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Tuesday, 8 March 2005
Page: 37

Senator HUMPHRIES (3:07 PM) —In taking note of the answers of the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women’s Issues, the opposition seem to be attempting to suggest that the position of women in Australia would be greatly assisted by some dramatic lift in the minimum wage, and they urge the government to support the ACTU’s position on lifting the minimum wage. The smallest amount of scrutiny and analysis of what Senator Stephens has just had to say will disclose that it is very hard to work out why lifting the minimum wage will necessarily lead to a closing of the gap in the wages between men and women. It would obviously benefit everybody who was on a minimum wage if the minimum wage were lifted. How it would benefit women vis-a-vis men is a little hard to determine. But it is worth making this point: the Howard government in the last nine years has specifically targeted the lifting of standards for all Australians as a way of assisting women as well as men. Raising the level of employment in the Australian community has been about lifting the capacity of women to find the work they need to lead independent lives, to be able to support families and to be able to make decisions that affect their own lives. Ensuring that interest rates remain relatively low has been about assisting women and their families to take out mortgages so that their position is improved.

The evidence of those measures is clear for anybody to observe at this point in time. As far as women in the work force are concerned, in January 2005 there were 4,422,200 women in employment. That is a lot of women. It represents a 4½ per cent increase in the number of women in the work force since 1996, when we took office—that is, there has been a 22.7 per cent increase in the number of women in the work force since March 1996. That is a tangible expression of the way that this government’s work has led to an improvement in the position of women.

Those opposite made a very thin case for some sort of change in policy and some kind of adjustment to the minimum wage that would somehow offer more benefits than those that have been delivered by this government. It is a pretty hard case to make. When we came to office the unemployment rate for women was 7.6 per cent; today it is 5.3 per cent. That is the most clear demonstration of how women have benefited under the policies of this government. Of course it will be possible to find some statistical basis on which to suggest there has been some lack of progress or some failure to achieve a target that might be set with respect to the position of women in Australian society. Of course it is always possible to find the dark lining in the silver cloud. Members of the opposition will do their best to find that dark lining, no doubt. But, if you look at the total picture—the support available to women as mothers, the position of women in the work force, the standard of living of Australian women compared with where they were nine years ago—if you look at any of those major indicators, it is perfectly clear that Australian women have benefited from the policies of the Howard government.

The number of women in senior positions in Australia is a further expression of that. We have heard from the minister about the record numbers of women ambassadors, high commissioners and permanent heads of our Public Service departments. That has not been through the application of some quota process; it has been by virtue of women being given the opportunity to demonstrate their talents, and those talents have led them into positions which I am pleased to say have benefited the Australian community.

The support that this government has given to women has been clear. A demonstration of that is available in the statistics which have measured the progress of women in the last nine years. I think it is fair enough for the opposition to try look at areas where they consider the progress has not been fast enough, but they cannot deny that progress has been real and substantial. Looking at the total picture, we see that women today have benefited from the policies implemented by this government over the last nine years.