Ms SHING Eastern Victoria


Second Reading

Thursday 20th February 2020


Ms SHING (Eastern Victoria) (14:04): I rise today to make a contribution on the bill, and in doing so I want to pick up on a number of points that have been made in earlier contributions, specifically those made by Ms Crozier in seeking to advance the amendments that will be proposed to the Gender Equality Bill 2019. I have listened very carefully to the contributions that have been made around this chamber today, and those that were made in the course of the debate in the other place, and I have got to say that it is unfortunate that yet again we are back to the same tired old tropes that we always end at when it comes to the ongoing work that is required to be done to achieve symbolic and actual equality. It is ironic, and not in an Alanis Morissette kind of way. It is literally ironic that I am here in this chamber as the first woman ever elected to Eastern Victoria Region in the Legislative Council arguing in favour of the ongoing effort required to secure a greater level of equality across a range of different factors and considerations.

In fact it was only at the beginning of the 20th century that we saw women being given the right to vote. In the gallery we have just had a group of young people join us, including many, many young women. It is important to note that as at the beginning of 1908 there was no right for women in this state to vote. It took another 15 years before women had the opportunity to put their hands up to occupy a space in this chamber—it was not until 1923 that women in fact had the right to be in here in some elected capacity and other than as clerical or administrative staff. What that says is that the creep towards progress in a civil movement associated with gender equality is a gradual one that is all too often glacial.

What it also says is that at every turn there will be opposition. There will always be opposition to any attempt to change the status quo because change is difficult and uncomfortable for those who benefit from maintaining the status quo. When I say those who benefit from a maintenance of the status quo I am not talking about the women like me who occupy positions as elected representatives; I am talking about the fact that we as women who occupy positions of elected responsibility in parliaments are the exceptions that prove the rule, because we are still in the process of trying to ensure equality for women who sit outside these chambers, women who do not occupy positions of authority in boardrooms, in upper managerial positions, in positions where they secure a greater take-home income and where they secure career integrity and continuity when they leave the paid workforce to have children, when they leave the paid workforce to take care of people, as occurs more predominantly for our gender than from the blokes who sit here and sit around boardroom tables and occupy managerial positions.

What I say is that we have so far to go, and we must continue the work that began when the first woman complained and raised her voice, in a way that was almost certainly decried as being hysterical, about the injustices associated with our gender. Those opposite, I have no doubt, will be too quick to criticise this as socialist mumbo jumbo, as the hysterical rants of left-wing feminists, but the bottom line is that we need to keep working at every pace to achieve substantive, economic and actual visibility and equality.

The statistics are alarming, and they speak for themselves, but I am going to put them on the record to complement the work that has already been done in this chamber by other speakers on this bill, and done well. We have a situation in Victoria where 87.6 per cent is the magic number in terms of the percentage of a total income that a woman will earn when compared against the average income for a man. We women, statistically speaking, need to work an extra 56 days a year to take home the same amount as our male counterparts. Those opposite might say, ‘Well, in fact I know women who earn a lot of money, who are CEOs, who occupy board positions’, and in doing that they yet again establish the exceptions that prove the rule.

When we have a situation such as that raised by Ms Kealy in the lower house around the way in which women occupy positions of authority in council chambers, which was also a position raised by Ms Crozier in arguing for the amendment, in saying that there are many women who occupy senior executive roles, I say, ‘Well, you know what? That’s great, but it doesn’t actually abdicate our responsibility to continue to do more to make sure that we are squaring the ledger’. And it is disappointing when I read contributions such as those made by Ms Kealy in the other place talking about the way in which women may in fact if selected for a position actually reduce or erode or dissolve the level of quality that comes to a position by their recruitment. And what a strange, specious argument that is, because as far as I can see merit has never really played a role front and centre in the consistent, continual appointment, recruitment, retention and promotion of men to all sorts of positions of power and authority to the point where they overwhelmingly occupy too many of our boardrooms, they overwhelmingly represent senior positions of major listed companies. These are the beneficiaries of a system that is reluctant to change.

I was talking to my good friend Mr Barton in the chamber this morning about this bill and the importance of this bill and why it has been a significant approach over many, many years to continue this incremental improvement. I asked Mr Barton if he was going to speak on this bill, to which he indicated, and I will paraphrase, that he would rather have his actions talk for him. What I also note, however, is Mr Barton’s enduring adoration for his family and for the female members of his family. The upshot of the conversation which I had with Mr Barton about the discussions on this bill and on the amendments came down to the fact that we in the consideration and debate of and voting on this bill simply want to make the system fairer, to quote Mr Barton, for our grandbabies. I think that is an admirable and important objective. Because it is not just about identifying the issues that lie at the heart of inequality, it is not just about saying that our parliaments and our boardrooms and our meeting rooms and the areas of most seniority in economic and influential terms remain occupied by a majority of men; it is about the fact that consistent change through civil rights movement and progress has to be continued incrementally over generations. It is about saying that in fact when we continue to have a huge challenge in attracting women to STEM- and STEAM-related careers we must do more, and Dr Kieu focused on that in his contribution around today being the international day of social justice and the work that is still required to be done to encourage, to develop, to attract and to retain women into trades across the world.

We need to make sure that when women take paid leave breaks—that is, to have children, to undertake caring responsibilities—or when women continue to work but work in an unpaid capacity, they too often, we too often, sustain economic burdens that manifest and grow and, like compounding interest, continue to be felt as a detriment late into life. We know from the statistics that superannuation, that retirement income, for women is exponentially lower than it is for men and that in fact the definition of poverty, when we look at statistics that indicate that women have not been able to accrue superannuation or a guaranteed contribution over the course of their paid and working lives, includes elderly women. We know that all too often sectors such as hospitality, such as retail, are ones where women are over-represented. Through the social and community services sector we know that there are significant gaps—dozens of percentage points of income—for women who work in these sectors and whose caring inclinations, whose commitment to work and whose ethical commitment to doing things which provide for a greater level of service often at great cost to themselves are taken advantage of by sectors and by governments in the course of making funding decisions.

What we also know is that, to go to another point around Ms Crozier’s amendment, it would in substantive terms be a farce to appoint the work of the commissioner proposed by this bill to that of a cabinet minister. I say that because it was only a few years ago that Tony Abbott was the minister for women. Tony Abbott was the minister for women, and I wish I could say he did a cracking job because he is a bloke and he got there on merit, but the bottom line is services were cut, funding was cut, women were literally excluded from the conversations at the table around decisions about health care and access to services, to employment, to education, to retirement income and to the sorts of support that we need as much as anything because of our longevity of life when compared to our male counterparts.

What I think also is that we have so far to go because in the community we see people such as Tayla Harris, such as leaders from the AFLW, standing up and making a big call around inequality and the extent to which it exists and what needs to be done about it. And yet we still see, as compared with a couple of years ago when a horse won sportswoman of the year in New South Wales, that women are not taken seriously. In fact I have been called hysterical more times in this chamber by those opposite than I care to remember, and in fact it is all too easy with misuse of language, with the lowest common dominator, to deride and to diminish the contributions of women, to write us off as being overly emotional, to say that we lack the intestinal fortitude or the stiff upper lip required to make good decisions. What I say is that there are other jurisdictions around the world which fortunately are coming to see that the best board decisions, the best government decisions, the best decisions around a multitude of factors, including the merit and the sustainability and the economic viability of decisions, are made when we have women not just at the table but as a crucial and equal part of every decision-making process.

And it is a shame to hear contributions, such as those from Mrs McArthur, indicating that in fact there will be costs and bureaucratic obstacles associated with this particular bill that in fact will cause some kind of detriment to regional Victoria or to small businesses. I go back to the point that I made at the outset of my contribution: there will always be a reason for those who are opposed to progress to oppose things such as the measures proposed in this bill, because the status quo suits them. It will always be too easy to say that a woman applying for a job should not get there because of anything other than merit when in fact that is what has been happening for blokes for decades and decades and decades. So, quite frankly, I look forward to this further incremental advancement of women’s rights, recognition and visibility through this work.

We can see that the efforts associated with bringing more women into the public sector since 2014, the work associated with the Office of Women’s Policy and the work associated with progressive policy over the years under Labor have made a difference. We have an 11 per cent pay gap in the public sector. It is better than what it is in the rest of the world, but we still have further work to do. We have further work to do to provide women with the balance and the mechanisms to return to paid work and to accommodate the various challenges of a life where women most frequently occupy primary carer and caring responsibilities—as parents, as grandparents and as siblings. We need to make sure that the economic value of what we contribute to the community and to the coffers of state and federal governments is recognised, and if that presents a cost burden or bureaucracy in the terms presented by Mrs McArthur in her contribution, I would rather characterise it as an investment.

I would rather see more women achieving the best that they possibly can in a range of sectors and industries where they too often have been told that these are not jobs that are fit for women, that these are not workplaces that are fit for women. I would rather see them continue to achieve opportunities and feet in the door, opportunities up the corporate ladder, opportunities to make decisions about who else can benefit from progressive policy and better public decisions that are taken using public money in a way that is independent, accountable and has at its heart a better level of interest in social outcomes and progress and representation than someone like Tony Abbott can ever provide. So I commend this bill to the house, I look forward to the committee stage and I thank all of those crossbenchers who have indicated their support for this bill.