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Friday, 1 May 1987
Page: 2167


Senator GILES(11.11) —I, too, decided only recently to take part in this debate, because I felt that there were a number of issues that needed expansion and a number of statements made in the course of the debate which certainly need correcting. I would first like to pay tribute to the activities over the last 10 or 12 years of women's organisations generally, right across the political spectrum. These include many non-governmental organisations and party women's committees from the Australian Labor Party and the Liberal Party and, at one stage, also from the National Party under Mrs McKerrow, which took a largely bipartisan approach to the need for legislation of one sort or another at both State and Federal levels in order to approach in a legislative fashion the question of discrimination against women and other disadvantaged groups in the community.

We have seen some formidable achievements over the last few years as a result of that coalition of forces from, as I have said, right across the political spectrum. This has included sex discrimination legislation in four States, and at the Federal level in 1984 and, also in 1984, legislation requiring equal opportunity in the Public Service, our affirmative action legislation in 1986, which refers of course to private enterprise, and now, one of the last links in the chain, equal opportunity for workers within Commonwealth statutory authorities. I do not want to labour too much the fact that we have had to wait for a Labor government in order to get this legislation at a Federal level. I acknowledge the fact that it was under the Liberal Premier Sir Rupert Hamer that the Victorian Government introduced its own equal opportunity legislation in 1975 or 1976.

My recollection of the activities around this issue go back quite a long way. I will avoid the temptation to reminisce at any great length. I do, however, want to recall a landmark conference which was organised by the National Womens Advisory Council in July 1979. This took place during the period of the Fraser Government, at the time when the National Womens Advisory Council was headed by Dame Beryl Beaurepaire, who, very enthusiastically, convened this conference. It was attended by women from a wide range of non-governmental and political organisations. Papers were given and discussions were held, and at the end of the day there was very strong support right across the board for national anti-discrimination legislation. Amongst the people who spoke that day were representatives of the Australian Council of Trade Unions the Public Service Board and the legal profession. I spoke of my experiences as a past chair of the Western Australian Committee on Discrimination in Employment and Occupation. As I recall amongst those who objected to the general direction of the day's activities was Senator Walters. At least she has been consistent on this issue. That event also marked one of the first public appearances of `Women Who Want to be Women'-the beginning of an alliance which has a record of dismal failure. It is a small group of people fighting a tide of public opinion against discrimination; a tide of public opinion which recognises very clearly that legislation is not going to change things overnight, that it is not the only measure that must be taken. But, to quote Senator Elstob, a good friend and colleague of mine: `Laws do not change the heart, but laws do change the heartless'. However, I think it is saddening to find that younger and better educated women are taking a similar position to some of the extremely reactionary lines that we have heard from the Opposition in this and similar debates. They should now know better than to accept the blinkered and misogynist approach of the leadership of the Liberal and National parties.

I do not often quote from editorials in the Australian, and in fact this might be the first and last time that I will do so. On the question of this legislation, the editorial in today's Australian said, in part:

It is not necessary to be obsessively sceptical to believe that the principal motive of the parliamentary Liberals in opposing this Bill is to avoid being outflanked from the Right by Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen and the National Party.

That move to the Right is leaving behind the vast majority of women in Australia who now understand exactly what can and cannot be achieved by legislation of this nature, but who also understand that legislation is absolutely essential if public opinion is to be moved towards a position where women and other disadvantaged groups are to have their proper place in society.

Another tribute I pay here relates to an example of an ecumenism which we experience in Western Australia. Indeed, it was an incident of courage and integrity of a high order, when a leading Liberal woman used her powers of persuasion to encourage the Liberal Party Opposition in Western Australia not to block the State anti-discrimination legislation which was introduced by the Burke Government in late 1983 or 1984. We have also seen a commonality of attitude towards child care among women of the conservative parties and women of the Labor Party, and once again, non-governmental organisational women, where there has been strong support for community-based child care as against the privatised child care that seems to be preferred by some of our conservative opponents. They understand very well that child care can be produced at a high standard only when it is very thoroughly supervised and controlled by community-based groups, which is not to say that there has to be an excessive amount of government regulation, which seems to be the bogey phrase for this morning. There is a wide congratulation for the Hawke Government on the way in which it has taken up the question of children's services generally and introduced much more child care to a public starved and desperately in need of the services that we have been able to develop within the last three or four years.

Reference has been made very fleetingly in this debate to the fact that this legislation refers not just to women, but that we require of statutory authorities a sensitivity to the needs of people with disabilities, to migrants, those whose first language is not English and, of course, to Aboriginals. There was some doubt cast last night by Senator Knowles about whether it was possible to employ people with certain types of disabilities. I refer her to the Public Service Board Annual Report of 1985-86 which gives, on pages 39 through to 56, an account of five years experience with various programs to encourage into the Public Service people with that range of handicaps, of language, of ethnicity, of colour and of disablement. She will find there quite an encouraging story. Obviously, the Equal Employment Opportunity Bureau is not satisfied with what it has been able to achieve, but efforts have been made, there are programs under way. The Director of the Bureau should be sincerely congratulated on the way in which these initiatives have been handled.

Many of us are very well aware of the fact that it is extremely difficult to persuade entrenched and somewhat conservative senior management, whether it is in the public sector, in the private sector or in statutory authorities, to look beyond their traditional fields for promotion, for training opportunities, and so forth. I will go into a glaring example of this in more detail later. Acknowledging the problem of providing opportunities for women is a challenge, we have also to acknowledge that the problems of those other groups-migrants, Aborigines, and the disabled-are even more difficult to overcome. Why should statutory authorities of the Commonwealth Government be allowed to ignore their responsibilities in this respect any more than their responsibilities to women? Why should they be allowed to continue to ignore the talents of very many people in the community who come within those particular disadvantaged groups? Why should they not be forced to face up to those responsibilities? If honourable senators look at this report, as I recommend they do, they will find that a total of 1,772 people with disabilities were appointed to base grade clerical administrative and clerical assistant positions in the calendar years 1980 to 1985 inclusive. The report states:

The appointments, made through the Special Placement Program, represented 3.59 per cent of all base-grade appointments in this period. These figures probably understate the total number of people with disabilities appointed to these positions as it is known that numbers of applicants with non-visible disabilities such as epilepsy, do not seek assistance from Special Placement Officers.

It is quite obvious, I think, to anybody who is at all observant that over the last few years we have seen workers within this Parliament House with disabilities of one sort or another, people who are employed, encouraged, trained and supported in exactly the way that we would wish in order that they may have much more fulfilling lives than they would on a pension, able to take a place in society that would otherwise not be available to them.

Some honourable senators may have seen the very popular magazine Chips, written and produced by hearing-impaired staff in Sydney. It has a nationwide readership in the Commonwealth and State departments. As a Western Australian senator, Senator Knowles may have also seen the newsletter `Work Able' which gives news of interested disabled staff in the Australian Public Service to departments in Western Australia. We all look to the time when our statutory authorities accept this particular responsibility in a similar way to the Public Service Board.

Migrants of non-English speaking backgrounds are catered for within a range of activities designed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Bureau in the Public Service Board. The programs in the last year have focused mainly on the provision of information and career development. I will leave honourable senators to read the rest of that particular chapter for their edification. This Bill is absolutely crucial in order that those minorities have their needs catered for within the statutory bureaucracies of which we are speaking and which in many cases employ many thousands of people.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Bureau now has some years of experience of attempting to provide that sort of support and training in employment and thoroughly endorses this legislation. It agrees with the Government and with a substantial number of members of the Opposition that the time has come when statutory authorities should be drawn within this safety net that has gradually been developed over the years in order that every individual possibly able to lead a full life within the work force is able to do so.

We have had reference to the fact that women will pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and indications of deploring token women, and so on. I would like to give an example of what can happen in a large-a great, some would say-financial institution, the Commonwealth Banking Corporation which is highly regarded for its financial dealings but not so highly regarded when its managerial and industrial practices are examined. As of 30 June 1986, approximately 15,500 women were employed nationwide by the Commonwealth Bank. This is about 50 per cent of its total employees. Of those women 85 per cent, or 13,100, are in non-classified positions. That means that they are effectively going nowhere. Their salaries, range from $7,500 to $21,500 per year. The vast majority of that group of women would be at the lower end of the salary scale, 90 per cent earning less than $15,000 a year. One would have to ask: Are these all mediocre women? They are not my words. That was a suggestion made by Senator Bjelke-Petersen, that it is only mediocre women who do not rise to great heights. Can we say that these are ordinary women being treated in a very extraordinary way in this year, 1987, by a management which takes a stereotyped and conservative view of women and their place in society?

To go on with this litany of woe from the Commonwealth Bank, there are 900 people employed as keyboard operators and their salary range is from $17,800 per year to $22,700 per year. These are up to date figures from the Commonwealth Bank Officers Association. The number of more fortunate women employed by the Commonwealth Bank under its general classification is 1,500. All but about 20 or 30 of them are in the first three to four ranges which puts them within a salary range of $22,000 to $28,000 a year. So about 99.9 per cent of women employed in the Commonwealth Bank will be earning less than $28,000 a year and the vast majority of them earn less than $15,000 a year. If that were not tragedy enough I will come back to the point that I made before, that the opportunities for promotion, for any sort of training and preferment is simply not there for most of them. They are trapped in those low classifications.

I am told that the Commonwealth Bank has had some sort of equal employment policy for something like 20 years. I must say that the evidence of the success of that is totally absent. One woman has reached the giddy heights of an executive salary of $40,000-one woman-and 29 women only are in management positions as against 2,500 men in middle or upper management positions. My elementary maths suggest to me that the ordinary woman becoming an employee of the Commonwealth Banking Corporation has one 120th of a chance of becoming a manager by comparison with the ordinary man being employed by that same Corporation. Would anybody be prepared to suggest that the vast majority of men who go into the Commonwealth Bank are geniuses and the vast majority of women do not have the skills or potential that are required? I do not for one minute believe that that is the case. I believe that the legislation is absolutely essential.

The Commonwealth Bank and such organisations should be showing other Australian management and business how well they can use the talents of the people they employ. They should be taking that responsibility. They should pull up their socks; never mind their bootstraps. Let us have a bit of commercial intelligence from the management of the Commonwealth Bank and some recognition of the fact that it is wasting a vast amount of the talent from among the women it employs. There are no mechanisms for the retention of the skills that women in the lowest positions acquire. In most cases there is very little opportunity for them to become anything more than unclassified clerks and tellers. One of the reasons is that they completely lose their status if they go on maternity leave. Since 1979 in Australia there has been in private enterprise provision for maternity leave without loss of status and entitlements. However, in the Commonwealth Bank, a woman having a child, who takes her leave and goes back, loses her status. What encouragement is there for a woman to persevere within a bureaucracy of that nature?

I cannot support the legislation strongly enough. I find it a source of great satisfaction that there are courageous people among the Opposition who are prepared to take an objective view of what we are seeking to achieve. I am extremely disappointed to hear that so many women on the other side of the House are unprepared to consider even their own experience and activities over the years, and simply ignore what has been happening to women and brush it aside with references to tokenism and so on. Fifteen years ago there were those of us who were token and statutory women. However, we made it our business to make sure that the experience we gained in those token positions was used to ensure that the ordinary, intelligent Australian woman had the same opportunities as the ordinary, intelligent Australian man. The examples that I have given today I think show that that is still not the normal practice, that the process will take a great deal longer than if we have, within our laws, some statutory requirement for the management of authorities such as the Commonwealth Bank to revise their practices, within a relatively short period, and to start showing results.