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Tuesday, 20 November 2012
Page: 9121

Senator EDWARDS (South Australia) (11:22): I rise today to speak on the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Amendment Bill 2012, which, if agreed to, will amend the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act 1999. The coalition has long been committed to the principle of equal opportunity for women in the workplace. I have long advocated for and supported women in the workplace. Throughout my time as a business owner I have employed a large number of women. I have always hired people on the basis of their skills and ability, and I have found that women bring a level of focus, attention to detail and diligence that is sometimes not seen as strongly in men.

I come from a state which has long recognised and has been an early adopter of equality for women. South Australia was the first state in Australia to grant women the vote, in 1894, and the right to stand for parliament, in the same year. Across a number of different workplaces, South Australia has had a number of female firsts: the first woman wharfies, Michelle van Rens and Monica Judd; the first woman forklift driver, Michele Dougherty; and the first woman ombudsman, Mary Beasley—some impressive firsts in what were very male centric workplaces. South Australia's reputation as a compassionate and liberal society started in 1848, with the establishment of the Destitute Board, and later, with the appointment of the first Inspector of Factories, Augusta Zadow.

It was the Howard government that enacted the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act 1999. Then from 2001, under the Howard government, employers reported to the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency for the first time, under the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act. Tony Abbott, the current Leader of the Opposition, when he was a senior Howard government minister, implemented mechanisms to strengthen the standing of women in the workplace. He was and remains a strong advocate for improving women's health in the wider community. It was the Howard government which amended the Sex Discrimination Act to explicitly recognise breastfeeding as a potential ground for unlawful discrimination in the workplace. In government, the coalition has shown a commitment to strong reform with tangible outcomes for women in the workplace.

This bill came out of a review by KPMG in 2009 into the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act. However, the bill which Labor has cobbled together contains a number of miscellaneous problems and is another failure by another Labor government in relation to addressing good policy. It does not sufficiently cover the issues identified by KPMG in that report and does not provide for real equal opportunity reform. This bill is another one which could be put into the category of all spin and no substance.

Unfortunately, this bill does not contain provisions to address any of the institutional or cultural barriers to attaining greater gender equality in our workplaces. It is symbolic of this government, which has seen some of the key indicators of women's equality in the workplace slide. For example, our shadow parliamentary secretary for the status of women, Senator Cash, highlighted in her contribution to this bill that the gender pay gap in August 2012 was 17.5 per cent, or approximately $252.80 a week, which has widened since Labor came to power.

The coalition has a number of concerns with this bill. The first of these is the additional, costly, bureaucratic regulation, at the expense of business once again, that this bill will impose and the significant additional reporting burdens and costs on those employers caught by this legislation. Labor just does not get business. While Senator Moore is passionate about the issue of workplace equality for women, as we all are, she hit the nail on the head when she said that she had only worked in the public service.

I spent 30 years in private enterprise before coming to this place, and it would be so much better if many people from the opposite side of the chamber had more experience in private enterprise so as to understand what this type of legislation does and means for business in the real world. It is those people, who are generating profits to employ more and more people, who we are looking to protect in our community. Not surprisingly, Labor has put forward yet another bill which panders to the union movement. The reporting requirements of eligible employers are designed to provide additional information, at the employer's expense, which may be used by the unions to mount wage and other claims against the employers based on this information.

Finally, under the bill the minister is given an excessive amount of discretion, which, for example, would allow the minister to change the principles in the supporting documentation to the bill, which would not be subject to the same level of scrutiny that would have occurred had these changes been incorporated in the same bill. In their submission to the Senate Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations inquiry into this bill, the Business Council of Australia state:

We believe the most effective way of encouraging the adoption of work arrangements that increase gender equality is through the provision of information that demonstrates the benefits of such arrangements, not by imposing additional reporting requirements on businesses. Further, we are disappointed that the regulatory compliance requirements would be imposed on all businesses employing 100 people or more regardless of their past performance and efforts to improve gender equality.

Once again, there is no understanding of what happens out there in the real workplaces in Australia.

Coalition senators in their dissenting report stated:

Coalition Senators remain unconvinced that the set up and ongoing costs required to be met by employers and the additional regulatory burden imposed by the Bill could be justified.

…   …   …

… Having reviewed the evidence before the committee, Coalition Senators are not convinced that the proposed legislation will in fact achieve the government's stated aims. Whilst the Government claims that the Bill seeks to promote gender equality in the workplace, in reality, this legislation is little more than an industrial mechanism designed to increase the role of unions in the workplace and provide them with greater industrial leverage.

Senator Cash, on behalf of the coalition, will move amendments which will seek to remove the inordinate level of discretion proposed to be provided to the minister; reintroduce provisions allowing the agency to waive public reporting requirements for relevant employers; insert a provision for the agency to give public acknowledgement to relevant employers who regularly meet compliance standards; and require the government, despite what it says it wants to do, to remove one regulation for relevant employers for each new regulation that it introduces as a result of this act.

The coalition, of course, has a number of real measures to help improve the opportunity and standing of women in the workplace. The difference between the two parties' policies is clearly seen in our approaches to paid parental leave. We on this side know that a substantial paid parental leave scheme and affordable child care are key to providing women and men the choice, flexibility and ability to make decisions about when and how they re-enter the workforce.

The coalition parental leave scheme will provide real time and real money to working women, offering eligible women 26 weeks at their replacement wage of up to $75,000 per annum. Labor's Paid Parental Leave scheme, however, aside from being a welfare based scheme, does not include any superannuation. The coalition's paid parental leave scheme includes superannuation. Providing women on parental leave with their normal superannuation payments will mean that they will not be disadvantaged when they reach retirement age.

The coalition will not be supporting this bill in its current form. It adds regulation, red tape and additional burden on businesses without achieving real changes that further empower and equalise women in the workplace. I urge all on the other side of the chamber to embrace Senator Cash's amendments when they come.