New Zealand: A Role Model for Other Nations

  • Deborah Morris
Youth Affairs

Franklin Business and Professional Women's Dinner
Pukekohe, Auckland

Good evening, I am pleased to be here tonight and to have the opportunity to speak to you.

The last time I spoke to your President, Dianne Glenn, we discussed the content of the draft CEDAW report: New Zealand's report back to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. So it is particularly timely that having just returned from presenting the report, Franklin Business Professional Women is the first group that I talk to about it. I'd like to outline the reporting process and also tell you about the feedback we received.

I presented the CEDAW report on behalf of the Prime Minister, and it was an amazing experience. It was also the culmination of a process that started in 1997, with the preparation of New Zealand's third and fourth combined report on progress towards eliminating discrimination against women.

I know that some of you here tonight were involved in the consultation on this report, co-ordinated by the Ministry of Women's Affairs. It was a huge, awesome task. Just about every government department and agency was asked to supply information on aspects of the status of women in New Zealand. Agencies such as the Human Rights Commission, Ministry of Justice, Department of Social Welfare, the Department of Labour, and the Ministries of Education and Health were of course closely involved.

The Ministry of Women's Affairs also consulted with 32 women's organisations, such as BPW, and the information and insights were collated and reflected in the report.

The result is this document, the Status of Women in New Zealand 1998, which was sent to the CEDAW committee in March this year. The committee considered the report along with others provided by the non-government sector, and then set down a range of questions for the government to respond to. So when we appeared before the committee we not only presented the report, but also responded to 96 questions.

Although it was a long day requiring lots of preparation, it was a privilege and a challenge to represent New Zealand women at such a prestigious international hearing.

It was gratifying to receive the committee's generally positive and enthusiastic response to so many of the government's actions for women. While there is still progress to be made, there are many good news stories to tell.

The committee commended New Zealand on our domestic violence legislation and the range of cross-sectoral programmes which we have initiated to combat family violence.

They commended New Zealand's sensitivity to the situation of Maori women and the progress made since our last report in 1994 on improving the status of Maori women.

Getting better data on women was one of the areas which the government agreed to focus on following the Beijing Conference in 1995. So the Committee was pleased to note that New Zealand is now joining the international league of countries who conduct time use surveys. You probably know that our first Time Use Survey got underway on 4 July. When it is completed a year from now, it will provide unique and invaluable information about how we all use our time, particularly about the amount of unpaid work which people, especially women, are doing in their homes and in the community.

The Committee particularly commended New Zealand for the way we are implementing the Beijing Platform for Action under six cross-cutting themes. Besides better data collection, the other themes are:

mainstreaming a gender perspective in the development of all policies and programmes;
women's unpaid work;
the gender pay gap;
the Platform's recommendations which are relevant to Maori women and girls as indigenous women; and
enhancing women's role in decision-making.
New Zealand was able to report to the committee about real progress in all these areas.

The Committee noted our decision to appoint a Women's Commissioner, and the introduction of the Matrimonial and De Facto Property Bills, which aim to achieve fairer distribution of relationship property.

We told the committee about the increasing participation of women in the labour force and in self-employment, and about women's better rate of success in starting up businesses.

They noted the increasing numbers of women taking up leadership roles, whether that is in political life, in management or on Boards of Directors.

We talked a lot about women's and family health - such as the Sexual and Reproductive Health strategy, the breast screening programme, the Strengthening Families strategy and free health care for under-sixes.

An important area of discussion with the Committee was New Zealand ?s two reservations under the CEDAW convention. The first is on the role of women in the armed forces. The only remaining limitations relate to women in combat: women in the New Zealand Army are not yet able to work as rifle-people, gunners, armoured vehicle crew, field engineers or in the Special Air Services. We expect progress to be made in this area in the next four years.

New Zealand also has a reservation on the introduction of maternity leave with pay. This is an issue which has attracted a lot of publicity so I'd like to expand on it. Article 11 of CEDAW requires Governments to "introduce maternity leave with pay or with comparable social benefits without loss of former employment, seniority or social allowances". When I outline the range of comparable social benefits in NZ, you might well ask why we have a reservation.

Anyway, the Parental Leave and Employment Protection Act 1987 provides for parental leave for both women and men. In 1995, the Ministry of Women?s Affairs released research which compared parental leave policies in New Zealand with provisions in Sweden, the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia. The research found that the provisions available in New Zealand are in most respects among the best in the world, offering strong job protection, and good access to maternity, paternity and extended parental leave.

Along with legislative provision for unpaid maternity and paternity leave, New Zealand provides free health care both pre and post natal, the sickness benefit in the last trimester of pregnancy, DPB, Guaranteed Family Income, and free health care for under sixes. In my view, that does add up to a fairly comprehensive package. However, I do acknowledge the public sentiment that exists around the issue and I am keen to keep a close eye on it.

Members of the Committee were interested to note that, during the reporting period, a number of private firms in NZ, particularly banks, legal practices, financial consultants, and insurance companies, have introduced paid parental leave in order to retain their highly skilled women staff. All of that is good to see.

However, Cabinet will be reviewing the reservation within the next reporting period. The cost of parental leave is estimated to be in excess of $200m - given the decisions taken this week to shave $316m off expenditure it does seem unlikely that Government will be able to meet this cost in the short to medium term.

Whether employers themselves are in a position to sustain levies across all staff to pay for it is debatable.

Another part of Article 11 of CEDAW states the need for us to promote the establishment and development of a network of childcare facilities. There are a range of childcare providers available in NZ already. But what continues to be the challenge here, is the affordability of those services. It is the ongoing cost of childcare - a cost that extends way beyond the first twelve weeks of a child's life - that needs attention. And this is why the 1998/99 Budget included additional funding for childcare subsidies.

It doesn't go all the way, but it does help. Another initiative that will add weight to those issues is the childcare survey that will run alongside the Household Labour Force Survey later this year. With the results of that survey, and the Time-Use Survey, the issues around childcare will be well understood.

Moving on to some of the other concerns about the status of women in New Zealand, the Committee noted that women still earn around 80% of men?s average hourly earnings. In fact, this compares very favourably with comparable countries, however we must continue to work to close this gap. The projects we currently have underway include research on whether our industrial relations framework discriminates against women.

The Coalition Government recognises that a change of attitude is needed to close the gender pay gap too. For this reason, we've increased our proportion of funding to the Equal Employment Opportunities Trust to assist the continuation of their work with employers on this and other issues.

Some of you will be aware of the inaugural Family Friendly Awards which recognise NZ workplaces that have done well in work and family initiatives. The awards are co-ordinated by the EEO Trust and is part of the work the Trust does to promote equal employment opportunities.

I think the awards are a great incentive for employers to demonstrate their commitment and acceptance of work and family initiatives.

Coopers and Lybrand, for instance, won the 1998 Work and Family Large Organisation Award. A major objective of their initiative was to ensure that a larger proportion of women employees progressed through the firm to senior positions. Some of the ways Coopers and Lybrand have tried to achieve this, are by providing parental leave and special leave over and above those required by legislation, flexible working hours (including part-time work and job sharing) and family friendly facilities such as a room for breast feeding.

I have even been told that the firm's family friendly practices are becoming so entrenched, that expressed breast milk has been couriered from a staff member at a client site to her baby without a sideways look.

The good thing about Coopers' achievement is, that not only are they doing a good job for their employees but, they are setting an example to countless other employers. I am looking forward to seeing what new initiatives companies will come up with for the awards next year.

Anyway, back to CEDAW. The final major concern the committee had was about disparities in the lives of Maori women compared with non-Maori women, - in educational achievement, employment, teenage pregnancy, and health.

I can say with confidence that the Coalition Government is facing up to this issue. The report, Closing the Gaps, which was released just last week, is the result of work initiated by the Minister of Maori Affairs, Tau Henare. The report highlighted extremely graphically the differentials between Maori and non-Maori.

So I am looking forward to working with Te Ohu Whakatupu, the Maori policy unit of the Ministry of Women's Affairs, to develop a work programme to help address this disparity.

Despite the fact that the committee identified important areas where further progress is required, they said that New Zealand was a role model for other countries. They were also looking forward to seeing our developments over the next four years and hoped we would continue to set an example as a country committed to the elimination of discrimination against women. It is a challenge that I look forward to working on with all of you.

I believe we are making tremendous progress in this area, and like the committee, I will be excited to see what leaps and bounds are made during the coming reporting period. I am happy to answer any questions you may have.