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Thursday, 26 March 1987
Page: 1552

Mr DUNCAN(10.54) —I am pleased to rise to speak in this quite extraordinary debate that is now before the House. I think the people of Australia deserve to be made clearly aware of just what is going on in this Parliament this morning. The first thing I understand is that the Liberal Party spokesman on the status of women, Senator Peter Baume, has just resigned from the shadow Cabinet. If that is correct-I have no reason to doubt that that is not the case-we can see on the Opposition benches at least one person who shows a modicum of principle and enough guts to stand up for those principles, unlike the honourable member for Moncrieff (Mrs Sullivan), who just spoke a moment ago and who gave a speech which clearly indicated that she strongly supported the principles of the Equal Employment Opportunity (Commonwealth Authorities) Bill but that she had been kowtowed into voting against it.

We heard the greatest lot of nonsense yesterday and this morning about what is wrong with this Bill. I can tell the House that there is no doubt at all that if this Bill had agreed in every last detail with what the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, the honourable member for Menzies (Mr N.A. Brown), wanted, the Liberal Party would still have voted against it simply because of the fact that the National Party tail is wagging the Liberal Party dog. That is exactly what is happening and that is what will continue to happen. I make the point to honourable members that even before Joh Bjelke-Petersen has arrived here the National Party is in the situation of running the Liberal Party. With the resignation or sacking, whatever it was, of Peacock a little earlier in the week and the departure of Senator Peter Baume today, the Liberal Party is starting to look more and more like the United Australia Party-a rag-tag of political opportunists slowly collapsing and declining in circumstances not dissimilar to the way that the United Australia Party collapsed.

There is another very interesting parallel too, and this Bill brings it out and underscores it. The United Australia Party was laughingly described as `united'. There was nothing united about it; it was a rag-tag, as I have said, of political opportunists and the like just clinging together under this political label. What have we got here? This gang on the other side called the Liberal Party. Nothing could be more illiberal than the fact the members of the Opposition, or most of them, are planning to vote and speak against this piece of legislation which is nothing new to this country now. It is nothing new in that the principles have already been enshrined in legislation in various States of the nation; the principles have been enshrined in legislation to deal with the Public Service of this nation; and the principles have been enshrined in legislation to deal with the private sector in this nation. They are now being applied to the statutory authorities run by the Commonwealth. What do we find? Members of the Liberal Party have suddenly changed their spots on this particular matter. They voted with us not just to apply it to the Public Service; they voted with us to apply it to the private sector. And now when we want to apply it to the statutory authorities, organisations such as the Australian National Airlines Commission and the like, what do members of the Liberal Party do? They get up in this Parliament and say that they are not prepared to support the legislation any longer.

It is very clear what has happened. Members of the Liberal Party, who at one time or another were able to show some modicum of Liberal principles, are no longer able to. They are clearly acting like a gaggle of hypnotised chooks. They have been hypnotised by the people in cockies' corner from the National Party. I think it is a disgrace. I know that those people who are still in the Liberal Party, who do have some principles and who are people of genuine, small `l' liberal bent will be ashamed and humiliated by the way that they are being dragged into this Parliament to speak and vote against the legislation that the Government so rightly has brought in. It will be very interesting to see how many of those people who claim to be of principle and to support a genuine small `l' liberal approach to society and life and the nation's government will be prepared to come in here and show that they have got sufficient guts to vote in favour of this Bill to provide equal opportunity in employment for people who work in Commonwealth authorities.

As I said, it is very sad indeed to see the honourable member for Moncrieff, who spoke before me, indicate that she has not got sufficient guts to take that step. It was very interesting to hear her. In some respects I felt quite sad for her. I was not going to say anything against her, I might say, until she decided to pad out her speech by getting stuck into the unions. Union bashing is the only defence that those opposite seem to have. I heard the honourable member talking about the proud record of the Liberal Party in relation to equal opportunity, employment and the like. How extraordinary it is for somebody who is about to rip the record book to shreds by indicating that she was going to vote against this legislation that she would appeal to something called the proud record of the Liberal Party in relation to this matter. I really find that that was quite a little act of hypocrisy, the likes of which we have not seen for quite a while.

Members of the Opposition agree that there should be equal employment opportunity, but they will not vote for it. Is that not extraordinary? I remind the people listening to this broadcast and the members of the Parliament that this Bill does not apply only to equality of opportunity between the sexes but applies also to the handicapped, to Aboriginal persons and to Torres Strait Islanders. When one considers that this Government is trying to do the decent thing, the right and the honourable thing by those people, those disadvantaged groups-in many cases minority groups in the community-to find that the Liberal Party is opposing this Bill in these circumstances is indeed pretty extraordinary. But it is not extraordinary to honourable members who have read this morning's newspapers.

I am very glad that the Leader of the Opposition, the honourable member for Bennelong (Mr Howard) has come in, chewing his fingernails. I am hardly surprised that he would be doing that because in the circumstances he has got plenty of problems. He ought to have plenty of problems because it is one of the shabbiest pieces of political chicanery that I have seen in the years that I have been in politics for a party to turn around and throw out the door the principles that it has supported for the last 10 years simply because-I point this out to the people of Australia-the National Party happens to be having a Federal conference this weekend. Apparently, it was important to the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Howard) and his ilk to ensure that they did nothing to upset the right honourable member for New England (Mr Sinclair) and the National Party. As I said, they are acting like hypnotised chooks and the sooner the Liberal Party falls apart, collapses and enables a genuine Liberal Party to form in its place, the better the whole nation will be.

I find the Opposition's behaviour pretty reprehensible because this is a very important piece of legislation. It is not the first time that I have spoken in a debate of this sort. I have spoken on many occasions in support of equality of opportunity in employment and on equality of opportunity in society generally. I believe that one of the greatest achievements of the past 15 years of politics has been the way, slowly but surely, a reasonable degree of equality of opportunity has been achieved in this nation. We have been able to move slowly-too slowly for my liking-firstly, to remove the legislative barriers that stood against women, against the handicapped, against Aboriginals, against Torres Strait Islanders and other minority groups. Secondly, we were able to pass legislation which has given those groups a fair go. That is what this legislation is all about; it provides a fair go for the disadvantaged groups in our society. The legislation that moved in this direction initially was the South Australian legislation introduced in 1976. It dealt with sex discrimination. I was the Attorney-General of South Australia at that time, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to implement the administration for that legislation. Since that time, anti-discrimination and equal opportunities legislation has been passed in all the States-surprisingly, however, except for Queensland and Tasmania! Queensland people are denied this sort of basic right, which we believe should be the right of every Australian, simply because Bjelke-Petersen and his ilk are the gang that run that State at the moment. I am quite sure that as soon as they are removed from power the rights that have been established everywhere else in the nation and that this legislation is intent on establishing for Commonwealth employees in statutory authorities will be established in Queensland. Tasmania also drags way behind the rest of the nation in that matter.

Until yesterday I would have been pleased to say that support for this legislation has been bipartisan. The saner elements in the Liberal Party have prevailed previously in at least some matters. Governments of both political persuasions have seen fit to promote equal opportunities and human rights, and to play a role in forming public opinion. Sadly-and I say this with great feeling-we now are obviously in a position where the bipartisan approach that has been taken in this Parliament in the past will not continue.

When I spoke on this subject in the House last April I outlined very briefly how the concept of equal opportunities had changed over the past decade. I do not want to go over that again, but I think it is worthwhile pointing out that equal opportunities will not be attained merely by the removal of legislative barriers which discriminate or underpin discrimination. Clearly, an interventionist approach is necessary to ensure that efforts are made to overcome the barriers which discriminatory legislation erected, and to encourage people to review their attitudes; attitudes, which I might say developed in a specific social context which is no longer with us, and are, therefore, no longer appropriate, notwithstanding the desires of some of the more backward members of the National Party and the Liberal Party to hanker for the past.

I reiterate another point I made in my earlier speech that equal opportunities and affirmative action are two sides of the one coin. Given the fact that biases and prejudices abound about the ability of women in particular-and these are sociologically understandable because of the types of attitudes to which we have been subjected in the past, there is a definite need to counter these views. As we all know this Bill will extend the provision of equal employment opportunity into many areas of Australian government employment not covered by the Affirmative Action Act or the Public Services Act. It means that the majority of Australian government employing bodies will be required to develop equal opportunity or affirmative action plans. This in turn means that serious attempts to eliminate discrimination against women, those of non-English speaking backgrounds, Aboriginals, Torres Strait Islanders, and disabled people will have to be made. I do not think it can be pointed out too often that equal opportunity and affirmative action strengthens the principle of merit by ensuring that everyone with ability is considered in employment and that extraneous, irrelevant issues, biases and prejudices are not part of the basis of employment practices.

Under the provisions of this legislation, Commonwealth statutory authorities will be required to develop equal opportunity plans from 1 July this year. The Bill establishes minimum requirements which must be met in the development and implementation of the plans, which must also be developed in consultation with employees, particularly women and members of the designated groups, and with relevant trade unions. This consultative process and the need to identify those factors which are discriminatory in the policies and practices of the organisation, will be of major benefit to the operations of statutory authorities. Recruitment and selection procedures, promotions and transfers, training and staff development, and conditions of service will all be reviewed in developing equal opportunity plans.

Under the plans, objectives will be set and quantitative indicators of effectiveness of the program will be developed to monitor and evaluate the success of the plan. This will mean, of course, that plans that are developed will have to be constantly reviewed to ensure that they are meeting their objectives. Equal employment opportunity-as with other parts of this Government's commitment to equal opportunities-is not a token measure but is one which will be taken very seriously. We expect that it will deliver positive results which will benefit women, members of designated groups, and the community in general.

As I pointed out earlier, this is the second time that I have been able to support equal opportunity legislation in this Parliament. Of course, the Hawke Labor Government in its first term amended the Public Service Act to provide the mainstream Public Service with legislation to provide for the development of equal employment opportunities. As honourable members know, there will be further legislation to bring the final few Commonwealth government employing authorities-those in the primary industry area I understand-into line with the previous legislation. I hope that this will not be too long in coming as I believe this to be an important area of reform and one which should not be delayed any longer.

I have already referred to the quite extraordinary affairs that are going on in this Parliament at the moment. I find it quite incredible that the Liberal Party, which has, as the honourable member for Moncrieff said, had a proud record of supporting equal opportunity legislation, but now it has done a complete about-face and will now oppose the legislation. I do not think it matters very much what is said by members of the Liberal Party. Australians will hear the most extraordinary twisting and circuitous arguments over this legislation from the Liberal benches. There is no doubt that most of the Liberals who get up will try to attack the fine detail of the legislation. They will say that the t's are not crossed or that the i's are not dotted-that sort of thing. Honourable members know how these people carry on. When it gets to the bottom line it is a question of who will put their hands up, who will vote in favour of equal opportunity legislation and who will vote against it.

The personal explanations and the bleatings that one will hear from the other side over this matter do not change one iota the fact that people, who previously stated that they believed in equal opportunity legislation, and who wanted to support it and were proud to do so, have been turned around, had their principles twisted and their credibility ruined simply, purely and utterly because the National Party has made it very clear that it opposes the legislation. The Leader of the Opposition is in such a difficult situation that he, for his own political survival, has had to chop the principles involved in this legislation to pieces and get his Party to vote against it. It is a disgrace and Australians ought to know that.