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Thursday, 13 September 2012
Page: 6885


Senator URQUHART (Tasmania) (13:50): I resume my speech. I believe I was partway through the story of conservative broadcaster, Mr Alan Jones, in his attempt to vilify women leaders who do so much for our community. Speaking on air with a coalition senator a few weeks ago, Mr Jones said:

She—

referring to Prime Minister Gillard—

said that we know societies only reach their full potential if women are politically participating …

He went on to say:

Women are destroying the joint—Christine Nixon in Melbourne, Clover Moore here—

in Sydney—

Honestly.

But modern Australian women were too smart for Mr Jones's cheap jibe. In droves, women turned to Twitter to converse about the great role played by women leaders in our community. I encourage all to take to Twitter and continue the conversation.

There is a strong economic case for achieving gender equality. Closing the gap between women's and men's workforce participation could boost Australia's gross domestic product by up to 13 per cent. Two of the primary concerns and most significant costs of business relate to attracting and retaining talent and understanding and accessing consumers. By ensuring an equitable proportion of women within an organisation's workforce and providing appropriate pay and conditions, business can manage these concerns. In Australia, as in most industrialised nations, the cost of staff turnover is one of the largest business costs for all types of organisations. Research has shown that, by improving gender equality in the paid workforce, organisations and businesses may perform more effectively. Through a collaborative approach between business, government and employees, we can cash in on this windfall.

That is why this act will focus on educating and supporting businesses to change their culture and advance gender equality in their workplaces. Under the proposed legislation, the names of the act and agency will be amended to reflect a new, more encompassing focus on gender equality. The objects of the new Workplace Gender Equality Act will highlight the expanded coverage to men.

Family types are moving from the old make-up, which typically was a male primary breadwinner and a female secondary income earner and primary carer. As such, legislation must move with society, and this new act will better reflect how Australian families live and make ends meet. In doing so, the act will increase focus on caring responsibilities and the importance of equal remuneration to gender equality. With this new name comes an additional $11 million over four years, funding that represents a doubling of the agency's budget. That represents the Labor government's commitment to pursuing gender equality outcomes, and that is targeted to provide practical help and advice to employers.

In her contribution to this debate, Senator Cash made a number of assertions that need correction. Senator Cash claimed that coathanger legislation, as she called it, would see the minister making arbitrary decisions without consultation. Senator Cash claimed that there was too much ministerial discretion in setting reporting matters and minimum standards under the legislation. Let us be very clear here: both reporting matters and minimum standards under the legislation will be set by disallowable legislative instrument. This means each and every reporting matter and minimum standard will be able to be scrutinised by parliament and by the public. I am very confident that, when Minister Collins asserts that she is committed to ongoing consultation throughout the implementation of the legislation, she means it.

Minister Collins has been widely praised by the sector for her work on this legislation so far. YWCA Australian Executive Director Dr Caroline Lambert has commended the government for taking action to strengthen the tools for gender equality in the workplace. She said:

YWCA Australia welcomes the focus in the Bill on caring responsibilities.

…   …   …

This legislation will contribute to real change in the lives of women and men in workplaces across Australia, and we look forward to its passage in the Parliament.

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick said in a media release that the bill was a strong step towards improving women's workforce participation and thus closing the gender gap in Australia's workforce.

A classic example of the need for this bill is evidenced through my personal experience. Women were employed as non-permanent in the workplace where I worked in the early 1980s. 'Weekly hire' was the term used. This practice permitted the employer to terminate your employment at a week's notice. The factory would operate from mid-January until the end of November. Men were employed as permanent, but most of the women could only get the weekly hire work. Annual leave was taken by the permanent staff over the shutdown period. The women would be terminated. You would have the lead-up to Christmas, hoping that in January you would get a call back when the season started the next year. You never knew if you had a job from one year to the next.

When my kids were young, and of course there were school holidays over the summer with our glorious mid-20 Tassie summer days, the kids would ask, 'Can we go to the beach today?' Nowadays, a casual employee with a mobile phone or an answering machine could keep their kids happy, but, in the days before people even had answering machines, every time the kids asked that innocent question—'Can we go to the beach today, Mum?'—I would have to ask myself whether I could risk missing a phone call from the factory to start work. It was a difficult decision on a lovely sunny day: to stay home and wait for a call that may not come or take your kids to the beach. Some would say it was an easy decision; it was not easy when you were waiting for work, when you wanted to contribute, when you needed to contribute to your family's budget. If a worker missed that call, they may not hear from the factory for another week, another month or at all. It was truly a situation where employees and, in particular, female employees were inputs to the factory process, not humans with families to care for and lives to lead.

When a woman managed to land a job at the factory, the inequity only became worse. The jobs were in wage groups of 1 through 6. Group 1 was the highest wage rate within the award structure at the time. Women were only paid up to group 3; men were paid up to group 1, even though in many cases the jobs were similar in skill. Wage inequity at the factory was exemplified in the production area. A machine operator on one side of a freezer tunnel was paid a group 1 wage. The job was to operate a machine prior to the product going through the tunnel. There were no female operators in this area, but on the other side of the tunnel the machine operators were all women and all paid a group 3 wage. The machines were different, yes, but the skills required to run them were the same.

In the early 1990s, the women took a stand. They supported their union to take this workplace inequity to the Equal Opportunity Commission. After conciliation, 24 women were given permanent jobs. It was identified through this process that women worked on average around 1,900 days before being offered a permanent position. That is over five years, and that was the average—we know an average gives birth to some ghastly outliers. Of course, the average figure for men was much lower. At around 120 days, men would do half a year's work before landing a permanent position.

We are here to continue to change this culture—to continue to recognise that Australian workers should be paid a fair wage for a day's work, regardless of their gender, regardless of anything apart from their skills. This bill represents the next step in that process. It encompasses reforms to enhance frameworks for reporting, assistance to business, increased employee engagement and fairer compliance. The requirement for organisations to develop workplace programs has been removed. Employers will report against a set of gender equality indicators focusing on outcomes. Online reporting will be introduced. Reporting, while clearly easier for business, will also be more meaningful and useful. It will provide employers with the capacity to assess and understand gender equality within their workplaces, to compare year by year and with other workplaces within their industry. Relevant employers will no longer need to provide descriptions of their policies and programs. Instead, employers will report against gender equality indicators focusing on tangible outcomes and practices. The indicators are included in the legislation and, over the next 12 months, government will consult further with key stakeholders to develop precise wording for each. The agency's advisory and education functions will be enhanced. The contemporary data focus will allow the agency—

Debate interrupted.