House debates

Thursday, 2 September 2021


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

Photo of Anika WellsAnika Wells (Lilley, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

[by video link] I am at a loss for words that the member for Gol d stein would take up 13 minutes of precious time in this House in a debate that is of such importance to so many millions of Australian women who are watching us today. The government has given us less than two hours to debate this legislation that they are seeking to rush through, despite giving themselves 18 months to deflect, consider and now not do nearly enough with this report. We had to sit here and listen to a broad-sweeping ideological rant about the various theoretical underpinnings of ideologies that have brought the member for Goldstein and his colleagues to this place. In doing so, he soaked up those 13 minutes in place of women who were elected to this House to represent the women in their constituencies who seek respect at work. I am staggered that there are now women who will not get time to speak on this bill because of people like the member for Goldstein who think that it's more important for us to hear their opinion on ideology in this debate, which has been limited to two hours, than to have an actual debate about the lack of reform that is coming down the pipeline from this government. Honestly, I am absolutely at a loss about having to listen to their sense of entitlement in this debate of all debates.

To my point about the legislation before this House today, this began in 1970. The situation was at boiling point in 1970, and so fed-up clusters of women across Australia sat cross-legged in their lounge rooms and worked together to build momentum to create a sweeping grassfire of feminist purpose and resolve to get reform—and they did it. They got revolutionary reform through the Whitlam government. By the time they hit International Women's Year in 1975 the Whitlam government had granted millions of dollars in community health centre funding. They had gotten underway antidiscrimination legislation. They had created a new benefit for single mothers that meant that young women could keep their child if they wanted to, rather than having their baby taken and put into the adoption system. This year's March 4 Justice was done in the shadow of that revolution and reform from the work of the women in the 1970s.

This year's March 4 Justice was actually my first day back in the parliament after the birth of my second and third children—twin boys. I ran for parliament because of a couple of things that happened to me in a couple of months that changed the course of my life. I was diagnosed with an aggressive chronic disease that wasn't responding to treatment and I gave birth to my first child, a baby girl. I was struck like lightning by the momentum of the women's marches in Washington, where millions of women showed up following the election of President Donald Trump. These women, like me, realised that they could not afford to take progress for granted any more. These women showed up to say that they would not allow President Donald Trump to shape their futures a day longer than was necessary. When those millions of women started marching forward, their force was unstoppable—and they won.

On that sunny day in March this year the lawns at the front of our parliament felt white-hot with that same resolve. This year Australian women marched for justice and asked us all, through their nation's parliament, to give them respect at work. Ms Brittany Higgins addressed us that day:

We fundamentally recognise the system is broken, the glass ceiling is still in place and there are significant failings in the power structures within our institution.

We are here because it is unfathomable that we are still having to fight this same stale, tired fight.

She is right, and Grace Tame is right. The millions of women they speak for are owed because we are now 50 years on from those revolutionary reforms that the Australian women of the seventies secured for us.

Today, in this place, the bill crafted by the Morrison government is nowhere near enough to deliver the 55 recommendations proposed by the Sexual Discrimination Commissioner as urgent reform. It is quite revealing to audit what issues the Morrison government considers to be urgent enough to take immediate action on, because they tell you about its values and where its priorities are. When the Morrison government's mates complained about getting sued by social justice law firms, the Morrison government took swift action by changing disclosure laws to shield their corporate comrades from liability shareholder class action. In 2018 and 2020, when the Federal Court made two separate decisions that two blue-collar workers were wrongfully classified as casuals when they were permanent employees, the government took immediate action to dismantle the rights of casual workers. In 2018, when consumers found a couple of needles in their strawberries, the Prime Minister held an immediate urgent press conference to issue a stern warning to anyone sabotaging our strawberries and introduced legislation that day to create a new offence to criminalise recklessly contaminating fruit, which carried jail time. Those are the things on which the Prime Minister has acted with urgency in this place.

When it comes to Respect@Work, the Prime Minister and his government have attempted to bury this report for over a year—a report that blows the whistle on systemic toxic sexism and calls for urgent action to deal with the scourge of workplace sexual harassment. It was only the explosion of outrage caused by previously unspeakable scandals within his own party and 100,000 women marching across the country for justice that forced the Morrison government to finally acknowledge Commissioner Jenkins's report. But his answer, in the form of this bill, ignores the most important and urgent legislative changes required.

This bill just nibbles around the edges of the substantial reforms that are needed, with most changes simply clarifying or confirming the way the law already operates. The government have accepted the recommendation to introduce stop orders when sexual harassment occurs, but they have refused to introduce a positive duty on employers to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment happening in the first place. And they've refused to explicitly prohibit sexual harassment in the Fair Work Act. They have failed to implement the regulatory changes that could help prevent sexual harassment in the workplace from occurring in the first place. That is despite their response to this inquiry stating that 'prevention must be our focus'.

The government can't even bring itself to make clear that one of the objects of the Sex Discrimination Act should be to achieve substantive equality between women and men. Instead, they have watered down that ambition with weasel words, only aiming for equality of opportunity as far as practicable. They didn't even have integrity, or respect for the thousands of people who contributed to this report, saying they are now implementing these recommendations in full, when they're not.

Last night, Labor and the Greens moved amendments in the Senate to improve this bill so it actually makes the suggestions in the Jenkins report. When the Morrison government voted against those amendments, it didn't just vote against Labor and the Greens; it voted against protecting Australian women from sexual harassment in the workplace. This is prevalent; this is pervasive. It occurs in every industry. It occurs in every location at every level in every Australian workplace. Australians across the country are suffering the financial, social, emotional, physical and psychological harm associated with sexual harassment.

Australia was once at the forefront of tackling sexual harassment globally. Women's organisations in Australia began to press for the legal and social recognition of sex discrimination in the early 1970s, 50 years ago. Yet here we are today, with as limp a reform as this. The question now is whether, here in 2021, this moment is any different from too many tipping points that have come before, and, crucially, whether this moment will trigger the change that so many have been hoping for, and fighting for, for decades, not just in politics but in institutions and in workplaces and in the criminal justice system and in schools and in churches and in homes and on our streets. The bill before the House today should be that change. This bill before the House today should be the next raft of revolutionary change that women in 50 years time look back upon and remark how long the fight was and how hard the fight was, but how necessary the fight was to get such sensible, helpful, purposeful measures implemented. But today isn't that day. And that is the most egregious failure of understanding of humanity and of leadership on the part of this Prime Minister.

So this issue will remain a storm cloud hovering over the parliament. When will enough political leaders here take the rage and grief behind these marches seriously? When we will listen? When will we take steps to improve the systems and cultures that have failed so many victims? What day will that be? It is clear that there are many members of this place who want this to happen. It is clear that there are many members of this place who, like me, have come here to work ceaselessly for this to happen. And it is clear that there are still not enough of us to overwhelm an immune, immobile and imperious Prime Minister. So it won't be today. But it is my hope and our mission that, come the next election, more white-hot women take the place of the recalcitrants and join us here as lawmakers under new political leadership to legislate some very long-fought-for justice for women. I thank the House.


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