Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP speaks on Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect@Work) Amendment Bill

2 September, 2021


I rise to speak on the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021. I'm thankful that we are finally getting to this. It has taken way too long. Following the delay in the government responding to and implementing the Respect@Work report recommendations that sat for way too long on the then Attorney-General's desk, on 15 March this year I introduced the sex discrimination amendment bill. On the very same day, thousands of women and men marched around Australia demanding change. At that time, we urged the parliament and the Prime Minister to urgently debate and move these laws. It has taken months. I've had discussions with the government and members in this place about the need to urgently update the Sex Discrimination Act and prohibit sexual harassment.

I welcome this bill and the fact that the government is now finally taking action on many aspects of the Respect@Work report. I do welcome the broadening of the definition of 'workplace' and the clarification in this bill that parliamentarians and judiciary are protected from but also liable for sexual harassment and discrimination, which has been very much the focus of the private member's bill that I put before parliament.

But there are serious concerns that remain about this bill, that it does not go far enough and fails to implement all recommendations of the Respect@Work report. This is serious, because women are demanding change. I've listened to the debate in this place today from members of both sides, and it is disappointing that it does fall back to partisan politics. This should be above partisan politics. Keeping over 50 per cent of the population safe in their workplaces and ensuring they have respect in their public life is something that falls on every member in this place, regardless of their political views. Prohibiting sexual harassment in all circumstances is essential and really needs to be ensured. I urge the government to look to further broaden the definition and to continually monitor the impact of the legislation on workplaces and also as they continue to evolve.

There are a number of technical concerns with this bill coming from the Law Council of Australia and the ACTU. They have taken issue with the implementation of the recommendations through the legislation. The government has unnecessarily added qualifiers to the types of sexual harassment that would be prohibited under this bill. It is questionable that there really is any question of types: sexual harassment is sexual harassment and should be prohibited in all circumstances. The government has inserted the word 'seriously' as an additional test which leaves open to interpretation the severity of the offence to the judge, rather than just a simple blanket prohibition for it to be illegal in all circumstances. It really begs the question of how seriously you are willing to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace when you start putting those little provisos and additional tests in to make it that much harder to prove and prohibit.

The Australian Human Rights Commission, the Law Council and the ACTU have also called for the inclusion of the prohibition of sex based harassment to be incorporated in the Fair Work Act. We don't want a half-baked job. This needs to be a complete job across all legislation. Of course, as we've heard today, there are recommendations from the Respect@Work report that have been missed. The most prominent recommendation that almost all groups have voiced support for—from the Business Council of Australia to the ACTU, and from the Law Council to the Human Rights Commission—is the positive duties recommendation. Positive duties put an obligation on employers to protect their staff from sexual harassment in the workplace. It's the most important cultural change to help seriously address sexual harassment in our workplaces, and it needs to happen. It's disappointing that the government simply has not tackled that in this bill.

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 the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, in January last year in her opening foreword to her report. 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, and this is so unacceptable. As we saw last year the Australian parliament, sadly, whereas it should be a place of best practices, is not immune to the scourge and arguably it is behind the corporate sector and the private sector as a workplace. We need preventative measures to be implemented in all our workplaces.

I'm pleased the Foster report will deliver training on awareness and prevention of sexual harassment in this place, but it doesn't even begin to go far enough. It needs to be rolled out nationally if we truly want to change the culture of our workplaces and improve working conditions for women, in particular, but also for men and non-binary people in our community. The report revealed an urgent need to shift away from the current reactive, complaints based approach and move to one that requires positive action from employers and a focus on prevention. Another aspect is the cost of bringing on litigation. At the moment the duty puts a severe consequence on complainants bringing forward complaints. Many in the legal profession, including the Grata Fund and the Human Rights Law Centre, highlighted that cost orders are a key barrier to access to justice for those wishing to prosecute sexual harassment cases. This should be addressed with urgency by the government. We need to address this because access to justice needs to be available to all.

I welcome the bill and the steps taken, but we need to do more. So many of the recommendations have been left out and they should be addressed. We need a significant cultural change in Australian workplaces. We need to get rid of toxic misogyny. I am a mother of two teenage boys. It is so important for everyone out there, men and women, that we move this dialogue along, and it has to come from the top. Change has to come from leadership. Finally, I want to thank the many brave women and men who've come forward to tell their stories, not just the stories that we've heard in this place this year, which have been incredibly shocking, but all stories from across all workplaces: the thousands that marched for justice earlier this year. People who have been made to feel powerless and worthless have stepped forward, grabbed back power and demonstrated their inherent worth. To those survivors I want to say: we hear you, we believe you, and things will change because of you. For me, if there is one thing that I absolutely pledge to do in this place, it's to represent their voice in this place and ensure we do change. Partisan politics is entirely inappropriate in this issue. We should have the decency to rise above it and implement all the necessary measures to keep women and men safe and respected in Australia.