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Thursday, 26 March 1987
Page: 1561

Mr STEELE HALL(11.42) —My first reaction to the Equal Employment Opportunity (Commonwealth Authorities) Bill, thinking of it in the context of the confrontation which goes on continually between the Government and the Opposition as the Opposition sets out on its role of testing Government legislation, was to think in the wider terms of macroeconomics and say that the best thing the Government could do for Australia would be to take moves which would benefit all Australians. The best move the Government could take would be to reduce interest rates, which are a burden around the neck of every householder and every businessman in this country. The deleterious effects of interest rates reach into every home; they reach every person. However, having said that and knowing that it would be the best prescription for Australia in the macroeconomic area, I am aware that, despite my hard line attitudes to Government finance and my continually held view that we should not operate on a national deficit, that does not take away my obligation to view this Bill which deals with matters of a more social nature as I see it ought to apply to the Australian community.

After all, despite the hard times that Australia is, I will not say enjoying but passing through, hopefully, we still have an obligation to deal with all matters in the community in a balanced approach to legislation. Therefore, I look at the Bill and assess it on its own merit, rather than on the basis of any continued argument on other matters. Upon my reading of the Bill I must view it as an extension of existing principles put to this House in other times. To me it is very little different in its effect from the Bill that passed this House last year, in 1986. To remind me of the debate on last year's Bill I read the pages of Hansard and found some interesting quotations. I noted that the spokesman for the Opposition in the House at the time said:

The Opposition does not object to this legislation because we accept wholeheartedly the principle of equality of opportunity for women.

The Leader of the Opposition, speaking later in the debate, said:

The Opposition totally supports the concept of equal opportunity.

To be fair to his speech I must say that the Leader of the Opposition went on to indicate that under his leadership the Opposition would not have brought in the Bill. After reading Hansard I turned to the platform of the Federal Liberal Party to determine the basic tenets of the Party in relation to the matters which are dealt with in the Bill. I read the following portion under the heading `Women':

Women to have equality of opportunity and freedom of choice to engage in political, civil and community activities, employment and education.

More importantly, the quotation continues:

Removal of remaining areas of discrimination against women.

I quote the following excerpt from the section headed `Employment':

Jobs should be open to all those capable of meeting the employers' specific requirements without regard to sex, age, race, disability, politics, or religious beliefs.

I subscribe to those views contained in my Party's Federal platform without hesitation and without amendment. I believe that they set the scene for an approach to this Bill. I sincerely believe, as I have said, that this Bill is little more than the Bill which was presented last year. You will remember, Mr Deputy Speaker, that the Leader of the Opposition then said:

The Opposition will test the bona fides of the Government by moving amendments to include within the ambit of the legislation women who are employed in statutory authorities.

So, whilst the Government would not respond then to the request of the Opposition to include statutory authorities, the Government is now, in this Bill, responding to it. There are some differences in wording between last year's Bill and this year's Bill. I guess that the main question overhanging all this is whether our attitude towards voting on this Bill is consistent with how we voted last year. My colleague the honourable member for Parkes (Mr Cobb), who spoke earlier representing the National Party of Australia, gave every indication in his speech that he would have liked to have voted against the Bill last year. I cannot see why he did not, given his speech here today. It seems to me that his remarks apply equally to last year's legislation as to this year's legislation.

In examining this question I suppose that one has to take note of the remarks of the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, the honourable member for Menzies (Mr N.A. Brown), yesterday when he foreshadowed amendments and moved an amendment in regard to this Bill. He said that if the amendments were not passed the Opposition would vote against the Bill. I notice that his main quibble is dealt with in an amendment to the motion for the second reading of this legislation which seeks to have the legislation referred to the Business Regulation Review Unit on the basis that it might add a new cost to business and, therefore, comes within the ambit of the Government's policy announced in January or February, I think, this year. However, I ask the Deputy Leader of the Opposition,-I ask as a Liberal member of parliament-whether this Bill has been referred to the appropriate Liberal Party women's body. Has it been referred for consideration by what I think is called the `Federal women's committee'? My inquiries lead me to the conclusion that it has not been so referred, which underlines very significantly the quality of the amendment moved by the Deputy Leader. However, in a spirit of trying to accommodate everyone in the debate on this Bill I am willing to vote for the amendments I have so far seen proposed by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition. I am not as concerned as he is about the matter of amendments. I turn to the statement I made in 1984 when I spoke to the Sex Discrimination Bill and said:

My support of the Sex Discrimination Bill has not been dependent upon the acceptance of the amendments . . .

I adopt the same attitude to this Bill. My support for the Bill is not dependent on whether the amendments are passed by the House. But to accommodate the views of members on this side of the House who are disturbed by matters that disturb me little, I am nevertheless willing and happy, I suppose, to support the amendments which are proposed and which, as I have said, I have seen so far. I will await the argument that develops around those amendments. I hope perhaps to partake in those discussions.

However, the crux of the matter is to examine whether this current Bill is significantly different from the Bill that was passed here last year without a division at the second reading stage. One question needs to be mentioned which I find absolutely overriding in this quest of examination. The Bill of 1986 so approved had in it, under the heading `Interpretation' in sub-clause 3 (4), the following definition relating to merit:

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

I looked to see whether the new Bill had the same major safeguard, and I found that it has. Under the heading `Interpretation', also in sub-clause 3 (4), are these words:

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.

I draw the attention of the House to the fact that these sub-clauses in both instances are in the `Interpretation' clause. They are not listed at the end of the Bills in some miscellaneous throw-away line; they are in that part of the Bill that would be examined first by the judge of a court who might be asked to decide what the meaning of this legislation is. The first thing such a learned gentleman would do would be to go to the interpretation clause. In both this Bill and last year's Bill there are identically meaning clauses; there is some alteration to words, but with identical meaning and identical importance. So, overriding every consideration in this Bill is the matter that any employment will have to be dealt with on the basis of merit.

The second major contention that seems to activate some of my colleagues' minds is the matter of the so-called imposition of quotas. I went to last year's Bill, which we approved of, and looked at that issue of quantitative attitudes in the Bill. I found that sub-clause 8 (1) (g) of the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment for Women) Bill 1986, under the heading `Contents of affirmative action program', states:

(g) To set objectives and make forward estimates in the program;

Then in sub-clause 8 (3) there is a definition of these forward estimates. 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.

That is a fairly definite definition, if I can use that term, of what forward estimates were to be. In this Bill the reference is made somewhat differently, in these terms:

the quantitative and other indicators against which the effectiveness of the program is to be assessed;

Another sub-clause states:

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.

The reference in this Bill to quotas, which is so freely used, is `the quantitative and other indicators against which the effectiveness of the program is to be assessed'. I submit to the House that, whilst the wording is somewhat different, it has no further effect than the words that I read from last year's legislation, where forward estimates were to be a quantitative measure or aim.

If my colleagues see some minute difference, that is their business, and of course they can vote accordingly. But I cannot accept that the question of merit is in anyway overridden in this legislation. I cannot accept that quotas have been set that must be adhered to regardless of merit. Of course, quotas are set by the statutory authorities themselves. It is their program; it is not some outside authority setting quotas that are to be arbitrarily and dictatorially applied to those statutory bodies. So, for me the criticism falls away.

I must say to honourable members that, if I were in the position of directing this program, I would adopt a more educative attitude. I would not be forcing the pace as much as it is being forced in the Bills that have been brought to the House in these successive years. I would take a longer term view. I would have a similar aim, guided by the principles contained in the platform of my Party; but I would have a longer aim of an educative and educational program.

However, the Government has brought in this legislation and I do not intend to vote against it, symbolic though that may be in a House in which, of course, it will be automatically carried. I do not intend to symbolically vote against it in an attempt to lose the benefits of this Bill to the Australian community of women. Therefore, I will support the Bill actively by voting for it in the House. I do so, believing that the way honourable members vote is a signal to the women in the Australian community. Whilst, as I have said, I am sceptical of programs forcing the pace beyond that which the community is willing to accept and develop, I nevertheless believe that the signal that the Parliament gives to women to help them take their rightful place in the community, free of discrimination, is extremely important. I believe that that signal is more important than the actual detail of the Bill itself.

I again sum up my views: I believe that this legislation does not hold the faults that the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, who spoke for us, says that it does. Let me say that I do not believe that it imposes quotas. I do not believe that in any way merit is overridden in relation to decisions on employment. I believe that those who maintain that those two things are otherwise are misrepresenting the Bill. Therefore, as I voted for last year's Bill, I believe that I would be totally inconsistent in voting against this Bill. Whilst at times in my political history a consistent attitude has been a painful attitude or, should I say, has resulted in some political turbulence, I do not intend to depart from voting in a consistent fashion on this occasion, and I say that I will support the Bill.