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Friday, 1 May 1987
Page: 2159

Senator HILL(10.21) —I support legislation of this type because it accords with a major Liberal principle that it is the responsibility of government to act towards the objective of ensuring equality of opportunity within the whole community. Pursuant to that principle and objective my Party supported in 1984 a Bill for equal opportunity within the Public Service, the Public Service Reform Bill, and similarly supported the provisions of the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Bill 1986, which were to provide for equal opportunity programs within institutions of higher learning and private sector institutions employing more than 100 employees. I see this Bill dealing with statutory authorities as a further step towards the completion of the package of legislation that is necessary to cover different types of employers.

In this speech I want to deal in a little more detail with the consistency that I see in this Bill with those that have been previously passed and with the general principles upon which our support of such legislation in the past was based. There have been three Bills in the last few years requiring employers to design programs to better ensure equal opportunity for women within employment. Because of the limitations of time I will concentrate in my presentation today on equality for women rather than other groups referred to in this Bill which are equally important and deserving of my time.

The first of the three Bills I mentioned contained amendments to the Public Service Act which were passed in this place in 1984. They relate to the obligation of the Commonwealth Government as an employer. The employment programs set out were to ensure that appropriate action was taken to eliminate unjustified discrimination against women and persons in designated groups in relation to employment matters in departments and to take measures to enable women and persons in designated groups to compete for promotion and transfer and pursue careers within departments and within the Public Service generally as effectively as other persons. That is a laudable objective and to be applauded by all in this place. Steps were to be taken towards achievement of this objective by the development of programs and by the collection of data. Programs were to be developed to enable women to be better informed of the opportunities open to them-perhaps to better avail themselves of educational opportunities.

Of course, necessarily, provisions were to be included within a program to assess the effectiveness of it; by comparing information collected in relation to the results of the program with the indicators against which the effectiveness of the program was to be assessed. The program was to include the quantitative or other indicators against which the effectiveness of the program was to be assessed. That provision was included for obvious reasons. It is only half the battle to implement a program; the next step is to see whether it is working. That can be done really only in quantitative terms. If the sectors of the community covered by the Act are to be given equal opportunity in a way that works, we would expect that to be seen in positive results. In this instance, in the case of women, we would expect to see more women over a period achieving higher status in the Public Service than in the past. Under that provision the Board may make recommendations to the relevant Secretary of a department. The Public Service Board may issue guidelines to the Secretary. Consistent with the three Bills of this package, the measure could only be described as soft legislation. It contained provisions for the giving of guidelines and general recommendations but did not give power to any authority to demand achievement of numbers within a specified period. It certainly was a mild piece of legislation but its objective was clear.

The second Bill in the series was the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Bill 1986. As I have said it was to apply to higher education institutions and to private employers with more than 100 employees. That Bill required the development of programs designed to ensure that appropriate action was taken to eliminate employment discrimination against women by relevant employers, and the relevant employers were required to promote equal employment opportunity for women. This legislation, firstly, requires the elimination of existing discrimination and, secondly, investigation of measures to ensure equal opportunity for women in relation to employment matters. What are employment matters? Under the legislation they are matters that relate to the recruitment procedure and selection criteria for appointment or engagement of persons as employees, the promotion and transfer of employees, the training and staff development of employees, and conditions of service of employees. Under the programs employers would have to consider these matters to see whether within employment and conditions of service there was existing discrimination. If there was they were to remove such discriminations and also to look at positive ways in which, within these criteria, programs could be developed to promote equal opportunity for women.

I must stress at this stage that in developing these positive programs there was, nevertheless, a clear and unambiguous overriding provision in section 3 (4) of the Act which states:

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

So there is an obligation to develop positive programs towards the objective of equal opportunity. But when it comes down to the bottom line, there is nothing in the Act that obliges an employer to override the principle of merit. The principal objective is promotion by merit but the objective of the Act is to get certain women into a position where they can better compete on merit.

This second piece of legislation goes on in similar terms to the first Bill I have referred to. It deals in greater detail with the form of the program that might be set up. I will not be able to deal with that aspect because of the time constraints today. But it is important for me to mention again that the legislation includes a methodology for attempting to determine whether the program is proving to be successful. Section 8 of the legislation states that a program shall provide for action to be taken `to set objectives and make forward estimates of the program' and of course, `to monitor and evaluate' the program. Employers are required to make a forward estimate of what they might be able or be seeking to achieve and this is further defined in the provisions of that Act. The Act 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; `objective' means a qualitative measure or aim, expressed as a general principle . . .

So steps were taken in the Act that we passed in 1986 towards the objectives of making quantitative assessments as to whether the program has proven successful or otherwise. Of course, if it has not proven successful perhaps the program itself should be reconsidered. In this instance the Director of Affirmative Action is to issue guidelines and monitor the effectiveness of affirmative action programs. The employer must lodge public reports and, in some instances, may lodge confidential reports. From those reports some assessment can be made of the quantitative achievement of the plan or otherwise. Again, this legislation can only be described as mild legislation that has an overriding merit provision.

The third Bill in the package is the legislation before us today-the Equal Employment Opportunity (Commonwealth Authorities) Bill 1987. As is indicated by the title, this Bill applies to certain Commonwealth authorities. The program in relation to women in the legislation is similar to that in the other legislation. It is defined as eliminating discrimination by, against and-again the positive-promoting equal opportunity for women and persons in designated groups. As I said earlier, I am concentrating on women in my presentation today. There is an obligation on Commonwealth authorities to eliminate discrimination and to promote equal opportunity, but to do so-and I stress this again-not in a way that appointments will be made other than on merit. In this Bill we find another merit clause which is in exactly the same terms as in the previous legislation. Clause 3 (4) 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 contents of the program in clause 6 are again listed in similar terms-that is, to consider policies and examine practices that might identify policies or practices that discriminate against women and to consider any patterns, whether ascertained statistically or otherwise, of lack of equality of opportunity in respect of women or persons in designated groups. and so on. Again, there is some attempt to try to determine in quantitative terms whether a program has been successful. This is a provision which I would, expect to be included in a Bill of this nature. Clause 6 of the program states that the program shall provide for action to be taken:

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;

Again, I stress that there is little point in having legislation of this type to overcome cases of discrimination that have existed in the past and to devise positive programs towards the objective of equal opportunity if we do not provide some method of assessing as to whether in practice that legislation is proving successful. Such a provision is included in this Bill as it was in the previous legislation. It is important to note that, on any objective assessment, the three Bills, that is the two that are law and the one that is before us today, in no way can be said to impose quotas. In other words, they do not impose upon an employer the obligation to appoint someone to meet a quota irrespective of merit. I remind honourable senators of these two overriding merit provisions that are stated in such clear and unambiguous terms in second and third pieces of legislation. If the Bill before us included quotas in the sense that I have just referred to, I would be opposed to it because to appoint someone on a criterion otherwise than on merit is, of course, unfair to those with greater merit. To put someone in a position where they are better able to compete on merit is a laudable objective. I would have thought this objective would have been supported by this chamber.

This legislation makes employers consider positively what needs to be done to ensure that women have equal opportunity within the work force. We need to ensure that women have a fair opportunity to compete for all positions. To create the circumstances of equal opportunity is a principal objective of Australian liberalism. We on this side of the chamber have great faith in the capacity of individuals to contribute to all facets of society to the maximum of their potential provided they are given equality of opportunity. Therefore, it follows that we see it as a function of government to take action to develop such programs as may be appropriate in all the circumstances and as may be necessary to meet the objective of equality of opportunity. We believe that if all Australians are put a position where they can individually contribute and achieve to the maximum of their potential, the sum of their contributions will be the most we can expect from this nation.

There has and still remains a need for positive programs to ensure that women have equal opportunity to compete at higher levels of employment. This is a reflection of educational failings of the past. So often it was not considered necessary for girls to have the same level of education as boys because it was not perceived that they would have the same job responsibilities. There have been great improvements, I readily concede, but there are still shortcomings. I could go into the detail that I have discussed in previous speeches on this subject, but I will not. However we still see, for example, a lower percentage of girls studying subjects such as maths, the sciences and so on. Positive programs within schools are necessary to remedy these failings.

There has also been a cultural failing. Girls have not grown up with the expectation that they have the right to compete for all jobs at all levels. As a result, there has been a shortage of role models. Obviously it is always more difficult to be the pioneer, to be the first. Unfortunately, in so many areas, these cultural errors continue. One small example that I come across from time to time is that in most co-educational schools boys sport is still seen as more important and deserving of more emphasis than girls sport, so of course opportunities are lost.

There are always exceptions; there are always those who achieve against the odds. But what I find sad is that so often it seems that those who succeed against the odds do not see a need for others to have the benefit of extra help. The old process was: `If I succeeded, so can she'. Unfortunately, I have to say that in so many ways women seem to be their own worst enemies. They seem to judge other women by a different and often higher standard than men. I see it in my small world of politics, for example, in preselections. Women electors seem to judge women candidates for preselection more harshly than they do men. The need to break down these cultural shortcomings of the past remains evident.

As I have said, there have been improvements. There are now more women in senior positions, but only in relative terms. Again, returning to my own experiences, within the last week or so I sat as a member of an Estimates committee of the Senate at which not only members of the Department of Communications, but also personnel from a number of major statutory authorities, appeared. I noted that, of the 30-odd senior officers who appeared before us, only two were women. Regrettably, those sorts of percentages are typical at those high levels. What I want to stress is that there is still a long way to go.

How can this situation be changed? It can be changed by changing people's attitudes-by educational programs, by lifting expectations and by those who have succeeded against the odds proving effective role models for those who may not have the same confidence or determination, or whatever causes them not to try. It is towards those goals that Bills such as this can play a role. They force employers to think about whether women have an equal opportunity to succeed and to achieve their maximum potential and, if they do not, to look at ways in which they might be assisted.

Mr Acting Deputy President, you may say to me that a good employer would be doing this in any event, and such is obviously the case. This legislation will not burden such an employer. But, unfortunately, not all employers fall within that category. There are others who need to be encouraged by mild leads from the Australian Parliament, such as the passing of legislation of this type. To put all women in a better position to win promotion by merit is the objective of this legislation. That is consistent with what I understand to be Liberal principles. It is the type of legislation that I would have anticipated we would introduce were we in government, and I certainly would be encouraging it.

I have answered one myth-that, because one woman succeeds, help for others is not necessary. I want to deal very briefly with the other myth, which is that this type of legislation in some way downgrades the role of homemakers. It does not. It in no way prejudices those women who choose a career of non-paid work, keeping a home and providing full time care for children. We recognise that those women make a financial sacrifice for what they see as the most valuable contribution they can make to society. Of course, we must have great respect for them, particularly today when it has become so financially difficult to survive on that basis. This Bill does not prejudice their position. It does not help them either, but it is not designed for that purpose. They may not have a fair opportunity to make the choice that they wish to make, but that requires other reforms to meet their reasonable demands. That is similarly consistent with Liberal principles. Society does not equate their contribution in financial terms; perhaps it should. Reforms in taxation would be a step in the right direction.

As I draw my remarks to a close, I remind the Senate of what I have said today-that my Party supported the previous two Bills, the 1984 Bill and the 1986 Bill. This Bill is a logical progression. Further than that, my Party even called for it. It is in similar form to the 1986 Bill, principally because it retains the overriding merit principle. I would like to see the amendment that we have moved today succeed. If, from my years of interpreting legislation in legal practice and since, I am correct in my belief and my interpretation of this legislation that there is no significant difference in the wording of the method of assessing the result and achievement-that is, the estimates of quantitative assessment-both the Government and the Australian Democrats would have nothing to lose by accepting our amendments and accepting the identical words that existed in the 1986 Bill. If they did that, it would enable my Party as a whole to vote in support of this Bill. I would have thought that was something that both the Labor Party and the Australian Democrats would want because, obviously, the wider the support one can get within the Parliament for legislation of this type, the stronger the message, the stronger the sign that is given to employers that they should be seriously considering the objectives included in the legislation. Regrettably, I fear that for short term electoral advantage neither the Australian Democrats nor the Australian Labor Party in this place will accept those amendments. I think that is sad. However, if that is the case, consistent with my principles and consistent with the position my Party has adopted in the past, I will have no choice but to vote in support of this Bill.