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Tuesday, 10 March 2009
Page: 1150

Senator LUNDY (11:00 PM) —After 11 years of neglect of women’s issues, and worse, the undermining of programs for women that had been put in place by the Labor governments of the eighties and nineties, women can again celebrate their reinstatement as equal Australian citizens. Of course a lot remains to be done, but let us look at what has been achieved in over a year since the election of the Rudd Labor government. In December of 2008 Australia was able to submit a combined sixth and seventh report on the implementation of CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. A section in the report comments on the election of the new Labor government, sworn in on 3 December 2007, which says:

… firmly committed to equality, to women participating equally in all aspects of their lives, such as work, family and community.

During its term of office, the Howard government refused to sign the Optional Protocol to CEDAW. The optional protocol enables appeal to the international committee responsible for monitoring compliance with obligations under CEDAW. Acceding to the optional protocol, the Australian government has now made, as the Minister for the Status of Women, Tanya Plibersek, said:

… a powerful statement that discrimination against women in any form is unacceptable and that Australia is committed to promoting and progressing gender equality.

To assist in this aim we have produced an education pack on women’s human rights which outlines women’s rights under treaties and CEDAW. We are reviewing legislation which affects women. The Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs reported on 12 December 2008 on the inquiry into the effectiveness of the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984 in eliminating discrimination and promoting gender equality. The Senate committee report stated:

The committee shares the view expressed by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner that:

[T]he Sex Discrimination Act matters. It matters as a tool for driving systemic and cultural change, which is needed if men and women are to enjoy true gender equality …

However, the committee has made recommendations, which after 25 years would strengthen the act and our commitment to it.

Women’s health has received a lot more attention from this government. Among the most recent announcements for new programs and services have been: a public awareness campaign to combat ovarian cancer through increasing awareness of the symptoms of the disease; new funding to enable women under 50 years of age at high risk of breast cancer, although with no symptoms, to receive a Medicare rebate for an MRI breast scan; facilities to enable greater access to antenatal and postnatal care for Indigenous women in North Queensland; a national maternity services plan to be developed with the states and territories; the development of a national women’s health policy, which will focus on preventative measures and health inequalities and will address the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, women in rural and remote areas, women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds including refugees, and those from disadvantaged backgrounds; and funding to assist new and expectant mothers with perinatal depression and to raise community awareness of this problem.

This government has three key priority areas for advancing gender equality. These are: firstly, improving women’s economic outcomes and independence; secondly, ensuring women’s voices are heard at all levels of decision making; and, thirdly, reducing violence against women. The National Council to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children set up last year is a response to the realisation that keeping women and children safe is a universal obligation and responsibility. The National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and Children is being developed with a focus on supporting victims, strengthening and streamlining the legal system and changing attitudes through education. Our aim is to change behaviour so that, increasingly, fewer women and children are threatened by violence.

Indigenous women now have a voice as we seek to develop a new relationship of trust between Indigenous people and government. We know that change must develop and be driven from within local communities. By challenging stereotypical attitudes, as this government has sought to do from the outset, we can confront problems such as community violence, for example, and go much of the way to finding new ways of tackling them.

Women are taking a more prominent role in public life. Under this government we have the appointment of Australia’s first female Governor-General and the recent appointment of only the fourth woman since Federation to be a justice of the High Court of Australia. But, as I said in an International Women’s Day speech last year, equity and not just influence must remain our goal. The percentage of women in Australian parliaments is now 30.5 per cent. In this federal parliament it is 29.6 per cent—35.5 per cent in the Senate and 26.7 per cent in the House of Representatives. Sadly, appointments to boards and to executive positions in companies are still overwhelmingly male. In fact there was a slight decline in the percentage of women appointed from 2006 to 2008. Now two per cent of CEOs in Australia’s main companies are women compared to three per cent in 2006. The percentage of women who are board directors or executive managers has also declined from 2006 levels.

In planning to improve women’s work and family life, this government recognises the need for paid parental leave and is committed to its introduction. It recognises the need also to increase pensions and the hardships suffered, particularly by single pensioners, the majority of whom are women. Inevitably in this economic climate a timetable will be set, but these are policy commitments. The government’s new Fair Work industrial relations system will give each parent the right to 12 months unpaid parental leave, or one parent may take two 12-month leave periods. In addition, the launch this month of a national initiative, the Fresh Ideas for Work and Family program, provides grants to small businesses to help them implement family-friendly workplaces which will enable their employees to better balance work and family duties. Internationally, too, this government is adopting a far more responsible and ethical approach to gender equity than did the previous government. The integration of gender equity principles into Australia’s overseas aid program has been acknowledged by the OECD. In September 2008 our Prime Minister, Mr Rudd, committed $250 million over the next four years to improve the health of women and children, focusing on aid to Asia-Pacific countries where maternal and child mortality remain high.

On Sunday, International Women’s Day, a new investment of $17 million over four years to UNIFEM, the United Nations Development Fund for Women, was announced. This government is committed to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals and realises that gender equity programs are vital to the achievement of all of these goals. I commend the work and commitment of my ACT colleague Mr McMullan, in his role of Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Assistance, and that of his staff. They are making a difference.

The goal of promoting equity and empowering women, goal 3, targets the ratio of girls to boys in each level of education, the ratio of literate women to men in the 15- to 24-year-old age bracket, the share of women in wage employment in the non-agricultural sector and the proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments. Australian aid programs have helped to ensure, for example, that when schools are built proper facilities for girls and provision for their safety are taken into account.

Millennium development goal 5 has been of great concern to us. This is the goal to reduce maternal mortality and to achieve universal access to reproductive health care by 2015. Of all the Millennium Development Goals, least progress has been made towards this objective. According to the CEOs of Oxfam Australia, CARE Australia and Save the Children Australia, the AusAID family planning guidelines set by the previous government caused a decrease in total funding for family planning programs of more than 80 per cent to 2007. To quote these heads of three of the largest Australian aid and development agencies:

This is fundamentally a development issue that is about preventing the unnecessary deaths of women in poor countries …

I welcome the announcement today of the government’s abandoning of the old guidelines to these aid programs. This aligns us with the enlightened approach of the US President, Mr Obama, who has lifted similar restrictions to US aid. Also welcome is the announcement of additional funding of up to $15 million over four years through UN agencies and NGOs for family planning and reproductive health services to help reduce maternal deaths. Much has been achieved for women in just over a year, and I look forward to continuing progress in the Rudd government’s programs to advance gender equality for Australian women and for disadvantaged women everywhere.