Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP says Sexual harassment is not a women's issue: it is a societal issue

23 Feburary, 2021


'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 Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins in January last year in her foreword to the report on the National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces. That report, labelled Respect@Work, was subsequently provided to the Attorney-General and tabled in parliament on 5 March 2020. Sadly, very little has happened since.

This important inquiry was tasked with examining the nature and prevalence of sexual harassment in Australian workplaces and to look at measures to address and prevent it. 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. This is particularly so for women.

As we've seen this week, last week and in too many instances prior to this last fortnight, Australian Parliament House is, sadly, not immune to this scourge. Now is the time for action and for change. I politely suggest to the government that an appropriate starting point is to implement the full list of 55 recommendations from the Respect@Work report at this time. Those recommendations cover a large range of topics. The key ones, though, are education and prevention strategies, proposed amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act and broadening the powers of the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Respect@Work revealed an urgent need to shift from Australia's current active-complaints-based approach to one that requires positive action from employers and which focuses on prevention. To quote Kate Jenkins again, 'There is an urgency and demand for change across all corners of society.' Unfortunately, that urgency and demand for change was not heard by the Morrison government. Of the 55 recommendations made in the report, only three have been actioned. There has been minimal action on the report by the government, and no formal response has yet been provided.

The events of the last week or so have highlighted the need for urgent change to employment and workplace practices here in parliament. This is indeed a unique workplace, but it is offensive to suggest this in some way excuses the behaviour that has taken place here. In fact, the unique nature of this workplace should only increase the duty of care that we owe to our staff. They are in a stressful environment, with long hours and high intensity. They are often younger in age and a long way from home, without the normal support of friends and family. Their job doesn't end at 5 pm. There is a constant blurring of the lines between professional and personal lives. Combine that with the significant mix of power arrangements in force here and it is a toxic mix. It is our duty as their employers to provide a high standard of care in that context. It is a shameful reality that this place, the Australian parliament—a place that should be holding up the highest standards of the land—has become for many employees a workplace of fear, anxiety and trauma.

By implementing the full recommendations of the Respect@Work report, the government would improve the working lives of not just those employed here but all Australians across all workplaces. I urge the Prime Minister in the strongest terms to act on those recommendations. Unfortunately, given the government's and the Attorney-General's clear reluctance to act, I will be formally introducing a private member's bill on Monday 15 March to amend the Sex Discrimination Act, as proposed by the Law Council of Australia and supported by a number of the recommendations in the Respect@Work report, to reflect on those allegations that have rocked this parliament. I'm more resolved than ever to ensure those changes occur.

Finally, I want to thank the many brave women and men who have come forward to tell their stories, not just in the last week or two but across all workplaces. They've been made to feel powerless and worthless, but they've stepped forward and they've grabbed that power back. We hear you, we believe you and we will make changes for you.