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Tuesday, 2 April 1968

Mr HUGHES (Parkes) - The honourable member for Cunningham (Mr Connor), in the midst of some very sloppy advocacy, referred to the unsatisfactory situation in his electorate with regard to female employment. He has the temerity - I would venture to say the hide - to criticise the Government for doing nothing about it. I would like to set the record straight. The honourable member for Cunningham, I suggest, knows as well as I do that the Government has done something about his electorate. Confronted with a situation in which, because of union conservatism and employer timidity, there is a shortage of jobs for women in the Wollongong-Port Kembla district, the Government acted, as the honourable member knows it acted, through the agency of the women's bureau in the Department of Labour and National Service. Steps were taken to seek out jobs in light industry some distance from Wollongong, in the Caringbah area, and the Minister for Labour and National Service (Mr Bury) arranged bus services to take women from the Wollongong area to the jobs that were offering around Caringbah. The honourable member for Cunningham has paid rather scant regard to the truth, and this is some indication of the thinness and sincerity of the case being put forward by the Opposition. There has been some very sloppy advocacy this afternoon from the thin ranks of the Opposition. [Quorum formed.]

The temperate remarks which caused the honourable member for Shortland (Mr Griffiths) to call for a quorum were these: I said that the Opposition has been guilty of some very sloppy advocacy this afternoon. None of the honourable members who have spoken on behalf of the Opposition has bothered to tell us exactly what they mean by this magic phrase 'equal pay for equal work'. The cost of implementing a system of equal pay for equal work varies enormously according to the definition one gives to the term. I thought there might have been some recognition of this obvious fact by the honourable member for Oxley (Mr Hayden), but there was none. If when it urges a policy of equal pay for equal work the Opposition means that where we find men and women performing work of the same or substantially the same value we should pay the same rate, whether the work be done by a man or a woman, then

I agree that the principle of equal pay tol equal work is essentially sound. But like many principles, this is a principle that cannot be implemented overnight. I cheerfully accept the charge levelled against members on the Government side by the honourable member for Cunningham that in this matter we are gradualists. The only sensible way to introduce a system of equal pay for equal work in the sense I have mentioned is gradually. If we do not introduce it gradually we will bid fair to cause very severe strain and dislocation of the economy. The Opposition, of course, cheerfully ignores this truism.

If by equal pay for equal work Opposition speakers mean - if they mean anything on this subject - that the same rate should be paid to women as to men irrespective of whether the work women are doing is or is not work usually performed, or even performed, by men, then the cost of putting that wild theory into practice is astronomical. It has been carefully but tentatively estimated by the people in the Department of Labour and National Service that to introduce a system of equal pay for equal work in that broad sense, across the board, to all people in private and government employment in Australia would be of the order of $500m a year. If this is the sort of nonsense - equal pay for equal work in that sense - that the Opposition is advocating, I do not think this House will have any pact of it, and I do not think the Australian people, in their common sense, will have any part of it.

I accept readily the statement that we are gradualists in this field. We believe in the principle, but we believe that in the true interests of the Australian economy a system of equal pay for equal work is the first of the ways in which I have defined it must be introduced carefully and slowly. This is the view of the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. The honourable member for Oxley sought to make much of the fact that in the Commonwealth hostels case the Commonwealth has appealed against the decision of the Conciliation Commissioner, Mr Clarkson, who awarded equal pay for women and men in an application for an award by the Liquor and Allied Trades Federation. The Commonwealth was perfectly justified in doing so in the circumstances of that case. Let me tell the House of those circumstances.

The union in 1965 made an application for an award and claimed for women employees covered by the award 75% of the male basic wage. There was no move there for equal pay. When the log of claims was presented in October 1965 a long adjournment followed. After a short hearing in 1965 or 1966 the case was adjourned for a year. When it came back into the list for further argument in October 1967 the union advocate took a new point, if I may so describe it without disrespect to him. on the wing, or in the running. He said: 'The Conciliation and Arbitration Commission had something to say about equal pay in the recent national wage case. I claim equal pay, on behalf of my union, for women employees.'

I emphasise that there was no argument, there was no discussion. The whole matter was dealt with in a very few words. They account for just a few lines of a transcript running to 250-odd pages. To say the Commonwealth is betraying any principle of equal pay for work of equal value in appealing against a decision of that character is to disregard the realities of the situation. The Commonwealth Government took the view - in my view quire correctly - that to grant equal pay in that context and in that situation where there had been no real argument was to disregard completely the timely warning and the timely advice of the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission in the national wage case of 1967 to the effect that any further moves towards the introduction of equal pay for women should proceed on the basis of careful deliberation, careful argument and full debate. Those factors were completely missing when the Conciliation Commissioner made his decision in the case concerning Commonwealth Hostels Ltd. Hence, quite justifiably, the Commonwealth Government appealed.

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