legislation will allow that smear to become entrenched. No one can convince me that someone who is disenchanted with the promotion of a woman to a position to which that person had aspired will not use this legislation to allege that the woman achieved her position as part of the target to be met by the employer. That is offensive.

Everyone in this Parliament talks about deregulation; it has become quite fashionable in all parties. However, we cannot mouth that while turning around and putting more obligation on to employers. In this instance we are talking about statutory authorities, but I do not believe that they should be treated any differently from the private sector when it comes to being cost effective. The costs of statutory authorities are met either by the taxpayer, or by the consumers if they provide services to them. In both cases, they should be cost effective, but they will not be if they are burdened with undue regulation. As I said earlier, the Sex Discrimination Act makes it illegal to discriminate against people in the workplace on the ground of sex. Therefore, there is no need to put this further regulation upon them.

I am not simply making allegations about regulation. Quite apart from the need to set up programs, state aims, make targets and keep statistics, there is the question of producing reports. Clause 9 of the Bill requires the Authority to make a program report, and if it is not good enough and if the Minister is not happy with it, the statutory authority will have to produce a further report. Under Clause 10, the Minister can require subsequent special reports. That will be enough to keep a few more people on the public payroll for a little longer. It will obviously add to the cost of statutory authorities, so the Bill is unacceptable to me on that ground also.

Let there be no doubt about it-I am wholly convinced that every citizen in this country deserves an equal opportunity in life. That does not mean having their paths smoothed for them every inch of the way. Citizens need an equal opportunity to start and then they have to proceed on their own merit. It is offensive to women to be given artificial advancement and particularly to be lumped in with disadvantaged minorities as though women in themselves are a minority. When we stop to think about it, that is extremely offensive and many women find it so. I further object, as I said, to extending regulation of authorities or businesses and to ministerial interference. I do not intend to labour these points; I simply felt compelled to come into this place and put on record my objections to the legislation. I, too, have strong principles as to why I should oppose this legislation.