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Thursday, 18 February 2021
Page: 59


Senator McALLISTER (New South Wales) (15:07): I move:

That the Senate take note of the explanation.

I appreciate the undertaking that's been provided just now by the minister, but this is a misunderstanding that should not have arisen in the first place and could have been resolved yesterday. It is a normal courtesy in this place that, if one is seeking an explanation from a minister about a failure to answer questions on notice, one notifies that minister's office. My office did telephone the office of Senator Payne yesterday, and yesterday afternoon at five to three—around this time yesterday—her office rang my office to indicate that the answers to the questions had been tabled. They haven't been. Inquiries with the committee confirm that they have not been received, and I understand that the committee has undertaken further due diligence to confirm that. That is why I'm raising it this afternoon.

Part of the problem is that this is, of course, quite consistent with a broader lack of transparency from this government. In the first instance, many of these questions that were taken on notice were simple, factual questions. They were capable of being answered in the room, but in this estimates round they were taken on notice again and again and again and again. The fact that there are even 40 questions that were taken on notice in a period of questioning that only went for under an hour is quite staggering, and they're just the questions taken on notice in response to me, because other senators asked questions and those questions are doubtless unanswered as well. I haven't checked.

Why are so many questions being taken on notice by officials working for this government? Because it is a clear pattern over a long period of time that the willingness of officials to answer questions that they fear may be inconvenient to their bosses has completely increased. What we have is a situation where questions are not being answered in the room and normal questions of fact are unable to be explored in the estimates process. Then, when responses are provided months later, we get a response that maybe mentions in passing one or two words from the original question but in no way engages with the underlying premise and certainly doesn't rise to the level of providing an answer that would be understood by ordinary people as meeting the basic standards of accountability from a government.

Now we've got this fun development, which is we simply don't answer questions at all! It is possible, almost certain I think, that the Office for Women are understaffed—there just simply aren't enough people to do the work—but we don't know that. We don't know that, because one of the questions that remains unanswered is a request for the org. chart. Seriously, why could the org. chart not have been provided in the room on the day? Another is a request for the total number of employees in the Office for Women—question 364—which was unable to be answered in the room and apparently unable to be answered now. Maybe they're plugging the gap with contractors, but we don't know that either. Question 365 asks for details of labour hire workers and contractors, and that also remains unanswered.

What possible, credible reason could there be for the delay in providing these answers? Is there a delicate political response that requires finessing by the minister's office? In fact, a large number of the questions that remain unanswered are simple questions, very factual questions, and they should have been responded to with simple factual answers. Question 366: 'Has the Office for Women outsourced any of its work to external organisations? If yes, how much funding has been allocated?' It's pretty straightforward, isn't it? It's a pretty straightforward administrative question which should have been answered in the room. Question 367: 'Can the Office for Women provide a list of round tables conducted by the minister, including dates, locations and attendees?' It's pretty straightforward. Question 371: 'How much funding has been given to the six women's alliances? How many times has the minister met with them?' Question 372: 'What role did the Office for Women play in Australia's campaign for the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women?' I would have thought that was something they'd like to talk about. It was not able to be answered. Question 378: 'Please provide a list of meetings the Minister for Women has had with stakeholders such as women's groups or service providers in the last six months?' Question 387: 'Please provide a list of the stakeholders consulted about the 2020 Women's Economic Security Statement?'

How about this one? This one should have been very, very easy. Question 377: 'Please list the media interviews the Minister for Women has completed regarding the 2020 Women's Economic Security Statement?'

Senator Ayres interjecting

Senator McALLISTER: It wouldn't have taken long, Senator Ayres. That is correct. These are questions that would have been actually very easy to answer for a minister who was doing the work of meeting with stakeholders and consulting on a policy, and the fact that the minister has delayed answering these questions suggests that maybe the answers are embarrassing. The thing is, it's not clear what the minister would have to say about any of these issues in any event, because it's really not apparent what work the Office for Women has actually been doing.

Question 394 is an important one: 'Regarding the next National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, who is conducting this next consultation phase? When will it begin? What has been done so far?' The reason I say it's important is because we are hearing concerns from the sector that the government is not intending to conduct formal consultations as part of preparation of the next national plan. Instead, the government is considering relying on the submissions that were made to a House of Representatives inquiry.

It was question 370, where the Office for Women said it was developing guidance material for other departments so they can identify the gender impact of their policies: 'When was this work done? Who was it being given to? Can we see it?' Unanswered. It would be nice to know though, wouldn't it?

Question 373: what work is being undertaken by the Office for Women to address the gender pay gap? Core business, you'd think. Question 374: what work is being undertaken by the Office for Women to address vocational training for women? Question 375: what work is being undertaken by the Office for Women to address the super gap? Question 376: what work is being undertaken to address the rising crisis of homeless women over the age of 55? We haven't received a response to these questions. I suspect I know what the answer is, and it's 'not very much'. We'll get an answer that is carefully couched, a nice set of words referencing some policy process going on somewhere else in the government, but the real answer, and it's tragic, is that the Office for Women isn't asked to do very much by this government. There are capable people not being utilised against a problem, gender equality, that ought to be something that people are talking about. The minister presides over this organisation, the Office for Women, which has been denuded of numbers and expertise by systematic neglect and marginalisation under this government.

One of the most telling manifestations of this marginalisation is the failure of other departments to consult with the Office for Women about the gender impacts of crucial policies over the last couple of years. In answer to a question from the Select Committee on COVID-19, the Office for Women confirmed that, between March and April 2020, the Office for Women did not brief on early access to superannuation, did not brief on the JobKeeper program and did not brief on the JobSeeker program in advance of government decisions on these issues. The minister demonstrated no real concern about the lack of input she and the Office for Women had when these very significant economic decisions were being made. She told me at estimates that 'where it is appropriate'—that's a quote—the Office for Women would be invited to engage. Using the example of JobSeeker payments, the minister reminded us that these payments are not made in any gendered way whatsoever and the additional payments made in the context of COVID-19 have been equally applied to women and men. They might have been equally applied to women and men, but that does not mean that the impact of these payments is the same for women as it is for men. Nobody in any part of this government has completed any analysis about policy design on this and other aspects of the coronavirus response package and the extent to which it meets or does not meet the economic needs of women. This is quite surprising, isn't it, if you think about how much public discussion there was about the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women, women's employment and women's financial wellbeing.

In question 384 at estimates I asked: How many women will benefit from the measures included in the 2020 Women's Economic Security Statement? I asked in question 386: how will the Office for Women measure progress on the statement? In question 399 I asked: 'Is WGEA undertaking any economic or financial analysis of COVID-19 and its effects and impacts on the gender pay gap? If not, why not?' Again, no response.

The truth is that everyone in this chamber knows what the answer is. It is: because this is a government that is indifferent to the economic needs of women. They demonstrate it time and time again in their visible contempt for people who, here or in the estimates hearings, raise these issues. This is a government that leaves women behind.

Question agreed to.