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

31 August 2021

I also would like to make a contribution to this debate on the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021. This bill represents the government's response to the Australian Human Rights Commission's landmark Respect@Work report. It amends the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986 and the Fair Work Act 2009.

We are, broadly, supporting this bill because we understand and appreciate that the issue of providing a safe workplace for all Australians is too important to delay. The work needs to be done urgently. But we also acknowledge that the government has completely missed this lesson. For eight years—eight long years—they've known that important work needs to be done, and they have not done it. And they've taken far too long to respond to this landmark report. Theirs is a half-hearted, partial response to what is a detailed and comprehensive report about a problem that Australian women from all walks of life deal with throughout their lives and which many of them deal with multiple times in their life.

The commissioner found that Australia's existing laws relating to sexual harassment are out of date and that they are failing to protect workers. The commission found that reform is urgently needed, and that's a view shared by many, many stakeholders. The reform work is urgent, but this government sat on the report for more than a year. The report sat with then Attorney-General Christian Porter, who didn't do a thing, and it was only earlier this year, when the incredibly brave women came forward to share their stories of sexual harassment and assault, that this government was shamed into action. As a result, instead of the detailed, careful, considered policy response that we should expect to a report like this, what we've seen is a kneejerk political response to what is a serious, ongoing, society-wide problem. One in three people experienced sexual harassment at work in the past five years: 40 per cent of women and around 25 per cent of men. First Nations Australians were more likely to experience workplace sexual harassment than non–First Nations people. And, if these statistics weren't bad enough and shocking enough to spur the government into action, we know that widespread workplace harassment costs the Australian economy $3½ billion a year. All of these statistics should shock us. But for many Australians they're not shocking because this is the reality of life that they live every single day. They know these statistics because they live these statistics. They make up these statistics.

The Respect@Work report tells us that harassment is happening everywhere but certain industries place people at even greater risk. We know that retail, hospitality, healthcare and social assistance workers are at particular risk, as are women, young people, those in precarious and insecure work and those from diverse backgrounds. These people are overrepresented in these industries and can be overrepresented in the statistics. And, of course, we've heard terrible, terrible allegations of harassment in this workplace: the federal parliament—a workplace that should set the standard for workplace safety. It should set the standard for acceptable behaviour. And I do want to acknowledge the incredibly brave women who came forward, and those who continue to come forward, to talk about this and to shine a light on it. It's incredibly important that you do that, and we're listening and we believe you. But it shouldn't take the bravery of young women to come forward to force the government to act on protecting women at work and to get them interested in this area of policy reform.

Labor is committed to stamping out sexual harassment across society, but we need to see the same urgency of commitment from the government. Back in April, the Prime Minister said the government had agreed to all the recommendations of the Respect@Work report, but, as is too often the case with the Morrison government, when you take a closer look at the detail you will be disappointed. Many of the recommendations were only agreed in part or in principle. Others were simply noted. They want the credit for the strong response, but the strong response actually requires detailed policy work to follow it through. Too many recommendations are either not being acted on or have been largely ignored—essentially, watering down key elements of the response we should see to this report. So, whilst Labor supports this bill broadly, my colleague Jenny McAllister will be moving amendments to the bill. Importantly, one of these amendments would provide for 10 days of paid domestic violence leave. While this was not a specific recommendation of this report, we know from stakeholders and from women with lived experience that this is an essential reform to ensure women's safety at work.

We know that many stakeholders have called the government's response to this report 'a missed opportunity'—a missed opportunity like many missed opportunities in policy work that we've seen from this government.

Let's just be clear: Labor supports all 55 recommendations. We want to send a clear and unambiguous message that sexual harassment must stop, and to do that you need to support this report in full. Sexual harassment must stop in all workplaces across the entire country. We are committed to doing what it takes to do this. We are committed to doing the hard, detailed policy work required to keep people safe at work. We believe in it. It is core to our mission as a labour party and a labour movement. We will never stop fighting until men and women get the dignity and respect at work that they deserve.