Senate debates

Wednesday, 1 September 2021


Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021; In Committee

11:51 am

Photo of Jenny McAllisterJenny McAllister (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Cabinet Secretary) Share this | Hansard source

Labor supports this amendment, and indeed it is one of the many questions where Labor had also drafted amendments. We agree to proceed with the Greens moving it on this occasion.

Some months ago I listened with interest to what most people described as a train crash of an interview, a very long interview with the Prime Minister on A Current Affair where he explained his shock and surprise at learning that Australian women were subject to discrimination and, indeed, some very frustrating experiences at work. That was galling enough. But the thing I observed in this extended interview that the Prime Minister offered to A Current Affair was that the Prime Minister was willing to say the word 'respect' some 14 times—14 times!—but, in an interview that was ostensibly about the interests of Australian women. he could not bring himself to mention the word 'equality' once, not once. I have a real question about the Prime Minister's commitment to equality for Australian women, because it rarely features in anything that he says. He is comfortable with respect, and I can see why that might be. It's possible to be perfectly polite and respectful to a person that you do not consider your equal at all. If you are a powerful man, indeed, it is quite possible to do so. Ask Julia Banks how the Prime Minister treated her. I am not surprised that this government, which has had eight long years to think about what it might do for women, baulks at the possibility of inserting an object of true equality between men and women into one of its acts.

The recommendation in the Respect@Work report, which, again, the government pretends to accept, is very clear. It says:

Amend the Sex Discrimination Act to ensure:

a. the objects include 'to achieve substantive equality between women and men'

It's pretty straightforward. What do we get instead? This mealy-mouthed thing: 'to achieve, so far as practicable, equality of opportunity between men and women'. We used to tell a joke about a moderate's chant at a rally: 'What we want?' 'Gradual reform in due course.'

This couldn't be sillier. This couldn't be a sillier amendment. We'll go for equality—but only equality of opportunity—as far as is practicable. What does that mean? That is actually my question to the minister: Why do we need to insert that qualification? Is it to reflect the view put by the Prime Minister some time ago on International Women's Day—that he wants women to rise but not if it's at the expense of men? Is that what this qualification actually means? Why is it in here? Why is it necessary to insert into a piece of legislation something as mealy-mouthed as this? As Senator Waters has explained, the objects of the act don't require a positive duty to absolutely obtain those objects in every decision; they are merely a guiding factor in interpreting what the provisions of the act require of the decision-maker.

So, Minister, two things: why is the qualification 'so far as practicable' necessary in this context, and what does the government consider to be the difference between substantive equality and equality of opportunity?


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