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Tuesday, 21 August 1984
Page: 17

Senator ZAKHAROV —My question is addressed to the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women. Is the Minister aware of a claim by Professor Levin, who I understand is touring Australia at the invitation of Women Who Want to be Women, that the Government's affirmative action program is identical to United States of America legislation? Will the Minister inform the Senate whether this claim is true?

Senator RYAN —I have been aware of some of the outrageously untruthful claims that the person referred to in Senator Zakharov's question has been making about the Australian affirmative action plan. I think it is very disappointing that an Australian organisation of women-called in this case Women Who Want to be Women- should go to the the trouble of bringing out to Australia, at whose expense I do not know, some American nonentity the sole purpose of whose visit here seems to be to rampage around the countryside insulting members of the Government, particularly me, and saying things about the affirmative action program that are totally wrong. As all honourable senators will know, and as Opposition senators will agree as the Opposition supported the affirmative action proposal-

Opposition senators interjecting-

Senator RYAN —Mr President, I must say that I find the shouts of pain emanating from the opposite side of the chamber quite surprising. The Opposition has given formal approval to the Government's affirmative action plan. Indeed, the shadow Minister for women's affairs, Ian Macphee, has accepted our invitation to be a member of the working party which will develop, in consultation-

Senator Walters —Mr President, I take a point of order. The Minister is not telling the truth on this occasion--

The PRESIDENT —Order! There is no point of order.

Senator RYAN —Mr President, I think it is time that some of the enlightened and informed members of the Opposition had words to say to their less enlightened colleague. I can understand their embarrassment. The fact is that the Australian affirmative action plan is quite different in many essential respects from programs which have been introduced in various States in the United States of America. One of the main differences is that at this stage our program is voluntary. We will eventually legislate, but we will not be legislating for court-imposed quotas to be introduced into any particular area of employment; we will be finding a way whereby large employers in the private sector can work with the Government and the trade unions to implement a management plan that will enable women employed in those firms to have equality of opportunity in employment. That is a very simple objective. The method of achieving it is not so simple because there has been a great deal of structural discrimination against women in most areas of employment.

The Government, and I am sure the enlightened members of the Opposition, have been heartened by the very positive and constructive approach to this plan that has been taken by large employers in the private sector. As is well known, 28 major companies covering a quarter of a million Australian workers have volunteered to participate in the voluntary stage of the program and make their experiences available for the benefit of women in the work force generally. The aim of our program is to remove discrimination against people in the work force, although it will be of main benefit to women, where that discrimination is based on stereotyped attitudes to sex and has nothing to do with the merit of the worker in question. It is, in some ways, a similar aim to that of the American scheme but the methods by which we will achieve our aim are totally different. I must repeat my disappointment and astonishment that any Australian women's organisation, even the Women Who Want to be Women, has gone to such trouble, and presumably expense, to bring out to Australia somebody who does not understand or refuses to understand our Government's policy and who I think is doing damage to the reputation of that organisation and anybody who provides a forum for such misleading statements to be made.