House debates

Thursday, 2 September 2021


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

11:15 am

Photo of Anthony AlbaneseAnthony Albanese (Grayndler, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition) Share this | Hansard source

I'll begin by commending the words of the member for Ryan, who just gave a very personal speech in this chamber about the experience of himself and his family. It was an outstanding contribution; it shows courage to tell such a personal story before the House.

Grace Tame, Brittany Higgins and the women who came together in their thousands this year have inspired a national conversation about the treatment of women at home, at work and in our communities. That we are living in a transformational time is clear to all, except perhaps to some in the government—including the Prime Minister. The Respect@Work report was presented to the Morrison government in January 2020. We're now in September 2021. It sat on the desk of the former Attorney-General, the member for Pearce, and no action was taken. After the March4Justice, the Prime Minister, at last, was shamed into taking some action. He said this in the parliament that day:

I have personally taken on the responsibility of ensuring this response is in place very soon.

He said that on 24 March.

In April, the Prime Minister stood up with what was purportedly a comprehensive adoption of the recommendations of the Respect@Work report, a report that he and his government had ignored, at that point, for more than a year. Four months crawled by and, finally, the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021 is before the House today. To the distress of many but the surprise of nobody, the government's response to this powerful, sobering report has been mendacious, tricky and half-hearted. With some of the key recommendations, this bill does nothing more than acknowledge that they exist and that someone has read them. It doesn't adopt them and, unfortunately, it has been a long time since a broken promise from this Prime Minister came as a surprise.

As it stands, this bill ignores or sidesteps many of the key legislative changes that were identified as essential by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner to make Australian workplaces safe. To be very clear: this independent report was not a report of the Labor Party, the Liberal Party, the National Party or minor parties. It was an independent report based upon submissions that were made—based upon submissions that were themselves based upon the real-life experience of working women in real workplaces. But, yesterday in the Senate, the coalition voted against seven of the amendments that were proposed by Labor or by minor parties.

This is what the government voted down in the Senate but has the opportunity to change its mind on here in the House of Representatives. The first amendment was to introduce a positive duty on employers to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment happening in the workplace—not an onerous duty, but something that would be consistent with the recommendations that are made in the report. The second amendment was to change the Fair Work Act to explicitly prohibit sexual harassment—something pretty fundamental, I would have thought. The third amendment was to make substantive equality between women and men one of the objects of the Sex Discrimination Act—again, something that would be very difficult to argue against, I would have thought, and I look forward to hearing any argument against it. It's beyond my comprehension how, given the debate that's taken place in this parliament during this year, the government could not support such a measure. The fourth amendment was to allow unions or other organisations to bring legal action against perpetrators on behalf of complainants—again, a pretty fundamental principle. That's what unions and other organisations, and professional associations from time to time, do—they represent people. Particularly given the very personal nature of complaints in this area, of sexual harassment at work, the capacity of organisations to represent individuals in this area is perhaps more important and fundamental than in any other area I can think of. The last amendment was to establish cost protections for complainants so they wouldn't be discouraged from taking legal action against perpetrators due to the possibility of having to pay massive court-ordered legal costs—again, a pretty fundamental principle, I would have thought.

So Labor will be pursuing those amendments here in the House of Representatives and giving the government a chance to reflect on whether they really want to be in this position, given everything that has happened in workplaces—including this one, with the reported sexual assault of Brittany Higgins that is now the subject of legal processes. We have in this parliament today a potential difference of opinion over the implementation of Respect@Work recommendations from the Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner, not over things that have come from anyone in this House. This should be a clear case. There are 55 recommendations in this report and they should be implemented, consistent with that report.

When it comes to gender issues, the record of this government is very discouraging indeed. We know that the March4Justice occurred as a result of the leadership of and courage shown by Brittany Higgins. When the March4Justice was happening at the parliament, at the front of this parliamentary building, and marches occurred right around the country that day, led by women but not just attended by women—our mothers, our aunties, our sisters, our daughters and our friends—it was an extraordinary spontaneous uprising, the likes of which haven't occurred in my political lifetime. Normally, movements are structured. There are organisations behind them. This was an organic movement of women saying, 'Enough is enough, and we're going to take action on it.' But nothing was going to budge the Prime Minister from his cave that day. He couldn't get up and walk outside the front of Parliament House, not to talk but just to listen. If he had done that, he would have been a great beneficiary, because I regard it as a great honour to have walked out there that day with my parliamentary colleagues.

He would have witnessed as fine a speech as I've seen from Brittany Higgins, who reminded the rest of us what courage looks like that day. In the midst of that huge crowd, Ms Higgins found what was not available to her in the building just behind her that we're now in: support and people who are ready to listen. The Prime Minister should have been there. It was a seismic day across the nation. If he'd gone and listened to the tough truths being spoken that day, maybe it would have jolted him a little closer to reality. But he couldn't do that. Instead, he stood up after that rally, stood at that dispatch box, and said: 'At least people got to demonstrate. If it had occurred in some other countries, they would have been shot.' He expected that to be somehow comforting to the women, for many of whom it was a very personal experience to talk to others about what had occurred to them. But he couldn't do that.

We never got to see, up to this point, the report of Mr Gaetjens into what his office knew about the reported sexual assault of Brittany Higgins in a ministerial office just metres from the Prime Minister's office. His office, his dirt unit, can find great detail about trivialities. We've seen in recent times the extent to which they can do research about trivialities, but they can't ask each other, 'What did you know, who told you and when?' about a reported sexual assault. We're now in September. So I say to the Prime Minister: get your dirt unit to disband, and do your job. Do your job on issues that do matter to over half the population directly in terms of sexual harassment at work and on what matters to every one of us, because discrimination against one affects us as a society. It affects women, but it affects everyone, and we all have a responsibility to do better.

Yet the Prime Minister's office, who were out there backgrounding against Brittany Higgins and her loved ones, just like they've backgrounded against the New South Wales Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, couldn't tell us what his office knew at that time. We've seen it as well with Bridget McKenzie being the only person who took the fall for the sports rorts scandal and the Australia Post chief executive, Christine Holgate, who was told to leave her job, on the floor of this chamber, at great cost in the end to taxpayers. This is a Prime Minister who just doesn't get it.

We need to get this right, which is why we need to fully embrace all 55 recommendations of the Respect@Work report. This is something that impacts all organisations, including the Labor Party, which is why we instituted a rigorous process to reform our internal policies and procedures. I note our caucus chair, the member for Newcastle, is here in the chamber. She led that work, along with the women members of the ALP National Executive in particular at that time. All organisations need to do better. We need to get this right. We don't have to settle for being half-hearted, like this legislation before us today is. We don't have to live with the minuscule ambitions of this cave-bound Prime Minister. What we need to do is to get this right—in the interests of this generation but also in the interests of the ones to come.


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