Thursday, 25 March 2021
Much has been said in the media recently about women in this house, in workplaces around the country and in society generally. In particular, women have quite rightly spoken up following distressing stories of rape and sexism and political expediency being put above human rights. It's been an honour to be here to watch Australia's women rise up, because, as the great song says, the rising of the women is the rising of us all. Many of us feel that this is a time of reckoning, and much has been said about that, but also people ask, 'What is next? What is to be done?' So much can be done now without waiting for reports that could be years away. There are 55 recommendations on the Prime Minister's desk that will make workplaces safer for women workers. We could introduce paid family and domestic violence leave right now. We could properly fund the Workplace Gender Equality Agency to do its job, instead of slashing its funding, year in, year out. They collect data that is vitally important to painting a picture and helping create change. They monitor compliance with current laws, as deficient as they are. But that is important. The agency needs to be resourced. They could establish an independent human resource department for staffers, ensuring that reporting can be made with impunity, without a fear of the staffer losing their job and without it becoming a political problem. That's just to name a few things.
One thing that has come up recently is the issue of quotas. I am really pleased that the Liberal Party women have reached the conclusion that quotas are worth considering. Quotas do work. That crazy argument that it overrides merit is just that—crazy. It is, I am sure, a nonsense to say that only 26 per cent of women in the Liberal Party are smart enough to be elected to government. A while ago I attended a conference. There was a panel of banking executives, all five of them men, and they were asked about affirmative action and quotas. Most of the men, four of them, ran that old merit argument, but one man actually said: 'When I look for a new CEO or executive, I ask around my friends, who are all men. I look for people who I relate to and think I can work with, and that's nearly always men. I look at other executives in the pool around the town, and do you know what? They're all men. When you don't see women, you don't employ them.' So he concluded: 'Yes, you have to have targets. You have to have quotas to simply see women around you. Because they are out there. Women of merit are out there. You just don't see them.' Now, for an older bloke, an older, establishment bloke, this was very insightful, because that is how the boys' club works.
Many large corporations like PricewaterhouseCoopers now do have targets. The late Joan Kirner once said to me: 'Do you think every man in every position of power, whether a political seat, a CEO position or on a board, got there on merit? I don't think so.'
For the Labor Party, affirmative action has worked. We have nearly 50 per cent women in the federal parliamentary Labor Party. Jenny Macklin once described her ascension to the cabinet table as 'resetting the agenda'. When she first raised paid parental leave it was almost ignored as being not necessarily the right time at that moment. Now look where we have come. When I became ACTU president the issue of paid leave for people suffering family and domestic violence was viewed by the mostly male ACTU executive as a fringe issue. Now, after years of my campaigning and the campaigning of many of my union sisters, it is Labor Party policy.
Having women at the table changes everything. Sure, it doesn't ensure a utopia—and I'm not suggesting it is—but it does change things. Just this week we saw the member for Lilley's babies enter the House during a division. She's joined so many Labor women managing this role and having babies, and I'm proud that that's happening in the Labor Party. Change is possible when women are visible in a critical mass. When that happens, change is even more quick.
Almost a year ago today, Annabel Crabb wrote an article for the ABC. She wrote about the transformative nature of quotas on local Indian communities where they'd been set for the election of a local village. The change there was amazing. The visibility of female leaders changed the lives of individuals outside the system to which the quota applied. She concluded profoundly:
Carried in the pockets of every woman who doesn't make it into parliament are the girls of the future who never get the opportunity to look up and see her there.