Equal opportunity as a policy change process doesn’t work if the failed equal-pay commitments of our first female PM are an indicator. The government has undermined its election commitment to support the ASU equal pay case to Fair Work Australia by putting in a submission that says quite clearly that it is unlikely to provide any extra funding to the services to cover any possible increase.

This decision by the government means that the community service agencies affected by increases in award payments will be faced with reducing staff and services as they are nearly all government funded. As these provide a range of essential community and personal services, the dilemma is obviously designed to influence Fair Work Australia to not deliver wage justice and continue an unfair wage differential.

The government boasts in its submission that it has shaped this legislation to allow such cases to be brought, then undermines its own rhetoric by claiming it can’t afford to be fair. Would they do this in a male-dominated industry such as the defence forces?

The decision by the government to undermine the case is a serious breach of its commitment to the fair pay and to gender equity. The extensive submission shows clearly in its data that there is lower pay, particularly for the many women dependent on award payments in this sector.  It also shows that those women, who were covered by agreements under the old Work Choices model, did even worse than those on awards and that all of this contributes to the continuing gender gap that persists 40 years after the first equal-pay decision.

Putting the budget surplus ahead of equal pay for women, undermines the spirit of the deal made by then Workplace Minister Julia Gillard last year with the Australian Services Union pledging support for the first test of equal pay rights under the Fair Work Act. The case is designed to test the pay of women in a female-dominated industry vis a vis men in a comparable sector and could spread wage rises into other areas where women’s work has been traditionally undervalued.

Women should see this as a major setback because the government tries to justify its actions by quoting extensively from its other, quite unrelated, initiatives for women such as paid parental leave and more women on boards. The inclusion of these items suggests clearly that this government sees women as a singular category to be wooed, placated or done over, depending on the electoral cycle and the other priorities.

This gets me back to the questioning the often too optimistic assumption that having more women in power makes for better policy. The very junior female parliamentary secretary that signed the Fair Work Submission says it all in The Australian.

Parliamentary secretary for workplace relations Jacinta Collins insisted yesterday that the government was committed to pay equity.

“Equal pay is a serious issue,” Senator Collins said. “The Gillard government values the important contribution of the social and community services sector and wants to improve economic outcomes for women and their families.” She then goes on to tout the need to consider the impact of a significant wage increase on services and the economy.

Not good enough, Julia.

Peter Fray

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