Zali Steggall MP introduces Sex Discrimination Amendment (Prohibiting All Sexual Harassment) Bill

15 March, 2021


The Sex Discrimination Amendment (Prohibiting All Sexual Harassment) Bill 2021 is critically important. So many women and men around Australia are saying enough is enough today and are marching for justice.

It is baffling that these amendments have not already been implemented and even more so that the government did not take up my invitation some weeks ago to present it themselves.

Kate Jenkins, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, summed it up nicely in her foreword to the [email protected] report tabled last year:

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.

Sexual harassment is not illegal in all circumstances. Many are not adequately protected, nor personally liable, for sexual harassment, in particular MPs—members of parliament in this place—and judges.

In 2008, the Australian Human Rights Commission submitted that the act should be clarified so statutory appointees, judges and members of parliament were adequately protected, as well as personally liable.

The Prime Minister, following the inquiry into the former High Court Justice Heydon, called those allegations 'very disturbing and very concerning'.

Shockingly, much of what Dyson Heydon did was not 'illegal' under the current legislation due to the nature of the employment arrangement between judges and their associates.

This year, we have heard of allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault of very grave nature 'occurring' in this place.

While some of those instances were assaults and are therefore covered under criminal law, it is important to recognise the enabling conditions that can contribute to assault.

Sexual harassment must be prohibited in all circumstances.

We need to talk about it and we need laws that support victims.

The legislation as it stands is not good enough to protect all in their workplaces, and we need this amendment.

[email protected]

The [email protected] report delivered by the Australian Human Rights Commission to the government in March 2020, a year ago, had 55 recommendations. Three have been partially implemented.

The foreword to that report states that Australia was once a leader in prohibiting sexual harassment. It further states:

However, over 35 years on, the rate of change has been disappointingly slow. Australia now lags behind other countries in preventing and responding to sexual harassment.

The Australian Human Rights Commission survey in 2018 found that one in three people experienced sexual harassment at work in the last five years. Those statistics should be shocking.

The Human Rights Commission also found that 'the current legal and regulatory system is simply no longer fit for purpose'.

The amendments presented today go some way to addressing the gaps in advance of broader reform.

Based on data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, in the last 12 months:

1.6 million people were sexually harassed, the majority of which were not formally reported;

201,000 people were allegedly sexually assaulted;

police were notified of 23,000 of these assaults, just over 10 per cent of the cases; and

approximately 5,000 people were convicted of sexual assault.

This has a dramatic impact on the health and wellbeing of the Australian population and even translates into an economic impact. To give the coalition a fact that speaks to its focus:

Deloitte found that workplace sexual harassment costs the Australian economy $3.5 billion annually, including approximately $2.6 billion in lost productivity.

We need legislative reform to urgently address this issue.


The allegations we have heard this year from Ms Higgins and others of their harassment and even assault here in Parliament House reinforce the need for a change to the legislation.

Grace Tame, the Australian of the Year, has told us that the most powerful thing we can do for victims is to talk about the incidence of harassment, grooming and assault.

It is empowering and it encourages others to come forward to tell their story.

It helps to prevent further incidents of abuse.

And it reduces the stigma on victims, shifting the shame to the perpetrators where it rightly belongs.


Creating legislation to make sure that MPs and judges are held to the same standard as others in their workplaces is important.

To the members in this place, it is our job.

To the government, adopt this bill and demonstrate a commitment to integrity and reform.

The standard you walk past is the standard you accept. If you fail to adopt this amendment, you are endorsing sexual harassment in our workplace. You are saying MPs should not be held to the same standard as others.

This amendment has been recommended in various forms by the Law Council, the Human Rights Commission and the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs since 2008.

The people of Australia are tired of words, they want action.

It has been on the to-do list for too long.

It's time to make this change now.

In the spirit of the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we need to tackle inequality in the law with one piece of legislation at a time.

What better place to start than the Sex Discrimination Act.

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