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Tuesday, 8 March 2005
Page: 36

Senator STEPHENS (3:02 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Family and Community Services (Senator Patterson) to questions without notice asked today relating to women.

I acknowledge, as Senator Patterson and others have today, that today is International Women’s Day, so there was no surprise that many of today’s questions related to the social and economic circumstances of women. My question to the minister today related to the government’s proposal to change the mechanism for setting the minimum wage, which protects the income of low-paid women. We were talking of nearly one million women—965,000—who are protected under state and federal minimum wage awards. What do we know about the pressures that are confronting these women?

First of all, we know the importance of the minimum wage and that a boost to minimum wages is the key to sustaining a decent standard of living for Australia’s growing number of part-time and casual workers. The majority of low-paid workers are women. Increasing the minimum wage is an important means of reducing the gap between male and female wages. Many figures were thrown around the chamber this afternoon about the bridging of that gap. But the reality is that women’s wages are significantly lower and as such are also a significant disincentive for many women with children to work, who also face high child-care costs and the loss of the family tax benefit as their income increases.

What is the government’s response? First of all, in December the federal government moved to delay the ACTU national wage case, with Mr Andrews arguing that the Industrial Relations Commission would be wiser if it waited until after the May budget before its hearings began. At the time Mr Andrews said, ‘It makes sense for the AIRC to delay its hearings on the national wage case, until it has all the available economic data at its disposal.’ I was very pleased today to hear that we have a $10 billion budget surplus, which means that the ACTU wage case could be considered, in all of its aspects, to be a fair and generous approach to the low-paid wages of Australians.

But Mr Andrews was not prepared to stay there. He also suggested that one of the Howard government’s options was to slash the minimum wage, by removing the AIRC from the process altogether. The AIRC currently complies with the legislative directive to maintain a safety net of minimum wages and conditions, according to living standards that are generally expected by the Australian community. As part of its safety net assessment, the AIRC currently takes into account average weekly earnings, the balance of payments, inflation and productivity. The current system also allows a range of organisations, including the Reserve Bank and the Productivity Commission, to participate in a wage case assessment.

The minimum wage set by the AIRC is designed to protect the wages and entitlements of Australia’s lowest paid workers. It also acts as a mechanism to limit the wage divide between Australia’s highest paid and lowest paid workers. Perhaps Senator Patterson has also decided to adopt the Business Council of Australia’s view that fairness in the relationship between employers and employees is not a public policy priority. That is certainly not what Labor thinks about this issue. Labor believes that the ACTU’s claim for a minimum wage increase of $26.60 a week is a very fair and justifiable claim. The case would lift the federal minimum wage from $12.30 to $13 per hour. It would also increase the federal minimum wage from $467.40 to $494 per week or in fact $24,370 to $25,757 per year. Labor believes that low-paid workers need a decent wage rise and that their needs and their concerns must be protected by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission.