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Wednesday, 16 August 1989
Page: 154

Senator REYNOLDS (Minister for Local Government and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women)(3.28) —I welcome the opportunity to participate in this matter of public importance this afternoon. It gives me the opportunity, if anyone on the Opposition benches is interested, to table the National Agenda for Women: Implementation Report. Senator Newman has made a great play of rhetoric and said that the Government has not done enough. The Government is prepared to scrutinise closely its record in terms of the National Agenda for Women and in tabling this document I invite Senator Newman to read it and see what progress has been made. Unlike Senator Newman I would not boast and claim that all has been done for Australian women. That is probably because so little was done by predominantly Liberal-National Party governments over the last many years. I would not talk too loudly if I were Senator Newman about the Opposition's policies-what we know of them-in relation to the status of women.

Senator Newman started by talking about high interest rates; asking what we were doing for single women; and asking what we were doing about prices and child-care-a rhetoric of accusations. But what does the Opposition intend to do about interest rates? I have a press clipping here from the Australian of 3 August. `Mortgage Relief Not on the Agenda' says Senator Newman's Leader. Fifteen million dollars was added to the mortgage rent relief scheme.

Senator Newman —What about the rank and file of Australian families?

Senator REYNOLDS —I challenge Senator Newman to go out into the marketplace in Tasmania and talk to her constituents, to ask them which they would rather have-`Mortgage relief not on the agenda, says Peacock', or $15m additional to what the Hawke Government gives. That is the first thing that demolishes Senator Newman's arguments about interest rates because she, as the Opposition spokesman, cannot come up with any alternative.

Secondly, she goes on about what we are doing in relation to child-care, what we are doing in relation to planning for single parents and for older women. Let me challenge her to detail her child-care policy. I have never heard of an Opposition child-care policy. Where is its equal opportunity policy? When will it be released? Will the Opposition maintain the family allowance supplement? Senator Stone, who unfortunately is not in the chamber-I do not suppose he is very interested in debating the status of Australian women-is very keen on demolishing assistance to Australian women and their families. Senator Newman is the one who lacks substance. She gets on her feet and does nothing but criticise the Government in terms of what it is doing in relation to the status of women. I must admit that I think I would prefer Senator Newman's colleague from South Australia to be the Opposition spokesperson. At least Senator Vanstone made her position quite clear in a statement to the Liberal Women's Convention-I think it would have been last year-when she quoted the Opposition's former leader, John Howard, saying, `What unites us is greater than that which divides us'. That was her response to dealing with the National Agenda for Women. I have always remembered that particular comment from Senator Vanstone because, for all the questions and the disagreements that we might have across this chamber, I believe that Senator Vanstone is committed to the National Agenda for Women. I imagine that she could be relied upon to fight for it to be implemented under the unlikely possibility of a coalition government. What does Senator Newman say about the National Agenda for Women? I will be closely checking the Hansard, but I did not pick up anything that indicated that Senator Newman, as the new Opposition spokesperson, was in the least bit interested in maintaining a commitment to the National Agenda for Women.

It is of great concern that an Opposition spokesperson is not prepared to give bipartisan support to the National Agenda for Women. Around this country Australian women recognise that the Hawke Government has been the first government to develop comprehensive policies for women and to be prepared to monitor how those policies are implemented. It is well known that the Australian Government is the first to adopt the United Nations Forward Working Strategies towards the year 2000 in terms of recognising the need to lift the status of women around the world, and the Australian Government is proudly the first government to implement its own Forward Working Strategies through the National Agenda for Women. It is also the first government in the world to produce a women's budget. Senator Newman is long on rhetoric about all the alleged sins of the present Government.

Senator Newman —Answer the facts, Senator. There are plenty of facts you have to answer.

Senator REYNOLDS —I am coming to those facts in plenty of time. Senator Newman was very light on facts. We did not get anything of her policies. I come back to the fact that this is the only government that has been prepared to introduce comprehensive status of women policies. I now come to the implementation report. I challenge Senator Newman to come into this place and tell me three things: Firstly, will she guarantee that the Opposition will adopt, on a bipartisan basis, the National Agenda for Women? Secondly, I ask her, because she made such efforts to denounce the work of this Government, to come into this chamber and, on behalf of the Opposition, detail what her alleged government-she is boasting that the Opposition could be in government-would do about breast cancer screenings?

Senator Stone sits over there saying `Cut, cut, cut'. John Hewson continually talks about cutbacks in expenditure. What would the Opposition do in the area of women's health policy? Would it be maintained? Finally, in regard to these three challenges I would like to know precisely what the Opposition's child-care policy is. Again, we hear absolutely nothing about the Opposition's child-care policy, about whether the Opposition would be able to maintain the very fine record of the Hawke Government. I certainly am extremely sceptical.

Far from failing Australian women, this Government is encouraging and supporting them and presenting them with real choices in their lives. When the Government came to power in 1983, only 44 per cent of girls completed year 12; now almost 60 per cent complete year 12; very recognisable progress. In 1983, the unemployment rate for women was 10.4 per cent. By June this year it had fallen to 6.6 per cent; again, clearly an improvement in regard to job opportunities for Australian women. By 1992 this Government will have provided an extra 98,000 child-care places, trebling the number of places available in 1983.

Under this Government the standard pension has increased by 8.3 per cent in real terms compared with a fall of 2.5 per cent over the seven years of the previous Government. Assistance to families has increased dramatically under this Government. Family allowance rates are now $9 per week for the first three children and $12 per week for each subsequent child. Could we rely on John Stone to maintain that kind of support for Australian families? Other payments for children have increased, too. The family allowance supplement-which is a Brian Howe and Hawke Government initiative-ensures for the first time that significant financial assistance is provided for the children of low income families.

This short list of facts and figures could be expanded on considerably if there were more time. What is important from this listing of achievements is the positive impact these changes have had on the day to day lives of Australian women. For the first time in Australian history we are providing women with choices in their lives. We are saying to them that is okay to stay on at school, that it is okay for them to expect the better paying jobs that come from a better education. We recognise that for most women their first priority is their children and we are providing women with the support to combine paid employment with child rearing if they choose.

For those who stay at home with children for longer periods, payments for families provide meaningful levels of assistance. The question is: What would the Opposition do with these payments if it were to win the next election? On the one hand, one half of the Opposition says that all government payments will be cut back and that the Government is spending far too much on health, education and housing assistance. Meanwhile, the other half of the Opposition says that this Government is forcing women not to have children because of the cost of living. Opposition members should make up their minds. The Opposition is trying to manipulate women into believing that the abolition of Medicare will not affect their families, that cutting back on education spending will not affect their families, that cutting back on funding for services to the aged and the disabled will not affect their families. We are presented with a saccharine sweet picture of the family on the cover of John Howard's Future Directions while the Opposition prepares to demolish funding for the very services which support and nurture the family.

The electorate was given the option to give the Opposition's divisive policies a go in 1987 and it rejected them. In any future election the electorate will be equally able to see through the image of cosy families to discern that the very supports of the family would be knocked out by Opposition policies. I cannot pretend that this Government has simple answers for women. Neither does this document pretend to do that. But this document indicates that this Government takes women's issues seriously and we are prepared to monitor closely and give a yearly account of what we have achieved.

The economic circumstances that the Government faces are daunting. We have been honest with the electorate. We have not pretended that there are simple solutions. What we have done is ensure that one section of Australian society is not asked to bear a disproportionate share of the difficulties which have affected the economy. The Government's commitment to equity remains firm. `Equity' is not a word that I believe Senator Newman used in her speech. We have protected the very poorest and, despite the economic climate, we have increased the assistance they receive. This is important for women as women are the largest group of pensioners and are over-represented in low income groups. Women appreciate the importance of family allowances, the family allowance supplement and other payments for children. They are mostly responsible for paying the expense of the household and know the difference these payments make to the household budget. They also recognise that the child support scheme introduced by this Government means that they can now receive regular maintenance payments at a decent level. These are changes which have improved women's lives.

The Hawke Government is providing women with hope and the concrete assistance that they need. We are not failing Australian women. This Government is also providing women with a way out of their dependency on pensions and low incomes. The Government's policy on retirement incomes recognises that women's broken involvement in the labour force has meant that they have been unable to accumulate significant levels of superannuation in the past. We have modified the arrangements to better suit women's employment patterns, their broken patterns and their particular experience. In relation to that, honourable senators may be interested to know that Neville Norman, a well known economist, praised this move by the Government in its Budget announcements last night. He said this morning on, I believe, Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio, in response to a question about superannuation:

It's directed particularly to improving the position in relation to women. There is by the way a complete women's budget statement, which I spent part of the night reading. It's very good actually. It's written in more understandable language and I'd advise men as well to read that.

He later said:

Yes, it's very well done. I would actually recommend it. I read it out of intrigue and I kept reading and it tells you a lot more . . .

And so it goes on. I believe that that is considerable praise from Mr Neville Norman, who I understand is a conservative economist.

Let me return to initiatives under the Hawke Government that have assisted Australian women. The jobs, education and training (JET) program is about encouraging sole parents into employment. Senator Newman did not mention the JET program. I do not suppose she has bothered to make inquiries about how it is operating in her home State. She just talked about child-care and said that we were doing nothing in this area. I presume she has not visited one of the new centres that I know have been opened in her home State.

Senator Newman —You presume too much, Senator.

Senator REYNOLDS —How can the honourable senator attend, how can she enjoy--

Senator Newman —They are very concerned about your policies and they are losing children who can't afford to stay. They are the facts in Tasmania now.

Senator REYNOLDS —Let me ask the honourable senator this very simple question: how can she on one hand enjoy the options to go and visit new child-care centres that we have provided and perhaps bask in a little reflected--

Senator Newman —That the taxpayer has provided, Senator.

Senator REYNOLDS —All right, the taxpayer. But because of this Government's priorities, taxes have been directed to child-care. Neither the honourable senator, John Stone, Andrew Peacock nor John Hewson have been able to reassure me, let alone Australian families, that the cutbacks that they are continually referring to will not impact on child-care. I will be delighted if Senator Newman can come into this place with policies and commitments that she will not go back on, without Senator Stone contradicting, to reassure me and to reassure Australian women. But I am not holding my breath waiting for that. The Government strategy for improving the lives of women is outlined in the national agenda. The document provides comprehensive details on strategies which the Government will implement. The agenda was not based on the whims of government; it represents the aspirations of women for their lives. The Government consulted with women in drawing it up. We continue to base policies affecting women on the needs of women, as expressed by women. In this year's Budget the women's health strategy draws on the needs of women for their health services. Likewise, before the retirement incomes policy was finalised the Government asked women for their views.

This consultative approach contrasts with the Opposition's bossy generalisations about women's lives which owe more to the fantasies of ad men than to the needs of Australian women. Nor does the Government assume that Australian women are a homogeneous group. We recognise that young women have different needs. We understand that women fleeing violent relationships need unique services, and we appreciate that women from non-English speaking backgrounds want different services again. But we understand that government has a responsibility to continue to improve opportunities and services for Australian women.

Against this I place the record of the Opposition. For all its rhetoric there was very little to show for women while it was in government. Among its achievements prior to 1983 we could list a recession that led to record rates of unemployment for women and teenage girls; and social security policies that condemned older women, sole parents and their children and the unemployed to lives of bitter poverty. Senator Newman was not in the Senate in those days but she conveniently forgets the record of the Fraser years. If Senator Newman can convince me that Andrew Peacock is a new broom, if she can convince me that Senator Stone, John Hewson and John Elliott will not be the ones to dictate the policies of the coalition, I will welcome her announcements. But I am afraid the Opposition has a long way to go before it assures Australian women that it is committed to any more than just political attacks on the present Government, which is doing the very best it can for all Australian women under tough economic circumstances.