Senate debates

Tuesday, 31 August 2021


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

7:01 pm

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | Hansard source

Acting Deputy President Askew, thank you for coming in early to take my last few minutes in the chair. The Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021 joins a long list of half-hearted attempts, complete failures, and instances of downright contempt for women's issues demonstrated by the Liberal government since its election, and particularly by this Prime Minister, Mr Morrison. In 2016, when Mr Morrison was Treasurer, he cut $35 million from community legal centres, which provide vital support to women and family violence survivors. The National Association of Community Legal Centres has said that 160,000 people were turned away due to funding cuts. As Prime Minister, Mr Morrison completely defunded the National Family Violence Prevention and Legal Services Forum, the peak body representing First Nations survivors of domestic abuse. Ironically and callously, the group lost their funding on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Just a few months ago—in June, in fact—Mr Morrison allowed Mr Barnaby Joyce to join the cabinet group Mr Morrison had formed to improve outcomes for women. This women's safety and security task force has been blasted as a farce, with Mr Joyce as a member.

Labor will move many amendments to strengthen this bill, including to provide for domestic violence leave. Who could forget the assertions made by Minister Cash, as employment minister, when she rejected calls for domestic violence leave, claiming instead that it would be a barrier to women getting a job and it would act as a perverse disincentive for employers to employ women? As employment minister she ignored or was completely ignorant of the fact that there are many current enterprise bargaining agreements where unions have successfully negotiated domestic violence leave and there are hundreds of employers who support it. We will see in this debate whether Minister Cash has changed her tune.

Last December, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar released the Wiyi Yani U Thangani: women's voices report. It is a landmark report. It is the first in 34 years, following the 1986 Women's business report. Commissioner Oscar held open meetings across the country to hear from women and girls. What has the government—or, indeed, the Prime Minister or the Minister for Women in this place—done about this report? Absolutely nothing. They have not even acknowledged its existence. The report provides guidance to the Commonwealth government on measures that can be taken to effectively address the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls. The failure of the Morrison government to acknowledge this report completely misses the opportunity to include some of its recommendations in the bill before the Senate.

Then there are, of course, Mr Morrison's personal failures: his disgraceful management of recent sexual assault allegations in this parliament, particularly when he revealed he'd asked his wife about what he should do in relation to the Ms Higgins matter. This was followed by his failure and his refusal to talk to thousands of protesters outside the parliament. Most of these protestors were women, and along with many of my Labor caucus members I went out and joined the protest. Then there has been the complete protection of the member for Pearce against the allegations of historical rape. Mr Morrison has steadfastly refused to investigate that matter, admitting he has not even read the allegations against Mr Porter. The Prime Minister could have taken his lead from the Chief Justice of the Federal Court, Susan Kiefel, who did investigate and found against Justice Hayden.

Many Australians feel the Prime Minister has not done enough to listen to or protect women, and this bill before the Senate is another clear indication of that. There was, of course, his now forgotten mea culpa, an admission of error that he had failed to get the timing right on the marginalisation, the trivialisation, the harassment and the sexual assault of women. That acknowledgement of failing to get the tone right is long gone. Actions speak louder than words, and this bill before the Senate is further acknowledgement that the Prime Minister has no intention of getting it right. After commissioning the national inquiry in 2018, Mr Morrison ignored the final Respect@Work report, ignored it for over a year. It was only after all of the disgraceful sexual harassment and rape allegations in this place that the Prime Minister resurrected the report, which had been gathering dust on the desk of the former Attorney-General, the member for Pearce, Mr Porter. It should never have taken this long.

This bill is very basic. It fails to implement all of the recommendations from the Respect@Work report. It well and truly lets women down. The report tells us that two out of every five women have experienced sexual assault at work. That's a significant number of the women in this place. Failing to act on the Jenkins recommendations does not build much confidence that Mr Morrison will act on the recommendations of the inquiry the government has charged the commissioner to hold into the culture of this workplace. If Mr Morrison won't act to prevent sexual harassment in Australian workplaces, it doesn't seem likely that he will hold his government to a higher standard. The government has shown disregard and disrespect for Australian women time and time again. This bill was an opportunity to get it right, but it falls well short.

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 particularly so for women. The behaviour also represents a very real financial impost to the economy, through lost productivity, staff turnover and other associated impacts, with workplace sexual harassment estimated to cost the Australian economy around $3.5 billion a year.

The inquiry also found that most people who experience sexual harassment never report it. I'd suggest that most women in this place know this, because, if they haven't experience sexual harassment in the workplace, their friends and/or their family have. This is something women discuss amongst ourselves, but, sadly, we rarely report it. It's often done by one person to another and it's very hard to prove, but we all know someone—or many women—who has experienced sexual harassment. Women don't report it, because they fear it will have an impact on their reputation and career prospects. They fear they won't be believed. They fear they'll be embarrassed. They fear because they've seen over and over again that the perpetrator will simply get off with a slap on the wrist or perhaps won't be questioned at all.

We know that, back in April, Mr Morrison made a flashy announcement promising he would adopt every recommendation in the Respect@Work report. I remember watching him say those words. But, as usual with Prime Minister Morrison, it was all spin. In reality the Morrison government is refusing to implement a number of the major legislative reforms recommended by Commissioner Jenkins. The Morrison government has also failed to take action or has tried to pass off responsibility to the states—something we see in this place every day—on a number of the other key recommendations, including recommendations 25, 27, 28, 49 and 50. I'll bet you any money you like that government senators in this place will stand up and say the government is fully implementing the Respect@Work report, so let's put it on Hansard that they're not.

The Morrison government has not adopted recommendations 17 and 18, which place a positive duty on all employers to take reasonable and proportionate measures to eliminate sex discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation as far as possible. Over the last two or three months, in Western Australia, we've had an inquiry going on in the state parliament, looking at sexual harassment in the mining sector. Sadly, it came about because a woman was raped, and those matters are before the courts. Since that time, a number of other women have come out and made rape allegations against workmates—just think about that for a few seconds. I've no doubt that, if the government was actually real about implementing the Respect@Work report and actually did introduce a positive duty on employers to prevent sexual and sex based harassment, it would make a world of difference in the mining sector.

At the moment, what we've seen the mining sector come up with is all these punitive measures. Yes, we do need punitive measures—people should lose their jobs if they're found to have engaged in sexual harassment, and of course they should face criminal charges if they have engaged in rape—but there is a requirement for the employers in the mining sector to do a little more than provide a wet mess and a gym. If they had a positive duty of care they would need to engage with their workforce and talk to them about the sorts of things that make a workplace better and safer. The reality is that in Western Australia those swings are long. They're 12 hour days, 14 days in a row. This is a long time to be away from your family, and it's a long time to allow negative workplace cultures to develop. So that is a major flaw in this legislation.

A couple of weeks ago, I held a meeting in Western Australia and our shadow minister for women, Tanya Plibersek, came and talked to that group—well, she Zoomed in, obviously. Ms Plibersek described the legislation as really important and went on to say: 'You wouldn't be allowed to work in a workplace where there was live electricity and you wouldn't be able to work in a workplace where there was asbestos falling on the ground, but in Australia you can work in a workplace which is unsafe because there is sexual harassment.' But, sadly, we see that this legislation is another example of spin over substance from a government big on talk and pathetic on delivery. If you want to see what a total failure of national leadership looks like, it is this legislation that is currently before the Senate and the weasel words that go with it. It is an absolute missed opportunity and another refusal by the Prime Minister to take action on a problem right in front of him and he then tries to pass it off as something else.


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