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Tuesday, 31 March 1987
Page: 1529

Senator RYAN (Minister for Education and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women) —I table the report of the Consultations on the National Agenda for Women 1986. I seek leave to make a statement relating thereto, to incorporate the statement in Hansard and to move a motion relating to the paper.

Leave granted.

The statement read as follows-

In November 1985, the Prime Minister made a statement in the Parliament outlining the Government's preliminary thinking on the content of a National Agenda for Women. The Government decided to develop a National Agenda to ensure that efforts made to improve the status of women during the United Nations Decade for Women, which ran from 1976 to 1985, were continued. The National Agenda will provide a basis for Government action to further the status of women as we move towards the year 2000.

In the Prime Minister's statement, he put forward a number of proposals on ways in which the Government might help ensure the full and equal participation of women in Australian society. He announced some important policy initiatives, such as the introduction of affirmative action legislation to guarantee fair and equal opportunity for women in the paid work force and the development of a national women's health policy.

The Prime Minister also pointed to areas where obstacles or prejudices still discourage or inhibit women from participating in society to the full, and where the Government believed that further action was warranted.

At the same time, the Prime Minister invited Australian women to have a say in the development of the National Agenda for Women. I led an extensive series of consultations with women all around Australia and in all walks of life last year, with the assistance of the National Women's Consultative Council.

It is with much pleasure that I today present to the Parliament a report on these consultations. Its title-Setting the Agenda-is evidence that the Government is committed to taking into account the views women in Australia have put forward in the development of the Agenda. I would first like to place on record my thanks to those women who took part in the consultations. It is estimated that more than 25,000 women participated in the process, through completing a questionnaire, taking part in meetings and conferences or making submissions themselves or on behalf of women's organisations.

Substantial agreement on the importance of several issues, particularly the need for equality of opportunity, showed that many major concerns are common to a large number of women in Australia.

I would now like to point to the major concerns and priorities identified during the consultations.

The importance attributed to education for women and girls commonly centred on its role in providing choice about future vocations or occupations. In June last year, an interim National Policy and Plan of Action for the Education of Women and Girls was endorsed by all State and Territories, with the exception of Queensland. When finalised, the national policy will provide a focus and a framework for future action on the education of women and girls by Commonwealth and State authorities. The need for post-school transitional training to facilitate the entry of young women into the paid work force, and for retraining opportunities for women to gain new skills or to update their vocational knowledge were identified as areas requiring further attention.

Issues associated with women's participation in the paid work force were mentioned in most of the submissions or reports of meetings which were received, and women responding to the questionnaire identified work-related matters as among the more important issues on the draft Agenda. These issues included the continued prevalence of occupational segregation, employment conditions such as working hours and leave provisions, and the particular difficulties faced by women who combine full time paid work with caring for a family.

Now that the Affirmative Action legislation is in place, women can expect to face fewer obstacles to achieving their full potential in their working lives. As a result of this higher education institutions and the larger private sector organisations will systematically examine their employment practices to identify and remove explicit or hidden elements which can limit women's opportunities for employment or promotion.

It was apparent that most women work in the home caring for their families from time to time throughout their lives, most often for periods when their children are young. The status and image of women who work full time in the home emerged as a significant area of concern. Many women felt that the value of the contribution made by them to the family and the community is not sufficiently recognised, and that they often suffer from poor self-esteem and isolation. The extent and importance of women's voluntary work in the community and in caring for the aged and disabled was also highlighted during the consultations.

Not surprisingly, child care emerged as one of the most important issues for the Agenda. Women commented on the availability of child care, the variety of care available, and on the costs of care. The Government is proud of its efforts to increase substantially the availability of child care places, which have more than doubled over the last four years. But clearly much still needs to be done.

Questions related to income security were a primary focus of many submissions. Common concerns related to the number of families and women who live in poverty, the question of maintenance payments, the financial position of single and dual income families with children, family allowances and the discrimination against women evident in certain superannuation arrangements. The Government is now considering the findings of the Social Security Review, which has to date focused on financial assistance to families with children, including sole parent families. Last week, the Minister for Social Security, Mr Howe, announced the Government's plans concerning the establishment of new arrangements for child support payments by non-custodial parents. These measures will improve the financial circumstances of many sole parent families.

Violence against women and children emerged as a priority concern for women. The increased funding which the Government has provided for women's refuges since it has been in office has enabled more women to leave violent domestic situations and to go with their children to a safe place. Last year, the Attorney-General, Mr Bowen, introduced the ACT Domestic Violence Ordinance 1986 and related legislation to provide greater protection for the victims of domestic violence-who are women as well as children-in the Australian Capital Territory. Similar legislation has also been introduced in a number of the States.

The way in which many advertisements continue to portray women in an unrealistic manner was highlighted, as was the still apparent tendency for women's achievements to be down-played or overlooked by the news media.

A number of participants maintained that a preventive and holistic approach to women's health was a cornerstone to achieving overall improvement for women's health in their various stages of life. Much comment focused on aspects of women's reproductive health, on childbirth and on child nurturing. Other concerns included occupational health and safety and aspects of women's mental health.

Access to appropriate and affordable housing was a priority concern for many women, particularly those who are sole parents, who are on low incomes or who are old. It is also a priority of this Government, which has provided an increased level of funding to enable State housing authorities to increase their stock of public housing.

There was widespread recognition of the needs of groups of women who often face additional disadvantages in relation to their participation in society. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, women from non-English speaking backgrounds, women with a disability, sole parents, young women, older women and women living in rural or remote areas have special needs and face additional difficulties in obtaining access to services or in participating to the full in all spheres of activity.

Other issues raised included the importance of consultation and the level of women's participation in decision making in all spheres of activity. The National Agenda consultations have demonstrated the enormous contribution that women themselves can make to the development of appropriate policies and programs. Through the National Women's Consultative Council and other consultative processes, we will ensure that the effective communication channels between Government and women in the community are maintained.

It is clear from this very brief summary of the concerns raised during the consultations that Australian women are looking to Government to continue and enhance its efforts to provide an environment in which their status and levels of participation can grow. The National Agenda for Women will be the foundation on which policies to realise these expectations will be planned and built up to the year 2000.

When the Prime Minister made his Parliamentary statement in November 1985, he was pleased to note that the Opposition substantially agreed with the direction of the Government's thinking for future action to advance the status of women in Australia.

The vote in the House of Representatives on the Equal Employment Opportunity Bill last week, however, has obviously called into doubt the Opposition's commitment in this very important area. The Liberal Party in casting off the work which its then spokesperson, Senator Peter Baume, helped to initiate, shows how the dictates of political opportunism guide its actions.

It is my sincere hope however, and doubtless that of the majority of Australian women, that we can once again secure the high level of bipartisanship that the National Agenda for Women truly deserves.

Work towards finalising the Agenda is well advanced, and I will be announcing it later this year. I commend the report on the consultations to the Senate. It is indeed a fair and detailed representation of the mainstream views of many thousands of our fellow citizens and as such it stands in marked contrast to the extremism which on this and other issues threatens to engulf members opposite.

Senator RYAN —I move:

That the Senate take note of the paper.