Save Search

Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Thursday, 24 June 2010
Page: 6524


Mr McCLELLAND (Attorney-General) (10:38 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Introduction

The Sex Discrimination Act has now been in place for over 25 years, and has proven to be an important tool in addressing discrimination and changing attitudes about the participation of women and men in a range of areas of public life.

Progress has been made in the community’s awareness of the importance of gender equality in all areas of public life. However, the Sex Discrimination Amendment Bill 2010 implements amendments to enhance protections under the legislation to:

  • ensure protections from sex discrimination apply equally to women and men,
  • extend existing protections from discrimination on the ground of family responsibilities to both women and men in all areas of work,
  • establish breastfeeding as a separate ground of discrimination, and
  • provide greater protection from sexual harassment for students and workers.

These amendments form part of the government’s response to the report of the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs on the effectiveness of the Sex Discrimination Act in eliminating discrimination and promoting gender equality.

Other recommendations in the Senate committee’s report which have wider implications for anti-discrimination laws will be considered by the government as part of its review of anti-discrimination laws under Australia’s Human Rights Framework.

Equal protection for women and men

The bill broadens the constitutional basis of the Sex Discrimination Act to ensure that it provides equal coverage to women and men from discrimination.

Australia has ratified a range of international conventions which are directed at promoting gender equality, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and core International Labour Organisation Conventions Nos 100, 111 and 156.

The government believes that Australia can and should afford equal protection to both men and women, and give effect to Australia’s international obligations.

Family responsibilities

The government is committed to taking action to support working families and ensure there are adequate protections in place. By referring to a broader range of international conventions, the Sex Discrimination Act will provide equal protection to men and women from discrimination on the basis of their family responsibilities.

Likewise, to be competitive, it is in the interest of Australian workplaces to provide greater flexibility to workers to allow all Australians to fulfil their caring responsibilities.

Last week was a historic occasion with the implementation of the government’s Paid Parental Leave scheme.

This reform was long overdue. This government funded Paid Parental Leave scheme will give thousands of families the financial support to make their own choices about work and parenthood.

Parents will get more support to stay at home with a new baby, and children will get the best start in life. But it is also a win for business as employers will be able to retain more skilled workers.

This bill will make amendments to strengthen protections for working families.

Currently, as the Senate committee identified, the Sex Discrimination Act provides only limited protections for workers against discrimination on the grounds of their family responsibility. For example, the act provides that it is only unlawful to discriminate on the ground of family responsibility where an employee is dismissed.

This bill will broaden the prohibition on discrimination on the ground of family responsibilities to provide protection from discrimination in all areas of work, and will also prohibit indirect discrimination for both men and women.

These amendments recognise that Australian workers are entitled to greater protection so that they are able to work and look after their families.

It will also harmonise protection for workers with family responsibilities by bringing the Sex Discrimination Act into line with the antidiscrimination protections of the Fair Work Act.

Breastfeeding

The bill also establishes breastfeeding as a separate and distinct ground of discrimination. Making this a separate ground alongside other grounds such as marital status, pregnancy and potential pregnancy emphasises that breastfeeding is a protected attribute.

These changes will also ensure that special measures can be taken to accommodate the needs of breastfeeding women, both in the workplace and in other areas of public life.

Sexual harassment

The bill also includes important amendments to strengthen protections against sexual harassment. As the large number of submissions to the Senate committee’s inquiry highlights, sexual harassment continues to be a widespread problem in the workplace.

There is a need to ensure that there are adequate protections, as the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, has reported on the disturbing prevalence of sexual harassment, including the following facts:

  • Nearly one in five complaints received by the Australian Human Rights Commission under the Sex Discrimination Act relate to sexual harassment. The vast majority of these take place in the workplace.
  • Twenty-two per cent of women and five per cent of men have experienced sexual harassment. Women are four times as likely to experience sexual harassment in the workplace compared to men.
  • More than one in 10 Australians has witnessed sexual harassment in the workplace in the past five years.
  • Only 16 per cent of those who have been sexually harassed in the last five years in the workplace formally reported or made a complaint.

The bill makes amendments to address gaps and uncertainties in the operation of the protections against sexual harassment that are contained in the act.

For example, the test for sexual harassment will be clarified by providing that rather than just requiring that a reasonable person would have anticipated that the person would be harassed, a person will need only to show that the reasonable person has anticipated the possibility that the unwelcome sexual conduct would offend, humiliate or intimidate the harassed person.

A list of circumstances which may be relevant to assessing this possibility will be inserted into the act for guidance. This includes factors such as race, age, sex and disability. The list is intended to provide guidance to the courts and to make it easier for businesses to develop effective policies to prevent sexual harassment. However, the list is not exhaustive, and courts may take into consideration other factors that are relevant in the particular circumstances of the case.

An important amendment is that students of any age will now be protected from sexual harassment. Sexual harassment can have a devastating impact on a student’s ability to realise their full potential. Students will also be protected from sexual harassment by students and staff members from other institutions that they come into contact with through things such as interschool events.

These changes will provide younger victims of sexual harassment with another option for redress against the growing problem of cyberbullying and harassment by electronic means, alongside the existing procedures that many schools have in place.

And for the first time at the Commonwealth level, workers will be protected from sexual harassment by customers and clients, as well as by colleagues from other organisations that they interact with through their work.

Conclusion

These amendments are designed to ensure that protections in the act continue to be relevant and effective to the Australian community. These amendments will strengthen protections for working families and also send a strong message that sexual harassment is unacceptable, especially in the workplace.

Ensuring that antidiscrimination laws meet the needs of contemporary Australians is an important part of the government’s broader commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights and improving the effectiveness and accessibility of the justice system.

I commend the bill to the House.

Debate (on motion by Dr Southcott) adjourned.