Thursday, 2 September 2021
Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021; Second Reading
[by video link] The debate we're now engaged in, on the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021, should mark a historic day for this parliament. This should be a day on which partisan politics are set aside as we work together as Australian lawmakers to pass into Australian law measures to implement the recommendations of Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins's groundbreaking report entitled Respect@Work: national inquiry into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces report 2020. But this is not that day. There is nothing historic about this bill; rather, it is very much in keeping with the routine that this government has long established as its way of governing: first, ignore problems for as long as possible or pretend it's someone else's problem, and avoid responsibility for the problem if at all possible; second, if there's no other choice but to face a problem because of public outrage, pretend that you have finally understood how serious that problem is and then make grand announcements about how you're going to fix it; third, crab walk away from your promise, ideally under cover of other problems you've ignored. And so it is with this bill, because this bill that we are now debating does not make the sweeping changes to Australia's sexual harassment laws that Commissioner Jenkins' 55 carefully designed and interconnected recommendations would bring about if faithfully implemented. To the contrary, this bill implements only a handful of those 55 recommendations, and even some of those it does pretend to implement have been watered down.
My good friend and colleague Labor's Shadow Minister for Women and member for Sydney has already spoken eloquently this morning about this bill and the massive missed opportunity that it represents. I endorse all that the member for Sydney and the Labor leader have said. I will not revisit the litany of betrayals that this bill represents, but I will make some further comment about what this failure suggests about this government.
The Australian Human Rights Commission is a vitally important institution in our nation. We are one of the very, very few developed countries that does not have an entrenched bill of rights or even a legislated charter of rights. Given this context, the Australian Human Rights Commission has a particularly important role to play in upholding the rights of Australian citizens that this parliament chooses to protect in legislation. It also plays a vital role in identifying where there are gaps in the laws protecting the basic rights of Australians and making recommendations for changes to our laws to protect those rights through new laws to be made by the Australian parliament. That is what Commissioner Jenkins' Respect@Work report called for, and, sadly, that is what this bill largely fails to do.
What is astonishing to me is that, having received a critically important report from one of the most important institutions in his portfolio, the former Attorney-General, the member for Pearce, threw that report in his 'don't care, don't bother' tray. How else can this government explain its total silence about this really important report for more than a year after receiving it? How else can the government explain that for all of that time the former Attorney-General did not even once meet with Commissioner Jenkins to discuss her report? And, having attempted to bury the Respect@Work report for over a year, it was only the explosion of outrage caused by unfolding scandals within the government that forced this government to finally look at that report. But it is clear that when they did finally look at the report they received over 18 months ago, outlining the need for urgent action to deal with the scourge of workplace sexual harassment, this government approached it not as a serious problem that required bold action to counter but rather as a political embarrassment to be managed through a cynical marketing exercise. That is the origin of this bill.
This is a document of missed opportunities when it should have been a document of historic change. If you read the fine print, when the government says it 'agreed' to all the recommendations in Commissioner Jenkins' report, there were also those recommendations that it only agreed 'in principle' or 'in part' or actually they just 'noted'. They didn't even have the integrity or the respect for the thousands and thousands of Australians who contributed to this report that they're now pretending to implement to be up-front with the Australian people about the many recommendations they have in fact rejected outright.
The government has the opportunity to work with us today to fix this bill. It can do that by accepting the many amendments we have put forward to ensure this bill is not the missed opportunity it currently is but can bring about the legal changes that are needed to deal with the scourge of workplace sexual harassment. But none of us is holding our breath, because that would require courage from this Prime Minister. That would require integrity from this Prime Minister. That would require leadership from this Prime Minister—all qualities this Prime Minister entirely lacks, and many Australian workers, in particular women, will continue to suffer for it.
If the government refuses our invitation to amend the shortcomings of this bill, an Albanese Labor government will, as a matter of priority, work with the workplace sexual harassment council, employers, workers, unions and legal experts to fully implement all 55 recommendations of the Sex Discrimination Commissioner's report to help keep Australians safe from sexual harassment at work.