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Friday, 10 May 1985
Page: 2098

Ms McHUGH(4.15) —On 1 August 1984, the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act came into force. This great reforming step taken by our Government to improve the status of women in our community was welcomed by the vast majority of Australians. We can now begin to assess the early results of having that Act in operation. I congratulate the Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pamela O'Neil and her team at the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission for their excellent and dedicated work in implementing this important piece of legislation. Ms O'Neil and her staff have not only worked hard to see the sex discrimination legislation enforced and fairly administered in this country but also worked to ensure that the community is well informed about the importance of this legislation in guaranteeing the democratic rights and freedoms of all Australians. Their work is particularly impressive when one considers the acrimonious and objectionable rhetoric of the vocal minority who opposed the Sex Discrimination Act. One remembers their usual scare tactics and their dire predictions of the end of society. In fact, we see that, far from destroying society, the Act is reforming discrimination that did exist.

In the first six months of the Act's operation 380 formal complaints were lodged with the Human Rights Commission. Seventy per cent were on the basis of sexual discrimination, 20 per cent on marital status and 10 per cent on pregnancy. Over 60 per cent of complaints were in the area of employment, with 15 per cent of these being cases of sexual harassment. Fifteen per cent were for discrimination in clubs, 15 per cent in the provision of goods and services, with the remainder in other areas.

It is very sad to see that many complaints of discrimination on grounds of pregnancy came from women who worked in service areas such as shops or travel agents, where their employers told them they did not 'fit the image' the company wanted to present to customers. Women who choose to have children are performing an invaluable service to our society, yet somehow there are still people who stick to the archaic view that when we are pregnant we are not fit for public exhibition.

When the Sex Discrimination Act was debated in this place, there were those who irresponsibly propagated a view that it would only serve the interests of middle class career women who liked kicking up a stink on the job. But the facts now show otherwise. In the area of employment, the majority of complaints come from young women in traditional occupations. They work in shops and offices and are often not members of unions. So the Sex Discrimination Act is often their only protection against unscrupulous employers. There were also a significant number of complaints from men-complaints which the fearmongers said would never be heard.

Our Government is concerned that all Australians should have equal rights, unlike those who would rather see glaring cases of discrimination quietly ignored. Complaints from men are common in the area of discrimination on grounds of marital status, such as when an employer provides different kinds of housing for married and single workers. For example, in the past our defence forces provided houses, on or off bases, for married employees, whereas single employees were obliged to live in a room on the base. The situation was bad particularly for divorcees with shared custody of children, whom nobody could expect to accommodate in a single room. This situation is now being redressed.

It is important to point out that about 95 per cent of complaints under the Sex Discrimination Act are resolved through the Human Rights Commission's informal conciliation process. In other words, the overwhelming majority of cases never reach the point where they have to be dealt with in public hearings. Most complaints do not want or need to go through the trauma of public tribunal hearings which are often sensationally reported in the media. All they want is the dignity and respect that should be the right of all Australians.

The Commission has had a very eager response to the assistance it can offer to residents of States where there is no sex discrimination legislation. The Western Australian Government will soon implement its own anti-discrimination Act, but there is little hope of action from the Queensland or Tasmanian governments. This means that inequities will continue to arise where people, such as State government employees, cannot be covered by the Federal Act and will continue to be subject to sexual exploitation.

It is the experience of the Commission that the Act is overwhelmingly supported in the community. Far from wrecking the fabric of our society, the Sex Discrimination Act has provided a means for ordinary people to stand up for their basic human rights. I commend the Commission for effectively working towards fairer and more equitable living and work standards for all Australians-not just the privileged few.