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Monday, 19 March 2018
Page: 1347

Senator DUNIAM (Tasmania) (11:18): I thank Senator Rice and the Greens for bringing to the floor of this chamber the debate on the Fair Work Amendment (Gender Pay Gap) Bill 2015. I was pleased to hear a lot of what Senator Rice said in her contribution there, acknowledging that I don't think there is anyone in this place that would believe trying to perpetuate the situation where we do have a gender pay gap is acceptable. Everyone wants to make sure that we have fairness in this sense. I think it is right that we acknowledge that that is the aim that everyone that comes to this debate would have. How we get there, Senator Rice, I suppose is probably going to be how we differ with regard to this.

It is an important issue, and it's been one that has been talked about extensively for some time now—a very, very long period of time. We talk about it more as a society that more openly embraces equality between the sexes, something that up until a few years ago I don't think we did properly, and I still think we have a long way to go in that space, but it is the catalyst for this debate. And the statistics we've seen, many of which Senator Rice referred to in her contribution, do bear out the problem that we face, as a Western society, with regard to trying to level the playing field when it comes to take-home pay of women and where that sits with regard to the take-home pay of men. No-one in this place could suggest that it is right to continue to perpetuate this problem that we see with regard to the take-home pay of women, as opposed to men. We all want to fix it. It's how we get there that we need to consider.

And so, in looking at the bill that former Senator Waters did prepare, we have to consider: is this the best way? And I do acknowledge, as Senator Rice pointed out on a couple of occasions, that this is but one element of how the Greens would see the parliament, and indeed the government, address this issue. But my question is: well, should we be doing these standalone things, ticking these items one by one off a list of things that need to be done to address a complex situation? Personally, having had a look at the work of the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee, I'm not sure that way—removing, as has been referred to by Senator Rice, the gag clauses as a standalone item—is the way to do it.

As Senator Rice said, the bill seeks to amend the Fair Work Act 2009 by removing restrictions on employees' rights to disclose the amount they earn or other information about their pay or earnings as well as prohibiting employers from taking adverse action against employees for disclosing this information. I haven't been able to go and research what action, if any, has been taken—I assume Senator Rice is aware of action that may have been taken in relation to employees who have breached these provisions of the Fair Work Act—but it is about what a change of this nature, what changing the Fair Work Act in accordance with these amendments, would actually do in practice to address this issue that needs changing. We are all in furious agreement that it needs changing, but how far would it take us to do that? What consequences would flow from this? What unforeseen consequences would flow from this? We need to consider all of those questions, which is the right thing for this chamber to do, as we do consider this legislation.

It's also important to consider the context here in Australia—I wouldn't quite call it historical, but I mean where things are at now and where they have been over the past few years with regard to the gender pay gap. Indeed, it is important to note, and Senator Rice did point this out, that the latest figure from the Australian Bureau of Statistics on the gender pay gap highlights that it is at 15.3 per cent. Now that is still not good enough—no-one is saying it is—but it is down from a high of 18.5 per cent, which is where it was in November 2014. That's a drop of more than three per cent. We do need to acknowledge that, but, at the same time, we need to accept that this means there is a huge amount of work yet to be done. We've got another 15.3 per cent to work through in order to ensure that this issue has been dealt with. This statistic means that it's the lowest it's been for 12 years. It's also pleasing to see that women's employment in this country is at a record high of over 5.8 million. The women's workforce participation rate has risen since 2016. It reached 60.5 per cent as at December last year according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics' figures that they released in January this year. It does highlight that there are some efforts being made by government, by employee representative organisations and also, hopefully, the private sector, noting the difference in the statistics relating to the private and public sectors. So there is work happening, things are changing and things are improving, but we've got a long way to go. It is important, though, to acknowledge those things that have happened to date as a result of work that the government has been doing.

As Senator Rice points out, though, it is a complex issue and not one influenced by a single factor. There is no way the government could intervene in any meaningful way without causing all sorts of problems across the employment markets, because it is incredibly complex. The issue is related to the numbers of hours worked in certain professions. Full-time men work on average more hours per week, 42.1, than full-time women, 38.2. I think it goes to that point Senator Rice raised around the individual circumstances of the woman versus the man. Another factor is the greater unpaid caring responsibilities of women. These sorts of things flow into the capacity of an individual to work, and then onto the statistics we are seeing with regard to the gender pay gap—all things we need to deal with.

The industrial and occupational segregation has been talked about as well. Six in 10 Australians work in an industry dominated by one gender. An example is child care, where we have seen over many years a desire from those who work within that sector to achieve a better pay rate. My wife is involved in the childcare industry. The employees at that centre are all women. There was one male there for a short period of time. It highlights the issue of occupational and industrial segregation Senator Rice referred to, which also flows into this.

The differences in education, work experience and seniority and the differing levels of qualifications and expertise people bring may be dominated to a degree by gender. I've spoken previously about my mother and my grandmother, two women who, as a result of their life experiences, were impeded from climbing the ladder in their workforces. My mother, who didn't satisfactorily complete year 10, went off to be a checkout clerk in one of the local department stores, and effectively that was it for her education and employment for a very long period of time. Fast-forward 40 years, and she has now completed her PhD at the University of Tasmania, but she has often said to me that her lack of educational experience—where her brothers were given the opportunity to attain a university education, in addition to having completed years 11 and 12 at the local college in Tasmania at the time, but she was not—had an impact on how she lived her life. Thankfully we don't see much of those sorts of things anymore. Where they occur, we need to ensure they are stamped out and that opportunities are provided, particularly in regional communities.

I think it is worth talking about a number of the actions being taken by the government with regard to this issue. Despite the figures I cited earlier—that there are now over 5.8 million Australian women in employment, that the participation rate is the highest on record at 60.5 per cent, and that the pay gap has dropped to 15.3 per cent—there is still work to be done. It was pleasing to note that my colleague Senator Cash has released Towards 2025: an Australian government strategy to boost women's workforce participation, the document which guides the government's efforts in dealing with this issue, along with any of the other flow-on issues related to gender discrimination. Elements of the plan, which is to be rolled out over the next 10 years, include ensuring that there are flexible arrangements for affordable and accessible childcare, so that families can make a choice and we can overcome the somewhat natural barriers to women entering the workforce that have been described in the debate so far.

On improving workplace diversity and flexibility, we're seeing the government make a point about ensuring that flexible work is a normal part of the workplace for both men and women; supporting both men and women to innovate and to succeed with entrepreneurial efforts, and to thrive in whatever field they choose to go into; working to strengthen women's economic security to ensure that women are secure, independent and empowered through our society and through attaining work; and ensuring that there is a set of enhanced financial incentives to work. So it's clear that there are a number of measures in place.

This strategy, though, also identifies six groups of women who have specific needs and whose experiences need to be specifically catered for. Those groups include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, culturally and linguistically diverse women, mature-aged women, rural and regional women—one group I've already spoken about here—women with a disability, and, of course, young women. Sometimes people will fall into a number of those categories as well.

There are implementation plans being rolled out each year with regard to this strategy, to ensure that we are going to see the results needed to get things right with regard to issues like the gender pay gap. The 2017-18 implementation plan outlined a number of actions, including the expansion of ParentsNext to assist 68,000 parents with young children to plan and prepare for employment, at a value of $263 million; the implementation of the new Launch into Work program to assist jobseekers to become job ready; the promotion of the benefits of flexible work for small and medium businesses, which is another issue, because smaller enterprises which don't have the resources or the capacity to absorb the notion of a flexible workplace are something that the government does need to support, and it is pleasing to see the government do that; and a gender analysis of employment services to both improve current service delivery and inform employment services by 2020.

I would like to briefly talk on some of the measures that the Tasmanian government's been taking with regard to dealing with issues of gender discrimination. The most pleasing thing I've read for a little while is that in the Tasmanian parliament—the lower house, at least—a majority of members are women. Thirteen out of the 25—yes, it's a small parliament!—are women. It is the first time in Tasmania's history, I believe, that that has happened—and Senator McKim breathes a sigh of relief over there!—with regard to the outcome in Tasmania. That is a good thing, and I think it does show what that state is doing to try and address this issue.

The Hodgman Liberal government in Tasmania is committed to dealing with this issue. It does have its own five-year Tasmanian Women's Plan, which has been running since 2013 and concludes this year—and I'm sure there will be more to come on that front—and which has set out a framework for creating gender equality by reducing systemic barriers to women's participation and leadership opportunities. There are a great number of achievements in there as a result of the last four and a bit years of work—indeed, the previous government was as committed to dealing with this issue in Tasmania as the current one.

The statistics which do bear out that there are some great initiatives the government can employ include those from the Women on Boards strategy, which helps females in Tasmania secure positions on many of the government boards that exist relating to government business enterprises, state-owned companies and other committees within the structure of government. The overall percentage of female representation on these boards has increased from just over 30 per cent to just over 40 per cent as at October last year, which is a great sign that we are embracing the need for diversity and we are ensuring that it begins to exist in leadership roles and leadership entities in our state. As at 24 October 2017, 53 per cent of government business enterprises had board members that were women, and 44 per cent of the state-owned company board members were women. So we're well on the way there with one of them, and exceeding in another area. There are a number of boards that the government is responsible for—131 in total—and it is great to see most of those well on the way to ensuring that those targets are being reached.

Of the government's plan, it is nice to refer to the comments of Susan Fahey, the CEO of the Tasmanian Women's Legal Service, who said, 'This plan is a truly whole-of-government approach. It's a significant plan that shows the government can walk and chew gum, and it provides a solid foundation for significantly reducing family violence in our community.' That was in relation to the family violence component of the government's plans. Teeny Brumby, an alderman from Burnie City Council, gave feedback on the Australian Institute of Company Directors scholarships course funded by the Tasmanian government. In her comments, she said, 'This learning experience, as a woman in leadership in Tasmania, cannot be underestimated. It is absolutely brilliant to see our government investing in the future of female leaders in our state, and I cannot thank the AICD and the Tasmanian government enough for their generous support in this remarkable journey.'

There are a lot of good things happening in Tasmania and across the country with regard to dealing with this issue, but, that said, there is more to be done. I go back to the question I asked at the very beginning of my contribution: what does this particular piece of legislation do to address the issue fundamentally? I note that in the United Kingdom the government has imposed a mandatory reporting regime with regard to gender pay matters. The implementation of that has been met with mixed reviews. I understand that private entities that employ over 250 people—of which there are 9,000 that are required to report—are supposed to lodge information about how much they pay the women and the men in their organisation so that we have transparency around it. The statistics in the UK show that gender pay remains an issue and that this standalone measure won't go to fix that.

Alarmingly, the response from the entities who have been required to provide this information suggests that the process is flawed. There are reports of at least 20 companies in the UK providing bunkum details to throw the system, so that no-one would find out what the true gender pay gap was within their organisation. There's clearly no mechanism to ensure that what they have provided is accurate, and so when 20 companies, some of them extremely large in the employment number they have, do this one has to question whether this system could actually generate any good outcomes. If we're reliant on the honour and goodwill of an entity participating in this process and on them providing accurate information, that leaves some significant holes. Indeed, research conducted on companies participating in this process indicated that they believe the system wouldn't work. Some openly admitted they would game the system, that they would provide information that wouldn't accurately reflect the nature of things within their organisation. That is concerning. It suggests that it will not go to solving the problem of the gender pay gap we have. When the system doesn't have the strength of enforcement around it, how do you ensure that that information is accurate? It really is about working across the issues—the complex issues, the range of issues; as the government is doing and other governments before it have, too—and trying to get to the root cause of all of these problems to ensure that we properly address them, that we look not just at one area and deal with that, which could yield unintended consequences, but at the whole gamut and make sure we do it comprehensively and properly.