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Thursday, 23 March 2023
Page: 33

Senator BARBARA POCOCK (South Australia) (11:48): I rise to speak to the Workplace Gender Equality Amendment (Closing the Gender Pay Gap) Bill 2023. I have a very sensible speech written by my wonderful staff about this bill, but I turned 68 yesterday and I'm feeling cranky. In the last two weeks I lost a very dear friend who, like me, has given 40 years to the project of collecting data about the gender pay gap. In my view, there should be more cranky women in this parliament with that kind of experience who can say: 'We need to do what this bill proposes, certainly. We need more transparency in our data on the gender pay gap.'

But data is not going to cut it, my friends. I've spent 40 years collecting that data. I've written the books. My friend, Michelle Hogan, whom we've lost, spent many of those years working alongside me amongst low-paid women, trying to improve their conditions of employment. Michelle's 40 years are measured in many ways in activism and in making a difference through the union movement and the women's movement. I have on my desk today a photo of us together at a roundtable on gender pay inequity in 1991, out of which came a book about what's wrong and what we need to do. We worked together for many decades, and our data have not changed.

This is not to diminish the incredible work that the Workplace Gender Equality Agency does or efforts by governments—people in this place—over decades to attempt to shift these numbers. But the numbers will not shift through the collection of transparent data. That will not be what is necessary, because what's going on in our labour market is not just about the gap between people in workplaces on full-time earnings, and we cannot deal with the gender pay gap just by looking at pay data.

So I support all the measures in this bill, which my colleague Senator Waters spoke about, and the need to go further on better data collection. We need to look, for example, at the gap between part-time workers' earnings, both men and women. That's where the gap is very wide. And we need to look more carefully at total earnings—at bonuses, at superannuation, at cars and at all the things men get more of and women get less of. But we need to do a whole lot of other things, too, and I think of my friend Michelle as I talk about them.

I want to first mention what's going on in our low-paid workforce. I see my fellow colleagues from the Select Committee on Work and Care. We need to lift the pay of women in feminised occupations, as is recommended in the committee's recently tabled report—that is, the childcare workers, the aged-care workers, the disability workers, the nurses, the people in all those systems of care, which is a huge economy of the services sector, where 90 per cent of people work, and women work in every workplace at the bottom. Unless we lift the pay rates of those workers and also improve their conditions, we will not narrow the gender pay gap, and a group of very sad parliamentarians will be standing here in 40 years lamenting the pay gap.

We have to do better than that. One of the ways we have to do better is by changing the conditions of employment for women in those low-paid service and care industries. These women need more than improvement in their pay rate. They need more security in their jobs. So many of them are casual. So many of them cannot predict what hours they're working tomorrow or next week. They're in the retail sector. Their employers can predict how many Granny Smith apples are needed in aisle 6 tomorrow, but they can't tell these workers what their hours will be; they can't tell these workers what their pay will be. Unless we fix the rostering systems, the uncertainty around rostering and the insecurity of employment, we can sing in here all day about the gender pay gap but we will make no difference. We have to do more than that.

We also have to improve the conditions and system of work that supports women. Women's pay is lower because they take time out of the labour market to take care of others—their kids, their parents, their friends and their partners. We can afford, as a first step, to move paid parental leave beyond 26 weeks. It's a good thing that we're going to 26 weeks of paid parental leave, but that's not enough. That takes us to half the international standard. We've recently had costings done on what it would take to bring our paid parental leave system to 52 weeks at minimum wage. It'd cost $2 billion a year. That is 10 per cent of the annual amount for the stage 3 stage cuts. And we women have to come in here and beg for—I mean, it's not nothing, $2 billion, but by hell, it's not $25 billion, which is going mostly to men who are on higher pay. It's time we lifted our paid parental leave system to reach more seriously towards the OECD average. We are at the bottom of the heap, along with the US, and we should do better, as a very wealthy country that can afford to buy very expensive submarines and give a tax cut to mostly men who are earning over $200,000 a year.

The third thing we need to do—and these are my top things; I could go all day, but I have a time limit, which is just as well—was referred to by my colleague Senator Waters. Yesterday we were at a meeting for the Friends of Working Women in this place, and it was a very interesting morning, looking at data that Dr Anne Summers has collected and put before us about the relationship between poverty and violence. We have good data on this now that tells us that so many sole parents are alone because they have escaped violent circumstances, and they are at the bottom of the labour market, insecure in their jobs—when they can find them—and dependent on a payment which in 2013 was cut, as my colleagues said, by $100 a week. Anne Summers made the point that if our Prime Minister had been brought up by his mother under the current regime, the current level of JobSeeker payment, he would be more likely to be in juvie than in the Prime Minister's office. People who grow up in poverty have a higher rate of imprisonment and have a lower rate of opportunity throughout their education and into employment. What we've done since 2013 is confined so many sole parents to poverty, with dire consequences for their children and families. At the very least, we lose them as taxpayers. We lose them in our professional workforce. That poor payment system is one of the reasons our labour supply is short.

In other countries, where good support is given to sole parents and working mothers and where labour systems don't let 25 per cent of the labour force be casualised or insecure, they have a higher participation rate. It's no surprise that a country like Sweden has an average participation rate for women that's eight percentage points higher than here. That's an average increase in the participation rate of four percentage points, and that's worth $100 billion a year. Even if you want to spend it on submarines, God forbid, or on tax cuts for people on over $200,000, we could pay over and over again for a much better regime of support for our working women.

God knows, we could support a Rolls-Royce system of data collection, but it wouldn't be worth the paper it was written on unless we did the essential support changes that our women in our country need. It is time that we stop collecting endless amounts of data without taking action—which is not to diminish the import work that feminists and workers throughout our public sector do in collecting that data. But, alongside that collection of data, we need the actions and the policy supports that will make a difference and the real interventions that we have known for decades, that my friend Michelle Logan has known for decades, that I have known for decades. Any amount of research evidence will tell you the solutions are there, but they do not lie in the collection of data. They lie in action, and that's what we need.