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Thursday, 13 September 2012
Page: 6861

Senator CASH (Western Australia) (12:09): The Senate is currently considering the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Bill 2012, which, if agreed to, will amend the Equal Opportunity Women in the Workplace Act 1999.

Before dealing with the substance of the bill, I want to make very clear the coalition's commitment to the principle of equal opportunity for women in the workplace, recognising that under the former Rudd government and the current Gillard Labor government, gender inequality continues to be a significant disincentive to the participation of women in the workplace.

When the Equal Opportunity for Women in Workplace Agency released the latest data on the gender pay gap in August 2012, it stood at 17.5 per cent, which equates to approximately $252.80 per week. When they came to power many will recall that Labor promised to fix the gender pay gap. They have clearly failed to do this. Instead, under successive Labor governments, the gender pay gap has become wider. In financial services the gap is close to 30 per cent and in my home state of Western Australia it sits at approximately 25 per cent. Gender equality needs a variety of strategies to address its causes, which are both institutional and cultural. Unfortunately, this bill provides no evidence of progress in this important area.

The coalition proudly supports the principle of gender equality and is keen to make meaningful changes, be it by legislation or community awareness, to achieve gender equality, and to improve workplace participation and workplace flexibility. The coalition, indeed, has a strong record of supporting women in the workplace and the wider society, and we are extremely proud of our achievements in these areas over many years. It was a coalition government that enacted the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act 1999. Again, in 2001, under a coalition government, employers reported to the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency for the first time under the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act. When the current Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, was a senior minister in the Howard coalition government, he took action to improve the circumstances of women in the workplace and was a strong advocate for improving women's health in the wider community. It was a coalition which amended the Sex Discrimination Act to explicitly recognise breastfeeding as a potential ground of unlawful discrimination in the workplace. The coalition committed $8.7 million over four years to breastfeeding education and support in the 2007-08 budget to raise awareness of the benefits of breastfeeding among parents and health professionals and support mothers who wish to breastfeed.

Under the coalition, Anastrozole was listed on the PBS for treatment of early stage breast cancer, allowing around 5,700 new patients to become eligible for treatment in the first 12 months of the extended listing. Under the coalition, Herceptin was listed on the PBS for treatment of early stage breast cancer, and around 2,000 patients commenced Herceptin in the first full financial year of listing. The coalition increased funding for successful screening programs for cervical cancer, resulting in a steady decline in Australia's cervical cancer rate. The coalition also announced funding for the cervical cancer vaccine Gardasil. In addition, the coalition government committed $1 million for the establishment and initial operation of the Centre for Gynaecological Cancers.

Regrettably, time constraints prevent me from listing all the significant milestones of the coalition's numerous achievements for women, both in the workplace and the wider community. However, the coalition's achievements clearly demonstrate that we are committed to improving the lot of women in society, and that includes supporting gender equity in the workplace, because the coalition believes all Australian women and men are entitled to have an equal opportunity to contribute to society in a way that creates benefits for them, their families and their communities. The coalition values women and men as co-contributors to the economic and social wellbeing of Australia. We recognise and value the many roles that women play in society. The genesis of the bill that is currently before the Senate stems from a review of the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act, which was announced in June 2009 and conducted by KPMG. KPMG provided the government with an extensive report in relation to the review but, regrettably, even with the benefit of the review and report, more than three years on from the review, the government has yet to be able to come up with a clear and coherent plan of action on what is described in the report as 'matters in relation to each gender equality indicator' and other core issues, all of which were critical elements of the KPMG report. Given the government's failure to address these critical core elements and, regrettably, its very clear failure to understand their relevance and importance to improving gender equality in the workplace, it is the coalition's view that it is premature to be introducing this legislation at this time when these critical issues have not been addressed.

The bill, in its present form, represents another failure by another Labor government in relation to policy and a lost opportunity to improve gender equality, which continues to be a significant disincentive to the participation of women in the workplace. One can only assume that the hotchpotch of disparate issues contained in the bill is a measure of the government's confused and jumbled thinking on the issue of gender equality and is designed as a smokescreen for supposed action in the run-up to the next election. This is given that Labor is good at making commitments in relation to gender equality and indeed made a number of commitments in relation to general equality in the workplace as part of its 2010 election campaign—which it has clearly failed to deliver.

The explanatory memorandum accompanying the bill and the minister's second reading speech indicate that the bill is intended to amend the name and objects of the act; improve the coverage of the act; enhance the agency's advice and education functions; simplify and streamline reporting; and strengthen the compliance framework.

A close reading of the detail of the bill identifies four key issues which are of concern to the coalition. The minister's second reading speech is a continuation of the government's policy of promoting spin over substance and all about fabricating and spinning a story designed to give the impression that the substance of the bill will usher in major benefits for women in the workplace—when clearly it will not. The bill promotes additional, costly, bureaucratic regulation, at the expense of business, and will impose significant additional reporting burdens and costs on those employers caught by this legislation.

The bill is drafted with a bias to appease the union movement. The reporting functions of those employers caught by the legislation are designed to provide additional information, at the employer's expense, which may well be used by the unions to mount wages and other claims against the employers based on this information. The bill is also drafted to provide the minister with an inordinate amount of discretion. For example, the amendment bill gives the minister the power by legislative instrument to specify matters in relation to each gender equality indicator as set out in subsection 3(1), which states:

The public report must contain details of the matters specified in the instrument made by the Minister.

This broad discretion will provide the minister with opportunities to vary the principles enunciated in the supporting documentation to the bill and these yet-to-be-determined actions will not be subject to the same level of parliamentary scrutiny that could have occurred had the matters been properly included in the bill.

The coalition does not support legislation which provides such a broad-ranging ministerial discretion that is unjustifiable under the circumstances and which will allow the minister effectively to do what the minister likes as the minister is being empowered under the bill to 'add new matters' as the minister sees fit and further tie business up in costly but yet undisclosed bureaucratic red tape.

I participated in the Senate committee inquiry into the current bill and took a great interest in the written submissions and the oral evidence presented to the committee. Based on the questions posed to witnesses and the evidence given to the committee, and having regard to the majority report of the committee, I formed the impression that the government members were not interested in many of the issues that were raised by the witnesses. It seemed to me that the government was acting in haste and was more interested in being able to claim it was delivering on an election promise than in the potential adverse ramifications which will no doubt flow from this bill.

My concerns are covered, in part, by the comments set out in the minority report of the committee, of which I am a signatory. At page 32 of the committee report under the heading 'Evidence', the coalition senators in their dissenting report made the following comments:

1.10 The majority report seeks to selectively highlight certain submissions received in support of the proposed legislation. The majority report fails to acknowledge the divergent evidence received by the Committee from business and industry representatives, unions, academics and lobbyists, with many of these submissions highlighting concerns with the proposed legislation and calling for it to be amended. The majority report seeks to conveniently ignore much of [the] material critical of the proposed legislation.

1.11 Coalition Senators recognise that it is employers who will have to implement these proposed workplace changes—not the public sector, unions, or lobby groups—and it is employers that will have to bear the additional costs of these changes notwithstanding that the government is unable to quantify these potential costs.

1.12 It is the view of Coalition Senators that the committee majority report was dismissive and indeed contemptuous of the views of industry representatives who represented and spoke for thousands of Australian employers.

At page 34 of the committee report under the heading 'The alarming absence of information', coalition senators in their dissenting report made the following comments:

1.16 The Bill is an example of 'coat hanger legislation' reliant on regulations that are yet to be drafted, or future Ministerial directives, with many important aspects proposed to be defined only after the legislation has been passed.

1.17 Coalition Senators consider that it is irresponsible to support and pass legislation which imposes significant burdens and financial ramifications on employers, without being fully informed of the intentions of the Minister in respect to the proposed regulations and potential Ministerial directions.

The coalition senators also say, at paragraph 1.20:

In considering the provision in the Bill that provides the Minister with these significant powers, the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills concluded:

The Committee prefers that the use of delegated legislation is fully explained. In this case the explanatory memorandum does not address this point, but indicates at page 2 that the development of these standards will be evidence-based and that the Minister must consult the Agency prior to making the standards. It is also envisaged (see subsection 31(3)) that the Minister will consult with other relevant persons, such as industry and employee organisations. In these circumstances the Committee leaves the question of whether the proposed approach is appropriate to the consideration of the Senate as a whole.

In paragraph 1.21 of their minority report, coalition senators concluded:

.. the Bill is drafted to provide the Minister with an inordinate amount of discretion, 'without legislative constraint on the exercise of these powers'.

Earlier in my comments I described this bill in its present form as a hotchpotch of disparate issues which confirmed the coalition's view that the bill is an indication of the government's confused and jumbled thinking on this issue and was designed as a smokescreen to enable the government to claim supposed action in the run-up to the next election, given that Labor gave certain commitments relating to equality in the workplace as part of their 2010 election campaign and upon which they are yet to deliver.

Whilst it is not practical to attempt to re-draft this bill on the run in the Senate, I indicate that, on behalf of the coalition, I propose to move a number of amendments during the committee stage, including calling on the government to commit to achieving equal opportunity for women by supporting the coalition's paid parental leave scheme. Other coalition amendments are designed to achieve a more balanced approach to the substance of the bill and include a specific amendment to lessen the inordinate discretion that this bill in its current form bestows on the minister.

In relation to the coalition's paid parental leave scheme, I must say that as a senator who has travelled around Australia and attended many forums in relation to paid parental leave, I am delighted at the manner in which the coalition's proposal has been embraced across the country by not only women but also men. There is no doubt that the coalition recognise that one of the most effective ways to increase female workplace participation is a solid paid parental leave scheme and affordable child care. If the government are serious about achieving gender equality, they should support the coalition's paid parental leave scheme. Unlike the government's scheme, which is nothing more and nothing less than a welfare based scheme, the coalition support the economic empowerment of women and under their scheme will provide real time and real money to working women, offering eligible women 26 weeks at their replacement wage of up to $75,000 per annum.

Financial security for women is something that Australians see the Labor Party pay lip-service to but take almost no real action on. This is highlighted by the fact that Labor's Paid Parental Leave Scheme, in addition to being a welfare based scheme, does not include any superannuation. The coalition's paid parental leave scheme includes superannuation, and those payments will be made at the mandatory level, because, unlike Labor, the coalition believe, that women should not be disadvantaged when the time comes to draw on retirement savings.

As I have stated, the coalition will move in the committee stage a number of other amendments which will seek to amend the bill to remove the inordinate level of discretion proposed to be provided to the minister; re-introduce provisions allowing the agency to waive public reporting requirements for relevant employers; insert a provision for the agency to give public acknowledgement to relevant employers who regularly meet compliance standards; and require the government, despite what it says it wants to do, to remove one regulation for relevant employers for each new regulation that it introduces as a result of this act.

In proposing these amendments, the coalition are seeking to strongly support the principle of gender equality. The amendments are drafted to make meaningful changes to the current bill in the interests of achieving gender equality, improving workplace participation and improving workplace flexibility. I have already provided examples of some of the actions the former Howard coalition government took and examples of the current policies of the coalition that irrefutably demonstrate that the coalition have a strong record in supporting women in the workplace and the wider society. We are proud of our significant achievements over many years and we are keen to continue to support gender equality improvement in the workplace.

However, I remind the Senate that the minister's second reading speech on this bill is a continuation of the government's policy of promoting spin over substance. A close reading of the detail of the bill indicates that even Labor's colourful rhetoric, which is designed to portray action when there is nothing really happening, is unable to camouflage the fact that the Labor government have failed to address the core issues set out in the KPMG report, and the responses it has received from the employers and employer groups that they will end up paying for the increased bureaucratic red tape that comprises the substance of this bill.

The coalition support gender equality in the workplace. Regrettably, this bill in its present form represents a lost opportunity by another Labor government to improve gender equality in the workplace and, if passed, will be a source of great disappointment to women across Australia. Given the coalition's commitment to gender equality in the workplace, in the event that our amendments are not accepted by the government, the coalition will oppose the bill on the basis that it imposes draconian measures which are designed to increase the level of government interference in the workplace and may well have the opposite effect to what is stated as the bill's aims and objectives.

I urge the government to seriously consider the coalition's amendments, which we believe add considerable substance and value to the bill. Legislation for gender equality in the workplace should be drafted to encourage bipartisan involvement and be drafted in a form which is able to be embraced by employers and employees alike, in the wider interest of our society. The failure of the government to accept the coalition's amendments will confirm to the wider community that Labor see gender equality in the workplace as a party political football able to be kicked around in an attempt to score political points rather than a bipartisan social issue able to be embraced by our wider society.

The reform of EOWA represented the chance for the government to do something meaningful to advance gender equality in Australian workplaces by introducing measures to improve flexibility, productivity and incentives to encourage women back to the workforce after having children. Regrettably this has not occurred. (Time expired)