Thursday, 2 September 2021
Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021; Second Reading
I'm pleased to speak in support of the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021. I'm going to be relatively brief in my comments. I note I'm following the Leader of the Opposition, the previous speaker. While there is a lot in what he said, particularly the rhetoric about the government, that I disagree with, there is also an awful lot in what he said that I do agree with. One comment he made—discrimination impacts all of us as a society—I would add to; I would say that, sadly, discrimination also reflects our society. That is something we need to address, and that goes beyond legislative change.
Earlier this year we had women and men across Australia marching and rightly demanding changes—changes to our laws and changes to some of our longstanding cultural norms and approaches with respect to discrimination against women, and sexual harassment and sexual assault on women. I had the opportunity at that time to speak in this place on the centenary of the magnificent Edith Cowan's election to an Australian parliament. She was a trailblazer, a role model and a fighter. I noted at that time that while the world has changed significantly since Edith Cowan was elected, there is still so much that needs to be done. We still have workplaces where there is sexual discrimination. We still have workplaces where sexual harassment and assault exists—including this one. We still have workplaces where women have to adapt their behaviour, adapt their mode of operating to get their work done and their voices heard—including this one. Approximately one in two women aged 18 and over have experienced sexual harassment during their lifetime. All of the above is so completely wrong and so completely unacceptable. Seeking to ensure we have safe and respectful workplaces should not be a pipedream, and they should not be contentious. They should just be.
This set of amendments the government is putting forward today is a step along the road to addressing this. I will note at the outset they can't be the last step. And let us also not fool ourselves into thinking that laws alone can change attitudes and behaviours. They help, but we all—individually and as a society—need to do our own bit. We need to own it, we need to take responsibility for it and we need to address it.
The Respect@Work bill is implementing legislative reforms committed to by the government in its A roadmap for respect, released in April this year, including in response to recommendations 16, 20 to 22, and 29 to 30 of the Sex Discrimination Commissioner's Respect@Work report. I note, at this point, that the government agreed in full, in part, in principle or noted all 55 recommendations of this report. While this bill does not implement all the legislative recommendations in the Respect@Work report, it does focus on those changes that can be implemented quickly and that will see the greatest improvement to the anti-discrimination and industrial relations frameworks. The legislative recommendations not included in the bill are still under active consideration by the government.
Others have spoken at length about what this bill does, and I will simply pull out some of the salient points. Firstly, it makes amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act to introduce a new objects clause to make clear that, in addition to the elimination of discrimination and harassment, the Sexual Discrimination Act also aims to achieve, as far as practicable, equality of opportunity between men and women. I'm rather embarrassed that that actually has to be put in legislation, but it does and it is. It clarifies that sex based harassment is prohibited under the Sex Discrimination Act with an express prohibition. It removes the current exemption for state public servants and clarifies that the Sex Discrimination Act applies to members of parliament, ministerial staff and judges. It ensures that prohibitions against sexual harassment and sex based harassment covers all forms of workers. It amends the act so that a person who assists someone to sexually harass a person, or harass a person on the basis of their sex, can also be found to have engaged in unlawful conduct. And it clarifies that victimisation is unlawful and can form the basis of a civil action.
This bill also makes important amendments to the Australian Human Rights Commission Act to reduce procedural barriers for making complaints, by providing that the president's discretion to terminate a complaint initiated under the Sex Discrimination Act arises after 24 months since the alleged unlawful discrimination took place rather than the current six-month time period. This is vitally important. There is clear evidence that people are hesitant, or may be hesitant, to come forward immediately, for understandable and legitimate reasons. Extending this time period from six months to 24 months is common sense and it recognises those impediments or those hurdles or fears that people might have in coming forward immediately.
Finally, the bill makes amendments to the Fair Work Act to clarify that sexual harassment can be conduct amounting to a valid reason for dismissal under the unfair dismissal provisions. Again, I would have thought that this was a no-brainer, but apparently it's not clear and we need to actually put this in the act. It also makes it clear that the Fair Work Commission can, within the existing stop bullying jurisdiction, make orders to stop sexual harassment.
The government is separately progressing changes to the Fair Work Regulations to amend the definition of 'serious misconduct' in the regulations to include sexual harassment and to clarify that sexual harassment is grounds for summary dismissal. On another issue altogether, and one that my colleague spoke about beautifully moments ago, is the changes being put in place by this bill which will enable an employee to take compassionate leave if the employee or the employee's spouse or de facto partner has a miscarriage. As my colleague spoke about, this is very personal to him and very personal to a lot of people, and it is a very important provision.
I want to finish by saying the marching that took place in March this year was a very powerful statement. These changes to the law that we are passing today are good laws. They will help. But we can't allow the march to become a simple historic moment in time; it can't become a sepia coloured still photo. We must keep questioning, we must keep listening, we must keep talking and we must continue to be open to what else needs to be done to ensure that we have a society in which we really have equality of opportunity and where everyone truly has the opportunity to reach their full potential in a tolerant national community.