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Tuesday, 8 March 2005
Page: 60

Senator ALLISON (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (4:27 PM) —I apologise for not being here for the call earlier. I was outside at the women’s afternoon tea. The government have argued here in the chamber today that they have done great things for women since 1996, citing increased employment and a slight increase in average weekly earnings. Yet we all know that there remains a significant wage gap between men and women in Australia.

We still have one of the lowest female workplace participation rates in the OECD. Discrimination in the workplace based on pregnancy has increased. Australia is one of only two OECD countries without government funded paid maternity leave. Women continue to be underrepresented in senior positions, on boards and in politics and women as single parents and mature age women face very high levels of poverty. Australia has one of the lowest female work force participation rates in the OECD. A recent OECD report found that full-time participation for women aged between 25 and 54 in Australia was 20 per cent below the OECD average. That report also found that Australia has some of the least family friendly policies for working mothers in the developed world.

Improving women’s wages to close the gender pay gap is fundamental to women’s equality, since it increases women’s labour market attachment, financial independence and life choices. When we compare the full-time ordinary time earnings—which excludes overtime—on average women are paid 15 per cent less than men. Taking into account inflation, this gap has been reduced by a measly two per cent since 1996. The government has recently signalled changes to the industrial relations system, which we say could threaten the small closure of the gender pay gap and perhaps do worse. Both the Victorian and Western Australian state governments have undertaken a review of the gender pay gap. It is imperative that the federal government also initiates an inquiry into the gender pay gap which should consider closely their proposed workplace relations changes.

High effective tax rates also act as a disincentive to women entering the work force. Returning to work or taking on additional work results in some benefits being withdrawn and, together with the loss of health benefits and other concessions, the high effective marginal tax rate actually presents a disincentive to work, particularly when accompanied by high child-care costs. It impacts on single women but the highest proportion of income is lost by second earners in low-wage families—typically partnered women returning to work after having a child.

The impact of high effective marginal tax rates is that sole parents lose about 40 per cent of their earned income in taxes and benefits, and low-wage families lose almost 70 per cent—more than twice the amount of a high wage-earning family. The solution lies in not only welfare reform but also tax and labour market reform. On the one hand, the tax-free threshold, currently set at $6,000, is far too low. The Democrats argue there is a good case for raising it to $10,000 in order to boost low wage earners’ take-home pay. At the same time, the labour market needs to be overhauled to improve employment prospects for women.

Lack of child care is also a barrier to work force participation. In March 2004, more than 160,000 women were interested in working but had not looked for work because of a lack of access to affordable child care. The crises in child care are fourfold: shortage of places, funding, cost and wages. Child-care costs have increased 32 per cent over the past two years—more than six times the rate of inflation and around six times the rate of increase in government child-care benefits. The government’s lack of action in providing affordable and accessible child care is very obvious, with the demand for child care still running at unprecedented levels of unmet need.

Trying to find child care for babies aged two years and younger can be a nightmare for many parents who find themselves on long waiting lists. Of course, even if a spot does become available it may not suit the parents’ work hours, or it may require additional travel, meaning that children have to stay in child care longer to take into account additional travel time. In my home state, I recently met with a local group in the Port Phillip area who are campaigning for more child-care places. There, 1,600 children are waiting for places, and centres have closed down in inner Melbourne because of real estate values. There is much more profit in housing development than there is in child care. Affordable, quality child care is vital for women when making work and family choices. Instead of paying baby bonuses to wealthy stay-at-home mothers, we say that this government should invest in affordable and available out-of-school-hours care and vacation care for Australian children to enable women to participate equally.

In addition to the issues I have already mentioned, the government should also legislate for family friendly workplace practices, like enabling women to convert full-time jobs to part time once they return to the workplace after having children; introducing government-funded paid maternity leave at 14 weeks, paid at the minimum wage; and eliminating violence against women. All of these things impact on women’s workplace participation, financial independence and life choices.