Senate debates

Tuesday, 31 August 2021


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

5:23 pm

Photo of Sarah HendersonSarah Henderson (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

[by video link] I continue my earlier contribution on the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021. I was saying that I want to address the concerns that senators opposite, particularly Senator Waters, have raised in relation to the amendments in this bill because I am concerned that the government's position has been substantially misrepresented.

In recommendation 17 Commissioner Jenkins recommended that there be 'a positive duty on all employers to take reasonable and proportionate measures to eliminate sex discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation, as far as possible'. What I'd like to make clear is that the government is considering this recommendation, but there is quite a bit of complexity with it legally because of duties which already exist under work health and safety laws as well as the Sex Discrimination Act, including to ensure that additional complexity is not created for those seeking to use the 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, so far as is reasonably practicable. Work health and safety laws also provide for compliance, enforcement and inquiry functions to be exercised by work health and safety regulators. Employers that fail to meet obligations under work health and safety laws can be subject to prosecution and severe penalties.

The government is also considering the existing vicarious liability provisions in the Sex Discrimination Act, which ensure that if a worker engages in unlawful conduct such as sex discrimination or harassment then their employer can also be held liable for sexual harassment or sex discrimination if the employer did not take reasonable steps to prevent the conduct from occurring. This existing mechanism means that employers must take reasonable and preventive steps, such as implementing policies and providing training, to minimise their potential liability should an incident occur. So it is quite wrong for Labor and the Greens to characterise the government as not supporting a positive duty to eliminate sex discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation.

I want to return to a very significant provision of funding that we have provided in relation to implementation of the Respect@Work response. As I mentioned in my earlier contribution, it's some $64.3 million. This builds on an initial $2.1 million over three years that was provided in October 2020 to implement key recommendations of the report. Some of the further detail in relation to this very significant investment is a breakdown of that funding which has been provided in our budget.

There is $7.3 million over four years to support the Respect@Work Council in implementing a range of practical measures to address workplace sexual harassment and implementing amendments to strengthen the legislative and regulatory framework. There's $0.2 million in interim funding in 2021-22 to continue the targeted delivery of support for women on work-related matters, including workplace sexual harassment. There's $1.7 million over two years to Comcare to deliver national forums for Commonwealth, state and territory work health and safety inspectors on sexual harassment, and training for employers and managers covered by Commonwealth work health and safety laws to better understand and meet their obligations. There's $6 million over four years to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency and the Australian Public Service Commission to strengthen public sector reporting on sexual harassment prevalence, prevention and response. There is $5.3 million to the Department of Social Services to be provided to Our Watch, to 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. There's also $43.8 million over four years for additional legal assistance funding for specialist lawyers with workplace and discrimination law expertise. That is obviously a very significant additional investment as well.

I believe, and I think it is quite evident, that this bill evidences the government's commitment to seeing that women are safe in the workplace and to ensuring that women prosper in the workplace without fear of any form of sexual discrimination or harassment. The Sex Discrimination Commissioner's report was extremely well named—Respect@Work. That's what we all want. That's what we all deserve. That is the government's focus. This bill delivers on the government's commitment to give women a voice—a voice of truth, a voice of justice. I commend this bill to the Senate.


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