31 August 2021: Labor will fully implement all 55 recommendations of the Respect@Work report

31 August 2021

Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021
Second Reading
Tuesday, 31 August 2021

Senator McCARTHY (Northern Territory—Deputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (18:46): [by video link] In March this year I joined thousands of angry Australian women. We'd had enough of the never-ending gendered violence, of horrific sexual assaults, of shocking allegations, of the abuse and violence perpetrated against women, especially here in the halls and offices of parliament. Australian women roared in March and we marched to say it was enough. We'd reached our line in the sand. We'd had enough of the appalling workplace culture in Parliament House and other workplaces and the continuing discrimination, continuing harassment and violence. I'm sickened that we still have people holding positions of leadership and authority in this parliament who are the subject of serious allegations and whose behaviour is the subject of serious questions. What sort of message does that send to women, particularly young women, about taking up positions of leadership and working here in this place?

The reality of women's lives, of our lives, is that we are surrounded every day by sexual violence. From the age of 15, one in two young women report being sexually harassed at work and almost two in five women have experienced sexual harassment in the last five years. But it's not just young women or working women facing this every day. Even when we're frail and elderly in aged care we're at risk of assault. One woman a week is killed by their current or former partner. The rates of violence, as we know, are even higher for First Nations women. From the youngest women to the oldest women, in our homes and in our workplaces, we live our lives surrounded by violence. We learn not to look at this full on, not to stare at this for too long, because it burns a hole in our hearts. We know all this. We've known this for lifetimes, and it's way past time to act.

I am horrified but also frustrated and furious that there's been so much talk and so little real action. If we in the Senate and the other place, the lawmakers, cannot keep women safe and believe women then something fundamental has to change. The government seems incapable of taking action and of taking those bold steps. It's developed a small response to an overwhelming issue, a mediocre mumble to a full-throated demand from Australian women. This legislation, the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021, is so limited in its scope, exactly like the Morrison-Joyce government.

In 2018, the national inquiry into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces was announced, and that culminated in the Respect@Work report released by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins in March 2020. The report found that workplace sexual harassment in Australia is both prevalent and pervasive and that the current legal and regulatory system is insufficient to effectively address sexual harassment in the workplace. The report, through 55 recommendations, proposed widespread changes to how sexual harassment is handled in the workplace, including in relation to improving training, education and awareness in relation to respectful relationships, methods of reporting and initiatives around support, advice and advocacy. When handing down her report, the commissioner said:

I call on all employers to join me in creating safe, gender-equal and inclusive workplaces, no matter their industry or size. This will require transparency, accountability and leadership.

Sadly, they're all attributes this Morrison-Joyce government does not possess.

This legislation is a weak response and a missed opportunity. Instead of taking the opportunity to commit to and implement all of the 55 recommendations in the groundbreaking Respect@Work report, we have this response, which is nowhere near strong enough to deliver the legislative changes proposed by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner. This legislation should be changing the Fair Work Act to explicitly prohibit sexual harassment. It should introduce a positive duty on employers to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment happening in the first place. It should make 'substantive equality between women and men' an objective. It should allow unions or other organisations to bring legal action against perpetrators on behalf of complainants. It should establish cost protections for complainants so that they aren't discouraged from taking legal action due to the possibility of having to pay massive court ordered legal costs.

The Respect@Work report clearly says that Australia's existing laws are out of date, failing to protect workers and that reform is urgently needed. After commissioning the work in 2018, the Morrison government ignored the final Respect@Work report for a year, leaving it to gather dust on the desk of former Attorney-General Christian Porter. It should not have taken this long.

I'm very proud that an Albanese Labor government will fully implement all 55 recommendations of the Respect@Work report to help keep Australians safe from sexual harassment at work. An Albanese Labor government will help keep Australians safe all the time. I'm even prouder of the commitment announced by Labor today that backs our promise and will see action to make women's lives better. Labor will commit around $24 million to ensure there are properly funded working women's centres in every Australian state and territory. That's what Labor will do.

Working women's centres provide free, confidential assistance and advice about workplace matters, including sexual harassment, wage theft and discrimination. Sadly, many working women's centres have cut back their services, have closed or have faced closure because of the federal Liberals' funding cuts. I have spoken here of the dire situation the NT Working Women's Centre is facing because of federal government cuts. In October the NT Working Women's Centre faces its cliff edge. It's only a little over a month away. Without a further funding commitment, it will have to substantially cut back its services to Territory women. There are only three working women's centres currently in existence in Australia, and, of these three, only one in South Australia has its future assured.

Working women's centres are community based, not-for-profit organisations that provide free and confidential advice and holistic support services on work related matters to female, transgender and non-binary workers and specialise in gender based workplace issues. The Northern Territory and Queensland centres were established in 1994 and the South Australian centre in 1979.

Working women's centres work primarily with women who are not represented by a lawyer or other advocate. These women are often economically disadvantaged and vulnerable and work in precarious areas of employment. Working women's centres assist with a broad range of workplace issues, such as gender discrimination, unfair dismissal, bullying, harassment, sexual harassment and assault. They also conduct research and project work on a range of issues that women experience in relation to work, including on access to child care, family-friendly practices, the needs of First Nations working women, pregnancy and parental status discrimination, leave entitlements, work-life balance, pay equity and the impact of domestic violence on women workers and their workplaces. Additionally, they provide free and fee-for-service training for workers and employers about workplace rights on areas such as bullying, sexual harassment and domestic violence. The experience of working women's centres is that sexual harassment at work remains a persistent public health challenge, with implications for workplace safety and workers compensation.

In their submission to the Senate inquiry on this bill, the NT Anti-Discrimination Commission described sexual harassment as a significant and pervasive issue here in the Northern Territory. They pointed out the significant barriers that exist for NT women in a small jurisdiction. For example, if a woman works in a particular field, there may be only one employer in the Northern Territory where she can do that particular work, and speaking out may result in her losing her job and severely limit future employment prospects.

Recommendation 49 from the Respect@Work report is that:

Australian governments provide increased and recurrent funding to working women's centres to provide information, advice and assistance to vulnerable workers who experience sexual harassment, taking into account particular needs of workers facing intersectional discrimination. Australian governments should consider establishing or re-establishing working women's centres in jurisdictions where they do not currently exist.

In the government's A roadmap to respect response to the report, they agreed with the recommendation and stated that they will engage with state and territory governments on funding for working women's centres. The Commonwealth government cut all federal funding to the Queensland and Northern Territory working women's centres in 2016 and again in 2020, and the centres are only managing to survive because of modest funding commitments from the Labor state governments. The shadow minister for industrial relations and the shadow minister for women wrote to the Attorney-General, the Minister for Women and the Minister for Women's Economic Security on 27 August, urging the Morrison government to provide urgent funding to ensure the NT Working Women's Centre does not close and to ensure there are properly funded working women's centres in all jurisdictions. I would like to acknowledge the shadow ministers' strong and ongoing support for the work of the working women's centres and particularly for the strong advocacy they've done to ensure the NT centre can keep its doors open. The government indicated, through Senate estimates, that they are negotiating with the states and territories on a joint funding arrangement for working women's centres to be established in all states and territories. This was welcome news, but it cannot be an excuse for the Morrison government to try and dodge responsibility and put this onto the states and territories.

The NT Working Women's Centre has proven its worth for more than 30 years, and the evidence is clearly there, in the work of the NT Working Women's Centre, in what it has done and what it continues to do, which aligns with the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children and will contribute to the development of the next national plan. With the women's safety summit planned for next week, I have no doubt that the vital work of the working women's centres will again be highlighted.

But time is running out for the NT Working Women's Centre. Women of the Northern Territory cannot afford for it to further reduce its services or, worse, to close its doors.

In the past five years, one in three people experienced sexual harassment at work, including two in five women. This widespread workplace harassment costs the Australian economy $3.5 billion a year. It must stop. I don't believe this legislation will do this. At best, this bill may be a small first step—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Askew ): Senator McCarthy, we just lost your audio.

Senator McCARTHY: The government have not indicated any further legislative changes they will make or the time frame for doing so. Time is running out for the NT Working Women's Centre and for women in the Northern Territory to retain the specialist service that acts to ensure that they can be safe in the workplace.