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Wednesday, 8 June 1994
Page: 1488

Senator LEES —My question is directed to the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women. I have the figures that the minister has not been able to table and I am quite happy to table them if she is not able to do so. I stress again that these figures do not show any improvement as far as women's earnings are concerned. Indeed, in the year ending February 1994, average male earnings increased by 2.3 per cent, while average female earnings increased by only 1.8 per cent. I ask the minister: firstly, does she agree that these figures back up Senator Kernot's assertion yesterday that women will continue to have reduced superannuation payouts for many years to come compared with men? Secondly, does the minister agree that these figures make a mockery of arguments that increasing the pension age for women to 65 is justified because women in the work force are now on an equal footing with men? Finally, in the face of these very recent figures, will the government move to cancel, or at least defer, its proposal to progressively raise the pension age for women to 65?

Senator CROWLEY —As I said yesterday—and I do not know what figures Senator Lees has, but I am quite sure they are the figures I referred to yesterday concluding at the year to May 1993—the advice I had been given was that the ABS more recent figures showed that the loss of women's earnings is not as we could conclude from those figures. That is the advice I was given and I have told the Senate that once that detailed analysis is provided to me I will bring it into the Senate.

  It is quite true that if women's earnings are not increasing and keeping pace with what they were earning before, or compared with men, then quite clearly their opportunity for superannuation will not be as good as that for people with a higher income. There is no doubt about that. It is a concern that women have access to superannuation. As I said yesterday, one of the great improvements for women has been the extension of superannuation to so many more women under the changes introduced by this government.

  But what is also important—and this picks up the point that Senator Lees raises about pension age—is the very significant increase in labour force participation by women, particularly those between the ages of 45 and 55, women who show no indication of wanting to retire from the work force once they get to be 55. They know that their superannuation will be vastly increased and far better for them by five more years in the work force—between 60 and 65—than if they should retire at 60.

  The government is concerned to find the balance between that increasing representation of women in the work force and the clear indication that some women either are not able to find work when they are 60 or approaching 60, or prefer to stay on the other payments or benefits they have had to that point. That is why the government is phasing in the age pension for women over such a long time, over a lead time of 20 years.

  There is no intention by government to back away from that long lead-in time because I believe the 20-year phase in is the balance between that increased participation of women in the work force and the reasonable and realistic expectations of women.

Senator LEES —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I stress that these are the most recent figures. While I thank Senator Crowley for her answer, I stress that the pension is an option. We are not talking about compulsory retirement for women at 60. Obviously, those who wish to work to 65 will still have the ability to do so, but I believe that government is expecting only about 10 per cent of women in that age group to continue to age 65. I ask again: why is the minister going to penalise something like 90 per cent of the women aged between 60 and 65, as the government phases in this pension increase, and force them to continue on a range of other support services and supplementary benefits, rather than have the security of the pension?

Senator CROWLEY —Senator Lees is drawing conclusions about that 10 per cent figure and what would happen to women aged between 60 and 65. There is a 20-year lead time before the pension age for women is fully out to 65. We have to realise that at the moment the women who are coming up to 60 will have to wait in the first case only six months extra before they are eligible for the pension. It is a matter of judgment about the balance. In the face of that increased labour force participation rate, the government has moved to a very long phase-in time. I remind senators opposite that it is double the time they proposed; they were going to do it in 10 years. This government takes account of that and is doing it over 20 years. As I say, I believe in getting the balance right. As Senator Lees also just commented, the government recognises the need for some type of security or on-going payment for women who are not able to have work, or choose not to—and that will continue.