House debates

Thursday, 2 September 2021


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

10:12 am

Photo of Paul FletcherPaul Fletcher (Bradfield, Liberal Party, Minister for Communications, Urban Infrastructure, Cities and the Arts) Share this | | Hansard source

I present a revised explanatory memorandum to this bill, and I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Sexual harassment is unacceptable in any context, whether in the workplace or elsewhere. Everyone has the right to feel safe at work.

That is why the Australian government commissioned a landmark National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces. The government thanks the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, for her leadership conducting the inquiry.

The product of this inquiry—the Respect@Work report—made 55 recommendations to improve the prevention and response to workplace sexual harassment, informed by extensive stakeholder consultation and analysis. The Respect@Work report highlights the important roles that the Australian government, states and territories, employers, and industry groups all have in supporting cultural change and creating safe workplaces.

The government's Roadmap for Respect: Preventing and Addressing Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces—released on 8 April 2021—sets out its long-term commitment to preventing and addressing sexual harassment, agreeing to (in full, in-principle, or in-part) or noting all 55 recommendations of the Respect@Work report.

The government has already provided more than $64 million over four years in the 2021-22 federal budget to support implementation.

For those recommendations that require action from the state and territory governments, the Government has led discussions through appropriate national forums, including at National Cabinet and the Meeting of Attorneys-General.

The Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021before us today represents a significant step by the government to swiftly implement a number of reforms in response to the findings of the Respect@Work report. These amendments are aimed at rapidly strengthening and streamlining the national legal frameworks that deal with sexual harassment. The bill makes important changes to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986 and the Fair Work Act 2009 to ensure Australia's legal frameworks are effective in preventing and responding to sexual harassment.

I thank the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee for its consideration of the bill and recommendation that the bill be passed. I would also like to thank all stakeholders that engaged in this review process.

Sex Discrimination Act amendments

The Sex Discrimination Act provides an important framework to protect against discrimination on various grounds, including discrimination involving harassment.

The bill introduces a new object in the Sex Discrimination Act of achieving equality of opportunity, so far as practicable, between men and women. While achieving substantive equality between men and women requires a cultural change that goes beyond legislative reform, the government is confident that this bill, in addition to the other work that the Government and civil society is progressing to implement the Roadmap, will be a step towards achieving equality of opportunity between men and women in Australia.

The bill also makes a number of changes to expand the scope of existing protections under the Sex Discrimination Act.

These include amendments to remove the exemption of state and territory public servants and clarify that the Sex Discrimination Act extends to members of parliament and judges at the federal and state and territory levels. These amendments will ensure all workers have the same protections from sex discrimination and sexual harassment regardless of their jurisdiction, occupation or workplace.

The bill also makes clear that discrimination involving harassment on the ground of a person's sex is expressly prohibited and will not be tolerated. Making this clear under the Sex Discrimination Act will ensure there is a clear avenue of redress for sex based harassment, which does not always involve sexualised conduct.

Importantly, the bill fills gaps in the types of workers protected from sexual harassment under the Sex Discrimination Act. The Respect@Work report identified that the existing sexual harassment protections do not cover all people involved in the contemporary world of work. The bill will address these gaps by expanding the scope of the sexual harassment and sex based harassment protections to all types of paid and unpaid workers. The amendments draw on concepts used in the model work health and safety laws to ensure greater consistency between legal frameworks and make it easier for both workers and employers to navigate these frameworks.

The bill also makes a number of technical amendments, such as clarifying that victimisation under the Sex Discrimination Act can form the basis of a civil action for unlawful discrimination, and ensuring that the ancillary liability of persons involved in unlawful acts extends to sexual and sex based harassment prohibitions under the Sex Discrimination Act.

Australian Human Rights Commission Act amendments

To ensure people who experience sexual harassment and unlawful discrimination are not discouraged from making complaints, the bill will amend the discretion of the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission to terminate a complaint under the Sex Discrimination Act so that it does not arise until 24 months after the alleged discrimination took place. This discretion previously arose after six months.

Fair Work Act amendments

In addition to reforms to the Sex Discrimination Act and Australian Human Rights Commission Act, the bill will amend the Fair Work Act to clarify what action can be taken to deal with workplace sexual harassment.

The bill adds a new legislative note in the unfair dismissal provisions in the Fair Work Act, which makes clear that sexual harassment can constitute a valid reason for dismissal. This is not a change to the law—sexual harassment of course can already constitute a valid reason for dismissal. However, the addition of the legislative note will provide greater certainty to employers that taking disciplinary action in response to workplace sexual harassment is appropriate and reasonable. It also clearly communicates to perpetrators of sexual harassment that this type of behaviour will not be tolerated in the workplace.

The bill will also clarify and expressly provide for the availability of 'stop orders' in relation to sexual harassment within the existing stop-bullying jurisdiction. This change will ensure a clear pathway for those who have been sexually harassed at work to seek an order from the Fair Work Commission to prevent further workplace sexual harassment. This will enable more sexual harassment victims to pursue workplace claims through the commission, which offers an independent, expeditious and low cost avenue for handling workplace sexual harassment.

These amendments form an integral part of the government's long term commitment to building a culture of safe, respectful relationships in Australian workplaces.

This bill also introduces an important change to the compassionate leave provisions in the Fair Work Act that will enable an employee to take compassionate leave if they, or their current spouse or de facto partner, has a miscarriage.

A miscarriage can be an incredibly difficult experience for many families and sadly one that is often surrounded with social stigma and silence.

It is estimated that one in five confirmed pregnancies in Australia ends in miscarriage before 20 weeks, however the Fair Work Act does not currently provide any specific leave entitlements for miscarriage.

Currently, the Fair Work Act provides two days paid compassionate leave (unpaid for casuals) when a member of the employee's immediate family or household contracts or develops a personal illness, or sustains a personal injury, that poses a serious threat to their life, or dies. Compassionate leave is also available where a child is stillborn, where the child would have been a member of the employee's immediate family, or a member of the employee's household, if the child had been born alive.

This change will ensure that an employee can take time away from work to grieve and come to terms with their loss.

The government recognises that most employers are supportive of their employees. Employers can of course continue to offer leave that goes beyond the minimum safety net and employees will continue to have the benefit of any additional related leave terms in existing enterprise agreements.

While not everyone who experiences a miscarriage will want to access compassionate leave, it is important that we give employees the choice to access that leave, should they choose to.

On behalf of the government, I would like to thank all of those who have shared their experiences and incredibly painful memories to bring these changes to Parliament, including the Pink Elephants Support Network and Mr Julian Simmonds MP, the member for Ryan, who has championed this amendment.


In summary, this bill will ensure all Australians are protected from workplace sexual harassment, by expanding the scope of existing sexual harassment prohibitions, promoting clarity for employers and workers, and reducing procedural barriers for sexual harassment complainants.

Together with the other commitments outlined in the government's Roadmap for Respect, these amendments will support the creation of safe workplaces and are essential for advancing both women's safety and economic security.

Leave granted for second reading debate to continue immediately.

10:24 am

Photo of Mr Tony BurkeMr Tony Burke (Watson, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for the Arts) Share this | | Hansard source

I will be brief. The main speech from the executive of the opposition will be given by the member for Sydney shortly. I move:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words: "whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House:

(1) notes that:

(a) it took the Coalition Government over 12 months to respond to the landmark Respect@Work Report;

(b) the bill before the House fails to deliver the legislative changes recommended by the landmark Respect@Work Report that the Prime Minister promised every Australian woman he would implement in full; and

(c) a Labor Government will fully implement all 55 recommendations of the Sex Discrimination Commissioner's Respect@Work Report to help keep Australians safe from sexual harassment at work; and

(2) calls on the Government to fully implement the legislative changes recommended by the Respect@Work Report, including:

(a) amending the Fair Work Act to explicitly prohibit sexual harassment;

(b) introducing a positive duty on employers to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment happening in the first place;

(c) making substantive equality between women and men one of the objects of the Sex Discrimination Act; and

(d) establishing cost protections for complainants, so they are not discouraged from taking legal action against perpetrators due to the possibility of having to pay massive court-ordered legal costs".

I want to make a few brief remarks. I'll speak in more detail when we get to the in-detail stage, where I will have a number of amendments to move, and at that point I will seek leave to move them together. We will be seeking a division if the government opposes those amendments. We won't seek a division on the second-reading amendment itself, but we will on the amendments in detail. There is an intention to make sure that we are well-through this debate and it has all been concluded before we reach question time today.

We shouldn't be in a situation where we are in a rush. We're in a situation where we're in a rush because the government received the Respect@Work report on 5 March last year and did nothing. It's a report about whether half the Australian population were receiving respect at work. From March last year, when the report was tabled by the then Attorney-General, the government did nothing. We then received a response on 8 April this year, more than a year after the report had been tabled. Labor's position has been simple: we want to see all 55 recommendations adopted. That's our position. The government spent that year deciding to not implement all 55 recommendations. Not all of those recommendations are legislative, but the ones that are will be subject to the amendments that are moved in detail later today. At that point, the question will be very clear. If you support implementing the Respect@Work report you will vote for those amendments then.

But people will not be able to evade the question in the way they evade questions in media conferences, because these amendments have a real impact. The National Foundation for Australian Women really said it all in their submission to the Senate inquiry:

The government has declined to act on Respect@Work recommendations 15, 17, 18, 19, 23, 25, 26, 28, 35 and 39, in some cases by ignoring them and in others by calling for further consideration at some unspecified future time.

Labor's amendments that will be moved later today deal with the express prohibition of sexual harassment and sex based harassment in the Fair Work Act; deal with a new complaints process in the Fair Work Act to be able to deal with sexual harassment and sex based harassment claims; and add a 'stop sex based harassment order' in the Fair Work Act which, it has been made clear, would give the Fair Work Commission that power. We will also move, yet again, for 10 days paid family and domestic violence leave—the government's refusal to agree to that I still find extraordinary. We will also deal with the narrow definition of work in association with a 'stop sexual harassment order'.

I won't go through all the different examples of the failings of the government with respect to the legislation that's in front of us, but just let me deal with one key failing, which is the positive duty on employers. Where there were recommendations that were making sure we could fire people more easily, they made sure they made those legislative changes. We will support them. But where there was a recommendation to put a positive duty on employers that was ignored by the government. If you don't put a positive duty on employers to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment happening in the first place, what do you think will happen? What do you think the outcome will be? If you want to avoid that outcome, then put forward the positive duty on employers. I'll leave it to the member for Sydney to put forward the principal objections and principles from the opposition in her speech shortly. I simply say that the legislation in front of us will be supported. Labor clearly supports the implementation of all 55 recommendations. The government has between now and around one o'clock to decide whether they will do the same.

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

Photo of Terri ButlerTerri Butler (Griffith, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for the Environment and Water) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.

10:30 am

Photo of Katie AllenKatie Allen (Higgins, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise in support of the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021. This bill acts to strengthen and streamline the national legal frameworks that deal with sexual harassment. This bill is about ensuring safe and respectful relationships in the workforce. This bill builds on work commenced by my predecessor in the seat of Higgins, the Hon. Kelly O'Dwyer, who, as Minister for Women, commissioned the Respect@Work report in 2018. I would like to thank and acknowledge the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, and her team for the wonderful work they have undertaken and which forms a significant basis for the legislative reforms being debated today.

This bill is just one of the many steps on the road to equality for women, a road that seeks to ensure justice and equality for women not just in this place but in every workplace, not just for the women of today but for the women of tomorrow. It's a journey that we as women have been on since the dawn of time. It's a journey that has made great strides in some countries, like Australia, but it's been a journey with many roadblocks and frustrations. It's a journey peopled with champions from all political persuasions and backgrounds. But, sadly, this journey is lagging in other countries, as we've seen all too starkly in images relayed to us following events in Afghanistan in the last two weeks.

The bill debated here today forms part of a long-term strategy for preventing and addressing sexual harassment, outlined in A roadmap for respect: preventing and addressing sexual harassment in Australian workplaces. The bill makes important changes to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986 and the Fair Work Act 2009 to ensure Australia's legal frameworks are effective in preventing and responding to sexual harassment. Let me be clear: this is one of the steps on a long and necessary journey of reform, reform that had already commenced but that has only now been hastened by the sad and disturbing event that occurred in this very building early in the year before last.

The changes made by the bill give effect to a number of different recommendations of the Respect@Work report. These include clarifying that the Sex Discrimination Act covers judges, members of parliament and ministerial staff. The bill also removes an existing exemption to ensure that state and territory public servants are covered by the Sex Discrimination Act. It also ensures all paid and unpaid workers, including volunteers and interns, are protected from sexual harassment under the act by expanding the coverage of protection from workplace sexual harassment under the Sex Discrimination Act to include the broader concepts of 'worker' and 'persons conducting a business or undertaking', as defined under the Work Health and Safety Act.

Madam Deputy Speaker, it is quite hard to hear myself talk, and this is quite an important issue; I would ask that members in the House could perhaps keep it down a bit.

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thanks to the member for Higgins. A little cooperation for members speaking on the floor of parliament is always greatly appreciated. My apologies for your interruption, on behalf of members at the table. Please proceed, member for Higgins.

Photo of Katie AllenKatie Allen (Higgins, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. As I am wont to say, the behaviour you walk past is the behaviour you accept. So thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling that out.

I really welcome this last provision because I believe volunteers remain particularly vulnerable to bullying and harassment because of the often transient nature of their relationship with the workplace, and also because the OHS aspects of paid employment can be so easily sacrificed in these less formal and often part-time workplace relationships. We need to make sure that these laws apply to everyone in the workplace, whether it's a formal interaction or a less formal one, as happens with volunteers.

This bill introduces an express provision to the act to clarify that sex based harassment is prohibited under the Sex Discrimination Act. It does this by inserting a new object clause in the Sex Discrimination Act to make it clear for decision-makers that the act aims to achieve equality of opportunity between men and women, in addition to the elimination of sex discrimination and harassment. This issue of equality of opportunity is particularly relevant this week when we've just had Equal Pay Day. As a government, we believe economic empowerment is a key driver for women's safety. I welcome the women's economic security statement—again, a legacy of my predecessor, the Hon. Kelly O'Dwyer, and one that I have spoken on many times in this House.

Unfortunately, there is still a national gender pay gap. Let me be clear: paying different amounts to men and women to do the same job has been illegal for over 50 years. That is not the issue here. That is not what drives the gender pay gap. The gender pay gap occurs for different reasons, and there is more to do to address this. The gender pay gap relates to three key issues. Firstly, women are doing lower-paid jobs. They dominate professions such as nursing and teaching. Men dominate more highly paid jobs, more lucrative jobs, such as IT and construction. Secondly, women take more time off work to have children and raise them, and women are more likely to be part-time. Finally, women are less likely to fight for a raise or a bonus. These three things have an impact on women's opportunities to be paid equally. There's much to do to ensure we give women the same opportunity as men. Elimination of sex discrimination and harassment provides a basis to help change a culture—a culture that we want to ensure women are welcome in, particularly in the highly paid jobs and professions where men predominate. Those that come to mind include law and politics.

As someone quipped recently, it seems every woman can give you a story about sexual harassment, but no man knows a rapist. What that says to me is there is a disconnect about what women find acceptable and what some men do. This bill also expands the coverage of the ancillary liability provisions in the Sex Discrimination Act to include sexual harassment and a new sex based harassment provision. There is so much to do to ensure that our society is fair and equal. Every workplace needs to be safe for each and every one of us. This bill clarifies that victimising conduct can form the basis of a civil action for unlawful discrimination under the Sex Discrimination Act, in addition to a criminal complaint. It also clarifies that the Fair Work Commission can, under the existing antibullying jurisdiction, make orders to stop sexual harassment, and it clarifies that sexual harassment can be conduct amounting to a valid reason for dismissal under the unfair dismissal provisions of the Fair Work Act.

A further welcome clause in this bill, which was not actually recommended in the Respect@Work report, is a miscarriage provision. That is, if an employee or an employee's current spouse or de facto partner has a miscarriage, the employee is now entitled to take up to two days of compassionate leave. Unfortunately, each year in Australia, 147,000 or so women—it's probably underreported—experience a miscarriage. What's more, the deep and ongoing emotional effects brought about by these tragic events are often underestimated and overlooked. While the grief associated with miscarriage is all too common, it is most often a private grief. Miscarriage can happen at a time when a woman has not told anyone, including her family, and least of all her employer, she is pregnant. As I said in my first speech, there are no words to describe the loss of a child. Miscarriage can be equally devastating. I welcome this provision, which I know was championed by the member for Ryan, someone who has had personal experience with the loss and grief of miscarriage. This minimum safety net leave provision provides a provision to access this new form of compassionate leave.

Finally, I'd like to emphasise that, while these reforms are most welcome, there is still significant work to do. Some of this will necessitate substantial policy consideration and consultation beyond that undertaken by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner in developing the Respect@Work report. This is particularly so with respect to the recommendation for a positive duty provision for employers to prevent sexual harassment and sex based harassment and discrimination under the Sex Discrimination Act. Further policy consideration and consultation is required to ensure such a duty would operate effectively without increasing complexity for those seeking to use protections. This includes an assessment against the model work health and safety laws, which already impose a positive duty on employers to protect workers from health and safety risks, including psychosocial risks such as sexual harassment. In respect of including a clear prohibition on sexual harassment in the Fair Work Act and a new complaints process in the Fair Work Commission for workers with current or historic experience of sexual harassment, I note the Attorney-General has outlined with the government in the road map that they would review the Fair Work system once the amendments in this bill have been implemented and their impact assessed. These provisions will be important in the future, and we must stand strong to ensure that this is actually taken into account going forward.

I would like to conclude by reading an extract from a letter I received last week from two students in my electorate:

Dear Dr Katie Allen. We are writing to you to thank you for taking the time to answer our questions, even though we know you are a very busy woman. You are a great inspiration and role model to women and children, especially us. Thank you for showing all girls that women can be leaders. If you didn't keep pursuing your dreams of helping children in hospitals and the community, some great women today might not have had the spirit to become what they are today.

Thank you, Sienna and Clara, for your kind and generous words. I shared my story with you, because I wanted you to understand that there are ups and downs in the journey to justice and equality for women. It is a tough journey. There are many battles on the way. But there are also many benefits. I know there are students like you in my electorate who are the leaders of tomorrow. I want you to have the courage and to know the battle is worth the victories achieved. I stand here as a proud member of parliament. I'm here not because I'm a woman but because I represent my community. I'm proud to represent my country in this way, but, most importantly, I'm here because I believe that good and sensible decisions in this place are what set the foundation for our future. The decisions made every day in this place influence the very fabric of our society. The decisions in this place influence the lives of each and every one of us, almost each and every day. As they say, you cannot be what you cannot see. I'm proud to be one of the many women in this place helping to enact change. I'm also proud that it's both men and women in this place who are pushing their shoulder to the wheel. Bills such as the ones debated today will help ensure that the girls of today will have a juster and fairer future. I commend the bill to this House.

10:43 am

Photo of Tanya PlibersekTanya Plibersek (Sydney, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Education) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] Madam Deputy Speaker Claydon, I know this is an issue very close to your heart. I rise today to speak on the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021 and to support the second reading amendment moved by the Manager of Opposition Business. Labor welcomes the opportunity to begin implementing the recommendations made in the Respect@Work report. We have this opportunity because of the brave women who have spoken up about safety at work, in schools, in cafes, in factories and even in the federal parliament. These women have refused to accept harassment as a normal part of life or a normal part of work. They have fought for something better. We saw this earlier this year when a new generation of remarkable young women made their voices heard. These were women who refused to live with the burden of silence. They experienced pain and were let down by the system, but they then used their experiences to demand change. I think we all know they're the reason that we have this bill before us today, because the government was in no hurry to legislate on workplace sexual harassment before these brave women made them.

It wasn't on their radar—you only need to look at the time line to know that. We know the government received an advance copy of the Respect@Work report in January 2020. This report is a serious piece of work. It's based on 460 submissions and widespread consultation across Australia. Yes, the government initially said the right things in public. The Attorney-General at the time, the member for Pearce, Christian Porter, promised to take his time to consider the report's recommendations and to work with stakeholders and advocates. But, as we learned in Senate estimates, the then Attorney-General did not meet the author of the report, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, to talk about the report's recommendations—not once, in over a year. When, in March this year, the member for Pearce stood down as Attorney-General because of historic rape allegations, the government had still not responded to the Sex Discrimination Commissioner's report. This is not the behaviour of a government that prioritises safety at work or understands the urgency of putting an end to sexual harassment.

In truth, the Prime Minister only started paying attention when it became a political problem, when his poll numbers with women started going backwards As we often see with this Prime Minister, he only began to care when it impacted his own job. Of course Labor is happy that the Prime Minister did start paying attention, even if it was for shallow and selfish reasons, but as it stands this legislation looks more like a political fix than a genuine attempt to implement the Respect@Work report. It's the kind of bill you produce to tick a box, not to solve a very real social and economic problem.

The Prime Minister told Australian women that he supported all 55 recommendations of the report. But this legislation doesn't fulfil that promise, not in spirit and not in detail. In fact, it only includes six of the report's 55 recommendations, those the government was able to pull together quickly to give the appearance of action. It doesn't include the report's central policy recommendation, to introduce a positive duty on employers to take reasonable steps to stop sexual harassment in workplaces. It doesn't explicitly prohibit sexual harassment in the Fair Work Act. So it doesn't include the changes that would help prevent sexual harassment happening in the first place. Revealingly, the government can't even bring itself to support the basic principle that the Sex Discrimination Act should aim to achieve equality between men and women. It even waters down the report's recommendations to 'as far as practicable'. Just think about that for a second. The government is not even prepared to say that we should aim for full equality between men and women.

Labor desperately wants to see positive change. I desperately want to see positive change here. We want Australians to be free of harassment and safe at work. We want this bill to succeed because sexual harassment is ruining too many lives and too many careers. Forty per cent of women and 25 per cent of men have been sexually harassed at work in the last five years. It occurs in every industry, in every state and at every level of seniority. Most people who experience harassment never report it, because they fear the damage it will do to their own career or their own reputation. They fear being labelled difficult or being somehow tainted by the experience. This is a very reasonable fear, given the reports we've seen of victims of harassment paying the price of reporting. Sadly, this silence only papers over the deep and ongoing damage caused by harassment. As one person told the Respect@Work inquiry:

The outcome of all of this for me was catastrophic. My health was destroyed; I lost my job and my income and everything I had ever studied and worked for; my family was greatly affected; and my life has never recovered from the betrayal and injustice.

It's this sense of injustice that brought so many people onto the streets earlier this year—the feeling that victims aren't protected, that our system is complicit in the hurt being inflicted on people, the feeling that you can't rely on the legal system to protect victims and punish perpetrators.

That's why Labor wants this legislation to work and that's why we support the handful of positive steps it takes. We support expanding the coverage of the Sex Discrimination Act to include all paid and unpaid workers, including volunteers, interns and the self-employed. We support the expansion to cover MPs and senators, judges and state public servants. We support extending the time period to make a complaint to the Human Rights Commission, noting that it was this government that shortened the period not so long ago. We support allowing Fair Work to issue stop orders in cases of workplace sexual harassment. We support adding sexual harassment to the valid reasons for workplace dismissal. We hear too often of people being managed out or paid to go away after they've sexually harassed colleagues. It should be clear that, if you sexually harass a colleague, that is a valid reason for dismissal.

There are sensible and constructive reforms here, and Labor agrees with them so far as they go, but the truth, as the commissioner herself said, is that this bill is a missed opportunity, and Labor doesn't want to miss this opportunity in a year where the safety of women has been at the forefront of people's minds. That's why we have introduced and supported a number of significant amendments to make this legislation do what it says it's going to do. My colleague the Manager of Opposition Business, the member for Watson, moved the second-reading amendment earlier, and we will move further substantive amendments in the continuation of the debate.

Firstly, Labor wants to amend the objects clause of the Sex Discrimination Act to achieve substantive equality between women and men. This is the first principle of everything we do in women's policy. It's not about giving anyone special treatment; it's about giving everyone a fair go. If you can't commit yourself to this basic idea, then how are you going to commit to the policies needed to achieve it? Sexual harassment is about power. Unless you work towards true equality, you can never truly combat harassment or violence. Violence against women thrives where inequality between men and women is greatest.

Secondly, we want the government to include the key recommendation from the report, which is to introduce a positive duty on employers to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. The current system, which makes employers vicariously liable for harassment that occurs in the workplace, means that there are only ever consequences for an employer if a victim is brave enough to risk their career and make a complaint, often against their own boss or a senior colleague. This means that, too often, there are incentives for employers to discourage victims from coming forward and making complaints. The incentive should be to discourage staff from sexually harassing colleagues.

The Sex Discrimination Commissioner recommends turning it around so that we move from the current reactive model that relies on complaints after harassment has happened to a proactive model that will require positive action from employers to stop harassment happening in the first place. This also helps move the burden from individuals making ad hoc complaints to a proactive system where companies and employers take the initiative to create safe workplaces. This has been a successful approach implemented in the United Kingdom and in Victoria without any adverse impacts on business. Indeed, we know that sexual harassment is an enormous cost to business. The estimate is that it costs about $3½ billion per annum, so it follows that reducing sexual harassment will be a saving for business. Wouldn't it be better to stop harassment occurring in the first place than to mop up the unhappy mess after it has occurred?

That's one of the reasons that the Business Council of Australia endorsed the Respect@Work report—'to provide greater protections for victims of inappropriate workplace conduct and also provide greater clarity regarding the obligations on businesses to provide a safe workplace'. That's why the Law Council of Australia also called the government's legislation 'a missed opportunity to give effect to the stated intent of the bill'. And that's why the union movement has fought so tirelessly for these changes both in recent times and over many years. The government is trying to implement the Sex Discrimination Commissioner's report without its key components. It's like building a car without an engine.

Labor's other amendments include changing the Fair Work Act to explicitly prohibit sexual harassment, allowing unions and other organisations to bring legal action against perpetrators and establishing cost protections for complainants so they aren't discouraged from taking action by the prospect of huge costs. And of course we will move again support for Labor's commitment to 10 days paid domestic violence leave. We support the government's inclusion of miscarriage leave with this legislation and we believe it would be appropriate for the government to support Labor's move for 10 days paid domestic violence leave.

As well as fully implementing the legislative recommendations of the report, Labor has also committed to fund working women's centres around Australia. These would provide free and confidential assistance on workplace matters, including harassment, as is recommended in the Sex Discrimination Commissioner's report. We've also announced that we would support the Human Rights Commission to be the first port of call, a one-stop shop, for both complainants and employers seeking advice on sexual harassment. We've also said that we would support the Human Rights Commission being able to take reports of historic instances of sexual harassment.

If Scott Morrison won't, Labor is committed to implementing all 55 recommendations of the Sex Discrimination Commissioner's report, not just the easy bits. Sadly, that's what has characterised the Prime Minister's action—too little, too late, half-hearted, too focused on his own political interests. If we're being honest, there is a reason that so many people are sceptical of the Prime Minister and doubt his commitment on this issue. After all, he is leading a government that has kept the member for Bowman, Andrew Laming, in its party room. This is after he allegedly took crass and inappropriate pictures of a young woman at work without her permission, filmed another from the bushes and engaged in online trolling. It's a government that refused to conduct an independent inquiry into the serious allegations of sexual assault against a cabinet minister. It's a government that, when there was allegedly a rape in the ministerial wing of the parliament, after allegations that senior advisers knew of this crime, still has not made clear yet who knew what, when, in the Prime Minister's office. There's a reason that people are suspicious of the Prime Minister's commitment on these issues—why they think it's all about politics.

Labor, on the other hand, is committed to acting to end harassment in our workplaces. That's why we're guaranteeing 10 days of paid domestic violence leave—so no-one has to choose between their safety and their job. It's why we're committed to a childcare policy that would make early childhood education and care cheaper for 97 per cent of Australian families. It's why we're committed to a range of policies that will increase women's wages at work and help close the gender pay gap, which, sadly, has widened again recently.

That's our promise. At work, in the family, in retirement, we have an agenda for women written by women that wasn't produced to solve a political problem but to pursue genuine equality. It's an agenda that you can trust, because for us equality can never be reduced to an exercise in political damage control, and we're not afraid to say it. Our simplest and our most important belief is that every Australian is born with the same value and with the same right to safety and happiness. When we fail to meet this standard, when we fall short on equality, it's bad for women and it's bad for everyone.

11:01 am

Photo of Julian SimmondsJulian Simmonds (Ryan, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] I'm keen to commend the substantive bill before the House today, the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021. It has a lot of measures in it that will ensure that women are treated equally in the workplace, free of harassment and sexual intimidation. It's an incredibly important bill. In my own life, as many other members know, I'm lucky to be surrounded by very strong and confident women—in the workplace, Alyson, who runs my office, and Georgia; and, at home, my wife, Maddy, and my daughter, Isabelle. But, as the government considered its response to the Respect@Work report, some of the stories they told me about their treatment in previous workplaces were truly shocking and upsetting, and I'm sure other members have heard of similar experiences as this process has gone through its stages.

The legislative changes before us are important, they're necessary, and—I hope—if I could present a succinct summary, they will send a very clear message to men who undertake this kind of inappropriate behaviour in the workplace: 'Your time is up, and it won't be tolerated. This behaviour is unacceptable, and it always has been.' These changes will go a long way to ensuring that the workplace is free of harassment and sexual intimidation of women.

There is another aspect of this bill that in fact wasn't recommended as part of the Jenkins report but is in there, and I want to speak about it today. Some of my colleagues will cover off in greater detail the other measures of this bill. I wanted to use the majority of my time to talk about the important provision in the bill to extend compassionate or bereavement leave to those couples who suffer a miscarriage.

I wish I could be there in the chamber with you today, but there are a lot of disappointments as part of COVID—border closures and all the rest of it—for every Australian, so my disappointment pales in comparison. But I wanted to give this speech to you in person in the House because it is such a passion of mine and these are changes the parliament will support today. I don't want to understate these changes. It is pretty rare that this parliament changes the Fair Work Act and even rarer that this parliament extends new leave provisions, but that is what we're doing for Australian couples today by extending them two days of compassionate or bereavement leave when they suffer a miscarriage.

This particular change has been championed by the Pink Elephants Support Network, and I want to pay tribute to them, as the minister did and as Minister Cash did in the Senate last night. Particularly with regard to the Pink Elephants Support Network, I want to read the names associated with the network onto the Hansard. Samantha Payne is the co-founder and CEO. Sarah-Jane Monahas is the COO and Katrina Groshinski is on the board. I acknowledge them for the incredible work that they do at the Pink Elephants Support Network, which supports women and couples who are going through the loss of miscarriage. Together these three incredibly strong women have created the Leave for Loss campaign. They're championing the idea of additional leave from workplaces being given to couples who are suffering miscarriage. I have to say that the workplaces of Australia, workplaces around our nation, have been incredible in getting behind the Leave for Loss campaign. They have extended leave and, in some cases, very large companies give leave of up to five days to affected employees. That was a large part of the initial success of the Leave for Loss campaign.

I am also delighted that I got a chance to be part of the Leave for Loss campaign and to champion it within this House and to the government to ensure that bereavement or compassionate leave is extended to all couples who find themselves in this situation in all workplaces around the nation. We went through a process as we were talking to the various ministers about this particular change and what it entailed. I'm seeking feedback from the small-business community around the nation. They were overwhelmingly supportive, with over 70 per cent of small businesses that we surveyed supporting this campaign. The survey was conducted during the stress of the pandemic and everything else, so at a time when they had a lot of things to worry about, including their own survival. But over 70 per cent of small businesses we surveyed strongly supported or were very supportive of the idea of extending additional leave entitlements to couples going through miscarriage. I want to thank those small businesses for their support.

I also want to thank Minister Porter and Minister Cash, the two Attorneys-General during the period that the construction of this bill was under consideration. Both of them have been incredibly receptive and diligent. They listened to people from the Pink Elephants Support Network and to me. They listened to the stories of couples around the nation who have been impacted by miscarriage and they have taken those concerns on board in looking at how we might incorporate additional leave provisions in these Fair Work Act changes. The ministers are supported by incredibly diligent people in their offices, like Jess and Callum, who have been there along the journey with us as well. Thank you to them. I think one of the reasons why both Minister Cash and Minister Porter and all those small businesses around the nation were so supportive and keen to get behind this amendment is that miscarriage is something that affects so many couples and so many women around the nation. We reel off the statistic that one in four pregnancies end in loss. That means 283 women a day are suffering a pregnancy loss, the vast majority of them before 12 weeks in the form of a miscarriage, and 74 per cent of women who suffered a miscarriage felt unsupported. That is an absolute tragedy in our nation, and I hope that this new provision of extending compassionate or bereavement leave will go some way to rectifying that.

We know the stats—much as we like to reel them off—are not the full story. You have to talk to people who have been through miscarriage or you have to have been through it yourself to truly understand the strain and grief that it puts so many women and so many couples under. It's no secret that my own family has been through miscarriage. A lot of women and couples who go through miscarriage go through multiple miscarriages, and it doesn't get easier. In fact, it gets remarkably harder with each and every occurrence that they go through.

With the indulgence of the House, I will read a little from the words of my own wife, from when she was reflecting on the miscarriage journey that we've been through. She said:

I think it's really important, because it's something people shouldn't be embarrassed about. I think it's the only kind of loss people don't talk about. If someone in your family dies, you don't pretend that you're okay. You let them know that you are grieving and that you're sad, and I think the more people talk about it, the less people feel they need to hide it and the more sensitive people will be about asking whether or not you're planning a family, how it's going and those kind of things.

Those were a little bit of her words about our story. Our story has driven me to be a champion of these particular changes. If I had my time again, and I've said this before in the House, my family would have taken more time to grieve our losses from miscarriage. My wife was one of those who shouldered the burden and was back at work that very same day, not because she didn't have a supportive boss—she had a very supportive boss—but because isn't that just what people do? This is a loss that normally isn't acknowledged. That has got to stop. It has to stop with these changes that are supported by both the government and Labor. Of course, the leave that we're extending—the two days not just to women who suffer miscarriage but to couples—isn't enough. They're not going to get over it in two days. But this is meant to send a very strong message to couples that early pregnancy loss is a very real loss. It is something that you have to take time to grieve. It won't be better tomorrow or the day after, but take time now to grieve—it will be better with the passage of time.

It's important that you talk about it as a couple, that you come together and take those two days to talk about what you've lost—the hopes and dreams and what could have been that you've lost. It's important that you take time to grieve as a workplace right, not as something that has to be negotiated with the boss, not as something that, at a time when you're feeling a great deal of pain, both physical and mentally, you have to walk down the hall to the boss and try and negotiate a leave entitlement but as something that you know is there for the taking for a reason—so that you can go through the grieving process together. And in doing that, know that there's support that you can reach out to. You can reach out to the Pink Elephants Support Network and be part of that community of so many couples who have gone through it, so many couples who are happy to share their experiences with you, who are happy to support you. And, perhaps, at a time when you don't even feel like you want to talk to your closest family about what happened, you can talk to those couples who have been through a very similar thing.

This government has a very proud record of supporting Australian families; of protecting our kids, protecting them from exploitation; and of supporting couples through the horrors of stillbirth, which we have done previously, and now with these amendments around miscarriage. I really want to acknowledge that there is bipartisan support for this part of the bill, and I thank Labor very much for their support, but that doesn't diminish the fact that it's the government that has driven this change and that has brought it to the House for voting on. It's one of the reasons why I'm so proud to be a member of a government that is supporting Australian families. With those remarks, I will simply say that I hope this change, this new leave entitlement extending compassionate and bereavement leave to those couples who suffer miscarriage, will go a long way to easing the pain of this very difficult time that so many couples in Australia go through.

Thank you again to The Pink Elephants Support Network for all the wonderful work they do and for driving this change within the community. Thank you to Minister Porter and Minister Cash for helping me to drive this change within the government. This change isn't just for my own family, who have suffered loss through miscarriage; it is for every family who has suffered loss through miscarriage. It is for every family and couple in my electorate of Ryan and for every couple and family in Australia who go through this. We're here with you to support you; you mustn't go through these things alone. I'm very proud to be part of a government that has brought it to this place to make it a reality.

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.

11:30 am

Photo of Celia HammondCelia Hammond (Curtin, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

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.

11:38 am

Photo of Mark DreyfusMark Dreyfus (Isaacs, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Attorney General) Share this | | Hansard source

[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.

11:45 am

Photo of Tim WilsonTim Wilson (Goldstein, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

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.

12:00 am

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.

12:10 pm

Photo of Nicolle FlintNicolle Flint (Boothby, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It's an honour and a privilege to be able to speak on the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021 today, which the Morrison government has brought to the parliament based upon work that we instigated and initiated.

Everyone in this place agrees that we all have the right to feel safe at work, especially women. Sexual harassment is unacceptable in any context, particularly in the workplace. Our workplace laws must reflect these ideals to ensure all Australians are protected from workplace sexual harassment. That's why the Morrison government is acting quickly to strengthen the national antidiscrimination and industrial relations frameworks by simplifying and enhancing protections against sex based discrimination and harassment in the workplace. We began by funding the Australian Human Rights Commission to undertake the landmark National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces. The inquiry was the first of its kind in the world, and represented a landmark moment for Australia.

The federal government's response to the Respect@Work report, the Roadmap for Respect, released on 8 April 2021, sets out the government's long-term commitment to building safe and respectful workplaces. The end product of this national inquiry found that too many workplace cultures fall short. We must do, and are doing, what we can to ensure this changes. The Respect@Work report made 55 recommendations—directed at the Australian government, the states and territories, employers, industry groups and others—highlighting the important roles all groups have in supporting cultural change and creating safe workplaces. The Morrison government has either agreed to—in full, in part or in principle—or noted all 55 recommendations in the report.

I want to briefly pay tribute to the Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General, Amanda Stoker, for her incredibly hard work on a response to this report and for her wonderful, tireless advocacy for women. She has been a great friend to me and a wonderful supporter through the various trials and tribulations I have experienced. I would also like to acknowledge the efforts of the Attorney-General, Michaelia Cash, and of the former minister for women and member for Higgins, Kelly O'Dwyer, who commissioned Kate Jenkins to do the report in the first place. We miss the member for Higgins very much. She was a great champion for women, especially in the Liberal Party, and should be incredibly proud of everything she achieved for women during her time in parliament, including the legislation we see before us today. I also want to pay tribute to Kate Jenkins, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, who is an absolute champion for women. She's an incredibly thoughtful, kind and compassionate woman, and she's doing wonderful work for the government in other absolutely critical areas so we can make sure all women are safe in their workplaces in every way.

This bill will ensure that more workers—in particular, vulnerable workers—are protected and empowered to address unlawful conduct in their workplaces. These reforms are essential for advancing both women's safety and women's economic security. The Respect@Work bill does this by implementing legislative reforms committed to by this government in its Roadmap for Respect, including in response to recommendation 16, recommendations 20 to 22 and recommendations 29 to 30 of the Sex Discrimination Commissioner's Respect@Work report. It implements the majority of the legislative recommendations in the Respect@Work report, focusing on the changes that can be implemented quickly and see the greatest improvements to the antidiscrimination and industrial relations frameworks. It's also important to stress that those legislative recommendations not included in the bill are still under active consideration by the government.

While this bill addresses many of the recommendations outlined in the Respect@Work report, more measures are already underway. Through our commitment to the Respect@Work report in the long term, the Morrison Liberal government has commenced actions to implement the Roadmap for Respect, including through establishing the Respect@Work Council; developing the Respect@Work website and a package of training and education resources; consulting with states and territories, including at the recent meeting of attorneys-general and at national cabinet, regarding their respective responses to the Respect@Work report; and preparing for the fifth national survey on sexual harassment in Australian workplaces.

To implement our response to the Respect@Work report we are also providing more than $64.3 million over four years, as announced in the 2021-22 budget, building on the initial $2.1 million over three years provided in October 2020, to implement key recommendations of the report. Through this funding we will see $43.89 million committed over four years to additional legal assistance funding for specialist lawyers with workplace and discrimination law expertise, and $5.3 million committed to the Department of Social Services to be provided to Our Watch, Australia's national research organisation for women's safety, and to 1800RESPECT to build the evidence base and develop primary prevention initiatives to respond to sexual harassment.

But, of course, this is not all we have done on this very important issue. We commissioned the National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces, as I've outlined, through the former Minister for Women and former member for Higgins, Kelly O'Dwyer; Kate Jenkins reported back to us and we have now responded, which is why we're seeing this legislation before us today. We have also this year commissioned the Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces; that was commissioned in March, and the progress update was released in July. So there is a huge amount of progress occurring in that area as well to address the incredibly serious issues that we have seen spoken about and reported on this year. The Prime Minister also commissioned—and this was a bipartisan agreement and there was bipartisan support for this—the Review of the Parliamentary Workplace: Responding to Serious Incidents, in February. I know the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, and her wonderful team are doing fantastic work on this issue.

I have sat here and sat in my office this morning listening very closely to the contributions of those opposite, particularly the member for Watson, the member for Sydney and the Leader of the Opposition. I really cannot describe those contributions, and some of the content and the allegations made against our government and me and my colleagues, particularly the Prime Minister, as coming from a place that is not completely disingenuous. Each and every one of those individuals, quite frankly, sounded like a sanctimonious hypocrite. I, more than any person in this place, have put up with absolutely unacceptable behaviour thanks to GetUp, Labor and the unions, which those opposite still refuse to address. They still refuse to condemn GetUp and their tactics. They refuse to condemn the unions.

I'm really proud of the actions my government has taken, and the actions the Prime Minister and the Treasurer took, to publicly condemn the sexist and misogynistic behaviour I suffered during the 2019 election campaign. They supported and encouraged me to present to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, and I was absolutely thrilled to see one of its key recommendations pass this parliament recently, through the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Offences and Preventing Multiple Voting) Bill 2021. The provision in this bill, which I'm delighted to say will now offer proper protection to every single member of parliament, to our volunteers and to our staff, clarified what constitutes interference with political liberty. It noted that violence, obscene or discriminatory abuse, property damage, and harassment or stalking with relevance to an election are examples of what can be considered interference with political liberty, with penalties of imprisonment for three years or 100 penalty units or both. This is critical for the operation of our democracy and for the continued free and easy access that every single member of the Australian public deserves to have to their elected representatives.

I have just outlined how my government, how our government, how the Prime Minister, have shown leadership time and time again in addressing the incredibly serious issues that so many people in this place have unfortunately suffered. But I ask myself what on earth those opposite have done. I had to come in here and give a highly emotional speech outlining how deeply distressing my experience as a female member of parliament had been before the Leader of the Opposition would even go out there and not only apologise but say that if he was ever made aware of this sort of behaviour again then he would act.

I find it extraordinary that, back in March, Samantha Maiden reported the most horrifying, genuinely horrifying, allegations of sexual harassment and assault and generalised abuse and bullying of female Labor staff members. I have not heard a word from those opposite as to whether these women are safe, whether the perpetrators have been held to account and brought to account, yet they come in here today and start telling us that we have a problem. I'm going to read some of this into Hansard because it needs to be recorded, because I will not by lectured by those opposite, as I've said before, when I know that they have even more-serious problems than the ones that have already been revealed by the brave women who have come forward:

      This is female Labor staff members reporting the behaviour of current and former Labor MPs. The article continues:

        This is disgusting behaviour. 'What are you doing about this?' I say to those opposite. It goes on and on. It is horrifying. It is truly, truly horrifying, and it had better be being addressed, because I want to know whether these women are safe. We do not know whether these women are safe.

        That's why the sanctimonious, hypocritical lectures that I heard directed at us today from those opposite are precisely that. You cannot trust anything those opposite say on these issues, because they do not have their own house in order and they refuse to address the problems that they have. This is another example:

        • He is a married man who plied a young woman with drinks until she had no idea what was happening. He promised others at the gathering he would get her home safely but before putting her in the cab he had sex with her when she had no ability to consent.

        • The next day he texted to demand she take the morning after pill and blamed her for what happened saying she was so drunk that she came onto him. He threatened "tell no one".

        I could go on. I'm not going to go on, because these allegations are so deeply upsetting. As I said, I sincerely hope that these women are safe and that they are getting the help and support that they need. I believe that they now know through everything that's happened this year where to get that help, whether it is through contacting the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, contacting 1800RESPECT or contacting the Department of Finance and accessing the many, many supports that we have put in place since a range of terrifying facts and allegations have been made this year.

        I am really pleased to support this legislation because we all know, we should all know—those opposite certainly do know, whether they admit it or not—that everyone bears responsibility for improving the safety of women in the workplace, whether it's sexual harassment, violence against women or bullying. Whatever it might be, we all bear a responsibility to fix this behaviour.

        If we in this place—every single political party, Independents and everyone—can't get their own houses in order, can't get their own parties in order, then what hope do women out there in businesses around Australia have of things improving for them? We have to demonstrate, we on this side are demonstrating, the leadership that is desperately needed in this area. I am very proud to have worked with my senior colleagues—like the Prime Minister; the Attorney-General; and the Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General, Amanda Stoker; to see this legislation, and with the Assistant Minister for Electoral Matters, Ben Morton, to see the Electoral Act tightened up—so that every single person is safe in their workplace in every single way.

        12:25 pm

        Photo of Helen HainesHelen Haines (Indi, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

        I want to acknowledge the horrifying stories I've heard this morning from all sides, but, for me, it's not about taking political sides on the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021; it's about taking the side of women who've been abused, harassed and subjected to the most horrifying treatment all over the nation, in all sorts of workplaces. For me, it's about them; it's not about us. It's about this legislation, it's about getting it right and it's about being serious when we say to women, 'We are on your side.'

        Six months ago, tens of thousands of Australians marched upon town squares across Australia, and on the front lawns of this place, to tell this government that they're fed up with inaction on women's equality and safety. Dressed in black, hundreds of my constituents poured onto the streets of Wodonga, Wangaratta, Benalla, Yackandandah, Yarrawonga, Eldorado, Glenrowan and Porepunkah, to name just some of the towns. Two busloads of people from my electorate got up at dawn and came here to Canberra to protest on the lawns of this house. Anna Moran brought her little daughters with her because she had such hope in her heart that they would be witnessing an historic moment when this government would finally listen and act.

        These women had a very, very clear message: Australians were sick and tired of seeing cultures of sexism and misogyny bred into workplaces, social clubs, sporting teams and homes across the nation—cultures that disrespect and endanger women and silence their voices. Australians were sick and tired of a lack of leadership to fix it. Many watched on in horror and disgust as the allegations of rape and sexual assault came out of this place. We'll never forget that moment when the brave Brittany Higgins told her story. Australians were also horrified, but unfortunately not surprised, to watch those in power close ranks around each other, implicitly excusing violence against women and seeking to discredit, ignore and smear the brave woman who came forward. Many women who marched had experienced the same themselves and refused to stay silent any longer. As one constituent put it to me: 'This march is about everyone being safe, irrespective of their workplace, and we want our federal parliament to be held to the highest standards.' I wholeheartedly agree, and I think every member of parliament agrees. We must be held to the highest standards.

        This bill should be a proud moment for us all in this place, but it's not. We should be celebrating a parliament that knows how to come together and heed the call of so many Australians who have stood up to say, 'Enough is enough.' But instead what we've got is half-hearted action, drip-feed progress. I'm just so disappointed—I really am—to have to make this speech. And I think there are lots of other members who are disappointed too. When we were all gathering at the front of this parliament, we hoped that the day would come very soon when we would be making celebratory speeches in this place.

        Since the publication of the Respect@Work report in March last year, I have called on this government, as have so many others, to implement all 55 of its recommendations without delay. Instead, until today it had implemented only three. Last year I met with the former Attorney-General Christian Porter to implore him to take the report off the shelf and act. But he left it there to gather dust. On the same day as the marches, I seconded a vital and overdue bill from the member for Warringah, Zali Steggall, to close a glaring gap in the Sex Discrimination Act which nonsensically excludes parliamentarians and judges from being protected from or liable for sexual harassment. We urged the Prime Minister to let us debate and pass that bill as a matter of urgency, but he refused. And, when the government finally decided to come to the table after the March4Justice, I met with a new Attorney-General, Michaelia Cash, to implore her: please don't cherry pick, please don't delay these important reforms. I'm sad to say that this bill is unfortunate in that it seems to me now that the Attorney-General has ignored that call too, to take this as far as it needs to go.

        Many government MPs who have spoken on the bill this morning have said this bill is the first step on a journey of reforms to improve women's safety in this nation. I ask: what journey are we exactly being taken on? Is it another round of filibuster consultation or a press conference full of hot air? If this government wants to talk about taking steps, it should look at the hundreds of thousands of steps taken by everyday Australians when they marched across this country.

        The Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, has described this bill as a 'missed opportunity'. Today I heard so many members pay their respects to the incredible work that Professor Jenkins does, and yet she tells us this is a 'missed opportunity'. People like those from the Business Council of Australia support all the recommendations too, and so do I.

        As an independent, I review each and every bill on its merits. I do my best to make sure the law we pass in this place is based on sound evidence and responds to community need. And, more often than not, I vote against amendments from the opposition, because they're not constructive and they turn this chamber in a game of political mud-slinging. But the amendments today are refreshing. For the life of me I can't understand why the government doesn't support laws that would encourage employers to take reasonable steps to eliminate sex discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation in the workplace, or why the government refuses to prohibit behaviour in the workplace that facilitates an intimidating, hostile, humiliating or offensive environment. If the government can write in new reforms like the improvements to compassionate leave for employees affected by a miscarriage—and, gee, I support those; I commend the government for those—I say to them: 'If you can do that, then you can implement these other recommendations too.'

        Kate Jenkins and the Australian Human Rights Commission poured over the Respect@Work report. This is no way to treat it, and I must say it casts a deeply concerning shadow for me over the review into parliamentary workplace culture that Kate Jenkins and the Human Rights Commission are pouring over right now, which I and hundreds of people in this building are participating in right now. And, like women all over the nation, I will not relent on calling for justice. But, unlike women all over the nation, I have a voice in this place, and I intend to use it. I use it today to get real and genuine reform.

        12:33 pm

        Photo of Adam BandtAdam Bandt (Melbourne, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

        This bill tells us that the government does not want women to be equal. You don't have to dig around and string an argument together based on things people have said outside the chamber to make that very clear; it is clear from the words themselves. This bill is the government saying that it is implementing the recommendations of one of the most significant reports that this parliament has seen for a long time. It was a wide-ranging report into sexual harassment and mistreatment at work, led by Professor Kate Jenkins—and whose work on behalf of the Greens I want to join with others in applauding. That report said to us very clearly that what we needed to do was to put into law a basic principle that the legislation should aim for equality for women. Instead, the government isn't even prepared to do that. The government comes up with a bill that says, 'Well, we'll aim for equality of opportunity as far as is practicable.' So, in other words, the government is bringing in legislation that says women will continue to remain unequal. But they're only even bringing this legislation before the parliament because they have been dragged kicking and screaming by the women of Australia to act and to implement the report.

        Tens of thousands of women marched around Australia in response to and in support of the brave statements from people like Brittany Higgins, who stood up and showed enormous courage to hold systems and their perpetrators to account. There was widespread support for women finally standing up and lifting the lid on the bad behaviour of men, including in this parliament. I was very proud to join and, together with many of my Greens colleagues, lend my support to those women when they came up here. But they never should have had to do it. The change that we need, in our laws but also our behaviours, is change that men need to make. It's change that men need to make about the way they act, but also change that men need to make to the laws of this country.

        We had the Respect@Work report sit with the then Attorney-General, Christian Porter, for over a year before even a press release was issued. Then, when the government bring a bill to this parliament it fails to do what they have been asked to do, not only by the Respect@Work report but by the tens of thousands of women across Australia who have been marching and demanding change. It's not only the failure to legislate for equality in this bill that needs to be condemned. It's also the failure to do the single central thing that the report said needed to happen: to change the law to require employers to make sure their workplaces are safe. That is the thing that needed to happen. It happens in workplace health and safety, and there are very simple reasons for that. It is often very difficult to find that someone has committed an offence, discriminated against or harassed someone or made a workplace unsafe, because it takes a lot of courage to speak up. We changed the law with respect to health and safety to make sure that employers have a positive obligation to create a safe workplace. That's what Professor Jenkins wanted us to do in the law here regarding discrimination. It is the right move, and the government won't do it. The government will not make employers ensure their workplaces are safe.

        The tragedy is, when these bills were going through the inquiry stage, everyone across the political spectrum and across the worker-employer divide supported changing the law to make sure that workplaces were safe. It was something that had widespread support because it would have made a huge difference, it would have shifted the culture in this country and it would have helped ensure that everyone could go to work and know that their workplace would be free from harassment and violence. But the government has refused to do that. These changes, changes to behaviour and the law, should have been implemented by men and they haven't. Today, we continue to see the refusal of this government to do the things that are necessary to make sure that every woman everywhere knows their workplace will be safe.

        There are many other things that should have been implemented in this bill and are not, including 10 days' family and domestic violence leave. I won't go through all of those amendments, because the government has dragged the chain for so long and has only given us very limited time to deal with this. Instead, I want to acknowledge the work of our leader in the Senate, Senator Larissa Waters, who has led the charge on behalf of the Greens both in parliament and outside to ensure that the amazing work of the Respect@Work report is implemented and turned into law. I want to note that we all support the amendments that the Greens moved in the Senate, where we worked cooperatively with Labor, and are reflected in the amendments that are being moved in the House here by the opposition. They got significant support in the Senate and they should get support here as well. What I fear, and what we fear, is that once the government have passed this legislation they will show no appetite to come back and close other loopholes and improve the law in the way the Respect@Work report asks us to.

        We will support these amendments that we worked on together in the Senate, and I commend my colleague for moving them. With that, given the short period of time that the government has allowed for such an important debate, I support the amendments. Some of the elements of the bill do go some way towards implementing the Respect@Work report, so we will be supporting that, but this bill demonstrates that this government is anti-women. It does not want equality for women, and so, on behalf of the Greens and on behalf of all of our senators, I pledge we will keep fighting to ensure that the voices of those who have marched on this place and who continue to burn with anger will be heard until the law is changed.

        12:40 pm

        Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

        I, too, rise to make a contribution to the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021 debate, and to strongly endorse the amendments moved by the Manager of Opposition Business in the House on behalf of the member for Sydney earlier today.

        Here we are, just days away from this government's women's safety summit, and yet the head of that government, the Prime Minister, cannot even honour the word he gave, the promise he made to Australian women in April to implement all 55 recommendations of the Jenkins Respect@Work report. I join with so many of my colleagues in saying how disappointed we are in the lack of action by this government. I've actually moved beyond disappointed; I've stepped right into the incensed stage. There is an urgency that is required from this government, and yet we see zero action.

        How short are the memories of members opposite? Thousands of women across this nation descended on the front lawn of Parliament House to have their voices heard. They were marching in the streets in country towns and cities across the nation. When those women arrived in Canberra, they had a message they wanted us to hear. I was very pleased to be part of a strong Labor delegation that went to listen. That delegation included the Leader of the Opposition and our extraordinary women, Labor women, who make up our strong caucus here. We went to listen to what that message was. We listened to the most heartbreaking speeches made by so many women, the most notable being the speech made by Brittany Higgins. Yet the government and the Prime Minister could not find their way to the front lawn to listen to that message. The Prime Minister couldn't see his way to do that. And he wonders why Australian women are now incensed? But is it any wonder when people feel so ignored, when they look at the track record of this government, when we look at the ongoing failure of this government to make the link between gendered inequality in Australia as a driving force behind the gendered nature of violence in our communities?

        This bill before the House today is a half-baked effort to try to implement just some of those recommendations made by Kate Jenkins. This is a report that the government itself commissioned in 2018. It chose to let it sit on the desk of the then Attorney-General, Christian Porter, for 12 months—doing absolutely nothing. Then the shocking allegations of rape in a minister's office, just metres from the Prime Minister's office, finally dragged the government into some kind of response. That's when the Prime Minister gave his false promise to Australian women, when he said he would implement all 55 of these recommendations. We know from the speeches before what an utter failure this bill is in that regard. That's why Labor have moved a second reading amendment and we'll be moving additional amendments in consideration in detail—to try to get this bill back on track and to try to honour that promise that was given to Australian women.

        This place has been under an enormous spotlight for our own unsafe workplace practices. The Australian parliament must be a model employer, yet today we are being asked to tick off on legislation that fails to meet those benchmarks that were set by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner. She found these laws in Australia to be wanting, to be very sadly lacking. We actually didn't need that report to know that. There are few Australian women that haven't felt the brunt of sexual harassment or gendered violence in this nation, and that is to our eternal shame. There are deep, systemic issues of inequality that must be addressed. This bill tries to ignore and paper over that. It is the inability of the government, in fact, to get the connection between gender inequality and gendered violence that dogs every effort they make to try to ensure that women are safe at work. Women deserve to be safe at work, on the streets, and wherever they may go in public or private places.

        Whilst this bill does bring some very minimum reforms, it falls way short of the expectations that we have of this government. Australian women deserve a government that can listen, that actually understands and that doesn't just think that we're going to be content with a webinar about women's safety next week as a measure to try to deliver on a promise that this Prime Minister has utterly failed to act upon.

        I am strongly supporting the amendments moved by the Labor opposition today. This bill is a shocking missed opportunity. As I said, it is more than disappointing. I know that the Sex Discrimination Commissioner and the Law Council of Australia have both warned the government about the failure to implement recommendation 17, and the positive duty on employers to ensure that our workplaces are safe and free of sexual harassment and violence. Seriously, no-one in Australia thinks that is a bridge too far. How this Prime Minister cannot get on board and agree that our workplaces should be free of sexual harassment and violence is beyond belief.

        There are 55 recommendations in the Jenkins report. Each and every one of them need to be implemented today. There should be no ifs or buts about this, no weasel words from this government. The Prime Minister made a promise; we're simply holding you to account. You are to implement all of these recommendations in full. At the very least, you should stick to your word. You should honour and show Australian women some modicum of respect. You like to talk about respect quite a lot. Well, I've got a message for you, Prime Minister: we're asking for you to respect Australian women today. We want you to honour your word to implement all the recommendations—no half-baked measures as presented in this bill will suffice. Women in Australia should not have to wait a second longer for you to take our concerns about the lack of safety afforded to Australian women, not just in workplaces but in our community more broadly. You have so much work to do.

        We are here, willing and able to assist government. You should accept the amendments moved by Labor today. There are no excuses anymore. You've got to take some responsibility, Mr Morrison, Prime Minister and now's your time.

        12:49 pm

        Photo of Zali SteggallZali Steggall (Warringah, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

        [by video link] I rise to speak on the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021. I'm thankful that we are finally getting to this. It has taken way too long. Following the delay in the government responding to and implementing the Respect@Work report recommendations that sat for way too long on the then Attorney-General's desk, on 15 March this year I introduced the sex discrimination amendment bill. On the very same day, thousands of women and men marched around Australia demanding change. At that time, we urged the parliament and the Prime Minister to urgently debate and move these laws. It has taken months. I've had discussions with the government and members in this place about the need to urgently update the Sex Discrimination Act and prohibit sexual harassment.

        I welcome this bill and the fact that the government is now finally taking action on many aspects of the Respect@Work report. I do welcome the broadening of the definition of 'workplace' and the clarification in this bill that parliamentarians and judiciary are protected from but also liable for sexual harassment and discrimination, which has been very much the focus of the private member's bill that I put before parliament.

        But there are serious concerns that remain about this bill, that it does not go far enough and fails to implement all recommendations of the Respect@Work report. This is serious, because women are demanding change. I've listened to the debate in this place today from members of both sides, and it is disappointing that it does fall back to partisan politics. This should be above partisan politics. Keeping over 50 per cent of the population safe in their workplaces and ensuring they have respect in their public life is something that falls on every member in this place, regardless of their political views. Prohibiting sexual harassment in all circumstances is essential and really needs to be ensured. I urge the government to look to further broaden the definition and to continually monitor the impact of the legislation on workplaces and also as they continue to evolve.

        There are a number of technical concerns with this bill coming from the Law Council of Australia and the ACTU. They have taken issue with the implementation of the recommendations through the legislation. The government has unnecessarily added qualifiers to the types of sexual harassment that would be prohibited under this bill. It is questionable that there really is any question of types: sexual harassment is sexual harassment and should be prohibited in all circumstances. The government has inserted the word 'seriously' as an additional test which leaves open to interpretation the severity of the offence to the judge, rather than just a simple blanket prohibition for it to be illegal in all circumstances. It really begs the question of how seriously you are willing to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace when you start putting those little provisos and additional tests in to make it that much harder to prove and prohibit.

        The Australian Human Rights Commission, the Law Council and the ACTU have also called for the inclusion of the prohibition of sex based harassment to be incorporated in the Fair Work Act. We don't want a half-baked job. This needs to be a complete job across all legislation. Of course, as we've heard today, there are recommendations from the Respect@Work report that have been missed. The most prominent recommendation that almost all groups have voiced support for—from the Business Council of Australia to the ACTU, and from the Law Council to the Human Rights Commission—is the positive duties recommendation. Positive duties put an obligation on employers to protect their staff from sexual harassment in the workplace. It's the most important cultural change to help seriously address sexual harassment in our workplaces, and it needs to happen. It's disappointing that the government simply has not tackled that in this bill.

        Sexual harassment is not a women's issue; it is a societal issue, which every Australian and every Australian workplace can contribute to addressing.

        Workplace sexual harassment is not inevitable. It is not acceptable. It is preventable.

        These words were written by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, in January last year in her opening foreword to her report. The key finding of the inquiry was that workplace sexual harassment is prevalent and pervasive. It occurs in every industry, in every location and at every level in Australian workplaces. Australians across the country are suffering the financial, social, emotional, physical and psychological harm associated with sexual harassment, and this is so unacceptable. As we saw last year the Australian parliament, sadly, whereas it should be a place of best practices, is not immune to the scourge and arguably it is behind the corporate sector and the private sector as a workplace. We need preventative measures to be implemented in all our workplaces.

        I'm pleased the Foster report will deliver training on awareness and prevention of sexual harassment in this place, but it doesn't even begin to go far enough. It needs to be rolled out nationally if we truly want to change the culture of our workplaces and improve working conditions for women, in particular, but also for men and non-binary people in our community. The report revealed an urgent need to shift away from the current reactive, complaints based approach and move to one that requires positive action from employers and a focus on prevention. Another aspect is the cost of bringing on litigation. At the moment the duty puts a severe consequence on complainants bringing forward complaints. Many in the legal profession, including the Grata Fund and the Human Rights Law Centre, highlighted that cost orders are a key barrier to access to justice for those wishing to prosecute sexual harassment cases. This should be addressed with urgency by the government. We need to address this because access to justice needs to be available to all.

        I welcome the bill and the steps taken, but we need to do more. So many of the recommendations have been left out and they should be addressed. We need a significant cultural change in Australian workplaces. We need to get rid of toxic misogyny. I am a mother of two teenage boys. It is so important for everyone out there, men and women, that we move this dialogue along, and it has to come from the top. Change has to come from leadership. Finally, I want to thank the many brave women and men who've come forward to tell their stories, not just the stories that we've heard in this place this year, which have been incredibly shocking, but all stories from across all workplaces: the thousands that marched for justice earlier this year. People who have been made to feel powerless and worthless have stepped forward, grabbed back power and demonstrated their inherent worth. To those survivors I want to say: we hear you, we believe you, and things will change because of you. For me, if there is one thing that I absolutely pledge to do in this place, it's to represent their voice in this place and ensure we do change. Partisan politics is entirely inappropriate in this issue. We should have the decency to rise above it and implement all the necessary measures to keep women and men safe and respected in Australia.

        12:59 pm

        Photo of Paul FletcherPaul Fletcher (Bradfield, Liberal Party, Minister for Communications, Urban Infrastructure, Cities and the Arts) Share this | | Hansard source

        I thank all members who contributed to the debate on the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021. The Australian government is pleased to be taking action to streamline the national legal frameworks that deal with sexual harassment as part of its long-term strategy to prevent and address sexual harassment outlined in the report entitled A Roadmap for Respect: Preventing and Addressing Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces. This bill will ensure that all Australians are protected from workplace sexual harassment, by expanding the scope of existing sexual harassment prohibitions, promoting clarity for employers and workers and reducing procedural barriers for sexual harassment complainants. I commend the bill to the House.

        Photo of Milton DickMilton Dick (Oxley, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

        The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Watson has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The immediate question is that the amendment be disagreed to.

        Question agreed to.

        Original question agreed to.

        Bill read a second time.