Thursday, 1 November 2012
Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Amendment Bill 2012; Second Reading
I resume my speech for the third time. The agency's advisory and education functions will be enhanced. The contemporary data focus will allow the agency to see and target advice and education as effectively as possible as particular sectoral or industry issues emerge. And, in a win for smaller organisations with fewer than 100 employees, they will still not be required to report but will be able to access the agency's expertise and expanded online resources, boosting gender equality in all Australian workplaces.
The bill facilitates the engagement of senior management and employees. The chief executive officer, or equivalent, will be required to sign-off on organisation reports, and consultation with employees is a defined gender equality indicator. Over time, the improved and standardised data set will assist the minister in setting industry-specific minimum standards against the gender equality indicators. Minimum standards will not come into effect until reporting in 2015 and will be developed in close consultation with stakeholders.
The bill also improves the transparency and fairness of the compliance framework and the consequences of non-compliance. The agency will be able to check compliance by seeking information from employers relevant to compliance. Employees and shareholders will be provided with access to the report, and employees and employee organisations will be provided with opportunity to comment on the report. The consequences of non-compliance are the same as the existing provisions but with a focus on improving transparency and consistency of application. If an employer does not comply without a reasonable excuse, they may be named in a report to the minister or more broadly. Employers may also not be eligible to compete for Commonwealth contracts, grants or other financial assistance.
Those opposite use the great bastion of fear, the potential for increased red tape, to strike fear into every CEO. I would describe these reforms as more like pink tape—a lighter shade of regulation that makes compliance simpler and more meaningful. With the additional resources for education and industry assistance, this reform demonstrates a government that cares about working together towards gender equality. The rhetoric we hear from those opposite shows their true colours. I refer to paragraph 1.44 of the coalition senators' dissenting report into the Senate committee inquiry into this legislation. In that they said:
Coalition Senators are of the view that gender equality should be an aspirational goal ….
What—an aspirational goal? On this side, we produced the first female Prime Minister and first female Premier from my home state of Tasmania, and we have built our ranks of females in this place and parliaments across the country to around 38 per cent while the conservatives languish at around half of that, or just one in five are female politicians. Labor has an active goal to increase female participation. We are getting on with the job of destroying the joint, not aspiring to one day trying to find the time.
I conclude today with a contemporary story from a young woman in my home town of Devonport. She told me that, as a young woman at the start of her career, it was a demeaning process to sit at a table in front of her male boss and have to beg for what was essentially a human right and to have it repeatedly refused. Equality in the workplace is all she desired. Requests for her skills to be recognised were never heard. She says she was made to feel as if she should be just thankful for having a job in the first place. This is not a blue-collar factory job like I spoke about earlier. This young lady scored a near perfect score on her high school certificate and wanted to pursue her passion for writing in her home town. She says she was young and tried to rationalise that the job market was tough, but she could not ignore the injustice of commencing induction at the same time as a male employee and observing that he progressed much further and faster in the workplace.
Upon repeated requests for an upgrade, simply to reflect her existent skills, she was told to be less impatient and to wait her turn. At the time, she tried to comprehend this as she was at home with her parents and her male colleague had a wife and family to support. We all know that is not right. All of us know that people should have the wages and conditions that reflect their skill and effort at work.
I commend this bill to the Senate.
On the coalition side, we are put in the position yet again of finding the intention of government legislation reasonable, as they express it, but the implementation, yet again, is a complete example of slapdash behaviour. The unknowns that are left in this legislation are too much for any party that is seeking to be a responsible government. The way this is being handled is irresponsible and slapdash. Of course, we should not be surprised by that, but I guess we live in hope.
The coalition has a strong and proud history of gender equity and of moving towards addressing every aspect of gender equity. We were the government that enacted the initial Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act in 1999. It was in 2001 that the coalition government forced employers to report to the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency for the first time under this act. We initially developed the carrots and we agreed that there needed to be sticks attached, and the reporting process for that was developed. I have no doubt that, if there were currently a coalition government in place, we would be looking at further developing and amending that act, but not in this way. We would do it in a responsible way that set out to achieve some real goals.
We also need to look at this government's history in the area. As we come to the very end of 2012, with probably only a few weeks of sittings next year, even if we go towards the middle of the year, they have finally produced a piece of legislation. Of course, as I pointed out earlier, it is an extraordinarily flawed and empty piece of legislation, but they have produced some legislation. At the 2007 election they committed to this if they won government. They rushed into getting a review done. That was started in 2009—it only took almost two years for them to decide to have a review. That was conducted by KPMG, who came up with a very extensive report.
As a great admirer of the EOWA and the Office for Women, I inquired at estimates hearing after estimates hearing when this report might be available and when it might be acted on. I commented a number of times on the position that the acting director of EOWA, Ms Mairi Steele, had been placed in. She acted in the position for well over two years. The government has since appointed Ms Helen Conway to the position. In my view, both women are doing an excellent job and I think EOWA as an organisation has undertaken its mission very, very well. It certainly now is time, in my view, to extend that mission—but not this way. It is a shame that the government has brought in this legislation in this format, as far as we can see from the coalition side, simply to say, when the election is called, 'We've fulfilled that promise.' Once again, it is all smoke and mirrors. Just look at the external veneer; do not try and dig down because there is nothing to dig down to. There is nothing in it.
A number of people have made comment on the gender equity pay issue, but I would like to ensure that we have those statistics there. We agree with the government that action is needed—it is action that is needed, though, not this government's bill. The gender pay gap is stagnating at 17½ per cent. These are figures provided by the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency in August. An interesting change that has come about is that it is now the financial and insurance sectors that have the largest pay gap, and that is 32.7 per cent. It is embarrassing; it is just not acceptable.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics has shown us that an ongoing problem is the way the gap between women's and men's wages increases over time. The Bureau of Statistics shows that women working full time earn on average $1,193.50 per week; men pick up an extra $252.80, taking home $1,446.30 a week. So the disruption that leaving the workforce to have children can cause can be huge. Ms Conway, the current director of EOWA, has said that the research shows that a woman who takes one year of maternity leave experiences, when she goes back into the workforce, a reduction in her hourly wage of almost five per cent. If she stays away from the workforce for three years, that figure leaps to 10 per cent. I agree that there must be a shift in Australian culture to make it acceptable for both men and women to access flexible working arrangements without financial penalty and still have the opportunity to progress their careers.
I accept the name change that the government is proposing with this legislation, although I would argue about whether it is an urgent change that needs to happen. The mindset where we are talking about gender equality, not equal opportunity for women, in the workplace is something that we certainly need to address. I read a report recently—it perhaps included more academic jargon than I have picked up myself—about the need to 'de-gender' the workplace and parental leave. I had been arguing for some time that, until we started genuinely meaning 'parental leave', not 'maternal leave', we were not going to see equality in the workplace. The report I am talking about, from Ernst and Young, makes the point though that men also have breaks in their careers, while they go on sabbaticals or into study et cetera, and yet in that time they do not lose their career paths in the way that women appear to when they go on maternity leave.
I was interested in some of the Scandinavian examples, where it is culturally common for the mother to take the first six months of parental leave so that they can breastfeed the baby and then for the father to take the second six months. This means that employers know that men and women of child-rearing age are going to be people with broken careers. It starts to set up a new culture around the employment of women. I still strike people who say, 'We can't do too much here because no-one will ever employ a woman of child-bearing age.' I just find that very difficult to believe in this day and age, and yet, to quote from the Ernst and Young report, the researcher, Ms Jenelle McMaster, said:
You bring men and women in about equal numbers at the beginning of their careers. There is a [career] curve upwards for men and a curve downwards for women in the workforce. That was known as the stupid curve.
I tend to agree with her. Flexibility of workplace arrangements is good for families; it is not just good for women. It should be something that we can change our work cultures to accept and to take on board.
But let us get back to the problems that this government have already created in this area, where they claim to have such a philosophical superiority over the coalition. For example, their Paid Parental Leave scheme does not include superannuation, which ours would include. When you look at the facts that the relatively poorest people in Australia are retired single women, I think it is not unreasonable to say, 'For goodness sake, if you kept the super in at the parental leave stage when the women are younger, the compounding of that towards the end would lead to better results.' Not only that but we also have the government's cap on salary sacrificing contributions to superannuation now. As I said, women retire with far less superannuation than men. I can give you those figures, Mr Acting Deputy President. Their opportunity to build superannuation is surely greatest in their post-childbearing years when they are likely to be in more senior positions and therefore in a position to be able to salary sacrifice. And what does this government do: it chops them off at the pass. There is no allowance for the fact that women continue to be the poorest retirees, not even any thought about how they would do this.
The committee inquiry into this report from the coalition made what I thought was a particularly important point. We believe that the majority report by the government selectively highlighted submissions around the legislation. They did not acknowledge the evidence that came from poor old business and industry representatives, unions, academics and lobbyists. These are the ones who said that this legislation needs changing and amending. We have very great concerns about a number of areas. Once again we have this government saying, 'Oh well, we'll just let private enterprise pick up the bill,' in the same way as they have done for the parental leave scheme, starting off initially by having the FAO administer the parental leave scheme payments but then pushing it back to private enterprise. These imposts might only cost 0.2 or 0.5 per cent of gross profit but when you put 10 or 12 of them in a row onto companies at the same time that we have the carbon tax and other imposts from this government—and the most egregious one of the lot is the move to have monthly tax payments from private companies rather than quarterly tax payments—the cost to business becomes unsustainable. It is just ridiculous the way this has gone on.
One of our strongest objections to this legislation is that it does not apply to the public sector. I am aware that the Public Service Commissioner does look at the issues of diversity within the public service but not to any extent to the level that private enterprise is now going to be asked to do this. Whilst Senator Urquhart might think that it is quite good that employees and employee organisations will have access to the information of companies around gender equity and gender pay, we on the coalition side are very worried about this. It is not at all difficult to see that this information could be used by unions to run campaigns seeking higher pay across an industry because they find that one organisation in the industry is paying on average higher wages.
It is quite frightening the power that this bill would give to the minister to do almost anything he or she wants to do. There is nothing in it. I will quote from the Australian Industry Group in their initial submission to the KPMG review. They said:
Overall it may be worthwhile in Ai Group's view to introduce a form of positive recognition for organisations which submit regular reports, to provide an incentive to do so. This may be more appropriate and effective than the alternative, which is to penalise those who do not report. While EOWA recognises outstanding organisations through its "employer of choice awards", there are of course numerous organisations which regularly report but for a variety of reasons do not apply for or receive such awards. Recognising organisations which regularly submit compliant report, such as a certification process, could be considered.
Of course it could be considered, but this legislation would wipe out that potential for compliant organisations which are doing exactly what they should be doing, which are reporting, which have programs in place, which are getting good outcomes and getting increases. No, they have to go on reporting just like any other organisation. They never get a break from it. They have the cost of it every year irrespective of how it goes. That is just one issue. The other issue in terms of removing carrots is the fact that there will be no recognition of any sort, whether by award or by anything else, for organisations that are doing the right thing, and trying to do the right thing. Carrots and sticks have to be the way this goes, yet there is nothing in here. It is basically, 'Let's take away the carrots and just keep the sticks.' Of course, not only have you got the sticks which are spelt out in the bill, which I have just listed—