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Friday, 1 May 1987
Page: 2197

Senator TOWNLEY(3.12) —We are debating the Equal Employment Opportunity (Commonwealth Authorities) Bill 1987. The outline of the explanatory memorandum to the Bill states:

The purpose of the Equal Employment Opportunity (Commonwealth Authorities) Bill 1987 is to require certain Commonwealth authorities employing 40 or more employees to promote equal opportunity in employment for women and members of designated groups by developing equal employment opportunity programs. Aboriginals and descendants of indigenous Torres Strait Islanders, migrants whose first language is not English and their children, and the physically or mentally disabled are included in the definition of designated groups.

At the outset I have to say that I have always supported legislation that goes towards equality of opportunity, and I believe that the Liberal party of Australia has done that. I quote from the platform of our party under the heading `Women'. It states:

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

That seems to me to be pretty clear. The quotation continues:

Removal of remaining areas of discrimination against women.

In the section headed `Employment' it is stated:

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.

Of course, many of the people in the designated groups would be covered by that. That is the position in the Liberal Party platform. I believe that we should be consistent in what we do in this matter. We all know, because it has been said so often, that the Liberal Party supported the Public Service Reform Act 1984 and the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Bill of 1986. The all important and much discussed merit clause is enshrined in both the 1986 Bill and the 1987 Bill. So I do not believe that there is much credibility to the argument that has been put that there is a move in this 1987 Bill towards quotas. I do not believe that that argument can be sustained.

I just wish to speak briefly about women in the work force because that is really the matter on which this debate has developed. The fact is that 46.3 per cent of all women are in the paid work force and 38 per cent of the total work force are women. So we should ensure that the actions that we take in the Senate lead to genuine equality of opportunity.

Senator Crichton-Browne made what I thought was a very good point earlier today when he said that sometimes legislation can make a situation worse. He mentioned that people may say that some women or disadvantaged groups have been given jobs purely to make the situation look good. Of course, if that did happen, the legislation would be making the situation worse for the very groups that we are trying to assist. That is one argument that I believe has some merit. It is something that the Government should watch and ensure does not happen. If it does seem to be happening, action should be taken. Maybe I am too simple but to me the meaning in the merit clause is obvious. It is clause (4) on page 3 of the Bill, and it states in pretty plain English:

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.

To me that is very plain. I believe a person just entering high school would know what it means. I believe it overrides sub-clause 6 (g) which, to be consistent, I will also read:

(g) 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.

Some people have said that that means that there will be quotas. I do not believe that that is the case. We also have to remember what the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations, Mr Willis, said in his second reading speech. I point out again to the Senate that, if there were a court case on this matter, this is something that the courts would have to take into consideration. Mr Willis said:

I wish to emphasise the programs are not intended to lead to, and will not lead to, positive discrimination. The Bill expressly confirms that employment matters are to be dealt with on the basis of merit, and the whole thrust of the legislation will strengthen the merit principle, by ensuring the review of any existing discriminatory personnel or employment procedures.

That is something that the courts could take into account if any action were taken under this Bill. I believe that if we in the Liberal Party vote against this Bill we will not be consistent. I believe this Bill is a small step towards the aims in the Bills that I mentioned earlier and that we supported on other occasions. I remain to be convinced of any sound reason why we should not support this legislation as we supported previous legislation, notwithstanding the fact that the amendments that we are seeking may not be supported and accepted by the Government.

Last night we heard some pretty severe criticism by Senator Peter Baume of certain people in relation to this Bill. I believe he spoke very eloquently on many matters and I refer all people to that speech, which starts on page 2131 of Hansard. I would like to help as much as I can towards justness, fairness and equality for all Australians. I believe this Bill to be a small step towards that aim, both for females and others in Australia. Progress towards fairness should always be gradual; we do not want to change things in the community too rapidly. That was one element that that caused the previous Australian Labor Party Government to come unstuck. It came into government and tried to make changes much too rapidly and the people of Australia showed that they did not like that kind of attitude.

However, this legislation is not rapid change, and it is something that I thought we would have supported. I have to say that I am unconvinced that the legislation is so bad that the Liberal Party should reverse its policy attitude, and so I will support the legislation. Of course, I would like the amendments to be carried-but if they are not, I will still support the legislation.

I know that the chamber would like to vote today. In closing, I wish to say that our reasons for rejecting the legislation are specious. I do not believe that it imposes quotas. The merit principle is virtually the same as that which we supported on previous occasions. Therefore, I shall support the legislation at the appropriate time.