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Wednesday, 22 June 1994
Page: 1850

Senator LEES (Deputy Leader of the Australian Democrats) (12.37 p.m.) —I will be speaking today on only two aspects of the Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 2)—the increase in the women's pension age from 60 to 65 years and the new disability wage supplement. My colleague Senator Woodley has dealt with other aspects of this bill. With regard to women's pension age, when this was first mooted—and that goes back to the Fightback documents—the Democrats have been opposed to raising from 60 to 65 years the age when women become eligible for the pension. Indeed, from the moment it was announced in the 1993-94 federal budget we have actively opposed this measure.

  Unlike the government, which was highly critical of this when it came out in the Fightback document, we do not have to twist ourselves inside out to try to justify any policy backflip. We can stand here without any embarrassment whatsoever and say that we and we alone have opposed this since it was Liberal-National policy and certainly now that it has suddenly become government policy.

  This bill raises the pension age for women from 60 to 65 years over the next 18 years by increasing the women's pension age by six months every two years. For example, women who are currently aged 57 who could have had access to the age pension at 60 will now have to wait an additional six months. A woman who is currently 51 will have to wait until she is 63. A woman currently 47 will now have to wait until she is 65, and women who are 45 years or younger will have to wait until they turn 65 to get access to a pension. I stress here that women who are now 60 will not be affected by this legislation, and of course there is no change to the men's pension age.

  The Democrats see this as simply a cost saving measure—nothing else. We would like to see it postponed but we would prefer to see it dropped altogether. We are strongly of the view that the pension age for women should not be raised until women of pension age have had similar employment, savings and superannuation opportunities as men of pension age. All the available evidence shows that we are still a long way from reaching that point.

  In question time recently Senator Kernot, Senator Knowles and I asked Senator Crowley about the trends in equal pay for women. We were all concerned about the recent figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics which showed that 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. In response we got a very vague and quite strange answer.

  The government began madly hunting through figures to try to justify its argument. It basically said that we should go back and look at trends. I am quite happy to look at trends, but not when they are as transparently tailored and as selective as the figures that the government eventually came up with. The government went back through about the last 10 years of figures, picked a small time frame that suited its own ends and then argued on what happened over that period.

  What if we select a different time frame? What if I choose to go back to 1983 and track through to February 1994? Those figures paint a rather different picture. They show that women's earnings as a percentage of men's earnings declined quite dramatically from December 1983 to September 1986, picked up again to September 1987, declined to September 1989, peaked in December 1991 and have been declining ever since, to the point where in February 1994 they were almost back to where we started from in 1983. In other words, over the last 10 years women have made virtually no progress whatsoever towards equal pay with men. In the last year, as those recent ABS statistics show, that trend has accelerated.

  These are not very reassuring trends. They certainly do not justify the government's optimism that women will achieve pay equality with men suddenly in the next 18 years. What will the government do if these recent trends continue? In two years time, will it turn around and decide that, as women have fallen even further behind, it will reverse its decision on increasing the pensionable age for women? Unfortunately, I think it is most unlikely that it will act, despite the figures.

  Irrespective of how the government wants to twist statistics to suit its own ends, it is pretty clear that women are a long way from catching up with men in terms of equal pay. That does not just mean less money in women's pockets on a week by week basis. It means less earning capacity over an extended period of time; it means reduced ability to accumulate superannuation; and it means less capacity to accumulate assets and savings for retirement.

  Women over 40, in particular, have lived with these inequalities all their working lives. They have worked without equal pay for 10 or 20—and in some cases 25—years. They have had fewer opportunities for career advancement or promotion than have men in the same age bracket. They have not had the same capacity as men to accumulate superannuation and savings. The average woman in this age group has taken several years off work to raise children, putting herself at a disadvantage in terms of career, earning potential and superannuation benefits.

  While women's access to superannuation is clearly improving, the fact remains that the vast majority of women still have only been in superannuation schemes for the last five or six years. For women over 40, all these factors translate into significantly reduced payouts on retirement. For example, at present, while 22.4 per cent of men receive a super payout in excess of $80,000, only 3.6 per cent of women get payouts of that size.

  At the end of last year, the Women's Policy Unit of the Office of the Cabinet in Queensland produced a discussion paper on women and superannuation. The unit found that the majority of female employees do not have work patterns which fit comfortably with existing super structures and, as a consequence, most women cannot rely upon superannuation to support them in retirement. The paper pointed out that, while most women in the paid work force were now in superannuation schemes, those schemes still did not reflect the needs of their women members who earned less than the average weekly wage paid to men and who because of the casual or part-time nature of their work were more likely to change industries or occupations. The paper concluded that entitlements from superannuation were not viable as a retirement income or investment option for the majority of women.

  There are also many women who work for low or no wages in small businesses, on family farms or in backyard sweatshops as outworkers. These women will probably never have access to any sort of superannuation. In short, irrespective of what cloud the government is currently living on, the fact is that professional women in well-paid jobs with good access to superannuation are in a very small minority in this country. They will not be the ones struggling to find work in their 60s because—and the government knows this—most of the women initially affected by this measure will be those on low incomes who will find it very difficult to continue working.

  Debate interrupted.