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Wednesday, 16 August 1989
Page: 171


Senator GILES(4.50) —The matter of public importance that we are debating this afternoon alleges that the Hawke Government has failed Australian women. I find this topic quite an extraordinary one to be debating in this place. A number of issues that have arisen this afternoon would have made excellent topics for the debate, and I hope that one day we will have the opportunity to go quite deeply into questions such as the relative merits of screening for breast cancer, for example. As it is, we are faced with an amazing barrage of allegations from people who are extraordinarily poorly equipped to debate the issue.

I would like to draw attention to the coalition's record on some of these issues. I am aware that I am dealing with history but it is quite easy to link some of these facts with what is happening today. For example, I recall very clearly the strenuous opposition from the coalition to sex discrimination legislation, to equal opportunity in the public service legislation, to affirmative action legislation-not only opposition, but filibustering and keeping us here almost until Christmas Eve on a number of occasions.

Okay, this is history; it happened some years ago. It is now just on five years since our sex discrimination legislation was proclaimed, and maybe we could forget what happened if it were not for the fact that we have been assured by the coalition time and time again that in government it would abolish the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. Is it not relevant to today's debate that those opposite would remove the machinery whereby that legislation has been implemented? The Opposition has called for implementation. That is implementation, and it is implementation which the Australian community accepts very largely. The most recent poll I have seen on the matter showed that acceptance of sex discrimination legislation was in excess of 75 per cent.

The kindest interpretation to put on much of what we have heard this afternoon, and on other occasions, is that it has demonstrated an abysmal lack of knowledge. We have witnessed this time and time again when the coalition has raised issues concerning welfare, the structure of industry, the changing structure of women's place in the work force, and attitudinal matters. Even things that are actually under way seem somehow to escape the notice of the coalition, although they are being done very publicly. An example of this was a notice of motion on domestic violence brought before the Senate just a few weeks ago which was meant to be very embarrassing to the Government. We had no difficulty agreeing with this notice of motion because what it was calling for we were already doing. We had under way a campaign for awareness of domestic violence on which, we discovered when notes were exchanged, we could take a bipartisan position. It is a great pity that we do not see that bipartisan position taken more often, as used to be the case in the past. I must say it was very disappointing when we offered the coalition full briefing on the domestic violence issue to find that none of the Opposition women where able to attend.

It seems quite extraordinary that we hear from Senator Brownhill at great length about the difficulties of rural women. That is no surprise to this Government. It is no surprise to anybody in Australia. But one does wonder whether those women were having difficulties prior to 1983 or whether suddenly their isolation, loneliness, income problems and so on developed in 1983. One wonders why absolutely nothing was done about it prior to that.

Of course, over the years there have been informed Liberal-National Party members and senators and we have had support from members of those parties on issues such as community child-care, education and work force issues. We have had absolutely splendid support from at least one of the shadow Ministers for women's affairs and Mr Macphee was gracious enough to join us in launching a document by the name of Fair Exposure. It was Senator Newman who raised the issue of non-sexist language when she poured scorn on the government Style Manual and its chapter on non-sexist language and wondered who in the name of fortune might be interested in that. I will tell Senator Newman who is interested in it.


Senator Newman —It was a highlight of your year.


Senator GILES —It was one of the many highlights of the year. For people who deal with language and who like to use accurate language-and I might say that there are not too many on Senator Newman's side of the chamber-it was a very important event. However, we have another document that Senator Newman might be interested to find in the Liberal Party library, if in fact such a thing exists. She should have a look at Fair Exposure which, some years ago, was saying exactly the same thing, and which received total support from the shadow Minister for women's affairs. While I am talking about Mr Macphee, I would like to quote something he once told us. He said that the Liberals:

. . . still have the view that a woman's place is in the home and when she has children she stays there and doesn't go into the paid workforce and therefore you don't have child care and those sorts of issues, and I firmly stand for equal opportunity for women that they then paint this as being anti-family, it's not of course, but that's the way in which many of the delegates thought, the delegates themselves not having an experience of their wives or the women themselves being in the paid workforce. That was a problem, and I also found that they didn't understand even their own daughters-in-law who in fact held the same views as I did and wanted equal opportunity.

I think Opposition members have come a little way since then, but it is absolutely incumbent upon them to check their facts a little better than they have done on this occasion. What would happen if the Liberal Party were in power? I am just going on what we have been told over the years, not on anything very enlightening that has occurred today. We would have income-splitting-the most regressive way of treating the second income in a household. We would have regressive deductions, such as those for the costs of child-care which, of course, help those on the highest incomes and provide no extra places for low income people. We would have very little increase in the number of available child-care places as a result except, of course, from the private sector which has no obligation to provide child-care in the areas where it is most needed. It has no obligation to provide child-care for tiny children below the age of two or for those with special needs. What would happen to things like women's refuges, women's health care houses, the Child Support Agency that we have established, the family allowance supplements? We have gone through these things this afternoon. Would we go back to the federalism which put a stopper on any advance in any of those services during the years of the Fraser Government?


Senator Newman —Look at the Fraser years with women's shelters.


Senator GILES —I would really like to know where Senator Newman has been in the last 6 1/2 years, for the previous seven years for that matter.


Senator Newman —I was running a women's shelter. That is what I was doing.


Senator GILES —Maybe Senator Newman should have had a look outside that one shelter to what is happening in a number of other States and should take a more visionary approach than the one she appears to be taking. Let us consider women's employment. Senator Newman seems to be very worried about the motivation of women who work. Let us have a look at employment growth. I am sure that Senator Newman knows this, but since 1983, the women's employment rate has grown by over 5 per cent, the participation rate of women in the labour force aged 15 and over has grown by almost 7 per cent, the women's unemployment rate has fallen by four percentage points and the unemployment rate for young women has fallen by 10 percentage points-from over 27.5 per cent to 17.5 per cent. Is the Opposition suggesting that reducing unemployment for women-in other words, a growing economy, which gives people the opportunities to have money in their purses when they open them-is failing women?

I notice that the Opposition has been terribly keen lately to go into the reasons why women join the work force. It is very interesting. The Opposition was not too worried about the fact that when it was in government almost 30 per cent of young women were unemployed. Now it is a matter of national concern that some women may work to help to pay for their home. There is nothing new in that. Women in low income families have always had to work.


Senator Newman —You skite about that.


Senator GILES —I am not skiting about that; it is absolutely true. Senator Newman's comment about women who feel they have been conscripted into the work force is very interesting to me. She gives no source for those figures. I wonder whether the question was asked: How many men feel they are conscripted into the work force. Why should there be any difference? I am aware of a report called Beyond the Stereotypes which was done by Clemenger and Associates. I am sure Senator Newman would find it extremely interesting. It is still available and there is a copy in my office if she would like to borrow it. It surveyed large numbers of women in all age groups-those in the home, those in the work force, those who had worked, those who were wanting to work, those who did not want to work and certainly those with small children.

It was discovered that the vast majority of Australian women would dearly love to be in the work force for the very same reason that men would dearly love to be in the work force-for luxuries like food, clothing and paying the rent. For women the question of whether to enter paid work is determined by many factors: their age, marital status, family and domestic responsibilities, the availability of child-care, their education and skills and the level of wages. Equally important is the availability of jobs, both full time and part time. The whole issue of jobs, the quality of jobs, the availability of a wide range of training opportunities, the availability of opportunities to progress through the work force is one of the extremely important features of the work that we have been doing for women in the work force over the last few years.

The Industrial Relations Commission in its May review of the structural adjustment principle under the wage fixing guidelines referred employers and employees to statements forming an important element of restructuring awards in Australia. I am referring here to statements made at a tripartite conference on legislative and award restrictions to women's employment which was held just recently here in Canberra. Is it failing young women actually to provide in low income families an amount of money which will allow them to stay at school rather than leave school and go onto unemployment benefit? Austudy has been one of the greatest reforms of this Government. I think if I were looking for one reform that is going to have long lasting effects for women, it might be encouraging young people to stay in the education system.

When we came into office the retention of girls to year 12 was around 44 per cent. It is now almost 62 per cent-a rise of about 18 per cent in six years. It means that a vast number of young women are now leaving school with a range of skills and a real chance of making their way in the world. In higher education women's participation has shown a similar pattern of growth-up from around 44 per cent to almost 51.5 per cent of enrolments. Women now recognise that it is worthwhile to invest in their own education because they see the opportunities are there through award restructuring and affirmative action. Discrimination is being removed through the legislation that we introduced and that many honourable senators opposite opposed. Their employment prospects are brighter because this Government has tackled the essential support structures such as child-care.

I wish to refer to a matter that I referred to a little earlier-screening for breast cancer. Reference was made to a National Health and Medical Research Council report which advocated widespread screening for women. That is still a very problematic issue. There is not a great deal of agreement about whether wide screening, as expensive as it is and subjecting people to doses of X-rays as it does, is the best way to go or that it is even very effective. There are international studies that show it is not necessarily very effective. I think in the meantime Senator Newman and I, and probably every public spirited woman, should be encouraging women to self-examine their breasts, to be conscious of the risks they face. I just have this feeling that it is as pointless to screen every woman in the community for breast cancer as it would be to screen every male in the community for enlarged prostate glands. Just as many men die from cancer of the prostate as women do of breast cancer.


Senator Teague —But a lot more can be done than there is now.


Senator GILES —I am quite sure that a great deal more can be done especially for rural people, but let us not forget the responsibilities of the State governments in this matter and the fact that some State governments have taken up the challenge and are dealing with it. Mr Acting Deputy President, I have come to the end of my time. There is no sense in which the Hawke Government can be said to have failed Australian women and Australian women are very, very well aware of the fact.


The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —The discussion on the matter of public importance is concluded.