State Govt accused of gender equality ‘backflip’

The state government is set to quash proposed new laws to establish a gender equality commission in South Australia – despite supporting the legislation while in opposition – prompting SA Best to accuse it of “pathetic hypocrisy”.

Mar 08, 2023, updated Mar 08, 2023
Photo: InDaily

Photo: InDaily

SA Best MLC Connie Bonaros will this afternoon on International Women’s Day take her Gender Equality Private Member’s Bill to a vote in the Legislative Council, hoping to secure its passage to the lower house where the Labor Government holds the majority.

The Bill, which was first introduced by Bonaros in 2020, proposes to establish a South Australian gender equality commission tasked with helping to address inequity such as gender pay gaps across the public sector.

It also proposes to create a state gender equality action plan and to mandate that “relevant entities” such as public sector agencies, councils and the SA Courts Administration Authority meet gender equality targets, which would be set by regulation.

It is an insult to the whole gender equality discussion for the Malinauskas Government

Bonaros argues the bill would result in “constructive steps forward in creating equality in South Australia”, where federal government data shows in 2022 there was a gender pay gap of 7.8 per cent – up from 7.4 per cent in 2021.

“On the current pay gap rate, female employees will be receiving equal pay in 2037 – in what universe is that pay gap acceptable?” she said.

“If the issue of gender equality isn’t important enough to warrant a dedicated, stand-alone gender equality commission and action plan, I don’t know what is.”

While in opposition, Labor supported the Bill, with MLC Clare Scriven previously telling parliament that it would contribute to the “achievement of gender equality”.

“The bill sets out principles focused on the importance of all people, regardless of gender, being able to live their lives fully, safely, free from violence and on the fact that it is everyone’s responsibility to achieve gender equality,’ Scriven said in 2021.

“Labor will be supporting the bill with one small amendment, which we have included simply to clarify the meaning of what a relevant entity is.”

But Labor has now indicated that it won’t support the Bill, with Minister for Women Katrine Hildyard telling InDaily this morning that elements of the proposed legislation “may duplicate functions of systems that already exist”. 

She said Labor committed ahead of the 2022 state election to introduce an “Equality Bill”, with the government to undertake “significant consultation with South Australians before introducing it”.

“Our government took a strong women’s policy to last year’s election and we have spent the last 12 months diligently implementing and adding to it,” Hildyard said.

“We are deeply committed to advancing gender equality and to working toward a state in which your gender has no bearing on your access to opportunities.”

Bonaros said Labor was being “pathetically hypocritical” and had done a “complete backflip” by not supporting the legislation now that it was in government.

“It is an insult to the whole gender equality discussion for the Malinauskas Government – which has you believe is ‘progressive’ – not to support the important new laws I am proposing,” she said.

“It makes a complete mockery of its so-called ‘commitment’ to the gender equality debate.

“Here was another opportunity for SA to be one of the nation’s driving forces on gender equality – and for the government to be one of the leading voices on a national level – but despite all its embellished hyperbole in opposition, has now shown its true colours.”

Bonaros criticised the government for deciding to consult the public before introducing its Equality Bill.

She said Victoria had “done the groundwork and legwork” for South Australia – having already passed a Gender Equality Act and appointed a gender equality commissioner in 2020.

The Victorian commissioner is Niki Vincent, who left her previous post as South Australia’s Equal Opportunity Commissioner to pursue the eastern state’s “nation-leading” role.

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“It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve used another jurisdiction’s legislation as a precedent for what we do here and that’s precisely what we’ve done with this bill,” Bonaros said.

“I don’t buy the argument that we need another deep-dive consultation on establishing a commission.

“You need to lead by example and if you want private businesses to be doing their part to close the gender pay gap, then you need to set the example.”

Hildyard described Bonaros’ comments as “disappointing”, saying she and the SA Best MLC shared a “strong record on working to achieve gender equality”.

The minister said the government currently had legislation before parliament to introduce 15 days paid domestic violence leave for women, and next week it would host a “significant forum” about criminalising coercive control.

She said the government had also established a gender pay gap taskforce, which would provide recommendations on how best to address the issue in South Australia.

“I am grateful to Connie Bonaros for the work she does to further the cause of women in South Australia and look forward to continuing our work together,” she said.

While in government, the Liberal Party opposed Bonaros’ Bill, with former Treasurer Rob Lucas telling parliament in 2021 that it was “unnecessary” and added “little value to what currently exists”.

“The government indicates that the creation of a new office of Commissioner for Gender Equality is likely to require a budget of approximately $1 million per annum, based on the basis of the office of the commissioner assuming a salary of $250,000 and approximately four full-time equivalent staff and additional expenses,” he said.

“In the government’s view there is no clear evidence to support the need for another independent commissioner.”

The now Liberal Opposition’s spokesperson for women Michelle Lensink said her party maintained its position on Bonaros’ bill and would oppose the legislation on the basis that a dedicated commissioner would incur a “huge cost to taxpayers when the required framework already exists”.

She added that other statutory officers such as the Commissioner for Public Sector Employment and Equal Opportunity Commissioner could already perform the proposed role of the gender equality commissioner.

“It must also be noted SA’s public sector, unlike other industries, has a 69.46 per cent female employee representation rate,” Lensink said.

“We believe and agree with, in principle, the aim of the legislation but are adamant a dedicated commissioner is the wrong mechanism to further advance gender equality.”

Bonaros argued the cost of establishing a South Australian gender equality commission would likely mirror what is being spent in Victoria.

In 2020-21, the Victorian Government committed $11.9 million over four years to establish its gender equality commission.

“In the scheme of things, it’s not a huge investment, but it addresses a systemic and significant issue that we all want to see addressed,” Bonaros said.

“There’s no logic to it for me – I just don’t understand how you wouldn’t think this is something that we ought to be doing in the public service.”

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