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Tuesday, 20 November 2012
Page: 9135

Senator KROGER (VictoriaChief Opposition Whip in the Senate) (12:19): As I rise to speak today on the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Amendment Bill 2012, I would like to associate myself with the comments that Senator Ronaldson just made. I make one point very clear from the outset: the coalition has, does and always will value the essential contribution of women to the workforce. The coalition has a strong record of promoting policies that benefit women. In government, we will introduce the most important policy for women and their participation in the workforce that this country has ever seen: an unrivalled paid parental leave scheme that will do wonders for the financial security of women.

The coalition is dedicated to closing the gap between the participation of men and women, which is what this bill allegedly sets out to achieve. It is a bill that apparently makes a commitment to support gender equality and to improve workforce participation and workforce flexibility through the amendment of the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act 1999. But the practical reality of this bill and its likely impact on women is a far cry from those lofty claims. The practical reality is that the measures introduced by this bill will do little more than increase red tape for business without providing one iota of real change to the daily lives of women who are balancing work and family responsibilities.

The Gillard Labor government does nothing more than pay lip service to the issues facing Australian women. On the opposite side of this chamber, they are lining up to espouse the virtues of the changes embodied in this legislation, yet it has been more than three years since the government announced a review of the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act 1999, in June 2009. Labor claims to be making the participation of women a priority, but the truth is revealed in the number of times this legislation was pushed to the bottom of the legislative agenda in the other place and the gaping holes in what we have before us today.

KPMG provided a comprehensive report in relation to the review. It is now three years on from this review and report, and the minister has still not defined critical parts of the bill seeking to amend the act. The discretion available to the minister under this bill is excessive.

Under this bill, employers are required to lodge a public report containing information relating to gender equality indicators. 'What are these indicators?' it would be reasonable enough to ask. It appears that that is a question the government itself has not yet been able to answer, despite having years to formulate an answer and work one out. This legislation will enable the minister to develop these indicators over time. To quote the government: 'The legislation will enable the minister to set industry-specific minimum standards in consultation with industry and experts. These minimum standards will have to be determined before April 2014.' How long does it take this government to work things out? The government has had three years to develop the minimum standards, but we do not have any. Instead, we are being asked to pass this legislation and let the minister decide exactly what it means later on—just extraordinary stuff! The government is putting yet more burdens on business—more red tape—but it has not even had the decency to forewarn exactly what will be expected of business under this new legislation. What exactly will business have to report on in terms of these so-called gender inequality indicators?

Furthermore, the minister is directed to develop these standards in consultation with the agency and stakeholders. There is no mention—hardly surprising, given this Labor government's track record—of consulting with the very people who were forced to report on their adherence to these standards: the employers. There is no mention of them whatsoever. There is also no indication of what is meant by 'industry-specific standards'. Will the government seek to target particular industries? We do not know. It is ludicrous and once again shows Labor's failure to grasp how businesses operate and the impost that every extra regulation puts on businesses.

On this side of the chamber, we understand the daily pressures that businesses already face and are not seeking to increase them. In fact, with our deregulation task force chaired by my colleague, Senator Arthur Sinodinos, we are working hard to find ways to reduce the regulation the government puts on business, instead allowing businesses to get on with the job of employing people and providing quality goods and services to the community. In the current economic climate, when businesses are already stretched and doing it tough, the coalition cannot support this government interference which, at best, will just create another layer of work, another layer of red tape and more cost for businesses but which also poses a significant threat. And for what? For little gain, I would suggest. But I will return to that in a moment.

Employers are legitimately concerned about how the information they will be required to provide on gender equality indicators could be misused. The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive, Peter Anderson, raised these concerns on behalf of business earlier in the year, with the chamber explaining that: 'Employers remain concerned that unions will use this information on wage levels at a particular company to ask for industry-wide wage rises.' That is a very real concern for business, as is the thinly-veiled threat by the government that those businesses that do not meet the standards will miss out on government contracts and even, I hate to say, be named and shamed. Let me quote the minister on this:

Consequences for non-compliance, without reasonable excuse, include naming the employer in a report to the minister or naming the employer by other means.

Talk about Big Brother! It reminds me of a parent scolding a naughty child.

The ability for the agency to waive reporting requirements will also be repealed by this bill. Rather than adopting the approach advocated by the Ai Group in its submission to the KPMG review and introducing positive recognition for businesses submitting regular reports and meeting standards, the government has chosen the path of being heavy-handed. The newly named Workplace Gender Equality Agency will be given the ability to check compliance by requiring an employer to give the agency information relating to the employer's compliance with the act or the employer's performance against minimum standards. It is a watered-down version of the former minister Kate Ellis's spot checks, which she announced and then quickly back-pedalled from in 2011.

The regulatory impact statement makes it quite clear that businesses that are selected for these compliance checks will pay for it. It is expected that there will be a time burden as well as a cost burden of approximately $1,300, and it is worth noting that this figure of $1,300 is for businesses which have kept the appropriate and accessible records. So who knows what the cost implications will be for those businesses that are not up to speed on the government's gender equality indicators?

At this stage, the regulatory burden will be based on businesses with 100 or more employees. But, given this government's track record, I wonder how long it will be before small businesses are also imposed upon. The general principles of the act are expressed to apply to all employers, meaning that the agency will have scope to consider small business when developing strategies and resources. And, as I said, I wonder how long it will be before the government seeks to extend its interference and develop another layer of red tape for small business.

Mr Deputy President Parry, you may have noted the shortage of references to women in my discussion of this bill so far, and that is for a very good reason. It is because I do not believe that this bill will make one iota of difference for working women—not one jot of difference.

I have noted the increase in red tape and the prohibitive costs for businesses and the antipathy that we expect that it is likely to create.

I note that Labor have done what they always do—they have made some name changes. This seems to be a favourite tool—or, dare I say, even trick—that those on the other side of the chamber and those in the other place use. They love shuffling words around in an effort to hoodwink the public into thinking that some significant change has been made when in actual fact that is far from the truth. The government are changing the name of the act to the Workplace Gender Equality Act, they are changing the name of the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency and they are changing the director's title to Director of Workplace Gender Equality. What a farce. What a lot of words and a lot of rhetoric—but who knows what those name changes mean and how they will, in reality, improve the lives of women in the workforce?

I share the view of my respected colleague in the other place, the Hon. Bronwyn Bishop, who has been a strident supporter of gender equality for many, many years, who has extensive experience in promoting the contribution of women in the workforce and who has described this legislation as 'the sort of thing you would expect from a totalitarian regime' and something which would encourage 'tokenism and the promotion of women simply because they are women'.

While Labor have long been fans of quotas and politically correct gestures in the name of benefitting women, we on this side of the chamber realise just how ineffective and empty that approach is. In fact, tokenism, I would suggest, can have the opposite effect and in fact undermine the contributions that women make. No woman I know wants to be hired or promoted because of her gender. We want our achievements to be recognised and rewarded for what they are. Through my whole working life I have been accustomed to working in predominantly male environments—with more male colleagues than female colleagues—and I cannot stress enough how much I have appreciated, and continue to appreciate, being judged on my contributions. To be judged otherwise is personally abhorrent to me, as I know it is to my female colleagues who work tirelessly and effectively for their constituents.

Of course, countless women like me have had children and juggle family and work responsibilities. While increasing numbers of women are choosing to return to work after having children, there is still a lot more to be done to boost women's participation in the workforce. But to do this we need to introduce legislation that will have a real impact—not just words, not just changing the titles of directors—and actually change the way that women can run their lives. This is not rhetoric, and this is where the coalition's paid parental leave scheme comes in. At the core of this scheme is the coalition's commitment to maintaining the financial security of women. This scheme will ensure that women are not being paid at less than their normal rate of pay when they take time off following their child's birth. Women would be allowed to have 26 weeks of parental leave at their replacement wage of up to $75,000. The scheme also includes superannuation, to ensure that women are not, as is often the case now, disadvantaged when they retire. That is what I call equal opportunity.

To make substantive changes to women's workforce participation we need to introduce policies that encourage and enable women to have children and then return to work—not policies that punish businesses for failing to adhere to arbitrary standards imposed by a minister. That is the way forward for women. Women do not want political correctness, unless—although I hesitate to say this—you are on the opposite side of the chamber. Political correctness does not make one iota of difference to our ability to balance work and family. Women want a paid parental leave scheme that values their contributions and they need affordable childcare.

I urge the government to reconsider this legislation and to seriously consider the coalition's paid parental leave scheme—a scheme that would achieve so much that this legislation apparently sets out to do but will fail to do. The coalition remains committed to equal opportunity and increasing women's participation in the workforce, but we want to make a real difference to the lives of women—not just make a few tokenistic changes.

Debate adjourned.

Ordered that the resumption of the debate be made an order of the day for a later hour.