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Tuesday, 20 November 2012
Page: 9130

Senator RONALDSON (Victoria) (12:01): I am very pleased to rise to speak on the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Amendment Bill 2012. This amendment bill comes after KPMG published its review of the EOWWA legislation back in 2009, giving the Labor Party three long years to get their act together and to put forward proper legislation to advance gender equality. Instead, we have an amendment bill that imposes more red tape on business and which may well have the opposite effect of reducing opportunities for women in the workplace. That is, if businesses know that they have to engage in more compliance to deal with gender equity issues, might this not potentially hinder women seeking employment?

The coalition passionately believes in minimal government and not interfering with business when they want to employ people. That is why we have set up a deregulation task force, chaired by Senator Arthur Sinodinos, to cut $1 billion worth of red tape. We believe this, in conjunction with other measures, will provide greater incentives for businesses to employ women. As my colleague Senator Michaelia Cash, who is in the chamber today, has said, in this amendment bill there are:

… half-finished measures that are not just unclear but also provide for inordinate Ministerial discretion over what is to be reported under the Gender Equality Indicators.

Yet again, I note another act by the Australian Labor Party of delegating powers. It is no wonder we are seeing a huge growth in regulations. As Senator Cash has pointed out, the coalition stands against legislation which 'provides such a broad-ranging ministerial discretion', allows for ministers to do what they like and ties business up in further red tape.

Labor's Minister for the Status of Women, Ms Julie Collins, claims that this amendment bill reforms the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency to help address pay equity in Australia. However, Ms Collins and Labor have failed to demonstrate how this legislation will make a real difference to gender equality. Indeed, I question whether this is just more spin over substance on the issue of gender equity from the Labor Party.

When looking at the actual substance of the matter, we see that gender equity has in fact gone backwards in this country under the current Labor government. Let me point out some examples. Under Labor, Australia's global gender equality ranking, according to the World Economic Forum's Global gender gap report 2012, dropped from 15 in 2006 to 25 in 2012. The August 2012 data from the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency shows that the gender pay gap has stagnated at 17.5 per cent, which is about $252.80 per week. The gender pay gap in the financial and insurance sector is even higher at about 32.7 per cent. And, as Senator Cash has stated, it has 'taken Labor more than two years to appoint a Director for the Office for Women'. This shows the utterly duplicitous behaviour of the Australian Labor Party over the last few months, no more clearly shown than by the disgraceful comments from the Prime Minister directed at the Leader of the Opposition during the October parliamentary sittings. This beggared belief when the Leader of the Opposition had simply called out the obvious misogynistic comments in the text messages of the now former Speaker, Peter Slipper. But, instead of condemning these comments, the Prime Minister hypocritically supported the former Speaker and, by default, his behaviour.

I want to talk today about the coalition's, the Liberal Party's and, indeed, the Leader of the Opposition's support for women. The Liberal Party has a profound history in that regard. I am proud of the Liberal Party and the coalition's achievements in supporting women in the workplace and gender equality, and the countless occasions when the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, has taken direct action to empower women and to advance gender equality. History will show that the Labor Party talks the talk but never walks the walk in this regard. As noted in a media release issued by Senator Cash in September this year, the coalition is absolutely committed to creating equal opportunity 'and that includes supporting gender equity in the workplace'. She also noted the coalition's strong belief that 'all Australian women and men are entitled to have an equal chance to contribute to society in a way that creates benefits to them, their families and their communities'.

On this note, I want to raise today what the Liberal Party has done, from its inception, to give women equal opportunities. It is indeed a proud record. When the Liberal Party was first established in 1944, its founder and former Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, said at the Albury Conference:

Women are unquestionably destined to exercise more and more influence upon practical politics in Australia … In the educating of the electorate in liberal ideas they have for many years been an effective force. Now we have an organisation in which all distinctions have gone, and with men and women working equally for the one body …

Tom Ritchie, the first federal president, then told the inaugural Federal Council in 1945:

… too much importance cannot be placed on the role which women must play in politics.

The Federal Women's Committee was established at this inaugural meeting and continues its active engagement today.

Throughout 1945 and beyond, women flocked to the Liberal Party. In 1994, Ian Hancock, former Harold White Fellow, pointed out in a lecture to the National Library of Australia in Canberra that 'the Australian Women's National League, a major contributor to non-Labor politics, especially in Victoria, turned over its funds and material assets to the Liberal Party'. Hancock also made the point that many people would not have been aware that, from the party's inception, measures that would today be described as affirmative action were built into the Liberal Party. For example, women in Victoria were given equal representation on all committees and councils—notably, May Couchman and Edith Haynes. Each of the other divisions also established separate women's sections, and the party formed a federal women's committee, whose 'chairman', as she was known, was an ex officio member of the Liberal Party. There are no faceless men or women in our party; indeed, there are no quotas in our party.

Many of the firsts for women in politics were achieved by women in the Liberal Party. Dame Enid Lyons was the first woman to be elected to the Australian House of Representatives—in 1943, for the United Australia Party, and then as a member of the Liberal Party. She was also the first woman appointed to the federal cabinet, in 1949, under the first Menzies Liberal government, when she became vice-president of the Executive Council. In 1947, Senator Annabelle Rankin became the first woman to hold the position of Opposition Whip in the Senate and then became Government Whip in 1951. In 1966, Senator Rankin then became the Minister for Housing, under the Holt Liberal government, thus becoming the first woman to administer a federal government department.

In 1949, Eileen Furley was elected vice-president of the party. She went on to become the first woman representing the Liberal Party in the New South Wales Legislative Council. In 1968, Senator Ivy Wedgewood became the first woman to chair a Senate committee. In 1975, Senator Margaret Guilfoyle became the first woman senator to be a member of the cabinet, under the Fraser Liberal government. From 1974 to 2001, Kathy Sullivan of the Liberal Party served longer in parliament than any other woman—over 27 years. She was also the first woman to serve in both houses of parliament.

In 1996, the Howard Liberal government became the first to appoint two women cabinet ministers and then expanded that to three in 2006. This compared with Labor's previous record of one woman cabinet minister. In 1996, Senator Margaret Reid became the first woman President of the Senate, under the Howard government. In 2000, Jackie Kelly of the Liberal Party became the first serving Australian minister to give birth while in office. In 2001, under the Howard Liberal government, Senator Helen Coonan was the first woman to hold an Australian Treasury portfolio since Federation. In 2006, she also became the first women to be Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate. Senator Amanda Vanstone of the Liberal Party, who served from 1984 to 2007, remains the longest-serving female senator and the longest-serving female cabinet minister in Australia's history. And the list goes on and on and on. As well-known Australian feminist Professor Deborah Brennan has pointed out, 'Liberal women have had many more guaranteed opportunities within their party organisation than their Labor sisters'—all done without quotas, I again note.

The Liberal Party, as part of the coalition, has also made enormous achievements for women and gender equality since first coming to government in 1949. In her article on Liberal women Deputy Leader of the Opposition Julie Bishop pointed out that 'under the Menzies government, between 1949 and 1966, policies were introduced relating to child endowment and a national health scheme, and women's workforce participation was substantially lifted during this period, with the Liberal Party's postwar policies actively encouraging female workforce participation'.

Between 1966 and 1972 the Holt, Gorton and McMahon governments introduced policies to protect deserted wives. Equal pay legislation was also introduced, a great achievement for women's equality. Between 1975 and 1983, under the Fraser government, a family income supplement scheme to help low-income families was introduced. Australia also signed the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, showing Australia's commitment to the rights it enshrines. This led to the establishment of the Office of the Sex Discrimination Commissioner. After signing the convention, the then Attorney-General the Hon. Robert Ellicott and the then foreign minister the Hon. Andrew Peacock said that the signing evidenced 'Australia's policy of equality for women and the elimination of discrimination'. This was done under a coalition government, I again hasten to add.

From 1996 to 2007 the Howard government saw women's participation in the higher levels of education exceed that of men, with more women than men completing year 12. The number of women on Australian government boards and bodies also increased to over 33 per cent. Policies were introduced including a 'Women's Safety Agenda', which included the national 'Violence Against Women, Australia Says No' campaign and the associated national 24-hour phone helpline. Since the campaign was launched, in 2004, it has now received more than 73,000 calls.

As also mentioned in the article on Liberal women by Julie Bishop, the Howard government introduced measures to allow women to better prepare for their retirement through improvements to superannuation. The coalition also introduced the baby bonus in 2004 and, as Ms Bishop said, the Howard government was responsible for 'substantial increases in the rates of family benefits, the provision of extra childcare places, the introduction of the childcare tax rebate and the encouragement of flexible family-friendly work practices'.

However, the Liberal Party's achievements are not just historical. The coalition and the Liberal Party are today more active than ever in supporting women's equality. Let us look at what the coalition has actually done and what it proposes to do. I particularly want to focus on what the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, has done and proposes to do given the politically motivated attacks of recent times—politically motivated attacks which have been viewed by the Australian community as well beyond the pale and way beyond what is acceptable practice.

When the Leader of the Opposition was health minister, he increased screening programs for cervical cancer, resulting in a steady decline in Australia's cancer rate. He increased mental health services, including a beyondblue initiative to address perinatal depression. Of course, the coalition was responsible in helping to set up the beyondblue national depression initiative to begin with, contributing $17.5 million of Commonwealth funds over five years, with substantial contributions also coming in from the states and territories. He announced funding for the cancer vaccine, Gardasil, committing $1 million to the establishment and initial operation of the Centre for Gynaecological Cancer, and introduced the National Pregnancy Support Telephone Helpline, providing non-directive counselling advice 24 hours a day. As minister for employment, the Leader of the Opposition amended the Sex Discrimination Act to explicitly recognise discrimination in the workplace on the ground of breastfeeding as unlawful. He announced the $1.7 billion Australians Working Together package, including $251 million to support parents returning to work, the vast majority being women. In 2000, he enacted the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act 1999. Indeed, this is the act that the amendment bill today proposes to amend. I repeat: the bill that we are seeking to amend today was actually introduced by the Leader of the Opposition, as minister for employment, when he enacted the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act 1999.

The coalition has a proud record and the Leader of the Opposition intends to implement further support for women if given the great honour to lead this country. If the coalition gains government at the next election, the Leader of the Opposition has proposed a comprehensive paid parental leave scheme. This is at a replacement wage of up to $75,000 per annum, including superannuation, instead of the minimum wage proposed by Labor. This scheme will enable women to stay in and re-enter the workforce and to breastfeed their newborn for the recommended minimum of six months, if indeed they can. It will also assist to increase the birth rate and, thus, in the long term will assist in increasing overall productivity, which I have talked about in other speeches in this chamber.

The coalition will be putting forward amendments during the committee stage of today's amendments. The coalition's amendments are designed to lessen the discretion that this amendment bill bestows upon the minister and to reintroduce provisions allowing the agency to waive public reporting requirements for relevant employers. Furthermore, the coalition has just announced a Productivity Commission review into child care. This will ensure that child care is more accessible, affordable and flexible for Australian parents. This compares to Labor's policies, which have resulted in the cost of child care rising by more than 20 per cent since Julia Gillard became Prime Minister. As I have outlined today, the evidence clearly supports the fact that the coalition, the Liberal Party and Tony Abbott have initiated policies and programs that have had a real effect on advancing gender equality. It has also led by example by promoting women in the party through merit. The coalition and Tony Abbott continue to promote such policies.

It is time Labor stopped its spin and its politically motivated and direct personal attacks and started taking substantial action to improve the lot of Australian women. Labor talks the talk but does not walk the walk when it comes to the economic empowerment of women. Grubby and cheap political attacks are no substitute for real action on behalf of all Australian women.