Speeches | February 06, 2020

Gender Equality Bill 2019

Victorian Parliament - February 6, 2019 - 

Ms KEALY (Lowan) (10:13): It is great today to be able to speak on the Gender Equality Bill 2019, and not only that but to speak of the great efforts that women have made not just within this Parliament but across our communities, whether it is in business roles, whether it is as parents. No matter how people contribute, we know that both women and men are coming together in terms of the respect that they earn in the community and their position in the community. There is no doubt that, particularly over my lifetime and over my working career, over the past 40-odd years I have seen a big shift in how women are treated in the workplace. It is wonderful that we are able to talk about gender equality in a way that is positive and not with persecution, but pointing out areas where we can do a little bit better and looking at ways where we can close that gap.

I look around my National Party room, if I may just reflect on that for a moment, and I would like to pay my respects to my amazing female colleagues, the member for Euroa and Melina Bath, who not only are very good friends of mine and amazing supports but also as women provide amazing and unique insights into different issues that come through their electorates, through the state of Victoria and through the party room. They both work enormously hard, and I am certainly very, very proud to call them my National Party friends and family. I know that they are making a huge difference not just within their own communities but for the people of Victoria.

The purpose of this bill is for an act to require the public sector, councils and universities to promote gender equality, to take positive action towards achieving gender equality, to establish a public sector gender equality commissioner and for other purposes.

At the outset I would like to speak on the amendment put by the government in relation to clause 4, line 20, which is to omit ‘equality’ and to insert ‘inequality’. There is absolutely no doubt that you have our full support. We will not be asking for a division on that; we certainly support that and understand that sometimes there are errors that occur through the drafting process.

We have also tabled some amendments to the Gender Equality Bill. I will go through those in greater detail through the course of my contribution today, but there are essentially two elements. One is around the establishment of a commissioner. We believe that that can be done under the minister’s direction and guidance, and there are elements within this bill which already outline elements that are the responsibility of the minister. In our view you do not delegate and you cannot outsource gender equality. This is something that must be held within the government and it must be held by the accountable minister. The reason for that is that it is a voice directly into cabinet, and of course we know that in the past the women’s portfolio in particular has been under the governance of the Department of Premier and Cabinet. For that reason, we have put forward that amendment.

The other part of the amendment—I do understand that there are a number of amendments that are covered by those two large sections, but the majority part of that is to ensure that there are protections for businesses and for not-for-profit organisations in relation to applying for funding and also through the procurement process. We note that there are a number of protections and supports within the bill in regard to government organisations, and while we certainly accept that that should be the case, there should be an understanding that in some instances there is limited access to resources or there is a limited workforce. Also, there are other issues which are related to just being in regional areas, which provides greater challenges sometimes in achieving targets or quotas or other indicators. As those targets, quotas and indicators are not outlined as part of the bill, they will be part of regulation that is as yet unknown, and which is to be put by the minister at a later date. We believe that there should be a level of consistency between the application of any indicators, targets or quotas that are established by the minister and that are applicable to government organisations that could flow through and have a significant impact on businesses and not-for-profit organisations in relation to funding but also to procurement.

I would like to now go through the main provisions of the bill. Essentially this is around requiring the public sector, councils and universities to take positive action towards achieving workplace gender equality. This, of course, is a very, very positive step, and it is something that we need to do; however, I think we also need to be very careful that we give due credit to organisations. In particular, I know from my experience of working in the health sector and even from what I see within the electorate of Lowan, within councils and universities enormous steps have already been taken to ensure gender equality within their workplaces and in how they engage with the community. I think it is important that we do reflect upon that and we understand that without legislative enforcement upon these bodies we are already seeing huge steps being made.

I am certainly enormously proud: I have eight councils in my local electorate, and many of those already have in place really positive strategies, which I believe have been referred to as part of this bill and they may come into place in the future around regulations. They have policies in regard to leave for victims of domestic violence. They already have policies in terms of ensuring the gender balance in the number of women and men in the workplace and of course people who are on the gender spectrum. There are other elements around how so many of our CEOs have signed up to what was formerly known as White Ribbon. They are amazing domestic violence advocates. They are always present at the annual White Ribbon march as a protest against domestic violence in our rural communities.

While I know that sometimes there is a stigma that in rural areas you might have that step away from what is termed as ‘progressive’ issues, whatever that means, I certainly see that in my community we have a strong commitment to stamp out domestic violence. We have a strong commitment to support women in so many of our positions—in senior positions, in executive positions—and whether it is an employee position or whether it is the position of mayor or as councillors, we have amazing contributors who are women. They are great leaders. They do things differently—they do not have to be in a power suit, they do not have to behave like men; they can behave like themselves and still make enormous changes, and they are definitely making a difference in our own communities. So that point is something I wanted to reflect upon on subclause (a) in relation to the purposes of the bill.

I would like to reflect at this point on a point that was mentioned in the second-reading speech, which was incorporated into Hansard by the Minister for Women, and that is around school councils being exempted by regulation. I absolutely have a full understanding of why that is the case, and I actually got a response, which I am very appreciative of, from the minister’s office in regard to school councils being exempted. The reason for that would be that, and I quote:

… stakeholders in the education sector raised concerns that individual school councils would have significant difficulty in complying with the Bill given varied size and resourcing capacity between school councils across the state.

I think that is a very sensible approach. There certainly needs to be a level of understanding that for smaller organisations and for organisations which have limited resourcing capacity elements of this bill, given we do not know what the details are really around the regulation, could make an enormous difference. We do not want to get to a point where gender equality is resented because it is unfairly discriminating against certain government bodies or, in the instance of the procurement of funding guidelines, certain businesses or organisations. As I said, I will go into that further in the debate, but I note that school councils are not specifically exempted as part of the bill. We are always I guess concerned that the devil can be in the detail—that because this can be amended by regulation there may be a change to this decision into the future; therefore it would be good if there were specific exemptions for school councils within the legislation. I understand that there may not have been a provision for that in this version of the bill. However, given the minister has given that indication, I think it is important that also we have it in Hansard so if it has to be referred back to at a certain point in time, that certainly we have a record of that. We hope that is an enduring position by whoever is in government on the day that regulations are amended or indicators are amended.

My other concern around this section is really about privacy and confidentiality. There has certainly been feedback that I have had, particularly in relation to the gender impact assessments, of questions around what if people are unwilling to disclose their gender. There certainly has been some discussion around this through other items of media interest and through legislation which has come through this chamber, but we should never overrule the individual’s right to privacy and confidentiality for the sake of collating information for public distribution and looking at setting up KPIs and a benchmarking system I guess as a measure for the government to say how they are doing in terms of achieving gender equality in the public service. I am concerned that there will be obligations upon individuals to disclose that information. However, I understand that within the legislation there are elements referred to which indicate that the government body or organisation does not have to release that information if it would unfairly identify or indicate the specific genders of individuals within their working group.

I understand that second stage—I certainly support that—but in order for the government body or the defined entity to withhold that information and not publish it, they need to have it in the first place. I think everybody’s right to privacy around their own gender really is something we must protect. Therefore I do ask that the minister provide some further information about how that will be protected into the future, because it is not for all and it is not their obligation to report that and to disclose that if they are not comfortable in doing so, and because it really provides no additional benefit to the government itself. In fact I think there still would be a feeling for some that they would be discriminated against should they disclose their gender. We want to make sure that people are not forced to disclose their gender if they feel there would be that discrimination. While I understand the purpose of this bill is to eliminate discrimination, and particularly to promote gender equality, we do need to be careful that we are not putting people at risk through the overall intentions of the bill.

I also had feedback regarding the bureaucratic burden of the reporting requirements, particularly around the gender equality action plans and the gender impact statements. As we know, all of these requirements we have to report through to government take time, they take money, they take enormous resources. There certainly was a question raised over whether the government will provide additional support in relation to change management. For some organisations there will be significant change management, but what other financial support will be available to these organisations as they are required to create these very important action plans and undertake the impact assessments? It will soak up time, it will soak up money, and I know from talking to many government bodies they often feel like they put hours and hours of work—days and weeks of work—into producing documents that go to government and they do not get a lot of feedback. Given that we have covered by this bill universities, we have hospitals, we have councils, some of which are on an extraordinarily limited budget, I do ask that appropriate support and resources are given to all of the organisations impacted by this bill to ensure that there is a proper transition but also that there is not an additional burden put on which is not going to make a tangible difference to gender equality within our workplaces.

That is probably a key point. It was raised particularly by a number of women’s organisations and organisations that are against violence against women. It is not about picking holes in this; it is really about making sure that this works. If we are going to put a legislative framework in place, we need to make sure it works.

As I mentioned earlier, if there is some concern around that pressure that is on organisations, and people start to resent gender equality because it takes time away from what they are doing, it takes money away from providing patient care or providing education to younger people, or if it is around just not having the budget to be able to do it in the first place or the workplace, we are really going backwards as opposed to going forwards in the promotion of gender equality in the workplace.

Again I refer to the equality indicators and to targets and quotas. We have not got any indication at this point in time of what those indicators or targets or quotas will look like. I do note that that refers to clause 15, which is the indicators, and clause 17, which is around targets and quotas. Clause 16 provides the exemption for the defined entities around indicators, and clause 18 provides exemptions for the targets and quotas. There is still an unknown around what those targets and quotas and equality indicators may look like, and while it may not be the intention of the minister, who defines those regulations at a future point in time, it may be simply unachievable for some organisations.

In relation to school councils, I think there are also very, very small local government councils who will also find it quite difficult to meet some of those requirements. That is not through any reason of systemic sexism or gender bias; it is simply because it is extraordinarily difficult to recruit to some of these positions, particularly in rural and regional Victoria. If you get one applicant who has got all the skills and qualifications you need, you do not really care what gender they are or what colour they are or what their religious beliefs are or what their physical abilities or their mental abilities are; you just want somebody in the job. Our employment issue is around an insufficient workforce as opposed to not enough jobs, and so in many ways I think rural and regional Victoria is leading the way in not putting that veil of discrimination over appointments. They actually do appoint by merit in every circumstance. They do not ever pick somebody just because they are a certain gender or have a certain look or are of a certain ethnicity. I think rural and regional Victoria should be celebrated for what they do on that indication. There is a question mark around what those indicators and targets and quotas will be, and that is an element of concern in understanding how that will impact on organisations into the future.

The second element is around the commissioner. As I said earlier, you cannot outsource or delegate gender equality. There have already been a number of really important policies put in place around gender equality. It is somewhat concerning that there is a need to bring it into legislation in order to make the difference. As I stated earlier, I think some organisations are doing an amazing job. There is no doubt that others have got a way to go. However, it is important that if there is policy, whether it is internal government policy, whether it is legislation and brought through legislation, that the directive of the minister is adhered to. It seems like a duplication that we have the commissioner brought into place, given that clause 26(b) and clause 44 both refer to the minister having responsibility and delegating that responsibility to the commissioner. As I stated earlier, I think that having the role of a commissioner is a step aside from cabinet and a step aside from government. I think this is the minister’s responsibility, and I do not want to see that responsibility outsourced outside of the cabinet process and the government executive. I think it is actually essential that it is kept inside.

There are also a number of unknowns around the commissioner. We do not know how much this will cost. We do not know the size of the department. We do not know whether it was considered to include this commissioner’s role into an existing role or whether it was even considered to retain that with the responsibility of a delegate of the minister, such as the secretary. At the end of the day, creating a new commissioner, creating additional bureaucracy, all comes with an additional cost, and of course it is the taxpayer that foots the bill.

We know that this is not the first priority, but it does make a big difference when women—particularly single women with children—are really struggling at this point in time. To have an additional cost burden from government which may impact on the amount of tax they have to pay and the amount of money they have at the end of the week to pay for their schoolkids’ education—to make sure they can go to camp, to make sure they are actually fed and have a roof over their heads—that is something that needs to be balanced with the cost of an additional level of bureaucracy to manage the reporting requirements. When you look at the face of the legislation, there is nothing there that is beyond the capability or the responsibility of the existing department structure.

Ms Williams: Educational role.

Ms KEALY: The minister points out it is the educational role. In my view, I have seen in place the department undertaking educational roles as well or contracting external businesses to help with that education and support information. So they are all very important. However, I think that similar types of activities are already being undertaken within the department, and therefore I cannot see the justification of the huge additional cost—an additional bureaucracy and reporting structure. To be one further step away from the minister could actually end up with further delays in implementing some of these changes.

I now refer to the section around broad general provisions. This is the area of the bill which created the most concern and it is the one that I certainly fielded the most amount of feedback around—that is the incorporation of gender equality into the social procurement policy. I do note that the social procurement policy, which was established in 2017—so it has been going for three years—already includes women’s equality and safety. Again, while there are exemption provisions for government bodies, there are no exemption provisions for businesses applying for funding or the supply of goods and services.

That is why we have put forward the amendment today, and it is in relation to points 66 and 67, which relate to section 48 and section 49 respectively. That really is around assisting to replicate the exemption provisions which are enshrined within this legislation in relation to government bodies and defined entities. It really ensures that we have that obligation of exemption upon businesses and not-for-profit organisations who may be applying for funding for goods or services through their procurement process. They do not want to be discriminated against because of exactly the same reasons that the government has already outlined around why school councils are exempt. They are varied in size, they have extremely limited resources in some circumstances and in particular in regional Victoria they would find it extraordinarily difficult to meet targets and quotas. There is a limited workforce, it is very difficult to attract and retain people to work in the country and the change of one individual leaving an organisation and replacing them with an alternate gender can deeply skew and change the gender balance within an organisation.

So I am simply asking through these amendments that the government, and all members of the chamber, consider that if it is good enough to put in exemptions for government businesses, for defined entities as outlined within this bill, then surely it is good enough to apply that level of exemption and understanding to small businesses in particular. Not-for-profit organisations, which are often run with volunteers at their heart, are also going to in some circumstances find it very, very difficult to meet any regulation that may be imposed by the government through future regulation. This is something that could make or break a business. Particularly when looking at gender equality, the majority of it is around getting more women into senior positions, but there are elements of it which are around getting the balance right in female-dominated industries where we need to bring more men in for, again, that alternate view and to look at how we can balance out the history and make it okay for people who want to follow a career path that has traditionally been the sole caretaker of one specific gender.

That is what we are calling for in these amendments, and that is why we put them forward today. We want to make sure that if you are a small business and you rely on funding from the government, there is a level of understanding that if they cannot meet specific targets and quotas or indicators which are put upon them through regulation by the minister they still will not be starved of government funding—that they will not just be cut out and excluded and discriminated against, and that they can still work towards gender equality. Even if they cannot get to that specific target or quota that has been set or the indicator that has been set, that does not mean that they are being sexist or turning a blind eye to gender equality.

Similarly, as I said earlier, the not-for-profit sector can find it very, very difficult to meet different government guidelines. They are run on the smell of an oily rag, and they do an amazing job in our community. To add an additional layer of bureaucracy, where it is another step and another level of red tape may be perceived in order to meet requirements to get a procurement opportunity for goods or services from the government—whether it is a funding opportunity which may even assist them to achieve greater gender equality within their business or organisation—is something that needs to be taken into consideration but has been overlooked through the parameters of this bill.

The reason that I am raising this is not just around ensuring fairness—that there is not a level of understanding and respect through the legislation of the impact of unachievable targets and quotas or indicators for small businesses and not-for-profit organisations—but it also comes back to making sure that there is not a level of resentment created inadvertently by the government. If a business has to close because they cannot access government grants anymore, or a not-for-profit organisation has to close because they cannot access a government grant anymore, then we really need to question what the overall outcome of this will be. I know what they would blame. They would come at the end of the day and say, ‘Well, we couldn’t survive; we had to close the doors because we couldn’t meet the gender equality guidelines as we are only small’. They are going to fall back and lay blame and provide a negative environment. I know that is not the intention of the bill; I know that is not what this is striving to achieve. But that is why I am calling for these amendments to be supported by the government to make sure that we actually do take strong steps to influence the private sector and the not-for-profit sector and that we provide the same provisions and exemptions to the private and the not-for-profit sector through procurement and through funding. That has been applied in the bill for the defined government bodies that have been outlined and provided to me.

As I have stated, and just in summary, we certainly support the idea of gender equality—and I will include my own experience. When you look in Hansard you will not realise that I am pregnant, and I have managed to achieve gender equality in my own family, in that I have a son, and I will be having a daughter, so we have got a 50-50 quota. Without a target or quota I have managed to achieve gender equality. My amazing partner, Chris, actually will have three girls, so he has been a star when it comes to quotas for women. But we are very, very excited to welcome this little one into the world. It has been wonderful to have the support of my colleagues in relation to being pregnant and being in a shadow minister position. I do thank The Nationals and the Liberals in particular for their support and their excitement about having a baby on the frontbench.

Mr Wells interjected.

Ms KEALY: The member for Rowville wants to know if I will be calling her Kimberly. No, I will not. Sorry, Kim.

Mr McGuire interjected.

Ms KEALY: Or Frances. But I think it is great we have got a workplace and a Parliament where we can treat each other with respect and where we can have a child. This is something that is completely different from what we have seen in the past. So through our own actions we can make a difference, and what you see is what you can be. I do appreciate the opportunity. Look, it will come with challenges, but that is okay; I have got a lot of support around me.

While we certainly do support the overall intentions of the bill, we would like the government to take into account the amendments that we have put forward. They really are around sensible changes and around making sure that we have those protections in place for businesses and for not-for-profit organisations, but also that we do not add additional bureaucracy, financial burden and another level of responsibility and that we do not outsource gender equality, because it is the responsibility of each and every one of us. I think that through our own actions, everybody in this place can be very proud of what they are achieving in their own way to make sure that we do have gender equality right across the state.

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