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Wednesday, 4 November 1992
Page: 2593


Mr WILLIS (Minister for Finance) (5.43 p.m.) —I move:

  That the Bill be now read a second time.

I am very pleased to move the introduction of these amendments to the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act 1986. The amendments before us today arise out of an extensive review of the Act which involved consultation with all parties affected by the legislation, including employers, unions, higher educational institutions and women's organisations. None of the proposed changes alter in any fundamental way the original intention of the Act. Contrary to the fears and concerns expressed by some people some six years ago, the Act enjoys widespread support among employer organisations, unions and the wider community. Many employers have indicated that the Affirmative Action Act has been very useful in focusing their attention on the needs of their women employees, and that there have been positive spin-offs in efficiency generated by implementing equal opportunity policies. The importance of affirmative action programs was highlighted in the recent Lavarch Committee report entitled Half Way to Equal. The Committee was categorical in its support for affirmative action programs which it stated are `integral to greater access to career opportunities for all women'. This Government wholeheartedly endorses these views and, indeed, the Bill before the House forms an important part of our response to the recommendations arising from the Lavarch report.

  The review of the Act and the findings of the Lavarch inquiry came to similar conclusions about the effectiveness of affirmative action programs. Over the last six years, the Act has played a pivotal role in winning support for the principle of equal opportunity. Independent research commissioned as part of the review found overwhelming endorsement for the equal participation of women in paid employment.  However, while there are a growing number of companies with exceptional affirmative action programs, many employers have yet to move beyond the rhetoric to institute comprehensive changes in their own management and work practices.

  The need for ongoing reform is clear. While women make up 42 per cent of the paid work force, they are often disadvantaged at work. Despite the increasing participation rate, many women are confined to a narrow range of jobs at the bottom end of the hierarchy with far less access to training, career paths and reasonable pay. Many women work part time to balance the double load of domestic responsibilities and paid employment. These women are often excluded from the benefits accorded to full time work. The predominance of women in low paid part time work is a key explanation for continuing pay inequity.

  Although it is important for government to provide the framework for change through legislation, real structural and attitudinal change has to occur at the level of the workplace. That is why the Government is absolutely committed to ensuring that, over the next few years, there will be a much greater emphasis on the quality of affirmative action programs. We will be working closely with employers, unions and other interested parties to help make equal opportunity in employment a reality for all women.

  We will do this, not only because the Government has a fundamental commitment to ensuring that women get a fair deal at work, but also because this approach is vital to the health of the Australian economy. More and more businesses are recognising that international competitiveness and increased productivity are dependent on valuing and utilising the talents of the whole work force. Outmoded personnel policies and attitudes which hold women back are against the interests of any organisation which wants to do well in today's competitive environment. Affirmative action provides the springboard for the kind of initiatives which need to occur so that women can contribute fully to their workplace—from employer supported child-care to career break schemes to more flexible, family friendly hours of work.

  Let me take a moment to contrast this Government's approach with that of the Opposition. The Opposition has said it will abolish the Affirmative Action Agency but still keep the legislation. How can the Opposition claim to be in favour of equal opportunity and simultaneously destroy the organisation which has been set up to advise, assist and monitor employer compliance with the Affirmative Action Act?

  The Opposition's policy is totally out of touch with the community. Employers have indicated their support for the agency and want it to provide them with more assistance and advice. The Opposition's policy to abolish the agency is only the tip of the iceberg. The Opposition's industrial relations policy will be particularly harmful to women because they are less likely to be members of unions and are often in low skilled jobs with little bargaining power.

  The coalition's policy would remove many women from their awards and then force them on to individual employment contracts where they could face big cuts in their pay and conditions. Women could be forced to work long hours in total conflict with their family responsibilities. In complete contrast, the Government's approach to industrial relations and the amendments to the Affirmative Action Act, recognises the importance of protecting award wages and conditions and improving the position of women workers.

Coverage of voluntary bodies, unions and group training schemes

  The amendments to this legislation are an important part of this approach and set a new direction for the Affirmative Action Agency. The Government has decided to retain the current threshold of 100 employees for an employer to be covered by the Act. Reducing the threshold at this stage of the legislation's life would divert resources from improving the quality of affirmative action reports. Instead, the agency will provide greater assistance and advice to smaller employers not covered by the Act on how to implement affirmative action programs.

  However, the Bill will remove some existing anomalies in coverage by extending the coverage of the legislation to voluntary bodies, union officials and group training schemes. The extension of the Act to voluntary bodies, mainly large private schools and charities, will be particularly important as it means that an estimated 60,000 additional employees will benefit from the Act.

Affirmative action agency as a statutory body

  The Bill changes the status of the agency to that of a statutory authority. This proposal will give the agency greater protection against the Opposition's intention to abolish the agency. It also gives legal weight to the current relationship of the agency to government. The agency is already located separately from the Department of Industrial Relations, and is directly accountable to the Minister. This has allowed the agency to develop its own identity and high profile with its client groups. By clarifying its legal status, the Government is cementing the independence and authority of the agency, while still maintaining accountability to the Minister and this Parliament.

Discretion to vary reporting requirements

  A discretion to vary reporting requirements will be introduced in the Bill. This amendment will assist in improving the quality of affirmative action programs. It provides the director of the agency with the discretion to alter reporting requirements, or waive them for exceptional performers. Such an approach requires the development of performance standards and benchmarks which can then provide the criteria for identifying those employers which have achieved best practice and exceeded expectations.

  Rather than impose these standards, a tripartite committee will be established to develop practical and reasonable standards which are adaptable to the diverse range of organisations covered by the Act. An immediate priority will be to focus on those steps in affirmative action programs which have had low levels of compliance, especially consultation with unions and employees.

  The development of standards will improve the accountability of companies for their affirmative action programs. It will also allow the agency to use the experience and expertise of high achieving companies for the benefit of other organisations. This will be complemented by the establishment of a program allowing employers to apply for grants to assist in developing best practice affirmative action programs.

  All of these amendments are part of this Government's wider program of positive reforms which recognise that women are a permanent and vital part of the Australian work force, and that they must be assured of a fair and satisfying working life. The Government has a proud record of achievement in improving the position of women in the work force. We have been responsible for providing women with legal redress under the Sex Discrimination Act and have ratified International Labour Organisation convention 156 on workers with family responsibilities which makes it an aim of national policy to balance work and family life.

  The Affirmative Action Act is an essential part of this strategy, because it recognises that discrimination against women is not merely an individual matter which can be addressed on a case by case basis, but is part of our cultural, economic and industrial heritage. The legislation is concerned with encouraging employers to remove the limitations imposed on women in a systematic and detailed way. This Bill will make the Act more effective and allow the agency to build on the achievements it has already made, particularly in the area of the quality of companies' affirmative action programs.

Financial implications

  The changes introduced in the Bill will have no significant impact on government expenditure. I commend the Bill to the House and present the explanatory memorandum to this Bill.

  Debate (on motion by Mr Downer) adjourned.