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Thursday, 26 March 1987
Page: 1549

Mrs SULLIVAN(10.34) —The Equal Employment Opportunity (Commonwealth Authorities) Bill, which we are debating this morning, aims to promote equal employment opportunity in those areas of Australian Government employment that are not already covered by the Affirmative Action (Equal Opportunity for Women) Act 1986 or by section 22b of the Public Service Act 1922. In leading for the Opposition last night, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, the honourable member for Menzies (Mr N.A. Brown), made the following statement:


that is, the Opposition-

must make it plain that we support genuine equal opportunity in employment and the removal of discrimination, as we supported them in 1986.

The Liberal Party has a proud record of supporting equal opportunity for women. I support the statement to that effect made by my Deputy Leader yesterday. I also support the statement made by the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations (Mr Willis) in his second reading speech when introducing this Bill:

Equal employment opportunity assumes that freedom of choice of occupation is a basic social right which should not be constrained by criteria unrelated to ability to perform the job.

It promotes efficiency by avoiding waste of talent and underutilisation and underdevelopment of human resources which result from discrimination.

That is an absolutely unexceptionable statement from the Minister and one with which I and, I am sure, every other member of the Opposition agree. It ought also to be pointed out that the Liberal Party of Australia, in government and in opposition, has a long tradition of acting on this. It was as long ago as the period of the McMahon Government that the first equal employment opportunity office was set up by a Federal government-quite a long time ago.

The honourable member for Canberra (Mrs Kelly) referred to some of the achievements of the Hawke Government in relation to women. I point out that it was the Fraser Government that signed the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and was aiming for ratification of it in negotiation with the States at the time that it lost government. It had also declared that it would introduce a sex discrimination Bill. When that Bill was introduced by the Hawke Government it was generally supported by the Opposition. We had some differences on detail and sought to move some amendments, but the principles were supported.

So, the Liberal Party and the Opposition have much to be proud of in their record in relation to women. In debate last year on the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Bill, as the honourable member for Canberra rightly pointed out, we were critical of the fact that the Government had been so slow to extend equal employment opportunity provisions to statutory authorities. Now, some months later, we have the legislation. Of course, in the meantime, as the Deputy Leader of the Opposition pointed out, the Minister for Industry, Technology and Commerce, Senator Button, issued a Press release of 9 January this year. It read:

Senator Button said any new government proposal affecting business must be cleared with the Business Regulation Review Unit and if necessary the department making the proposal is required to supply a Regulation Impact Statement.

Senator Button said, `the Government is committed to a review of business regulation with a view to winding back those regulations not offering a net benefit to the community'.

Under the system of review, before Cabinet considers a major new proposal for the regulation of business, it will be necessary for the Business Regulation Review Unit to be fully consulted.

I agree with the Deputy Leader of the Opposition that it is extremely unfortunate that the Government has nevertheless proceeded with this legislation without that review having taken place. The Opposition has moved an amendment to the motion for the second reading of this Bill to substitute the following words:

`this House is of the opinion that the Bill not be proceeded with until it has been examined by the Business Regulation Review Unit in accordance with the procedures announced by the Government on 9 January 1987 for the review of government proposals affecting business regulation and until the Department of Employment and Industrial Relations prepares a Regulation Impact Statement on the proposals contained in the Bill'.

I will support that second reading amendment. It is unfortunate that in relation to this Bill the Government did not comply with its high and lofty ideals as expressed by the Minister for Industry, Technology and Commerce last January. I can see no reason for the Government, having delayed this long in relation to statutory authorities, not to do that before proceeding with the Bill. After all, the Bill does apply to corporations such as the Commonwealth Banking Corporation and Qantas Airways Ltd-statutory authorities that are in business. It would be reasonable for us to know from a review what the impact of this legislation would be on those businesses.

The Deputy Leader of the Opposition made a number of criticisms of the Bill last night and I shall refer to them very briefly. One of them was the failure of the Government to act in accordance with the statement made by its Minister for Industry, Technology and Commerce. Another criticism was that, from the definition of the Bill, it appears that it could extend not only to employees but also to independent contractors. One would expect the Minister to be very clear in his response to that. It should not be the intention of this Bill that independent contractors be affected, under a Bill that is intended for statutory authorities, past the scope of the affirmative action legislation of last year.

Another criticism was that the Government has said that, in applying this Bill to what are referred to as designated groups, additional designated groups will be determined by regulation. I do not support extension of legislation as fundamental as this by regulation. If there is a good reason for extending the present application of the Public Service Act in relation to designated Acts, it ought to come before this Parliament for debate. As indicated by our Deputy Leader, we are also concerned about the reporting requirements. The honourable member for Canberra made some reference to this in her speech. Whilst I accept what she said in her speech, I must say that I am--

Mr Hand —Come on, Kathy, come over this side where you really want to be.

Mrs SULLIVAN —Where was the honourable member for Melbourne yesterday on the Australia Card? Just wait for it. What the honourable member for Canberra said was fair enough, but I want to know from the Minister why reports to the Public Service Board are able to be confidential whereas reports to the Minister must be tabled under the legislation. Statutory authorities will have a choice. It is their choice whether they report to the Minister or to the Public Service Board. If they do not indicate an election they must automatically report to the Public Service Board.

I know it is possible that there is an issue of commercial confidentiality related to these reports. I am only hypothesising because I have had no explanation as to why there would be a difference in the reports. If that is so, I point out to the Government the procedures followed by Senate Estimates committees which do require information from statutory authorities in relation to their employment practices. An authority can claim that giving that information would affect its commercial considerations, under which circumstances it is entitled to have its evidence heard in camera by a Senate Estimates committee which then decides whether there is a commercial application. On many occasions Senate Estimates committees have decided that statutory authorities were being too cautious by half and have required that information be given on the record and in public circumstances. There is not one occasion that I am aware of where a statutory authority has subsequently claimed that it has been damaged in its commercial operations by virtue of being required to give evidence publicly.

I would have infinitely preferred a situation parallel to the Affirmative Action Act where business makes two reports-one which is confidential and which can contain that information which it would not want available to its competitors, plus a public report. I can see no reason why that should not apply under these circumstances. In any event, the option of reporting to the Public Service Board is one that ought to be treated very sparingly indeed because statutory authorities do occupy a privileged position in our society under legislation and they should be fully accountable in matters such as their employment programs.

I have some difficulty in accepting the point of view that this Bill provides for quotas. I take on board the arguments put forward by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition. I have read the Bill, the explanatory memorandum and the Minister's second reading speech, and I have re-read the Affirmative Action Act very carefully. I do not read them in the sense that they provide for a quota. However, the Deputy Leader has asked for an explanation in relation to that and I am sure that the Minister will be forthcoming on it. I notice that in the Minister's second reading speech he made the statement:

I wish to emphasise the programs are not intended 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.

If the programs are not intended to lead to quotas-and I will accept that this is the Government's intention-I would like the Minister to very carefully point out why the changes in wording in this legislation do not amount to providing for quotas. The Minister referred to the merit principle and I would like to place on the record what this Bill says in relation to that. 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.

That was a critical clause in relation to the Opposition supporting the principle of the Affirmative Action Act last year. I would like to hear from the Minister, if there is any room for debate about the wording of the Bill that would lead to a suggestion of quotas, whether clause 3 (4) would override other clauses. The difficult clause, as I understand it, is 6 (g) which provides 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;

I believe that paragraph (g) should be read with paragraphs (f) and (h). Paragraph (f) asked for the program to provide for action to be taken:

to consider policies, and examine practices, of the relevant authority, in relation to employment matters to identify:

(i) any policies or practices that discriminate against women or persons in designated groups; and

(ii) any patterns (whether ascertained statistically or otherwise) of lack of equality of opportunity in respect of women or persons in designated groups;

Paragraph (h) states:

to monitor and evaluate the implementation of the program and:

(i) to assess the achievement of those objectives; and

(ii) to assess the effectiveness of the program by comparing statistics and information collected and recorded under paragraph (e) with the indicators against which the effectiveness of the program is to be assessed.

I believe I have discerned recently that, unfortunately, a large number of people do not understand what an equal employment opportunity program is. They do not understand that at some point it has to be quantified. If we do not count heads and assess whether people are not progressing on an equal basis through a career structure we are implementing the program by the seat of our pants and we have no ground for alleging discrimination or otherwise. It is only when we compare like with like and decide that there appears to be an inordinate number of people in a particular category or receiving promotion that we can, in fact, determine whether action is necessary. That is also necessary to determine, to some part, what sort of program we must implement to achieve equality in the work place. It is also necessary, once we have implemented a program, to determine whether it is having any effect-in other words, whether we have the correct program; whether we have properly identified the unintended obstacles to promotion or even employment.

So the quantification is necessary at some stage. Statistics are necessary. Time does not allow me to give examples of that, but they are particularly obvious in the Public Service and statutory authorities where there is a very structured system of progress through different ranks and where there are pretty clear definitions of qualifications for certain jobs, whether they are qualifications by education or experience.

I think that it is worth referring to the explanatory memorandum to the Bill and what it says about the contents of clause 6, because that is the critical clause and it is the essential stumbling block for some of my colleagues in their consideration of the Bill. Clause 6 outlines the contents of the program. According to the explanatory memorandum, the contents of the clause are as follows:

Clause 6 sets out eight specific elements which must form part of an EEO program. Each paragraph outlines certain minimum requirements of a program, which are:

(a) to inform employees of the contents of the program and the results of any monitoring and evaluation of it;

That is perfectly reasonable, and indeed it is essential that, if there is an EEO program under way, employees know there is one under way and they know how it affects them. The explanatory memorandum continues:

(b) to confer responsibility on a person or persons with sufficient authority and status in the authority to be able to develop and implement the program properly-

that ensures that the program will happen-

(c) to consult with trade unions which have members who will be affected by the program;

That is not unreasonable in our present industrial structure. In any event, it is a good idea, in our present structure, to have the unions on side, because the unions of this country have been one of the biggest stumbling blocks to the advancement of women.

Government members-Rubbish!

Mrs SULLIVAN —They have indeed. In the matter of equal pay, in which I was involved 20 years ago, the greatest difficulties we had in arbitration and in court was persuading unions to take any notice of it at all. Their record in recent times in relation to redundancies and layoffs is anything but proud. Paragraph (d) states:

. . . requires consultation with employees, particularly women or persons in designated groups;

Paragraph (e) states:

. . . applies to the collection and recording of relevant employment statistics and related information;

Paragraph (f) states:

. . . reviews policies and practices to identify those which discriminate against women and persons in designated groups and any patterns or lack of equality or opportunity for them;

That ties in with paragraph (g), which states:

. . . setting program objectives as well as quantitative and other measures of effectiveness;

Both are essential. Paragraph (h) states:

. . . monitoring and evaluating the implementation of the program and assessing both the achievement of its objectives and its effectiveness . . .

All I can say about paragraph (h) is: Why have a program if one does not do that?

My time has almost expired. I want to indicate in summary my attitude in relation to this Bill. There is some uncertainty, I gather, as to when we will actually vote on this Bill today. I wish to inform the House that before the Autumn session commenced in February, I sought and was granted leave from the House today as from 2 o'clock in order to attend an important electoral function.

Mr Hand —Oh, you won't be here.

Mrs SULLIVAN —If we vote before lunch, I shall be here. However, I may not be here, in which case I will tell the House what I would have done if I had been here. It is my intention to vote for the amendment to the motion for the second reading. I agree with the criticisms made by my Deputy Leader-I have reiterated an outline of them in my own speech-that the House is of the opinion that the Bill be not proceeded with until certain things happen with it. If, however, the Minister could give satisfaction to me in the matters I have raised in relation to quotas, if he can make it very clear that this Bill does not, would not and could not apply to quotas, I would not vote against it. Having voted, however, that the Bill be withdrawn, I cannot really contradict myself in my second vote; I would abstain. But I say very clearly that I support the principles of the Bill. I do not believe it applies quotas and, if it does not, under those circumstances it would have my support.