Zali

Zali Steggall MP seeks to bring on debate on the Sex Discrimination Amendment Bill

23 March, 2021

TRANSCRIPT

 I seek leave to move the following motion:

(1) That the House notes:

(a) the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Law Council of Australia have identified that the Sex Discrimination Act does not prohibit sexual harassment in all circumstance and workplaces;

(b) the events exposed in Parliament House over the past month have highlighted the urgent need to amend the Act to ensure that Members of Parliament are liable for and protected from sexual harassment;

(c) in 2008, the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs recommended amending the Act to include a broad prohibition on sexual harassment in any area of public life;

(d) following the Dyson Heydon inquiry, the Law Council of Australia launched its National Action Plan to Address Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession which recommends that the Sex Discrimination Act be amended to include the language that "a person must not sexually harass another person"; and

(e) the Sex Discrimination Act (Prohibiting All Sexual Harassment) Bill 2021 seeks to make that amendment; and

(2) that so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent private Members' business order of the day No. 29, the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Prohibiting All Sexual Harassment) Bill 2021, being called on immediately and given priority over all other business for final determination of the House.

Leave not granted.

Ms STEGGALL: I move:

That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent the Member for Warringah from moving the following motion immediately—

(1) That the House notes:

(a) the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Law Council of Australia have identified that the Sex Discrimination Act does not prohibit sexual harassment in all circumstance and workplaces;

(b) the events exposed in Parliament House over the past month have highlighted the urgent need to amend the Act to ensure that Members of Parliament are liable for and protected from sexual harassment;

(c) in 2008, the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs recommended amending the Act to include a broad prohibition on sexual harassment in any area of public life;

(d) following the Dyson Heydon inquiry, the Law Council of Australia launched its National Action Plan to Address Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession which recommends that the Sex Discrimination Act be amended to include the language that "a person must not sexually harass another person"; and

(e) the Sex Discrimination Act (Prohibiting All Sexual Harassment) Bill 2021 seeks to make that amendment; and

(2) that so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent private Members' business order of the day No. 29, the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Prohibiting All Sexual Harassment) Bill 2021, being called on immediately and given priority over all other business for final determination of the House.

The reason this is so important should be clear to all. The events of the last month—the allegations of conduct occurring in this place—have so profoundly shocked many, many Australians, and every person in this place should also be shocked and moved to action. The time for words has passed. We do not need a new inquiry. We need some action, and that should occur today. The events highlighted in the media yesterday indicate a profound issue: that this very workplace is not safe from sexual harassment, from conduct—for example, the events occurring in an MPs office—that could very certainly be seen as sexual harassment. This loophole in the law should be addressed without delay.

The motion addresses that the Sex Discrimination Act does not adequately capture the full range of employment circumstances in which sexual harassment may occur, and, alarmingly, some circumstances in parliament are not covered. Members of parliament and statutory appointees are not adequately protected from or liable for sexual harassment. The events that we have seen play out in the media—even so soon as yesterday, with reports of coalition staffers performing lewd acts on MPs' desks—highlight the urgent need to address this gap. Sexual harassment is not currently adequately addressed in this very workplace. We must do something about it.

We have heard examples of members of parliament being both the targets and the alleged perpetrators of sexual harassment. We must act on this, and the amendment bill that is the subject of this motion seeks to do that. Women and men in this place should not go a day longer than necessary without appropriate standards and laws being in place. I urge the government to, rather than spend the day debating appropriations bills, debate this bill. This an urgent motion, because the people of Australia want to see action on the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace. The Prime Minister himself this morning called a press conference to address this issue, but we still don't see any actual action being brought to this place that will change the laws, that will change conduct.

We need to close these loopholes. So many women around Australia—men and women—came down to this place and marched last Monday to say, 'Enough is enough', to say that it is time to take action. The firm action that we can take in this place is to address it through legislation. That can start with this sex discrimination amendment bill. We saw the law profession rocked by the allegations in respect of former High Court Justice Dyson Heydon in 2019. Their investigation revealed the need for statutory appointees to be personally liable for their actions. Now these very serious allegations are occurring in this place, and there is no doubt in my mind—and I would hope no doubt in the minds of the members in this place—that it really is well past time to change the culture, to change the attitude. We cannot have another day of a laissez faire approach to sexual harassment and misconduct in this place.

The nature of work has changed. We need to ensure that new realities of working from home, gig economies and self-employed workers are all adequately protected. That's what the amendment bill that is the subject of this motion seeks to do. We need a broad prohibition of sexual harassment in all areas of public life. That is what the bill seeks to do. It is so crucial, now more than ever, that we move on this. It's baffling that amendments have not already been implemented, and even more so that the government did not take up the many invitations to present such a motion themselves.

Sexual harassment in public life is not illegal in all circumstances. This is something that has come as quite a shock to many, many people. It's been raised, ironically, since 2008 with the Australian Human Rights Commission, who'd already made that submission. So, when we hear more evidence of lewd acts being done and shocking behaviour occurring in this parliament, it must surely be the case that it is urgent that we address these loopholes, that we address sexual harassment in all areas of public life. There cannot be any more delay on addressing this.

The [email protected] report delivered by the Australian Human Rights Commission to the government in March 2020, over a year ago, held 55 recommendations. Only three have been partially implemented. It's not good enough. The forward of that report indicated that Australia was once a leader in prohibiting sexual harassment. However, over 35 years on, the rate of change has been disappointingly slow, and we now lag behind other countries in preventing and responding to sexual harassment. The Australian Human Rights Commission survey has found that one in three people experienced sexual harassment in work in the last five years. That is a huge problem. The Human Rights Commission has found that the current legal and regulatory system is simply not fit for purpose and must be addressed.

In the last 12 months, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has found that 1.6 million people were sexually harassed, the majority of which were not formally reported—201,000 people were allegedly sexually assaulted, and police were notified of only 23,000 of these assaults, which is just over 10 per cent of the cases, and only approximately 5,000 people were convicted of sexual assault. These are damning statistics and point to a very big problem that needs more than words; it needs action in this place. This has a dramatic impact on the health and wellbeing of so many within our community. If it's not our responsibility in this place to fix this loophole, to send a very clear message to men and women around Australia that sexual harassment will not be condoned in any circumstance, then I'm really at a loss as to what greater purpose we could have in this place than keeping all Australians safe and ensuring they have an equal opportunity to work and to enjoy participating in their public life, whether it be educational facilities or their work or the gig economy—or MPs in this place. We should not be subject to sexual harassment. We should actually be protected from it. But we also need to make sure all members in this case are liable for it if they, for some reason, think this is, in any way, acceptable conduct.

The people of Australia are tired of words, and I have to say, as a newcomer to this place, I have been profoundly shocked by the continued allegations that have come out of recent weeks, but I've also been shocked by the response. What we've seen is a continuation of pushing off the problem, of saying, 'Well, we may have a problem but the other side also has a problem,' or, 'Today we saw in a press conference the media has a problem as well.' You cannot get this problem fixed if you don't address your own house first. So I say to the Prime Minister: get your own house in order. That should start today with cleaning up and amending the Sex Discrimination Act.

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