It is fairly confronting when you get to stand and speak to a piece of legislation that you have followed through from when the original legislation was introduced over 20 years ago. We are all cutting our contributions very short, recognising the importance of making sure that the debate continues.
I can well remember when the original legislation was brought into this place to ensure that there would be equality for women in the workplace-and I see people sitting in this chamber who share this experience. If we look at the Hansardtranscripts from that time, we remember the statements that were made that the legislation would end the modern world as we know it, that business would cease to operate effectively, that we would have social engineering interfering with the way that people would operate, and that all this was some kind of mad experiment by people who wanted to change the world starting with business in Australia. We know that that is not true. If you look at the way this legislation operated in its original guise, as the affirmative action legislation and then through a couple of reviews through 1990 and to today, you see that the intent was purely to ensure that people in Australia would have equal opportunity in workplaces so that they could have careers, equity and choice in the way they could work.
After an extensive review which was announced a couple of years ago and was then put in place-with a consultation process across the board which called for people to be involved-we have developed a new range of legislation which looks at equality in the workplace but, even more, looks at the changing face of our community. It picks up issues of caring in workplaces and puts in the agenda-as it always has been in some form but it is clearly in place in this legislation-the need, the importance and the economic value of equal remuneration in the workplace.
What we have before us now is a bill that says that we have looked at the changes that have happened over the last years and we have refined the objects. And they are not that new. This legislation says that we need to change the name of the act to the Workplace Gender Equality Act. For me, language is always very important, but I have to admit that when I actually lose the word 'woman' in a title it does cause me pain. But I have worked through this pain and I understand that we need to have a concept in Australia, in our business community, that looks at workplace and gender equity, so that both genders can feel that their needs are being addressed and that we understand the need for genuine equity. So we change the name. We modify the coverage of the act to include all employers and employees in the workplace, regardless of gender. We look at everybody's needs. We introduce a new reporting framework which has been called for for many years. When the original act was brought in, and subsequently over the years, I believe that the single biggest complaint from business was the onerous nature of reporting. Whilst I looked at those complaints over the years, and I looked at the report, I felt that it probably was not that onerous. Nonetheless, there has been a response to ensure that there is much more support from the agency to ensure that people who are working in business-employers and employees-have some support in developing what they have to say back to the government about what they have done. I would have thought that would be a natural expectation of businesses in our community. To be fair, in the consultations many of the business organisations and many of the employers felt that this was a reasonable request-that they needed to tell the government what they were doing to ensure that issues of equity were in place in their agencies. The reporting process has been streamlined and the benchmarks against which people will need to report will continue to evolve. Nothing can be seen to be set in concrete. Through this process there is an expectation that, in responding to the needs of the community and the needs of business while maintaining a genuine commitment to equity, there will be a process in place that is clear, that people understand, and through which they can put forward what they are doing in their own workplace to meet the requirements.
Not too tough, I would have thought, to provide for the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency, which we all value and which will get its new name, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, to have new advisory and educational functions. For me, that seems to be one of the key aspects of the changes. There has always been an expectation that the agency would be available to provide support when people are required to put forward their reports. Indeed, that has happened. I know, from talking to people who worked in the agency over many years, that they have given a great deal of time and professional expertise to provide this support in a very personal way. Now that support has been redefined and made a core part of the agency's business so, no matter what form of business you are operating in this country, you will be able to get support from the agency along the lines of what you can do to ensure there is workplace equity and that you can understand the issues around pay. You have to put reports in only if you have more than 100 employees, but one of the key aspects of this bill is that no matter what business you are working in-it can be three people-you can still ask for assistance and advice to see what is going on in your workplace. That, to me, is the core importance of what we are doing.
This is not a bill just for the sake of having new reports or having new changes in workplaces. There is a key goal in this process, because what we have identified, and what the debate has clarified over many years, is that, despite the efforts of many places and organisations in our country, there are still major gaps to be overcome. We have data on the differences in pay rates and the differences in opportunities, but there are still segments of industry in this country that have great gender divergence. There has been great progress-and we celebrate that. One of the things I look forward to every year is the awards that are given by the agency to businesses that have done great things and to celebrate the achievements of businesses that can show they have achieved equity in their workplace. They have provided opportunities for employment. They have provided opportunities for flexible working arrangements which benefit employees but benefit the whole business as well. We as a community should continue to celebrate that, share that knowledge and ensure that people can be involved in the overall goal of the whole process, which is workplace equity.
It is exciting that we are able to move forward this legislation. We have a work program into the future for which details will be endorsed, so that by 2014 we should have in place a reporting process that has the benchmarks clarified, that lets people know what the expectations of their industry are, and that enables employers and employees to feel engaged in the process. I believe one of the things that has not happened as well as it should have over the last few years is the true engagement of businesses-employers and employees-in this process. There has been a tendency to put it to HR departments, to put it to people who are specialists, to fill in the forms. That is something that this bill addresses.
We can no longer have this disengagement between businesses and the expectations of workplace equality. The expectation is that people will know that this is what is happening in their workplace. There is an expectation for people to be involved in that. Something as simple as needing employers to tell employees that this report is being developed and put forward has been included in the expectations for employers. It is important that we have support for this process. I take on board the concerns that have been raised by people from the other side about different aspects of it, and I celebrate the debate. The fact that we are having the debate is positive in itself, that we can clarify exactly what we need to do to ensure that the community understands the importance, the effectiveness and the necessity of having workplace equality.
I am interested in the issue of the public sector, and the difference between the public sector and private enterprise employment. My workplace experience has been with the public sector, as I am proud to say very often. If you look at the State of the Service report that is put out by the Public Service Commission every year, the key aspects of gender engagement in the Public Service is clearly iterated in that document. You can see what is happening across the public sector with gender equity-numbers at different levels across the workplaces-and, indeed, the processes of enterprise and workplace bargaining with salary and conditions results. That data is available. It is on record and people can see what is happening in the public sector on an annual basis.
I do not believe there is a major gap. A complaint that has been raised on a number of occasions in this debate about the separation cannot, I believe, be validated in reality. You will see that the data is able to be compared effectively. Most importantly, the Senate estimates, where clear questions can be asked across every workplace in the public sector about what they are doing about workplace equity in their agencies, can be a process for gaining this information.
In years to come, particularly with an expectation that there will be biannual reports through this place about what is happening with the process of gender equity across the workplace, we will have the opportunity in parliament to see what progress has been made. With people responding, we will be able to see what is happening against the benchmarks. We will be able to see how pay equity is being addressed across the board in our nation. It will give us further opportunity in the parliament to debate the issues, to consider what is working and what is not, to share best practice and to ensure that we will not have the gaps that we have in our community at the moment. We will be able to see that business has not been destroyed by the social engineering of ensuring that there is attention to workplace equity. We will be able to acknowledge the extraordinary work and passion over many years of women and men in our community who have worked to ensure that we do have effective legislation, who have worked to ensure that there is acknowledgment in their own workplaces about the need for these things, and that we can see that legislation that we are debating today is not directional. It is in fact supportive for the work that we acknowledge must happen in our community.
I support this legislation. I acknowledge that we need to have continued work and I know that will happen through the Workplace Gender Equity Agency and also through ministers who will come in the future who will acknowledge the need for this work. Australia's economy and all of us will be stronger by the acknowledgement of this work.