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Tuesday, 20 November 2012
Page: 9124

Senator McKENZIE (Victoria) (11:32): I rise to speak today on the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Amendment Bill 2012. As Senator Edwards has just shared with the chamber, the coalition senators who were part of the inquiry into this piece of legislation submitted a fantastic—might I add—dissenting report authored by the shadow parliamentary secretary for the status of women, Senator Cash. I take this opportunity to thank her for her leadership in this regard and for her strong advocacy across a range of sectors for women right across our country.

This piece of legislation, unfortunately, is just another example of Labor's mythical invisibility cloak of progressive politics. Apparently, according to Labor, it is the only party that supports and advocates for the downtrodden, for women, for Indigenous people, for minorities, for the disabled, for society's most vulnerable. I argue against this bill not because I support the subjugation of, the objectification of or continued discrimination against women. Rather, I would like to acknowledge the contribution of women to our society and their rightful role in all areas of our workforce.

If you look at the bill, you will see that the bill proposes that its passing today will promote gender equality in the workplace, improve workforce participation of women and promote the importance of recognising gender pay equality and flexible workplaces to balance family and caring responsibilities—lofty goals, and I am confident that not one senator in this place would object to those policy principles. Today I shall outline why I believe that this bill will not deliver on these lofty objectives. It will set out a flawed plan and reflect the Labor strategy of smoke and mirrors: 'Nothing to see here, Senator Cash. Nothing to see here. Just keep on walking by.' And this is at more than $11 million cost to the Australian people.

First let us deal with the claims about the bill amending the name of the act. One of the big shifts is that we will change the name of the act to the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012, supposedly to shift the focus of the act onto gender equality and improve workforce participation and workplace flexibility. So, by changing the name of the act, we are going to affect the reality on the ground around workforce participation and flexibility for women. The bill is going to change the name of the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency and also change the title of the director of the agency to the Director of Workplace Gender Equality. Change the names? Why? Change the names? At what cost? Changing the names is just smoke and mirrors.

Amendments to section 2A of the act modify the principal objectives to include both genders. If we are now including men and women in ensuring equality around workplace issues, my question is: why do we need it? I look forward to this act contributing to increasing the number of men in the teaching and nursing professions and increasing the number of young men in our society engaged in the aged-care facilities and caring for our elderly.

Proposed section 13 establishes a new reporting framework for businesses. As a former teacher, I know that just because you report on something does not mean to say that the behaviour changes. I have written many a report for young Johnny in year 7 that has not actually resulted in any change in his classroom behaviour. No matter how many times I told a student's parents that their child was disruptive and disorganised, the child did not change. Australian businesses will have additional reporting requirements, but—wait for it—there are no indicators. It is classic 'debate away, dear senators, on what you know not', because we do not have the detail. How can we perform the necessary role in the legislative process if we are not given the details?

The approach to this piece of legislation is typical. We are here trying to debate a framework on behalf of our communities where we do not know how this is going to play out—it has not been developed yet by the minister.

Labor has had years to work it out and to develop constructive criteria, meaningful indicators which would demonstrate that employment was equitable, and they have not. What we know is that this will be an increased burden on business. The coalition does not support legislation which is designed to increase the level of government interference in the workplace. The coalition has very real concern, as do commerce and industry groups, that this bill imposes increased regulation and red tape.

The bill will introduce a new reporting framework in which employers are required to report against gender equality indicators. It is not apparent just how the new reporting framework simplifies and streamlines reporting requirements for employers. Furthermore, an employer must prepare and lodge a public report containing information relating both to the employer and to gender equality indicators. The result will be an additional cost for a greater number of businesses, as evident from the provisions of the regulatory impact statement. This is a government that promised a one-in one-out policy on regulation, but—and I quote from our dissenting report:

… the government has broken this election promise by introducing an additional 16,163 regulations whilst repealing just 79.

Bear in mind that the urgency from this government to address gender equality in the workplace has been so great that this bill has been put off more times than I can count. We did this report for this piece of legislation back in May, so the figures could be a little out.

How much will this cost business? What will it look like? What about those businesses that fall under the 100-employee mark? This brings me to outlining the history of conservative initiatives that have furthered the cause of women having choices about how to live their lives, raise their families and interact in the workplace. We enacted the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act 1999and renamed and updated the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act 1986. The 1999 act required private sector companies, not-for-profit community organisations, non-government schools, unions, group training companies and higher education institutions with 100 or more people to establish a workplace program to remove the barriers to women entering and advancing in the organisation. That was done under the Howard government. We amended the Sex Discrimination Act to recognise breast feeding. The Nationals, quite a conservative entity within the coalition, were the first political party to recognise the issue of domestic violence. It was not the Greens or the Labor Party—it was the Nationals. It was first debated at one of our federal conferences in 1992. The first female federal president and federal director of any political party in Australia was in the National Party.

Sir Earle Page, Prime Minister for a whisker of time, founder of the Country Party and forefather of the Nationals, in the early 1920s had the vision and the demonstrated foresight to implement policies that would support women, women's issues and their families. As Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister, together with then Prime Minister Bruce, Earle Page announced a royal commission into a national insurance scheme that would cover maternity, sickness and invalidity. Page was genuine and enthusiastic about this scheme, and he later became known as the father of health insurance.

The consultation report conducted in 2009 identified a number of barriers for women in the workforce, none of which are addressed by the name changes in this particular bill. I know other senators have made contributions around the sociocultural issues within our society that affect women's participation in the workforce—access to meaningful, high-quality child care is one of those, as are maternity leave provisions et cetera. The impact of caring, whether for children or for older women and aged parents, and its equity is down to the fact that families make the decision on how they will best run their lives, who will be working, who will be caring and how they will cut that cake. That should be applauded and supported, not seen as an issue that needs to be rectified. Somehow it has become a problem for people—men or women—to choose not to work outside the home. I was privileged to be able to stay at home and care for my children for a decade. That was a choice and it had consequences, and as a family we decided to hold those consequences.

Ms Kelly O'Dwyer, the federal member for Higgins and my colleague from Victoria, made some points on this issue in an article in the Financial Reviewmany months ago. She suggested that addressing the distortions in the tax system would be quite a good way to start addressing why women are not experiencing equitable participation in the workforce. We need to look at what things we have, structurally, in this country that incentivise certain behaviours and certain choices rather than assist women gain meaningful participation.

This bill does not deal with the issues of sexual harassment in the workplace, despite that being identified by research as one of the reasons women do not have equitable participation. As for bias in recruiting and selection in male dominated industry, I would like to hear the rhetoric from those opposite on the education, childcare, nursing and aged care sectors employment statistics, which are heavily weighted towards women, before they start complaining about women in mining being an issue.

Similarly, there seems to be poor data. Those opposite have had three years to get the data, and throughout this debate I am yet to hear any of it. The name and shame provisions in repealing item 46 mean that rather than reporting on programs within the workplace businesses now have to report against gender equality indicators that are developed by the minister without businesses having input into their construction.

We are going to have an esoteric conversation out in the ether, presumably with people who know a lot about gender equality but not a lot about running a business and what that means on the ground. Again, it goes to the amount of time the minister has had to solve these problems without bringing anything meaningful to the table.

What I loved—I should not say 'loved'; I misspoke—what I found bemusing during our inquiry, which Senator Cash might remember, was a line of questioning that we were pursuing. In that line of questioning it became clear that this will only apply to private businesses. The public sector does not have to worry about it, and when we asked why the public sector did not need to report against these indicators et cetera we were told it did not need to. We were told that the public sector was A-okay, ripsnorting, although there was no evidence to back that up. I found it quite unnerving that one employment sector within our society can dictate to other employment sectors about how their businesses are to be run and what the expectations of society are as well as the indicators they have to report against. Yet only one sector has to comply, because someone has made an arbitrary decision that these guys are okay, but it is not a public decision. Around this area of gender equality the public sector is essentially self-regulating.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry member in my home state of Victoria, VECCI, is taking the lead and is a good example of a successful women's program in the private sector. It has a popular networking event called Women in Business which involves a presentation from a successful female business owner or industry leader. Maybe the reason more women choose to be in the public sector and so potentially accept lower wages is that public sector jobs have had quite generous maternity leave provisions compared with the private sector. Things have changed, and I believe that both employment sectors need to be treated the same. It seems hypocritical, but again that is nothing new from this government.

An extract from the KPMG report for the Office for Women review of the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act consultation report of January 2012 noted:

The roundtables, individual interviews and public submissions all raised the suggestion that the coverage of the EOWW Act should be extended to government agencies, departments and statutory authorities.

One in, all in, I say. If we are going to have both genders covered under this act, let us make sure that we have all employers under the act as well. Is it going to cost more to add public servants? I am not sure. Won't it work? Are we worried it will not actually deliver on the outcomes? Will it add more work for the public sector? I am not sure. Public submissions considered the government should practice what it preaches. I am a big fan of walking the walk, so I look forward to support from the government for our amendments to ensure that the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Amendment Bill, now that it covers both genders, will also cover all employment sectors.

Let's face it, this is an election commitment that the Labor Party has to keep—one out of some would be nice. But it has not been in a hurry on this one. Promised in the 2010 election campaign, consultation derived a report which the government sat on for three years. When the government stands up and preaches that it is the champion of the downtrodden, the only progressive voice in this place, the only one pursuing equitable outcomes around employment participation, we just cannot take that at face value. The government's actions have not delivered. These actions have spoken louder than the government's deeds. I am reminded of my school motto: factis non verbis. That is the only Latin I know, and the translation is: it is by deeds not by words. I think that is a good motto not only for my former school but also for life. I would like the government to walk the walk more on the legislation, rather than going out as it did a couple of weeks ago on the Murray-Darling Basin. The government seems to go out for a quick headline, a quick press release. We get the 30-second news grab flashed into the very busy lives of real working Australian families for their consumption. Meanwhile, for all its crocodile tears about equity in employment participation, the government sat on this for three years. It is simply not good enough.

We reported on this in May, and here we are close to December. Whichever way you cut it, it is a smoky deal. If you believe the rhetoric of progressives that it is so good, sign up for it. I know we will not be.