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Friday, 1 May 1987
Page: 2170

Senator REID(11.33) —For the reasons that I will outline, it is not my intention to support the Equal Employment Opportunity (Commonwealth Authorities) Bill. Senator Giles referred to the legislation as being the last link in the chain. Perhaps it would be, if it were the same as the other links. The Australian Labor Party has abused the bipartisanship to which Senator Giles referred, which, I admit, has prevailed with such legislation until the present. Senator Giles referred to the 1979 National Women's Advisory Council conference which gave strong support for anti-discrimination legislation. We have supported that legislation. It has been reiterated in this debate that the legislation goes back some time. The Race Discrimination Act 1975 is part of the history, along with the Human Rights Commission Act 1981 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1984. Reference has been made to the Public Service Reform Act 1984 and the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Bill of last year, which we supported. Now we have the present legislation, but it is not the one that links the chain.

Senator Giles also said that statutory authorities should not be left out of this form of legislation. We could not agree more with that. Senator Giles and the Labor Party will remember that in August last year when this matter was debated in the chamber, we moved an amendment to include statutory authorities. Who rejected it? The Labor Party and the Australian Democrats. They were not prepared to include statutory authorities in the legislation at that time. Let no one suggest that we have not supported this type of legislation for statutory authorities. We moved an amendment and the Labor Party and the Democrats, to their great discredit, voted against it. We were told at the time that similar legislation would be brought in covering statutory authorities, but that has not occurred.

Let us consider the pieces of legislation about which we are talking. We have heard about the clause which many people allege enshrines merit in the legislation. I agree that the principle is worded in a similar way in section 3 (4) of the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act and clause 3 (4) of the Equal Employment Opportunity (Commonwealth Authorities) Bill. The present legislation states:

Nothing in this Act shall be taken to require any action incompatible with the principle that employment matters should be dealt with on the basis of merit.

The legislation does not enshrine merit; it merely says that nothing in the Act shall be taken to require any action incompatible with it. If it were a genuine enshrinement of the spirit of merit, it would be worded quite differently. It would assert positively that merit was to be the overwhelming criterion in the promotion of anybody in the field of employment. Honourable senators may say that we did not argue much about that on the previous occasion. The previous legislation related to employers generally. This Bill gives an additional authority to the Minister. Clause 12 (1) states:

The responsible Minister in respect of a relevant authority who has elected to lodge reports with that Minister may, in writing, give general directions to the authority with respect to the performance of its obligations under this Act.

That wording is quite different from that contained in the previous legislation. It has been suggested in this debate that such a clause applies in a number of the Acts which establish statutory authorities, some of which have been mentioned specifically. Why is it necessary for it to be included in this Bill if it does not relate specifically to this Bill and the provisions contained in it? One speaker in the debate quoted the Acts Interpretation Act. I know what that means too. That is all the more reason why I question the fact that the clause has been put into this legislation when it is contained in the general legislation establishing so many statutory authorities. Merit is not enshrined in this Bill as the overriding determining factor of the employment and promotion of any person. I repeat that it merely states that nothing in the Act shall be taken to require any action incompatible with the principle of merit. If people in a position of authority do not regard merit as important in promotion, nothing in the legislation requires them positively to regard merit as a matter of importance. I think it is time people recognised that.

A further area of the legislation which is substantially different from the previous legislation needs to be considered in some detail. Under the heading `Contents of affirmative action program', section 8 (1), paragraphs (a) to (h), the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women Act, which was before the Senate last year, sets out the matters that shall be taken into account by a relevant employer. We get a similar provision, the contents of the program, in clause 6 of the Bill which we are now debating, which also deals with a number of similar provisions. But then we get to a stage where it is significantly, substantially and, I say, fatally different. Clause 8 (2) of the Bill introduced last year states:

An affirmative action program of a relevant employer may contain any other provision that the relevant employer thinks fit that is not inconsistent with-

(a) a provision required by this section to be included; and

(b) the purposes of this Act.

Sub-paragraph (iii) then describes a forward estimate. A forward estimate needs to be defined because it is referred to in paragraph (g). It states:

`forward estimate' means a quantitative measure or aim, which may be expressed in numerical terms, designed to achieve equality of opportunity for women in employment matters, being a measure or aim that can reasonably be implemented by the relevant employer within a specified time;

Who could argue with that? It continues:

`objective' means a qualitative measure or aim, expressed as a general principle, designed to achieve equality of opportunity for women in employment matters, being a measure or aim that can reasonably be implemented by the relevant employer within a specified time.

We did not argue with that; we supported it. Let us go back to the Bill which we have before us today and look at the clause which differs. It does not go on in the same way to sub-clause (2) as does the previous Bill; it deals with these matters under paragraphs (g) and (h). As has been conceded by an opponent of our position, someone who intends to support this Bill, numbers are intended. I agree that specific numbers have not been set, but the powers of the Minister referred to in clause 12-also referred to in clause 11-are not far from powers enabling a Minister to stipulate what the numbers will be. Clause 6 states:

A relevant authority shall provide for action to be taken:

That is covered in paragraph (a) to (f). Paragraph (g) states:

to set:

(i) the particular objectives to be achieved by the program; and

(ii) the quantitative and other indicators against which the effectiveness of the program is to be assessed.

The numbers are to be important. The word `and' being different from the word `or' in the previous Bill is absolutely significant and absolutely crucial. To suggest otherwise is quite absurd. Paragraph (h) states:

to monitor and evaluate the implementation of the program and:

(i) to assess the achievement of those objectives; and

(ii) to assess the effectiveness of the program by comparing statistics and information collected and recorded under paragraph (e) with the indicators against which the effectiveness of the program is to be assessed.

In this Bill it is quite clear that the numbers have a priority which they did not have previously. Senator Vanstone has put the matter quite simply and graphically. I guess she will do so again when she speaks. If a person is before a magistrate or a judge whose powers in relation to sentencing are to impose a fine or a goal sentence, that is very different from a person facing a magistrate or a judge whose obligation is to impose a fine and a goal sentence. Senator Vanstone put her finger quite neatly on the difference between these pieces of legislation when she described the differences in these provisions in that way.

I want to refute any suggestion that the Liberal Party's position in relation to being totally supportive of equal employment opportunity for women is not beyond reproach. A number of issues which we have brought in indicate this. In 1976 the Women's Welfare Issues Consultative Committee was set up to advise the Minister for Social Security on issues relating to special welfare needs of women. In 1976 we established the Office of Child Care within the Department of Social Security. In 1976 we introduced the family allowance scheme which replaced the child endowment arrangements at increased rates. In 1978 there was the extension of rehabilitation services to housewives. In 1979 eligibility for pensioner health benefit was extended to single parents and dependants. In 1980 the Commonwealth took full responsibility for single parent pensions and dropped the State six-month qualifying period. In 1983 there was the family income support scheme to assist low income families.

There have been a number of other actions. In 1976 we introduced equal treatment for female public servants under the Superannuation Act. In 1976 the Liberal Prime Minister suggested women's units in Public Service departments to consider the concerns and rights of women in formulating policy and administering programs. They were set up in the Department of Education, the Department of Social Security, the Attorney-General's Department, the Commonwealth Schools Commission and the Australian Development Assistance Bureau. In 1976 the Interdepartmental Working Group on Women's Affairs was established as a formal avenue for co-ordination between departments and to monitor the progress under the world plan of action of the United Nations Decade for Women. In 1976 the Women's Film Fund was established to provide support for investment in films for, by and about women. The Shopfront Information Service and the Office of Women's Affairs were established in 1978. The Women's Advisory Body Working Party led in 1977 to the establishment of the National Women's Advisory Council which held the very successful conference in 1979 to which Senator Giles referred earlier. Up until 1982 the Liberal Party had attracted the greatest percentage of women members of this Parliament.

Our record is clear. We have supported the legislation up until now because it has very clearly been offering equal employment opportunity to women. This legislation goes far beyond that; it enshrines affirmative action. It is a pity that we have the legislation in this form, because honourable senators must remember that it was our proposition that the statutory authorities be included last year when the matter was debated and we moved an amendment in that form. I believe the form of this Bill downgrades the position of women. I think it is offensive. If it were the same as it was last year, we would be supporting it.

Another confusion is whether or not the legislation has been referred to the Business Regulation Review Unit. It certainly is legislation which we were led to believe would be referred to the Business Regulation Review Unit. The Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Button, this week indicated that the Government had had the chance to have a look at it. I think that was the way he put it. But an answer given by the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations (Mr Willis) in the other place, I think also this week, would indicate that the Government had not looked at it. That is also a matter going to the credibility of the Labor Party that really needs to be cleared up when this matter is finally addressed.

It is with great disappointment that I tell the Senate that I will not be supporting this legislation because it is not the same. It does something that is quite different and embarks on a different course. That being the case, we want statutory authorities to be under the same provisions for equal employment opportunity for women.