Adjournment speech - Senate - 25 Feburary 2013
Senator Lee RHIANNON (New South Wales) (22:09): International Women's Day is on 8 March and this year its theme is the Gender Agenda: Gaining Momentum. To all women who work in parliament: Happy International Women's Day. There has been momentum around women's rights, but in Australia there are still considerable challenges. Whether it is reducing violence against women, expanding job opportunities, achieving pay equity or legalising abortion in all jurisdictions, it is clear that we still have much to do.
This is an important year for Australian women because we face a federal election and the spectre of an Abbott government. The Prime Minister and her team surely know it is time to do the heavy lifting and cooperate to achieve important reforms for women's rights. History shows Mr Abbott's views on women's lives are regressive. His minders, in an attempt to shore up the women's vote, may have buttoned up the opposition leader's straitjacket to try to limit a repeat of his more outrageous statements, but the mud has rightly stuck, and women are understandably wary.
In the late 1970s, as the women's movement rapidly gained speed in Australia, Mr Abbott said:
I think it would be folly to expect that women will ever dominate or even approach equal representation in a large number of areas simply because their aptitudes, abilities and interests are different for physiological reasons.
As recently as 2004 he described the practice of abortion as:
... an objectively grave matter has been reduced to a question of the mother's convenience.
As opposition leader, when commenting on Australia's aid being allocated for sexual and reproductive health services, including abortion, he opined:
...surely there are higher priorities for Australia than funding things like that.
As IWD approaches it is timely to place on record 10 important priorities that the Australian Greens have for the Labor government to keep the momentum on women's equity, in line with the 2013 International Women's Day theme, and to strengthen the Abbott-proof fence.
First call is for the re-establishment of a gutsy and proactive office for the status of women within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
An effective and dedicated office responsible for women's equity within the Prime Minister's office was a success until former Prime Minister John Howard downgraded it by merging it with the Department of Family and Community Affairs and renamed it the Office for Women. Since that time, while I commend the efforts of hardworking women bureaucrats within the office who continue to push gender equity, the spotlight on women's issues has dimmed considerably.
A telling commentary on the role of the Office for Women is found in its answers to a question on notice last year. When asked to describe recent work in important government reforms, the office answered:
'as the measures identified all involve complex policy and program considerations they are managed by the departments with the relevant responsibility and broad-ranging expertise ... the Office for Women liaises with the appropriate area ... to ensure the issues for women are identified, understood and taken into account. The Office for Women is ready to assist in relation to gender equality.'
Australia needs more than a back-seat driver for women's issues. We need a feisty office for the status of women within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
That sad quote underlies how badly needed that is.
That is our first priority. A second priority is equal pay. The gender pay gap currently sits at 17.5 per cent, widening from 15 per cent since the Howard years in government. The $2.8 billion the Gillard government allocated to implement Fair Work Australia's decision for community workers is welcome, but far more is needed to pressure resistant states, such as the O'Farrell coalition government, to budget for equal pay increases. A clear and comprehensive plan to tackle systemic pay inequity is critical.
Our third priority covers women at work. Women's participation in the workforce would be boosted with more flexible work practices, which would also reduce the stress of combining work, family and caring responsibilities. On this front, the ACTU has renewed its campaign, and in step with this the Labor government should back Greens MP Adam Bandt's Fair Work Amendment (Better Work/Life Balance) Bill to expand the right to request flexible working hours and, unlike the government's recent flexible work proposal, allow Fair Work Australia to rule on requests for flexible work arrangements.
Our fourth priority is superannuation-another area where women's work-related fortunes are lagging well behind that of men. It is clear that there is an urgent need for the government to address tax and policy settings around super. Part-time work, caring responsibilities and lower pay all help see the average super payout for women sit at roughly one-third that of men. Tax concessions on superannuation are costing the public purse around $30 billion each year, with almost half the tax concessions going to the top 12 per cent of earners who are predominantly men.
If women are eligible for the lower tax rate of 15 per cent, as far more women than men are, their super tax concession is actually nothing. The government's plan to increase super contributions from nine to 12 per cent is no silver bullet to tackle this inequity. The Henry tax review argued against it because it would disadvantage low-income workers. Prominent feminist commentator Eva Cox argues the $8 billion this would cost is better spent increasing the minimum pension level to boost the income of low-income retirees, who, as we know, are mainly women. The Greens have a plan to tax superannuation contribution at a person's marginal tax rate minus 15 per cent. This would mean low-income earners, primarily women, would pay no tax, therefore allowing them to save more money for their retirement. Other proposals to be activated include offering paid parental leave with superannuation, as championed by Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young.
Our fifth priority is reform of government welfare programs. Women are the big loser from the government's Newstart and income management policies. The government's tight-fisted increase of $4 per week is an insult. Senator Rachel Siewert's bill to increase the maximum single rate of Newstart by $50 per week-a reasonable ask considering the single rate of Newstart is more than $130 under the poverty line-is realistic. A tougher mining tax is one way to pay for this urgently needed reform.
Our sixth priority is to scrap income management. Evidence on the implementation of income management in the Northern Territory shows it is failing women and should be scrapped. Studies of the 180 women who had lived with income management in the NT revealed that 85 per cent had not altered what they purchased and 74 per cent felt discriminated against. The fear of income management from Aboriginal women and women from non-English-speaking backgrounds in Bankstown-one of five extra trial sites-is clear. Investment in jobs and services is needed, not this heavy-handed paternalism.
Our seventh priority covers women's reproductive and sexual health. Attacks on women's reproductive rights are possibly the most feared outcome of an Abbott led government. Guaranteed access to safe and confidential reproductive health services, including abortion, is what a majority of Australians want when they say they support a woman's right to choose. PBS listing and the eventual subsidising of RU486 and Misoprostol to enable non-surgical abortion to be more widely accessible, particularly to women living in rural and regional Australia, is critical.
Our eighth priority is to protect reproductive and sexual health projects in our foreign aid program, as the spectre of interference in reproductive rights also extends to Australia's overseas aid. We need to have a vocal commitment to continue and to increase aid funding for sexual health, reproductive control and family planning programs, with no strings attached, to avoid a repeat of the Brian Harradine years.
Our ninth priority addresses the crime of violence against women. The next Commission on the Status of Women, to be held soon after IWD in New York, will focus on eliminating violence against women and girls. Reform in Australia has been too slow for the estimated 1.2 million Australian women who have experienced domestic or family violence.
Our 10th priority is to recognise two important anniversaries significant in the history of women's struggle. The year 2013 is important as the 110th anniversary of Australian women winning the right to vote and to stand in elections and the 70th anniversary of the election of the first woman to the federal parliament. In an election year women are rightly looking ahead and asking what will the next government deliver, particularly to improve their lives. The 'to do' list I have outlined is diverse but achievable. (Time expired)