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Friday, 1 May 1987
Page: 2182

Senator VANSTONE(12.24) —Today we are debating the Equal Employment Opportunity (Commonwealth Authorities) Bill 1987. At the commencement of my speech I wish to say that I support the need for equal employment opportunity programs. That is obviously the case. I supported the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Bill last year. I was not in this chamber in 1984 and so had no opportunity to support or otherwise the Public Service Reform Bill of 1984. But, as I have said, I commence by reaffirming the fact that I support-admittedly, unlike some of my colleagues-the need for equal employment opportunity programs. It is alleged that this Bill is the last of a package of three Bills dealing with equal employment opportunity. The first was the Public Service Reform Bill of 1984 and in particular section 22b. The second was the Affirmative Action (Equal Opportunity for Women) Bill of 1986. And the third is this Bill, the Equal Employment Opportunity (Commonwealth Authorities) Bill.

Claims have been made, as a consequence of the response of the Liberal Party of Australia to this third Bill, that we have done a number of things. The first claim that has been made is that we have walked away from the principle of equal opportunity so deeply enshrined in our Federal and State platforms. The second allegation that has been made is that we have changed our views from those that we held last year, 1986, and that we no longer support the things that we supported in the Affirmative Action (Equal Opportunity for Women) Bill. The third claim is that we are rejecting in this instance specific wording that we found acceptable in 1984.

I reject each of those allegations. Before dealing with other matters relating to this Bill, I will deal with each of those three allegations. The first one is: Have we walked away from supporting equal opportunity programs? No. What we have said is that, given certain amendments to the Bill, we will support it. The amendments that we are seeking do not destroy the intention or force of the Bill. We have said that we believe the amendments-I am sure the Government knows this is so-would leave the Bill as an equal opportunity Bill of the same force and intention as the 1986 Bill, and so we would support it. I do not see how on that basis it can be said that we have walked away from supporting equal opportunity programs. Senator Teague made that point earlier today. He pointed out, in explaining why he will vote for this Bill, that he believes the differences between our amendments and what the Government is proposing are so small that he has to support the Bill whether the amendments are passed or not. What I am saying is that if that is the case, if the difference is so small, how can the Government and any commentator say that we have walked away from supporting equal opportunity programs?

The second allegation is that we have changed our view from that which we held in 1986. The allegation is that we are now seeking to use the words that were used in 1986. We want put into this 1987 legislation the words relating to the contents of the program used in the 1986 Bill. Admittedly, we have changed an in-house procedural tactic. We have said that we will not vote for the Bill until we get those changes. Last time we said that if we could not have the amendments we would go along with the Bill.

I am not sure whether you, Mr Acting Deputy President, were here on the night that the Minister for Education, Senator Ryan, who is now at the table, had the sitting of the Parliament prolonged to get the Affirmative Action (Equal Opportunity for Women) Bill through. At that time people were having their dinner and had to come into the chamber because of quorum bells and all that sort of thing. On that night we saw a number of things. In particular, we saw the Australian Democrats-all of them-vote with the Government against the Democrats' own amendments out of expediency. So when today I heard Democrats speakers referring to the position of my Party as expedient, it just about made me want to be sick. They were expedient then and said that the Bill was desperately needed. I have my suspicions as to why the Bill was desperately needed. I think that someone had secretly been given the job and the Government needed the Bill to be passed so that the person could be paid.

Senator Ryan —That is outrageous.

Senator VANSTONE —The Minister says that that is an outrageous allegation. If the hub of some complaints is that our disagreement is so small that it is almost the same as what the Government is asking for, why does not the Government accept our amendments? It could then present to Australia an equal employment opportunity Bill supported by all parties. If it wanted a bipartisan approach, if it did not want to create difficulties, if it did not want to obtain publicity for itself and try to paint us as a party that has walked away from equal opportunity, surely that is what it would do. Senator Hill made that point this morning when he said that the Government should adopt our amendments and demonstrate to all Australians the bipartisan support in this chamber for equal opportunity programs. I repeat that the obvious reason why the Government is not accepting our amendments is that it is a political opportunity for it to create the impression that it is in favour of equal opportunity programs and we are against them. So much for the bipartisan approach of the Australian Labor Party; so much for its desire to have the maximum positive impact with this legislation.

Some people have said that our complaints about the Bill are just words, with no real substance to them. I heard the term `nitpicking' used this morning to describe complaints that we might want to make. Let us therefore consider the comments of the Equal Employment Opportunity Bureau reporting to the Public Service Board in its first newsletter, called Equal Times, issue No. 1 of March 1987. It states:

There seems to be, however, something about the word `targets' that continues to arouse suspicion, despite repeated and unequivocal emphasis of this policy. People seem to have much less trouble with the words `performance indicators' so in the future, that is the terminology we will be using.

I do not find anything wrong with the Bureau saying that, as some people have problems with some terminology, it will work in a bipartisan manner to find words with which people will be happy. Surely the object of each of the three pieces of legislation is to achieve equal opportunity in the work place-not only for women but, in respect of two of the Bills, for other designated groups. Surely that is the aim of the Government. If the Government's own Bureau is bright enough to recognise the need for consultation to obtain agreement on the words being used, surely the Government should be happy to accept that some honourable senators on our side have serious problems with the words used in this Bill. We do not have those problems with the words used in the 1986 legislation, so why not accept them? It is inexplicable for a party that says that it has a bipartisan approach to take the attitude that the Australian Labor Party is taking today.

I have listened carefully, as have many others, to the speeches made thus far on this Bill. I do not want to single out any particular one, but some were so pious and sanctimonious that the immediate reaction on hearing them was simply to turn off the sound. The attitude of some speakers in this debate, in my view, degrades the status of the chamber. A view was put that if we have any difficulty with the interpretation or the understanding of some words, we are no longer principled or bipartisan. Some speakers on this side of the Chamber have taken that pious and sanctimonious approach simply because we have a different interpretation or understanding of a few words.

Another view that has been put is that, if we do not support the Bill as it is, we are anti-equal opportunity programs and anti-women; that we are simply being expedient. What a load of drivel. With the record of my Party in respect of women, on the Public Service Reform Act and on the Affirmative Action (Equal Opportunity for Women) Act, how can that be said? It is hardly helping my case or hardly expedient for me-as a female in the south of Australia, where the Liberal Party women's council and women's network have passed resolutions in favour of the Bill-to stay with my Party and vote against the Bill unless we obtain our amendments. The expedient thing would be to say to myself: `It's getting a bit hot in the kitchen, a bit of pressure is coming from my State, so I will give away my concerns about the Bill and go along with what some people, especially women, in the organisation of my party, are saying'.

Senator Robertson —That shows how sure you are of preselection.

Senator VANSTONE —The Government Whip says that my view may be affected by how sure I am of my preselection. I remind him, in case he does not know, that I am No. 3 on the Senate ticket. I am on the next ticket to come up, and I am on it with Senator Teague, who indicated this morning that he will vote for the Bill. I am unsure of Senator Jessop's intentions. Therefore, there is no sure road to my preselection. I am on the next ticket coming up, and I will quite happily defend my stand on this Bill to my council, my women's council and my women's network. So much for the case of expediency.

Some women in my State-and, for that matter, some of my colleagues-have suggested that it would be politically expedient to vote for this Bill, that it would look good, and that when we get into government we can then fix the problems resulting from the legislation. Well, this country is littered with legislation-not just from the Federal Parliament but from the State parliaments as well-which was passed in an imperfect form for expediency. People could not be bothered nitpicking, so when the legislation becomes operative we find faults in it. I am happy to be a nitpicker and to pursue my concerns about this Bill. I hardly think that that can be claimed to be an expedient position for me to take.

One of the points that has been consistently made by some speakers in this debate is that this is the third Bill-that is true-in a planned program. I have some concerns about that. Sure, it is the third Bill dealing with equal opportunity, primarily for women, but for other designated groups as well. Sure, in each of the Bills we will find many clauses and combinations of words that are the same; but, equally, we will find many that are different. I want to deal with some of those differences, simply to point out that the fact that three Bills deal with the same principle does not mean that the contents of each will be the same or that we need to support each without concerning ourselves with the differences. Firstly, the Public Service Reform Act deals with government departments and some statutory authorities. The Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act deals with private enterprise and some educational institutions. This Bill deals with the remaining statutory authorities. It is really all a bit of a mess. Why should the Commonwealth's arms be all over the place? Why should some statutory authorities be in one piece of legislation and others have a separate piece of legislation for themselves? Why should universities and places of tertiary education, which are primarily federally funded, have a different load put on them than is put on statutory authorities? After all, it is all Commonwealth money. What is the explanation for that? I venture to say that if the Minister for Education and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women (Senator Ryan) were asked at the end of the debate to give a list of the authorities that will be affected under one piece of legislation and a list that will be affected under the other-a conclusive and complete list-there might be some difficulty in it.

One might also query whether what I was told last week is true: That is, did the Department of Employment and Industrial Relations write to all the authorities it knows of which are not covered under the Public Service Reform Act and ask them how they would like to be dealt with? Did nearly all of those authorities, except for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in particular, write back and say that they would not like to be dealt with under the Public Service Reform Act as a consequence of some amendments but that they would like a separate piece of legislation? Will they all choose to report to the Minister rather than to a board? One might ask: Why give some people a choice and not others? In this Bill the authorities that are being dealt with have a choice. They can make their reports to the Minister or to a board. But the authorities under the Public Service Reform Act do not have such a choice.

Government members have been so busy trying to bucket the Liberal Party for its stand on this Bill that none of them have dealt with substantive matters of detail to explain to us why there is a choice in one piece of legislation and not in the other. I do not think that is consistent. We have heard ad nauseam from some honourable senators about the merit protection clause. I remind honourable senators that in the first piece of legislation the manner in which merit is protected is in no way similar to the manner in which it is protected in the second and third pieces of legislation. For honourable senators who may not be aware of it, merit is dealt with in section 33 (1) (b) of the Public Service Reform Act as follows:

(b) the appointment is made on the basis of an assessment of the relative suitability of the applicants for the appointment, having regard to-

(i) the nature of the duties to be performed by the person appointed; and

(ii) the abilities, qualifications, experience and other attributes of each applicant that are relevant to the performance of those duties.

That is the provision in the first piece of legislation which protects, in substance anyway, merit. The other two pieces of legislation have a different merit protection provision. The Equal Employhment Opportunity (Commonwealth Authorities) Bill states:

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 substantially different from the first merit protection provision. I do not know why Public Service departments and some statutory authorities should have a different merit protection clause from private enterprise and the remaining statutory authorities. No one has offered an explanation to me. It appears to me to be inconsistent-not to the extent of sloppy drafting but just inconsistency on the part of the Government. Why, when one goes through the three pieces of legislation, does one find definitions in one or two of the three pieces of legislation and not in the other? It is because there is an inconsistent approach to all of these matters. I put it to the chamber that, whilst these pieces of legislation deal with the same thing, they do not deal with it in the same way.

A moment ago I mentioned the merit protection clause. As I said, much has been made of the fact that both the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act and this Bill have the same merit protection provision. Some speakers in this debate have already pointed out that this clause is what is termed a `permissive' clause in that it says, `Nothing in this Act requires you to deal with employment matters other than on the basis of merit' but it does not go on to say `nothing will stop you dealing with employment matters other than on the basis of merit'. It could have been done. In the Public Service Reform Act there is a restrictive provision relating to patronage. There is a specific exclusion of the possibility of appointments being made on the basis of patronage. Why is there not a clause in this Bill saying that no appointment will be made other than on the basis of merit? Given that the Government says that merit is to be protected at all costs, there should be such a clause.

Debate interrupted.

Sitting suspended from 12.45 to 2 p.m.