Home - Claire Moore - Labor Senator for Queensland

ADJOURNMENT - Women's Workforce Participation

Senator MOORE (Queensland) (21:24): This year, 2016, marks the 50th anniversary of the lifting the marriage bar on the Australian Public Service. That marriage bar meant that married women could not be employed on a permanent basis in the Commonwealth Public Service. The policy had been in place since the inception of the Commonwealth Public Service in 1901. Regulation 139 stated:

the employment of married women in the Service is deemed undesirable, but if in any special case it should be considered advisable to depart from this rule, employment may be sanctioned upon the recommendations of the Permanent Head and the special certificate of the Commissioner in each case.

This restriction meant that married women could only be employed as temporary staff, restricting their promotion opportunities. Only permanent staff could be in any supervisory position. Being a temporary employee also restricted the ability of married women to accumulate superannuation and meant that they were the first to be targeted for any redundancies when significant downsizing of the Australian Public Service happened.

In 1923 the Public Service Arbitrator had laid down clearly for the first time the reason for the difference between men's and women's wages and established principles which survived in the Public Service until altered by the arbitration court in 1953. I quote the Arbitrator's words:

The general experience throughout the world, as indicated by statistics published in many countries, is that the effective service of women is considerably below that of men, even in the same occupations, and that this is due principally to (1) loss of services through marriage, (2) greater absences on account of sickness, and (3)-

my personal favourite-

sapping vitality of unmarried women at an earlier age of life.

While the expectation of life is greater in the case of women than of men, the effective service of women ceases at an earlier age. If these factors are taken into account, equal services to those of men are not as a general rule rendered by women.

Eventually, in 1957 the Menzies government appointed Richard Boyer to head a committee of inquiry into the public service recruitment. Its conclusions were made known to the government in November 1958. Among its many concerns, it recommended repealing the marriage bar because of its inequity, disincentives, waste of talent and training and because Australia was one of the very few nations with such a bar. The removal of the marriage bar was indeed one of the key recommendations of that committee. The committee argued the point in terms of women's citizenship rights as well as advantage to the service. This is the Bowyer inquiry:

These provisions may be considered from two points of view: that of the advantages and disadvantages to the service of employing married women, or continuing them in employment, and that of the rights of married women as citizens and as officers of the service.

We recommend, therefore, that sub-sections (1) and (2) of section 49 be repealed, and replaced by a subsection providing that married women shall be eligible for permanent or temporary employment in the service on such terms and under such conditions as are prescribed.

That was in 1957, but it was way too early to celebrate.

In the abstract prepared by Tom Sheridan at the University of Adelaide called 'Mandarins, ministers and the bar on married women, he says:

Examination of National Archives records reveals that removal of the Marriage Bar was a much more complicated process than hitherto generally realised. Study of the stuttering and convoluted pursuit of its removal over an eight year period through two Inter-Departmental Committees, a Permanent Heads Committee, a Cabinet Committee and through three formal Submissions to Cabinet-

meant that the Boyer recommendations did not happen overnight. I am particularly indebted to the work of Mr Sheridan and also to the wonderful Marion Sawyer, who has done research into the cabinet documents and a number of historical records that happened through this period. I really recommend that anyone who is interested follow them through. It makes us proud to see what happened.

In 1960 the Public Service Board released a report to cabinet addressing the implications of lifting the marriage bar. Despite the fact that it supported the Boyer committee's recommendations, cabinet did not act on the matter of the marriage bar. The reason for this failure to act was the belief that 'the Australian social structure would be best served if there was no change and that the Commonwealth government should not lead in encouraging married women away from their homes and into employment.'

We move on to 1961, when advice offered to the then Prime Minister Mr Menzies-over whose name any board submission would be made-was at best lukewarm. His first briefing from senior adviser Doctor Ronald Mendelsohn was completely negative:

the practical effects of removal 'are likely to be fairly small'; the topic was 'loaded' and emotional; Treasury had not yet drafted requisite amendments on superannuation:15 removing the bar would be 'quite unpopular' because of 'heightened public consciousness concerning unemployment'; abolition was likely to have 'important repercussions on employment' in both the public and private sectors of the economy: a 'state of affairs' where married couples drew salaries 'throughout their married life and throughout the period of upbringing of their children has important social effects'; perhaps the government should first seek scientific evidence about social experience overseas-

and so on and so on-

Menzies' only mark on the brief, quite detailed but very negative, was alongside the suggestion that no action be taken or announced 'before there is a real upturn in employment.'

Immediately before the Cabinet meeting, Department Head and Cabinet Secretary John Bunting fortified the case for caution.

And I really enjoy his assessment:

But I would not take-

the responses-

at face value and I continue to believe that if each Head of Department questions himself-


about his true views on the point he will end up having a bit each way. I certainly do. On the one hand I see it as an anachronism that married women should be excluded from consideration for permanent Public Service employment. On the other, I see a decision to employ them as being a social decision of large dimension. Again, on the one hand I see the demerit of having to terminate a woman's employment merely because of marriage. But, on the other, I also see the demerit as an employer of running second to domestic responsibilities.

No action was taken. Harry Bland, who was a permanent head of the Department of Labour and National Service, the requisite department, made a telling comment. This decision:

reflects a typically male public servant attitude to this problem. One has the impression that it is with a great degree of reluctance that signs of enlightenment are allowed to peep through the document's mass of words.

But the words continue. I think one of my favourite pieces of documentation that was brought forward in their research was an advice to the Prime Minister, Mr Menzies, on 3 April 1962 relating to the Boyer report. It says: 'The Boyer report suggests a change in the law to remove the existing restriction, but the cabinet expressed no enthusiasm. It preferred the status quo though, so, as not to provoke the feminists and others, decided to lie low for the time being, rather than come out with a statement.' This lying low seemed to continue for a considerable time, but through this period there was considerable advocacy building up in the community. Marian Sawer describes it as 'polite advocacy lobbying that continued to transitioned through from the staid to the stroppy'.

Some of this was actually determined by organisations such as the National Council of Women, who supported the Boyer recommendations passing resolutions on the subject at national conferences in 1960, 1962 and 1964. Among the membership of the National Council of Women were four government senators who continued to make comment along these issues for many years. I want to pay my thanks to the women who were in this place-in the other place, of course, but in the Senate. They were Liberal Senators Nancy Buttfield, Annabelle Rankin, Agnes Robertson and Ivy Wedgwood, who all pressed considerably on the issues of the marriage bar over this period.

The Australian Federation of Women Voters was also pushing for the implementation of the Boyer recommendations, writing to the Prime Minister and to women senators in 1960 and rating candidates on the issue in the 1961 election. They sent out an extremely polite survey to all candidates in that election, which began 'Sir'-again, quite naturally-'would you be so kind enough to let us know your attitude on the questions listed and whether, if returned to federal parliament, you will introduce or support any legislative action to implement them,'-they included equal pay for equal value; what a great idea!-'And also, if you are elected, will you actually be prepared to remove the marriage bar against all women in the Commonwealth Public Service?'

Unfortunately, I do not have any record of the replies from all those candidates but, naturally, there was no actual urgency in pursuing the removal of the marriage bar. Unknown also was that there was movement happening in my own state of Queensland with the introduction of a new organisation called the Equal Opportunity for Women Association-which was originally formed by Merle Thornton and Ro Bognor, the women who were caught up in the issue of chaining themselves to the bar in a well-known hotel looking for equal rights for women.

Out of the publicity and some of the work around that, they created the Equal Opportunity for Women Association-which agitated for changes to this as well as a whole range of other changes to empower women. One of the things that the association did-apart from writing letters-was a survey of women who had been impacted. Case histories were collected by Helga Alemson for EOW of women whose lives and work had been impacted by the marriage bar. This is really telling reading. There are copies of this available in the archives. This ranges through the personal experiences of a number of women who had their careers truncated simply because they became married and the injustice and frustration that this caused.

One of the advocates who came on board after much encouragement by the EOW was a young parliamentarian from the Labor Party, Bill Hayden. During the years 1964 and 1965 he put a number of questions on notice advocating for changes to the inequitable marriage bar and moved a private member's bill on these issues. Whilst that was not successful at the time, it brought a lot of attention to the issue. I want to quote from one of Bill's speeches-and I think I can actually hear his voice while I am doing this! He said:

First of all, if a woman enters the public service she can immediately be satisfied that henceforth she will pay a continuing penalty in the form of receiving a lower wage than a man for the work she performs, regardless of whether she is employed as a librarian, a school teacher or in any other capacity where men are doing the same sort of work on a higher wage rate. A woman will not receive the same pay as a man. That is the first way in which a woman is penalised because of her sex when she joins the Commonwealth Public Service. But, my goodness, should she compound the offence of being a woman by committing the heinous act of marrying, she is immediately eliminated from the service. There is no future for her. Her services are no longer required within the structure of the Public Service Act.

That speech was made in 1965. By then, there was movement around the parliament, and there continued to be recommendations that there needed to be an urgent change if we were going to live up to our responsibilities of living in a modern world, being a member of the ILO and being around other countries that had moved much more rapidly than we had done. So, finally, the bill removing the marriage bar and introducing confinement leave came into effect on 18 November 1966. Mr Bury, the then minister, stated that 'the bill removes an element of discrimination against one section of our workforce or potential workforce-an element deriving from social attitudes of another era. Henceforth, the Commonwealth will be permitted to retain on its permanent staff trained and experienced female officers who marry and to recruit qualified married women.'

Naturally, all elements of discrimination were not removed when the marriage bar was removed from the Australian Public Service 50 years ago. However, when I started work in the Australian Public Service, in the early eighties, there were still women in the workforce whose careers had been impacted by the marriage bar. They had to leave their work, but they came back to continue work in the Public Service when the marriage bar was removed.

I remember talking with them and listening to their experiences, and actually learning from them a number of things. One, indeed, was actually truly valuing the work of the Australian Public Service. These were women who had been, through no fault of their own, removed from their employment-actually told they were no longer worthy. In those wonderful documents to which I referred, which EOWA produced, you can see the frustration and anger, and also the deep resentment that caused them during the period of the marriage bar. But later, as they had the opportunity to return to work, where they chose to work was the Australian Public Service, and they continued to provide valuable service for many years and repaid much value to the service.

During the discussion of the period of the debate around removing the marriage bar there were some beautiful statements made in the Senate. A number of them referred to the particular work of a woman who was working in the Parliamentary Library at that time. She was a very valued and skilled worker in that place, and in giving their contributions to the debate which led to the removal of the marriage bar a number of parliamentarians identified her-her professionalism and the achievements which she had made-as a particular incident that caused them to think about the waste that the marriage bar had actually given to the public sector.

It is a very important anniversary that we are celebrating at this stage-the removal of the marriage bar. In previous times-at the times of the 30th anniversary and the 40th anniversary-there were significant acknowledgements of the bar being removed in the Australian Public Service through publications such as that one I mentioned, the Removal of the Commonwealth Marriage Bar: A Documentary History, edited by Marian Sawer, which celebrated the 30th anniversary. For the 40th anniversary, another specific publication was made, which I recommend to anyone who is interested in this point. It also gives really extensive information about the time lines of the introduction of the Public Service and the various key achievements of women in the public sector, and about those which continued to operate after the marriage bar was removed.

I hope that women in the Public Service now have the opportunity to see what their history was, to learn from the absolute resilience of women who actively chose to work in the Public Service and to see that there was a great deal of effort made by women and men across the community and in the parliament to achieve this first step, I believe, to removing discrimination. I celebrate the 50th anniversary of the removal of the Commonwealth marriage bar and I hope that many people in this place, and in the wider Public Service, acknowledge this date and celebrate, just a little, such a significant event in November 2016.

Senate adjourned at 21 : 42