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Friday, 1 May 1987
Page: 2172

Senator MacGIBBON(11.48) —The Equal Employment Opportunity (Commonwealth Authorities) Bill is the third of three Bills introduced by the Labor Government in the field of equal opportunity in employment in Australia. The first two Bills were supported by the Liberal Party of Australia and the National Party of Australia and were passed into law, the second Bill as recently as eight months ago. This Bill is not supported by the Liberal Party. The grounds for that opposition have been outlined by some previous speakers on this side of the chamber.

Equality of opportunity in education, in employment, in all aspects of life itself, is absolutely fundamental to the Liberal Party-so too the fundamental tenet of equality before the law. I support the proposition, which is the purpose of this Bill, that employees of Commonwealth authorities are treated equally and without favour in that appointment and promotion are on merit.

Two questions need to be answered: First, is there a need for this legislation? Secondly, is it the best way to go about it? Dealing with the first question, it could be argued that there is no need for this legislation. I am not aware that in 1987 any person's career in a Commonwealth statutory authority is being affected by managerial bias against that person. I am talking about today-not the 1920s, the 1940s or even the 1970s. There is such an awareness in management in Commonwealth authorities that there are no pressing grounds for introducing legislation of this nature.

Both the Bill itself and the second reading speech of the Minister for Resources and Energy (Senator Gareth Evans) indicate that the Bill is primarily but not exclusively directed towards women. In Australia today any woman with the requisite ability and the will to succeed-the two must go together-will be successful in her chosen career. Having said that, I recognise that there are a number of Australian women entering or in the work force who feel the need for some reinforcement by law that they be treated equally and fairly in all employment matters. I have a personal preference not to have separate policies for women, let alone separate legislation, for I believe that women are free and equal partners in the human race. I regret that they feel the way they do, but I can understand their position because at times that position has been founded on unfortunate personal experience.

We are in a changing society. The numbers of women now in the Australian work force bear no relation to the traditional numbers of 10 or 15 years ago or earlier times. The present numbers of women in the work force will not decline. Recognising the feelings of some of these women, certainly not all of them, I have no objection to legislating to ensure that women and everyone else in the community receive fair and equal treatment. That is an entirely different proposition to legislating for affirmative action, that is, placing a person who does not have the ability to perform a task in a position purely to satisfy some numerical quota related to sex, race or religion. The vast majority of Australian women do not want that sort of approach. They do not want tokenism and they do not want concessions; they want their success to be as a consequence of their own efforts and their own abilities.

The second question I posed was whether this Bill was the best way to tackle the problem, and the answer to that question is no. I do not believe that we can legislate for morals, for ethics or for manners-they are the products of education not of legislation-but this Bill strays in that direction. The record of legislation as a means to improve or change our behaviour has been one of failure. Legislation of this kind always attracts the zealots and the extremists. Failure occurs when what started out as a laudable goal becomes the object of ridicule and derision in the community because the means become perverted. There can be no better example of this process than the demise of the Human Rights Commission and the even more rapid demise of its successor the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission is at present trying to rehabilitate itself after a spate of bad publicity. Fines imposed on alleged offenders after trials in its own courts, such as the case in Brisbane where, according to the Press, a doctor was fined $1,000 for asking a patient whether she was married or single when he was taking a case history before treating her, are not part of the Australian way of life. It is a wasted effort to try to reform the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission. The great majority of Australians see no purpose in it. Sadly, this is the fate of all that sort of legislation which seeks to change attitudes by legislation rather than through the slower educational means.

I now turn to the Bill itself. A large part of the Bill-in fact, the largest part, comprising over two pages-is Part III entitled `Reports by relevant authorities'. I would prefer that such a detailed system of reports from every Commonwealth authority every year to a Minister or the Public Service Board was not part of the legislation. The system can be self-regulating with the onus of appeal resting on the individual who feels aggrieved, supported by an informed and educated management system over the top. I categorically reject the closing paragraph of the Minister's second reading speech where he says in relation to financial impact:

There will be a minimal financial impact on statutory authorities as a result of the allocation of some staff resources to equal employment opportunity programs.

There will be a considerable financial impact from legislation in this form. The benefits will not justify the administrative costs. A self-regulating program will reduce the bureaucratic expense.

I have listened to the arguments of my colleagues with great care in relation to Part II of the Bill. While respecting their right to do so I cannot agree with their interpretation of clause 6 (g) that quotas are an essential part of this Bill, though I will support them in their amendment to make this clause the same as that in the previous Bill. As I made clear earlier I am opposed to quotas but to me clause 6 (g) has nothing sinister in it. Clause 6 (g) (i) provides:

The particular objective to be achieved by the program . . .

To me that can be interpreted, and should be interpreted, as meaning that the management objective is to have fair and equal treatment for all employees. Clause 6 (g) (ii) provides:

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

Similarly, that need not be seen in a sinister light. It may be that there are positions where changes could take place over a period, as people are promoted, transferred or retired. But on the other hand there may well be no need for change at all and that interpretation is not denied by the present wording of clause 3 (g) (ii). If some zealot interpreted sub-clauses (g) (i) and (ii) as meaning quotas, targets or any euphemisms for a numerical total, the Bill prevents this by the clear proviso in clause 3 (4) in the interpretation section at the start of the Bill. In plain English, clause 3 (4) provides:

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.

That is unambiguous. Merit is the determinant. Clause 3 (4) is an overriding proviso on all subsequent clauses of this Bill. Employment in Australia as a consequence of changed social attitudes is now quite different from what it was 20 years ago. Most Australian women want to work for a major part of their lives.

Senator Crichton-Browne —Does yours?

Senator MacGIBBON —My wife has had two careers quite independent of me and they have both been very successful. There is also a large number of migrants in the work force. Attempts have been made to legislate for fairness in employment matters by both the Liberal Party and the Australian Labor Party. As I made clear in the earlier part of my speech, I believe that the preferred approach is through education rather than through legislation. Where legislation is involved it should be a statement of intent, not a means of coercion. I believe it is time that the Parliament reviewed carefully how the previous legislation is working in practice, for I have reservations about how relevant some of it is. I will be voting for the amendments proposed by Senator Chaney. If those amendments fail I will vote for the Bill on the clear understanding that I will support a thorough review of this and all other equal opportunity legislation when we come into office in six months time.