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Tuesday, 20 November 2012
Page: 9128

Senator XENOPHON (South Australia) (11:51): This to me is not about left or right, or right or wrong; it is about fairness. That is why I support the government's intentions in relation to this bill. No-one of either gender should be discriminated against in the workplace. Any behaviour of this sort is unethical and abhorrent. I think there is consensus in this chamber and everybody shares that view. The question is: what is the best? I think I got an affirmation from Senator McKenzie as she was leaving the chamber. It was not quite an interjection, but clearly there is no question that we all agree that any form of discrimination in the workplace is abhorrent and unethical. What is the best mechanism to achieve equity?

No bill is perfect; this bill is not perfect. But I believe that this bill does advance those issues of fairness and equity, and that is why I will be supporting it.

So I acknowledge that the government's intentions in amending this act to ensure fairness and equity emphasise this point, but we cannot and must not ignore the fact that women are still far more likely to need the protection of this act than men. That is pretty axiomatic if you look at the statistics and the research. I do not speak on behalf of women; thankfully, they do not need others to speak for them any longer. But I speak because I believe that men and women deserve equal rights, equal opportunities, equal protections and equal freedoms. Even in Australia that is not always the case. It has been 110 years since women won the right to vote federally in Australia and 91 years since the first woman was elected to a parliament in Australia—Edith Cowan, to the Western Australian Legislative Assembly. In my home state of South Australia we really led the way in many respects in terms of the right of women to vote and stand for parliament.

There is a lot of discussion about how far women's rights have come. In fact, if you speak to many young women and girls they believe women and men have equal rights in our society and the fight is over. But the whole issue of equity and fairness must continue to be debated and must be at the forefront of our minds in determining good public policy. We are no longer in the days when women had to starve, chain themselves to railings or throw themselves under horses to get people to listen to their pleas, and we know of the valour of the women in the suffragette movement over 100 years ago. But that does not mean there is no longer a plea to be heard.

In February 2010 the Review of Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act 1999 consultation report was released. This report was quite revealing. It found that women are overrepresented in areas of study linked to lower-earning industries, while men are overrepresented in the areas linked to higher-earning industries. It found that female dominated industries have historically been undervalued and that women are less likely than men to be in leadership positions. It found that women are likely to earn less over their lifetimes than men for the same type of work. And it found that Australia is lagging behind other developed countries on a number of key indicators, including economic participation opportunity, education attainment, political empowerment, and health and survival. Compared with other OECD countries with similar tertiary education levels, Australia has the fifth-largest pay gap between men and women. Research by Goldman Sachs and JBWere found that closing this gap would improve Australia's gross domestic product by 11 per cent. Australia's ranking in the World Economic Forum's global gender index dropped from 15th in 2006 to 20th in 2009, behind New Zealand, the United Kingdom, South Africa and the Philippines. Only 58.7 per cent of Australian women over 15 are in the labour force, making up 45.3 per cent of the total labour force. In comparison, 72.1 per cent of Australian men are in the workforce.

The ACTU's submission to the committee inquiry into this bill stated:

Despite making up half the workforce, women in full-time paid work still earn 17.8 per cent less than men in full-time paid work, amounting to over $1 million less over a lifetime. Women are now more likely to have a tertiary qualification than men but women graduates will earn $2,000 less than male graduates and $7,400 less by the fifth year after graduation. Fewer than three per cent of ASX 200 companies have a female chief executive officer, 8.4 per cent of board directors are women and only eight per cent of executive managers of Australian companies are women. Women retire with less than half the amount of savings in their superannuation accounts than men and women are four times more likely to experience sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace compared to men.

Whatever disagreements I may have from time to time with the ACTU, I think that those figures speak for themselves. They are based on research and facts and they ought to be noted very carefully.

Many of these disadvantages can be tied to motherhood. We do not make enough allowances for women who are mothers getting back into the workforce. We have seen the legislative amendments in terms of paid parental leave that this government passed, and they are welcome. But I also think that the coalition's plans for a more generous scheme have a lot of merit. That is something that we must continue to debate and discuss. We need to have more flexibility and more support in our workplaces so that women are more likely to take time off to have children and then return to the workplace. So that level of flexibility is crucial and I do not think we have done enough in relation to that.

I acknowledge the difference a paid parental leave scheme will make in Australia but we were among the last to join in the chorus and we must make up for lost time, and we need to look at a more generous scheme. We need to take into account the costs of such a scheme but also the impact that such a scheme will have on our national productivity and our participation in the workplace. Because of this, many women simply do not have, or have not had, the same opportunities as men to plan for their retirement and I think that is a real issue, a sleeper of an issue that needs to be debated and discussed even more. One of the main aims of the feminist movement is to ensure that women have greater financial independence, to reduce women's financial dependence on men. I do not think that is a bad thing. But still, so many years later, women face financial disadvantage if for whatever reason they end up, in post-retirement in their senior years, without a partner. So these are big issues. And this issue of lack of retirement income for women is a pressing issue that I believe we need to address with a great degree of urgency in our public policy area, because equity demands it.

We have come a long way but it is disingenuous in the extreme to believe we do not have a long way to go. In some parts of the world women face violence, starvation and treatment as second-class citizens. In other parts of the world, including the United States, there are still challenges to hard-won rights and freedoms. It is important to put that in context. Just because in relative terms women in a developed country do not face the same challenges as in a developing country in terms of discrimination and a lack of rights, that does not mean that there are not still challenges that must be addressed and dealt with. It is not the case that we should excuse smaller indiscretions here because they pale into insignificance when compared with the callous disregard for female life elsewhere. I think we should be smart enough, generous enough and brave enough to fight for fairness.

We should not pretend that we have reached a place where women and men face equal levels of discrimination in the workplace. Ideally, no-one would face such discrimination, but the facts are plain. Unless the facts are highlighted—unless we continue to ensure that the inequities, inequalities and discrepancies that I have referred to, which are real and present and completely unfair, are highlighted unambiguously—we will continue to become more complacent and to put off the fight for another day.

Go up to any person in the street. Most men would never consider women inferior and most women would never stand for anyone else who did. But what a person might never see or experience in their life is very different from the big picture. Over the years, this assumption of equality has led to fewer and fewer resources being devoted to organisations and agencies promoting true equality. Everyone knows what they say and how dangerous it is to make assumptions. So I say to my colleagues: there is much more to be done. I say to business and union leaders: there is much more to be done. To the generations of women yet to enter the workforce, I say: in this place, I promise you that the fight for fairness is not over. I believe this bill is a useful first step, but the figures speak for themselves. The fact that from 2006 to 2009 we slipped behind our OECD neighbours in relative terms indicates that there is something wrong. We must continue to ensure that the notion of fairness, equity and a fair go for all is axiomatic in our society. I believe that this bill goes some way in achieving that. I support the bill.