Reports that the Government is looking to make the Australian Defence Force exempt from the Sex Discrimination Act are deeply concerning, writes Labor MP Amanda Rishworth.
It has been an embarrassing past few weeks for the Turnbull Government when it comes to dealing with issue of gender equality.
It began with Liberal MP Luke Howarth, in his anger-fuelled on-air expletive, when asked about a question put to the Prime Minister about women’s representation in the Liberal National party. On the same day, this attitude was reflected by Liberal MP Craig Kelly, describing the changes to allow breastfeeding in parliament as ‘over the top’.
Comments like these show that boosting the number of women in parliament is not taken seriously by many in the Turnbull Government. It is unfortunate that highlighted in the past week by Julie Bishop speaking about the need for the small group of women in cabinet to stick together in order for their opinions and ideas to be seen as just as valuable as one coming from their male colleagues. These examples clearly indicated that achieving gender equality and a culture of inclusivity are not taken seriously by the current federal government.
This point has been further reinforced by reports that the Government is looking to make the ADF exempt from the Sex Discrimination Act. To provide some context, the ADF has recently recruited personnel who do not identify as male or female, including a gender-neutral, or gender x- cadet. The Government have confirmed that this is because of “unique operational requirements of military service” – with those requirements remaining unknown.
This could have wide reaching consequences on those who stand to be protected under the Act and begs the question; why isn’t the Turnbull Government focused on who is best to do the job in our ADF. Importantly, this Act provides protection against discrimination based on sex or gender identity, pregnancy, relationship status and family responsibilities.
It is unclear why such a move has suddenly become necessary and what it will mean for gender equality in our ADF. The Government needs to urgently explain why it is seeking to remove these protections. The proposed exemption from the Sex Discrimination Act could undermine the work which the previous Labor government undertook – with bipartisan support. The outcome of Labor’s legacy in this space was intended for the Government of the day to ensure there were equal opportunities for all personnel with the skills and aptitude to serve in the ADF.
Additional concerns have been raised in that such an exemption from the Sex Discrimination Act could signal a reverse in the work which has been done over the past 6 years by our ADF to improve the opportunities for women. It goes without saying that no door should be closed to those who can meet the challenge in our ADF.
While promoting equality, this principle is also important to retention and development of our defence personnel as well as contributing to our capability and operational effectiveness. Our ADF needs to build a workforce whose skills match the realities of modern warfare, including an increased focus on technology and greater problem solving skills and effective decision making.
However, when protections against discrimination based on sex or gender identity, pregnancy, your relationship status or family responsibilities are removed it sends a message that there is no longer a level playing field and that an individual’s gender not their ability could hold them back in a career – in this case the ADF.
Specifically, when it comes to women we know they are succeeding in Defence and are a critical capability when it comes to strategic operations. The Turnbull Government’s own Defence 2016 White Paper acknowledged the importance of the skills and capabilities which women have to offer.
Increased women’s participation in our ADF has already played an essential role in providing a differentiated perspective on the improvement of the planning and execution of ADF operations. This is consistent with the aim set out in Pathways to Change, which saw progress made on the removal of gender restrictions on the remaining ADF combat role employment categories of which women were previously excluded. This has been a significant achievement for the ADF. This plan was a five year plan, first introduced in 2011 which has since come into fruition – and since it finished earlier this year, the Government is yet to provide a new plan.
Alternatively, the Turnbull Government have looked at exempting the ADF from the Sex Discrimination Act – it could be said; a step in the wrong direction. We know of those women, who have successfully filled combat roles, that whilst these numbers are small, they are gradually growing. For the first time, women are now training to become clearance divers and fast jet pilots, roles which were once traditionally open only to men.
Any exemption to the ADF from the Sex Discrimination Act would send the wrong message that gender could once again become a barrier. There are a lot of questions which need to be answered by the Turnbull Government about why it is seeking an exemption to the Sex Discrimination Act for the ADF, what broader impact could this have in the long run for women and what message does this send to those who are best able to do the job?