Thursday, 2 September 2021
Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021; Second Reading
I rise to support the bill before the House, the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021, and I'm very proud to do so. As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker Goodenough, in my former capacity as Australian Human Rights Commissioner, I had extensive engagement with the former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick and the current Sex Discrimination Commissioner, then commissioner of the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, Kate Jenkins, who I am also proud to say is a wonderful constituent of the Goldstein electorate.
If it were not for the pandemic and all of the various economic and health policy responses required, the Respect@Work report probably would have got a lot more public attention when it was initially tabled. Its tabling early last year led to it being somewhat overshadowed, but the substance of the report should not be overshadowed, because it addresses some of the fundamental challenges faced by all Australians, particularly women, around sex discrimination in the workplace. This a position or a standard which no member in this House, I would expect, is prepared to accept.
In conducting the Respect@Work inquiry, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner looked at the current operations of the legislation and the legislative framework around Australia, the circumstances in which Australians were experiencing sex discrimination and what we need to do to reform the law, amongst other policy measures and programs, to address those gaps so that Australians can go to a workplace in this country with confidence, knowing that they're covered by law and protected by law and that, no matter who you are, you enjoy the proper protection of the law. It's a very extensive report, I might add, but a welcome one. One of the challenges that can often exist for commissioners of this parliament is that they can do extensive work which then doesn't go on to be actioned. This is a classic example of how a commissioner, focused on legislation that's relevant to this parliament, can develop a body of work and an evidence base to justify reform, and I'm glad to see that, apart from some of the minor amendments that have been put forward by the opposition for the object of signalling to constituencies, it enjoys bipartisan support.
In summary, the bill introduces a new objects clause to make clear that, in addition to the elimination of discrimination and harassment, the Sex Discrimination Act also aims to achieve, as far as practicable, equality of opportunity between men and women—something that we all as a parliament should support. It certainly is a foundational principle of liberalism going all the way back to the contributions of John Stuart Mill, who was a very strong feminist in his time. The bill will clarify that sex based harassment is prohibited under the act. There is the removal of exemptions related to state public servants. Some question, as I do, why those exemptions ever existed, but they did.
It clarifies that the Sex Discrimination Act applies to members of parliament, ministerial staff and judges. Again, this was an initiative of the government, and, again, some of us do question why it was that it did not apply in the first place, but that is the nature of reflecting on the law at the time. We are glad and proud, as this government, to address these gaps in the law and these exemptions to make sure that it applies equally and consistently in all workplaces—particularly after the serious concerns arising out of this place in recent years that all staff, all members of parliament and of course judges should treat staff in a consistent way regardless of their sexual gender and should not open up staff to sexual harassment. It ensures that prohibitions against sexual harassment and sex based harassment cover all forms of workers, regardless of workplace. If somebody needs assistance it ensures that there are appropriate measures to follow through, particularly when it comes to unlawful activity, and it clarifies that victimisation is unlawful and can form the basis of a civil action.
More critical—and this is a very serious issue—is one of the things that I discovered as a consequence both of my former role and continuing in this role: the fundamental misunderstanding about how the Australian Human Rights Commission works and, as a consequence, how the application of the law works. The commissioner is not responsible for the complaints-handling process related to the Sex Discrimination Act, just as the Race Discrimination Commissioner is not responsible for the complaints-handling process of the Racial Discrimination Act et cetera. That may surprise a lot of people within the community, but there's actually a fundamental and structural reason why the act is set up in the way it is to empower the president of the commission to be able to fulfil those functions. That's a role that's currently fulfilled by Professor Rosalind Croucher.
The reason for this is because it involves the reflection of the application of the law. You can't have the same person administering the law while also running commentary or reflecting on the policy framework around the application of the law without having issues arising around the appropriateness of their conduct and impartiality in fulfilling their duties. This was something that was a point of contention during my term as Human Rights Commissioner, where the president at the time decided to start offering running commentary on an inquiry which they were also overseeing. That led to a public barney over the substance of the inquiry when, in fact, it was the conduct and the structural behaviour which they engaged in which brought the inquiry into question. It was a legitimate one about removing children in detention; the legacy of which the Labor Party inherits for locking children up and which this government is proud to be part of removing. Nonetheless, it raises broader issues around the structural application.
One of the amendments in this bill is to amend the Australian Human Rights Commission Act, essentially to give power to the president to investigate and have an inquiry on complaints for up to 24 months under the law if there is an alleged unlawful discrimination that has taken place. The current revision under the law is only for six months. There are also a number of amendments which are necessary to maintain consistency with the Fair Work Act, to fulfil the objectives not just of the report but of course for consistency with the Sex Discrimination Act.
These are the legal and functionary components of the legislation. But the impact of this legislation, as you and I know, Deputy Speaker Goodenough, is human. It's because there are people who, tragically, are going to workplaces around this country and experiencing sex discrimination, unjustly, because of people's attitudes or because of issues of issues of sexual harassment and the like. I would hope that no member in this place believes that that is acceptable in 21st century Australia. That's not just because we want Australians to work—we do; not just because we always want, where possible, to increase women's participation in the workforce—we do; and it's not just because we want to ensure that, no matter who you are, your gender, your sexual orientation or any other differential, you can go into a workplace and not just be an economic participant but feel safe and secure and able to contribute to the health and wellbeing of our country—we do; it's because it reflects the type of country that we want to be.
You may recall, Deputy Speaker, that we've had a number of debates in my time in this chamber, as well as with other members, about the type of country we want to be. The message that has come from the Australian people—resolutely, loudly and clearly—is that we want a country free of discrimination and harassment; one that is free and without people feeling like they're worth anything less than any other citizen. That goes to the heart of the liberal ideal that founded this nation. That's the type of country that we as a government want it to be and that the Australian people want it to be. It lives in their DNA. When they see another citizen or another Australian, they have a live-and-let-live respect and understand that people are people and should be treated with dignity and respect regardless of who they are. That transcends what happens in the workplace, which is of course of critical importance, and goes into the public square, where we want people to be full participants and to be able to live out their lives.
Liberalism at its heart is about empowering people — not empowering the state, not empowering this place, not empowering big super funds, not empowering capital, not empowering government and not empowering other interests . Liberalism is: how do we build a nation where 26 million people — and note the continued population growth — are able to realise and live out their full dreams , a nation where they can live the best life that we are able to support them in ? Liberalism is: how can they , through standing on their own two feet, make the best wicket of it ? Whether it's the language of the Prime Minister, of 'have a go to get a go' , or of empowerment , however you want to phrase it , it's about how we make 26 million people succeed in their own right .
When people see the course of their life and their success, their achievements and their independence, they don't look at this chamber and say, 'The solution is to empower them.' We look in this chamber and ask , 'How do we empower the Australian people?' This is a fundamental difference between the world views of some members who enter this chamber and some on this side of the chamber. Their answer more often than not is, ' How do we empower Canberra, corporates, unions, vested interests and central interests? ' One of the cor e tenets of liberalism is: how do we break apart that power so that we can empower as many as possible because we don't trust central authority to always act in the public interest? Free citizens taking responsibility for themselves and living out the success of their own lives with dignity and equality of opportunity are in the best position not just to care for themselves but to support others and the organic institutions of our nation: families, communities and small enterprise.
Those are the principles that underpin this bill and this government's approach not just to the Sex Discrimination Act — which is a critical part of it , because you cannot have that enlivenment and empowerment if people feel unsecure or lacking in their safety —b ut to every policy we take and we bring into this chamber. That's why I'm proud to support the bill. I don't care what people's personal circumstances are; they should have the freedom to live the fullness of their own lives —that t heir freedom is respected, their rights are respected and they take responsibility for themselves. I know that many members in this chamber will share that sentiment. The more we empower Australians to do that, the better the community they will come from and the better the country they will come from. That's why I support this bill.