House debates

Thursday, 2 September 2021


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

10:43 am

Photo of Tanya PlibersekTanya Plibersek (Sydney, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Education) Share this | Hansard source

[by video link] Madam Deputy Speaker Claydon, I know this is an issue very close to your heart. I rise today to speak on the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021 and to support the second reading amendment moved by the Manager of Opposition Business. Labor welcomes the opportunity to begin implementing the recommendations made in the Respect@Work report. We have this opportunity because of the brave women who have spoken up about safety at work, in schools, in cafes, in factories and even in the federal parliament. These women have refused to accept harassment as a normal part of life or a normal part of work. They have fought for something better. We saw this earlier this year when a new generation of remarkable young women made their voices heard. These were women who refused to live with the burden of silence. They experienced pain and were let down by the system, but they then used their experiences to demand change. I think we all know they're the reason that we have this bill before us today, because the government was in no hurry to legislate on workplace sexual harassment before these brave women made them.

It wasn't on their radar—you only need to look at the time line to know that. We know the government received an advance copy of the Respect@Work report in January 2020. This report is a serious piece of work. It's based on 460 submissions and widespread consultation across Australia. Yes, the government initially said the right things in public. The Attorney-General at the time, the member for Pearce, Christian Porter, promised to take his time to consider the report's recommendations and to work with stakeholders and advocates. But, as we learned in Senate estimates, the then Attorney-General did not meet the author of the report, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, to talk about the report's recommendations—not once, in over a year. When, in March this year, the member for Pearce stood down as Attorney-General because of historic rape allegations, the government had still not responded to the Sex Discrimination Commissioner's report. This is not the behaviour of a government that prioritises safety at work or understands the urgency of putting an end to sexual harassment.

In truth, the Prime Minister only started paying attention when it became a political problem, when his poll numbers with women started going backwards As we often see with this Prime Minister, he only began to care when it impacted his own job. Of course Labor is happy that the Prime Minister did start paying attention, even if it was for shallow and selfish reasons, but as it stands this legislation looks more like a political fix than a genuine attempt to implement the Respect@Work report. It's the kind of bill you produce to tick a box, not to solve a very real social and economic problem.

The Prime Minister told Australian women that he supported all 55 recommendations of the report. But this legislation doesn't fulfil that promise, not in spirit and not in detail. In fact, it only includes six of the report's 55 recommendations, those the government was able to pull together quickly to give the appearance of action. It doesn't include the report's central policy recommendation, to introduce a positive duty on employers to take reasonable steps to stop sexual harassment in workplaces. It doesn't explicitly prohibit sexual harassment in the Fair Work Act. So it doesn't include the changes that would help prevent sexual harassment happening in the first place. Revealingly, the government can't even bring itself to support the basic principle that the Sex Discrimination Act should aim to achieve equality between men and women. It even waters down the report's recommendations to 'as far as practicable'. Just think about that for a second. The government is not even prepared to say that we should aim for full equality between men and women.

Labor desperately wants to see positive change. I desperately want to see positive change here. We want Australians to be free of harassment and safe at work. We want this bill to succeed because sexual harassment is ruining too many lives and too many careers. Forty per cent of women and 25 per cent of men have been sexually harassed at work in the last five years. It occurs in every industry, in every state and at every level of seniority. Most people who experience harassment never report it, because they fear the damage it will do to their own career or their own reputation. They fear being labelled difficult or being somehow tainted by the experience. This is a very reasonable fear, given the reports we've seen of victims of harassment paying the price of reporting. Sadly, this silence only papers over the deep and ongoing damage caused by harassment. As one person told the Respect@Work inquiry:

The outcome of all of this for me was catastrophic. My health was destroyed; I lost my job and my income and everything I had ever studied and worked for; my family was greatly affected; and my life has never recovered from the betrayal and injustice.

It's this sense of injustice that brought so many people onto the streets earlier this year—the feeling that victims aren't protected, that our system is complicit in the hurt being inflicted on people, the feeling that you can't rely on the legal system to protect victims and punish perpetrators.

That's why Labor wants this legislation to work and that's why we support the handful of positive steps it takes. We support expanding the coverage of the Sex Discrimination Act to include all paid and unpaid workers, including volunteers, interns and the self-employed. We support the expansion to cover MPs and senators, judges and state public servants. We support extending the time period to make a complaint to the Human Rights Commission, noting that it was this government that shortened the period not so long ago. We support allowing Fair Work to issue stop orders in cases of workplace sexual harassment. We support adding sexual harassment to the valid reasons for workplace dismissal. We hear too often of people being managed out or paid to go away after they've sexually harassed colleagues. It should be clear that, if you sexually harass a colleague, that is a valid reason for dismissal.

There are sensible and constructive reforms here, and Labor agrees with them so far as they go, but the truth, as the commissioner herself said, is that this bill is a missed opportunity, and Labor doesn't want to miss this opportunity in a year where the safety of women has been at the forefront of people's minds. That's why we have introduced and supported a number of significant amendments to make this legislation do what it says it's going to do. My colleague the Manager of Opposition Business, the member for Watson, moved the second-reading amendment earlier, and we will move further substantive amendments in the continuation of the debate.

Firstly, Labor wants to amend the objects clause of the Sex Discrimination Act to achieve substantive equality between women and men. This is the first principle of everything we do in women's policy. It's not about giving anyone special treatment; it's about giving everyone a fair go. If you can't commit yourself to this basic idea, then how are you going to commit to the policies needed to achieve it? Sexual harassment is about power. Unless you work towards true equality, you can never truly combat harassment or violence. Violence against women thrives where inequality between men and women is greatest.

Secondly, we want the government to include the key recommendation from the report, which is to introduce a positive duty on employers to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. The current system, which makes employers vicariously liable for harassment that occurs in the workplace, means that there are only ever consequences for an employer if a victim is brave enough to risk their career and make a complaint, often against their own boss or a senior colleague. This means that, too often, there are incentives for employers to discourage victims from coming forward and making complaints. The incentive should be to discourage staff from sexually harassing colleagues.

The Sex Discrimination Commissioner recommends turning it around so that we move from the current reactive model that relies on complaints after harassment has happened to a proactive model that will require positive action from employers to stop harassment happening in the first place. This also helps move the burden from individuals making ad hoc complaints to a proactive system where companies and employers take the initiative to create safe workplaces. This has been a successful approach implemented in the United Kingdom and in Victoria without any adverse impacts on business. Indeed, we know that sexual harassment is an enormous cost to business. The estimate is that it costs about $3½ billion per annum, so it follows that reducing sexual harassment will be a saving for business. Wouldn't it be better to stop harassment occurring in the first place than to mop up the unhappy mess after it has occurred?

That's one of the reasons that the Business Council of Australia endorsed the Respect@Work report—'to provide greater protections for victims of inappropriate workplace conduct and also provide greater clarity regarding the obligations on businesses to provide a safe workplace'. That's why the Law Council of Australia also called the government's legislation 'a missed opportunity to give effect to the stated intent of the bill'. And that's why the union movement has fought so tirelessly for these changes both in recent times and over many years. The government is trying to implement the Sex Discrimination Commissioner's report without its key components. It's like building a car without an engine.

Labor's other amendments include changing the Fair Work Act to explicitly prohibit sexual harassment, allowing unions and other organisations to bring legal action against perpetrators and establishing cost protections for complainants so they aren't discouraged from taking action by the prospect of huge costs. And of course we will move again support for Labor's commitment to 10 days paid domestic violence leave. We support the government's inclusion of miscarriage leave with this legislation and we believe it would be appropriate for the government to support Labor's move for 10 days paid domestic violence leave.

As well as fully implementing the legislative recommendations of the report, Labor has also committed to fund working women's centres around Australia. These would provide free and confidential assistance on workplace matters, including harassment, as is recommended in the Sex Discrimination Commissioner's report. We've also announced that we would support the Human Rights Commission to be the first port of call, a one-stop shop, for both complainants and employers seeking advice on sexual harassment. We've also said that we would support the Human Rights Commission being able to take reports of historic instances of sexual harassment.

If Scott Morrison won't, Labor is committed to implementing all 55 recommendations of the Sex Discrimination Commissioner's report, not just the easy bits. Sadly, that's what has characterised the Prime Minister's action—too little, too late, half-hearted, too focused on his own political interests. If we're being honest, there is a reason that so many people are sceptical of the Prime Minister and doubt his commitment on this issue. After all, he is leading a government that has kept the member for Bowman, Andrew Laming, in its party room. This is after he allegedly took crass and inappropriate pictures of a young woman at work without her permission, filmed another from the bushes and engaged in online trolling. It's a government that refused to conduct an independent inquiry into the serious allegations of sexual assault against a cabinet minister. It's a government that, when there was allegedly a rape in the ministerial wing of the parliament, after allegations that senior advisers knew of this crime, still has not made clear yet who knew what, when, in the Prime Minister's office. There's a reason that people are suspicious of the Prime Minister's commitment on these issues—why they think it's all about politics.

Labor, on the other hand, is committed to acting to end harassment in our workplaces. That's why we're guaranteeing 10 days of paid domestic violence leave—so no-one has to choose between their safety and their job. It's why we're committed to a childcare policy that would make early childhood education and care cheaper for 97 per cent of Australian families. It's why we're committed to a range of policies that will increase women's wages at work and help close the gender pay gap, which, sadly, has widened again recently.

That's our promise. At work, in the family, in retirement, we have an agenda for women written by women that wasn't produced to solve a political problem but to pursue genuine equality. It's an agenda that you can trust, because for us equality can never be reduced to an exercise in political damage control, and we're not afraid to say it. Our simplest and our most important belief is that every Australian is born with the same value and with the same right to safety and happiness. When we fail to meet this standard, when we fall short on equality, it's bad for women and it's bad for everyone.


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