Labor has queried cabinet minister Michaelia Cash’s role as chair of the government’s Women’s Advisory Panel on Innovation in the wake of poisonous scenes at Estimates hearings last week, even as it was revealed that the panel members were selected more than five months ago but have still not met.
Labor Senators used a large portion of the Industry department’s appearance at Estimates last week to connect Senator Cash’s comments last week on the “rumours” surrounding Bill Shorten’s female staff with her chairing of a women’s advisory panel on tech and innovation policy.
It was also revealed during the Estimates hearing that the ten members of the panel – eight women and two men – were finalised last September, but who are yet to meet for the first time due to ministerial changes and scheduling difficulties, the Department said.
The Women’s Advisory Panel on Innovation, which would guide Commonwealth policy on gender diversity and equality issues in the portfolio, was first announced by former minister Arthur Sinodinos in February last year.
Senator Sinodinos intended to chair the panel, but was forced to step down from Cabinet late last year due to illness. His replacement, Senator Cash, will now chair the panel, which is set to meet in the coming months.
But the Minister has been under fire recently over comments she made in a different Senate Estimates hearing, where she threatened to name female staffers in Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s office that have been the subject of “rumours”.
“If you want to start discussing staff matters be very, very careful. Because I’m happy to sit here and name every young woman in Mr Shorten’s office about which rumours in this place abound. If you want to go down that path today, I will do it,” Senator Cash said.
The minister was forced to “unreservedly withdraw” the remarks the next day, and has faced intense criticise over the comments, which have been labelled “sexist”.
The Opposition has now questioned whether the panel has now been “compromised” because of Senator Cash’s comments, and if she is still the appropriate person to chair a roundtable for promoting gender equality.
“The Minister’s behavior in the employment committee shows you may not be the appropriate women’s advocate,” shadow assistant innovation minister Deborah O’Neill asked.
“Do you think you’re the right person to chair the women’s advisory panel? How can you possible think you have the right to take that leadership now?”
Senator Cash said she still intended to chair the panel and was looking to focus the portfolio on increasing the number of women in science and technology.
“I’m delighted to have the opportunity. I’m going to ensure that a focus of the portfolio is on increasing the number of women in STEM, and I now have the unique opportunity to ensure the government is working with the industry to actually identify where the gaps are and how to actively address them,” Senator Cash said.
Labor Senators also criticised the continual delays in selecting the members of the panel and organising its first meeting.
The plan for the panel when it was first announced in February last year was to convene a first meeting in the second half of 2017. But more than a year after it was announcement, the panel is still not been publicly named and has yet to meet for the first time.
The Department confirmed that the panel would be made up of eight women from the private and research sectors and two men from the private sector.
“It was a meeting that the Minister wanted to hear personally, and there was a time delay for that very good reason that there was an expectation of the Minister returning, so when that didn’t happen we took the steps that we have to set up this meeting that is going to be held shortly,” department deputy secretary Elizabeth Kelly said during the Estimates hearing.
While a final date has not been set, and the members of the panel haven’t been revealed, it is expected to be finalised and announced this month.
“We have been working on finding a time that meets all the panel, and we now have some better indication of when that will happen,” Ms Kelly said.
“It was unfortunate that senator Sinodinos was on leave, and we have now got to a point where we are now able to have the roundtable happening.”
“This has had delays because we’re looking for the attendance of the minister. We have progressed other elements in terms of a priority and we have been able to deliver on priorities around women in STEM and entrepreneurship.”
The delays in convening the women’s advisory panel has been slammed by shadow assistant innovation minister Deborah O’Neill.
“The process seems to have stalled under the leadership of Minister Cash. Department officials told Senate Estimates last week that a date has not been set for its first meeting, as they were struggling to find time in the Minister’s diary and they are still waiting for the Minister to announce the panel,” Senator O’Neill told InnovationAus.com.
“So for 12 months of work we have: no date set for the panel to meet, no announcement of its membership and no understanding of its structure or how it will work,” she said.
“This shows how out of touch this government is when it comes to breaking down the barriers of inequality in the science and innovation community.”
Senator Cash was also questioned over the inclusion of two men in the women’s advisory panel. Senator Sinodinos said there would be “token blokes” included in the panel when he first announced it last year.
Senator Cash has maintained that it is important to have men on the women’s roundtable too.
“I think it’s appropriate to have men on the panel because obviously we need to have all views informing on the policy,” she said.