House debates

Thursday, 2 September 2021


Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021; Second Reading

10:30 am

Photo of Katie AllenKatie Allen (Higgins, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. As I am wont to say, the behaviour you walk past is the behaviour you accept. So thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling that out.

I really welcome this last provision because I believe volunteers remain particularly vulnerable to bullying and harassment because of the often transient nature of their relationship with the workplace, and also because the OHS aspects of paid employment can be so easily sacrificed in these less formal and often part-time workplace relationships. We need to make sure that these laws apply to everyone in the workplace, whether it's a formal interaction or a less formal one, as happens with volunteers.

This bill introduces an express provision to the act to clarify that sex based harassment is prohibited under the Sex Discrimination Act. It does this by inserting a new object clause in the Sex Discrimination Act to make it clear for decision-makers that the act aims to achieve equality of opportunity between men and women, in addition to the elimination of sex discrimination and harassment. This issue of equality of opportunity is particularly relevant this week when we've just had Equal Pay Day. As a government, we believe economic empowerment is a key driver for women's safety. I welcome the women's economic security statement—again, a legacy of my predecessor, the Hon. Kelly O'Dwyer, and one that I have spoken on many times in this House.

Unfortunately, there is still a national gender pay gap. Let me be clear: paying different amounts to men and women to do the same job has been illegal for over 50 years. That is not the issue here. That is not what drives the gender pay gap. The gender pay gap occurs for different reasons, and there is more to do to address this. The gender pay gap relates to three key issues. Firstly, women are doing lower-paid jobs. They dominate professions such as nursing and teaching. Men dominate more highly paid jobs, more lucrative jobs, such as IT and construction. Secondly, women take more time off work to have children and raise them, and women are more likely to be part-time. Finally, women are less likely to fight for a raise or a bonus. These three things have an impact on women's opportunities to be paid equally. There's much to do to ensure we give women the same opportunity as men. Elimination of sex discrimination and harassment provides a basis to help change a culture—a culture that we want to ensure women are welcome in, particularly in the highly paid jobs and professions where men predominate. Those that come to mind include law and politics.

As someone quipped recently, it seems every woman can give you a story about sexual harassment, but no man knows a rapist. What that says to me is there is a disconnect about what women find acceptable and what some men do. This bill also expands the coverage of the ancillary liability provisions in the Sex Discrimination Act to include sexual harassment and a new sex based harassment provision. There is so much to do to ensure that our society is fair and equal. Every workplace needs to be safe for each and every one of us. This bill clarifies that victimising conduct can form the basis of a civil action for unlawful discrimination under the Sex Discrimination Act, in addition to a criminal complaint. It also clarifies that the Fair Work Commission can, under the existing antibullying jurisdiction, make orders to stop sexual harassment, and it clarifies that sexual harassment can be conduct amounting to a valid reason for dismissal under the unfair dismissal provisions of the Fair Work Act.

A further welcome clause in this bill, which was not actually recommended in the Respect@Work report, is a miscarriage provision. That is, if an employee or an employee's current spouse or de facto partner has a miscarriage, the employee is now entitled to take up to two days of compassionate leave. Unfortunately, each year in Australia, 147,000 or so women—it's probably underreported—experience a miscarriage. What's more, the deep and ongoing emotional effects brought about by these tragic events are often underestimated and overlooked. While the grief associated with miscarriage is all too common, it is most often a private grief. Miscarriage can happen at a time when a woman has not told anyone, including her family, and least of all her employer, she is pregnant. As I said in my first speech, there are no words to describe the loss of a child. Miscarriage can be equally devastating. I welcome this provision, which I know was championed by the member for Ryan, someone who has had personal experience with the loss and grief of miscarriage. This minimum safety net leave provision provides a provision to access this new form of compassionate leave.

Finally, I'd like to emphasise that, while these reforms are most welcome, there is still significant work to do. Some of this will necessitate substantial policy consideration and consultation beyond that undertaken by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner in developing the Respect@Work report. This is particularly so with respect to the recommendation for a positive duty provision for employers to prevent sexual harassment and sex based harassment and discrimination under the Sex Discrimination Act. Further policy consideration and consultation is required to ensure such a duty would operate effectively without increasing complexity for those seeking to use protections. This includes an assessment against the model work health and safety laws, which already impose a positive duty on employers to protect workers from health and safety risks, including psychosocial risks such as sexual harassment. In respect of including a clear prohibition on sexual harassment in the Fair Work Act and a new complaints process in the Fair Work Commission for workers with current or historic experience of sexual harassment, I note the Attorney-General has outlined with the government in the road map that they would review the Fair Work system once the amendments in this bill have been implemented and their impact assessed. These provisions will be important in the future, and we must stand strong to ensure that this is actually taken into account going forward.

I would like to conclude by reading an extract from a letter I received last week from two students in my electorate:

Dear Dr Katie Allen. We are writing to you to thank you for taking the time to answer our questions, even though we know you are a very busy woman. You are a great inspiration and role model to women and children, especially us. Thank you for showing all girls that women can be leaders. If you didn't keep pursuing your dreams of helping children in hospitals and the community, some great women today might not have had the spirit to become what they are today.

Thank you, Sienna and Clara, for your kind and generous words. I shared my story with you, because I wanted you to understand that there are ups and downs in the journey to justice and equality for women. It is a tough journey. There are many battles on the way. But there are also many benefits. I know there are students like you in my electorate who are the leaders of tomorrow. I want you to have the courage and to know the battle is worth the victories achieved. I stand here as a proud member of parliament. I'm here not because I'm a woman but because I represent my community. I'm proud to represent my country in this way, but, most importantly, I'm here because I believe that good and sensible decisions in this place are what set the foundation for our future. The decisions made every day in this place influence the very fabric of our society. The decisions in this place influence the lives of each and every one of us, almost each and every day. As they say, you cannot be what you cannot see. I'm proud to be one of the many women in this place helping to enact change. I'm also proud that it's both men and women in this place who are pushing their shoulder to the wheel. Bills such as the ones debated today will help ensure that the girls of today will have a juster and fairer future. I commend the bill to this House.


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