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Wednesday, 8 June 1994
Page: 1500

Senator GARETH EVANS (Minister for Foreign Affairs) (3.10 p.m.) —I think something needs to be said on the record about this particular issue. There are two sets of data that bear upon the women's relative earnings question that I am familiar with. One is the data that Senator Knowles seems to be specifically referring to, and that is the average weekly earnings data released by the ABS in February 1994, just a few months ago, indicating that women's average weekly ordinary time earnings—that is excluding overtime—for full-time adult employees were 84 per cent of men's earnings in February 1994 compared with a ratio of 84.2 per cent in November 1991, immediately following the introduction of the enterprise bargaining principle. If those are the figures that Senator Knowles is referring to it is very difficult to argue that that decline has any significance whatsoever. Certainly, the available information should not be interpreted as any deterioration in the relative position of women workers during the period of enterprise bargaining.

  The other material around is the ABS survey data released on 6 June 1994, just a couple of days ago, which does show an increase in the gap between male and female earnings but which data relates to the year to May 1993—as Senator Crowley was saying, that is over 12 months ago—and thus does not reflect any benefits at all that flow through from recent government initiatives.

  The growth in wages between May 1992 and May 1993 does not indicate a trend. In fact, it is the reverse of what occurred between 1991 and 1992, the preceding year, when women's wages grew at 4.5 per cent while men's wages lagged with only two per cent growth over that period. There are a number of factors which explain the variability of wage increases, including the incidence of overtime payments which are predominantly associated with male dominated industries.

  Furthermore, when analysing this issue, it really is important to focus on the longer-term trends rather than the bumps and grinds that do occur from month to month or occasionally from year to year. The situation is that pay equity has shown significant improvements since the Labor government came to office in 1983, at which stage female average weekly ordinary time earnings represented just 79.7 per cent of male earnings. I do not think we need to spell out again the government's commitment to pay equity for women. That is enshrined in our Industrial Relations Reform Act, which included a range of safety net provisions.

  We have the situation whereby there will be an annual report to the Minister for Industrial Relations monitoring enterprise bargaining, particularly in its impact on women's wages, and further provisions to ensure that lower paid workers, many of whom are of course women, do not fall behind. It is in that context that the government will be supporting the second and third safety net wage adjustments of $8 a week which have recently been announced.

  Moreover, there are other budgetary measures—for example, the one last year in the 1993-94 budget providing $3.5 million over four years for working women's centres in order to advise and assist women on pay and conditions issues.  So there is nothing to be in any way ashamed of, apologetic or defensive about so far as this government's record on this particular issue is concerned.

  So far as the larger issue of inequality—or purported inequality—in Australia is concerned, I repeat that part of the problem in the opposition's response on this issue is the way in which those opposite jump over what are very crucial qualifications and aspects of this data that need to be understood. We cannot just gloss over the problem that exists of data measurement because measures of earnings distribution, which is the most familiar one that we see in this context, do not have, as I said in question time, any regard for the redistributive effects of taxation; they do not have any regard for non-cash support; and they do not very often have regard either for cash income support. When we factor these in the spread between the highest earners and the lowest earners narrows quite considerably. Certainly, it is the case that using broader measures the poorest members of our society did increase their share of national income during the 1980s.

  The other crucial consideration in understanding these figures whenever they are being thrown about is to realise, as I said before, that gross earnings figures by themselves can in fact be quite misleading. What we do need to appreciate is that gross earnings spreads are opening up all round the developed, high-tech, advanced economies. Lowest earners are not getting poorer in that environment; their earnings are growing too but at a slower rate.

  It is necessary for government to take separate policy action to deal with the phenomenon of those who get left aside in this kind of industrial, new economic milieu. It is exactly to deal with that particular problem of people who might fall by the wayside—the people that John Hewson did not want to turn around and give a helping hand to because those opposite would get dragged back if they did—that we introduced the white paper.