Federal government senators have rejected a bill put forward by their cross-bench colleagues that would make the existing policy of having at least 40% women on government boards legally binding.
The majority of the Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee recommended against the legislation, which was first proposed earlier in the year by independent senator Nick Xenophon.
There was no argument that the policy has been effective since being introduced in 2010. Women held 35.3% of government board roles in 2011, a figure which rose to 41.7% by mid-2013. Nor was there any debate over the wealth of international evidence showing gender-balanced boards perform better than those with low gender diversity.
The idea for the bill to strengthen the policy targets grew from concern that when the Coalition came to power and began to abolish a large number of small government bodies and replace various appointees, the numbers started to go backwards. In 2014 women were back down to 39.7% and in June this year, 39.1%, according to the latest report.
Between June 2013 and June 2014, the number of boards subject to the policy dropped from 460 to 387. A first assistant secretary from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Troy Sloan, told the committee this had “contributed somewhat” to the slight decline.
The Women on Boards organisation remarked that there were bigger drops in specific umbrella portfolios with the biggest in Prime Minister and Cabinet, Employment and Education. It also pointed out that in 2013, only 36.5% of the appointments to government boards were women, adding: “In some portfolio areas this number was significantly lower and not even close to the number of female appointments required to continuously meet the 40% target currently in place.”
Opposition Senator Katy Gallagher argued that men clearly did better in the reduction of government board positions, and in appointments over recent years.
BHP Billiton and Stockland group director Carolyn Hewson told the committee the current policy of 40-40-20 and accompanying report arrangements “do not appear to have the support of, nor be taken seriously by, a number of government ministers. Even after five years, there are still nine of the 18 portfolios currently not meeting the targets and two portfolios remain under 30% for female representation.”
The report says the majority of the committee “strongly supports” the gender balanced boards policy but does not agree with strengthening it through legislated targets. It recommends the bill should not be passed and argues that the slight decline “must be viewed in the context of change and transitions within portfolios and across government, which have impacted on the make up of Australian Government boards and the rationalisation of the number of boards.”
Opposition and cross-bench members issued their own dissenting minority report, in which they argue the government has an obligation to be a role model, quoting Hewson’s view that “corporate Australia does look to the government to guide and influence in this area” and that “passing this bill would send a very positive message”.
Citing the bill’s intent to ensure consistent standards of reporting against the target and require boards that don’t meet it to explain the “extraordinary circumstances” that applied, they argue there is no reason not to support the legislation, but plenty of reasons to do so:
“It is our view that the need for a ‘legislative seatbelt’ has been clearly proven. While the existing policy is supported by the current government, it does not prevent against future governments paying lip service to the policy and allowing what gains have been achieved to slide further backwards.”