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Tuesday, 8 March 2005
Page: 53

Senator LUNDY (3:57 PM) —It is International Women’s Day today. Many women are wearing the colours of green, white and violet to symbolise the achievements of women and to send a message to governments—not just here in Australia, but everywhere—that women’s issues matter. Today I would like to focus my comments on the lack of respect accorded to Australian women by this government which has been demonstrated in many ways, not least by its failure to address the needs of working women.

At present, women are paid over $16,000 less per year than men. That is the difference when we compare the total average wage of men and women. On average, women working full time are paid 15 per cent less than men working full time—earning an average of $150 less. Only about 12 per cent of women workers were able to benefit from the tax cuts which went to those earning over $52,000. Women form the majority of low paid and casual workers. Nearly 1.2 million women workers are in casual work, which means that they have no access to paid leave to look after families and no security of employment to offer as collateral—for example, for a housing loan.

The Howard government’s proposed industrial relations measures which it will force through the parliament after the July Senate changes are of enormous concern to women. We have already been given warning of the government’s punitive and merciless approach to low paid workers, most of them women, in its proposed—and I have to say cynically titled—Workplace Relations Amendment (Protecting the Low Paid) Bill 2003. Now the Australian Industrial Relations Commission and its role in setting minimum wages is under attack by the government. We know that the Howard government has done woefully little to support working women and working parents. The government has signalled its disdain for the needs of working families and of the importance of family friendly workplaces.

At the recent federal election, the government did not even bother to put forward a work and family policy. Work and family issues appear to be beyond the comprehension of this government, despite the degree of lip-service that they endlessly repeat in defence of their poor policies. The evidence is certainly there: the Howard government have systematically white-anted the child-care programs that were built up under Labor, thereby reducing access to and the availability of quality child care. Working parents are meant to be accorded a higher priority for child-care places than nonworking parents but the Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows that the parents of 174,500 children cannot find the child-care services that they require—that they need. So the government have chosen consistently to ignore the needs of working parents for quality community based care.

The Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Pru Goward, is presently highlighting the pressures posed by the modern reality of paid work and family commitments and has warned that these pressures may well be the reason that fertility rates in Australia are at risk. These are very real issues and they are always ignored by the largely male right wing lobby group which likes to periodically raise the issue of abortion and suggest various methods of ‘punishment’ such as the abolition of Medicare funding, prolonged counselling and other penalties which might serve to deter or prevent women from having legal abortions. Don’t they realise that they are tackling the problem at the wrong end? Instead of applying financial penalties to women after an abortion, this government should in the first instance acknowledge women’s choice and seek actively to recognise the very real concerns, financial and other, that can force women to the decision to have an abortion.

Two years ago the issue of maternity leave in Australia received a great deal of attention, although not a lot of it by this government. The Sex Discrimination Commissioner then pointed out:

The absence of a national scheme [of paid maternity leave] means that Australian women will continue to return to work early and leave their children early, hardly in step with a so-called family-focused nation such as ours. Meanwhile women in all other OECD countries, except the United States, are able to remain at home for at least those first ... months.

The Sex Discrimination Commissioner said that it is the responsibility of the government to provide a comparable maternity leave scheme to those in other OECD countries, and urged this country ‘to commit to a national scheme of paid maternity leave as soon as possible’. Yet, despite the government’s alternative scheme of the maternity allowance to be phased in over some years, Australia’s embarrassing reservation to the maternity leave provision of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, CEDAW, remains.

The government’s disdain of women’s issues has been demonstrated by its downgrading of the Office of the Status of Women—relegated to another department from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and renamed the Office for Women—and by its cavalier approach to the funding of women’s organisations and programs. A prime example has been the campaign to combat violence against women, which has had a sorry history under the Howard government. Delays and lack of commitment have been displayed by the ‘borrowing’ of domestic violence program funding for the terrorism fridge magnets; the last-minute pulling out of the No Respect, No Relationship campaign and its substitution six months later by a watered-down campaign which was more palatable to the Prime Minister’s male advisers; and now the lack of ongoing funding after July 2005, or the failure to date to announce ongoing funding for the Partnerships Against Domestic Violence program.

Indigenous women have been particularly badly served by this government, perhaps especially in its lack of commitment to initiatives to combat Indigenous family violence and to Indigenous health measures. Life expectancy for Indigenous women has actually decreased since 1996 and is now 62.8 years.

In education as well as in employment this government has disadvantaged women. In the science and mathematics fields women continue to battle against systems which traditionally enrol or employ far more males than females. In New South Wales a 2002 discussion paper on the placement process for selective high schools revealed that, of the students who applied, girls had a far lower acceptance rate than boys—19 per cent of the girls who applied were accepted as opposed to 24 per cent of the boys who applied. In Victoria selective high schools cater for about 32 per cent more boys than girls. Insufficient TAFE places have meant that about 20,000 women miss out on TAFE courses each year. We are desperately short of nurses and teachers, traditionally professions which have attracted women, yet thousands of students have failed to gain places in nursing and teacher training courses.

It is not surprising then that the research report on women’s lives, which was released today by the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women’s Issues finds that women in general have become increasingly unhappy, lonely and unhealthy. Helen Kelleher, convenor of the Australian Women’s Health Network, pointed to the demands made on women, especially those who are sole parents. These women, she said, have ‘many, many things on their minds in terms of raising children and juggling custody issues, managing paid work and perhaps trying to further their education’.

Many of the gains which were made in the status of women’s issues to 1996 have been eroded by the coalition government since that time. The Howard government will not be able to continue to try to camouflage or talk around the deterioration of the living standards of women and families. Whilst I am yet to read the report which was released today entitled Women in Australia 2004, it is very clear that the numbers expressed in that document show a very disturbing picture of the trend. From my perspective, from having talked to my constituents and women around the country, that is their experience. Life is getting more difficult to handle, particularly with respect to the balance of work and family. Those pressures are getting greater. Certainly the prospect of relieving some of that pressure under the Howard government is nonexistent.

On a more personal note, I would like to dedicate today’s International Women’s Day to grandmothers. I would like to acknowledge the care that they have provided to their families, their children and their grandchildren for all their lives. I would also like to acknowledge those who continue to provide care for grandmothers as well. They are very special people in my heart, and my thoughts are with both of my grandmothers today.