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Thursday, 28 October 2010
Page: 1996


Mr KEENAN (9:47 AM) —I rise to talk on the Sex and Age Discrimination Legislation Amendment Bill 2010. The Sex Discrimination Act makes discrimination on the grounds of sex, marital status, pregnancy and family responsibilities unlawful in specified areas of public life. It has been in place for over 25 years and has been an important tool in addressing discrimination and in changing attitudes about the participation of women and men in a range of areas of public life.

The Sex Discrimination Act, similar to other antidiscrimination laws, has been an important mechanism in changing community perceptions and setting appropriate standards to recognise that men and women should be able to fully participate in the social, economic and public life of Australian society. Notably, the bill contains two measures: (1) amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 to strengthen protections in the legislation and, (2) amendments to the Age Discrimination Act 2004 to establish an Age Discrimination Commissioner in the Australian Human Rights Commission. These amendments give effect to recommendations of the 2008 report of the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, Inquiry into the effectiveness of the Sex Discrimination Act in eliminating discrimination and promoting gender equality. The amendments in this bill address issues of significant community concern by strengthening protections for Australians in the workplace, including workers with family responsibilities, as well as providing specific protections for women who are breastfeeding.

The coalition has a history of supporting equality in the workplace. Successfully balancing paid work with family responsibilities remains a major challenge for a large number of Australians. With women continuing to carry the majority of Australia’s unpaid caring work, creating workplaces that support women and men to balance paid work and share caring responsibilities is critical to achieving gender equality. The coalition’s paid parental leave scheme alleviates the burden of the hardest choice that women in the workplace are forced to make. The decision to sacrifice financial security to have a child is made easier by our plan to extend the period of leave and have it paid at the same level as the individual’s income. The coalition recognises that the family is the foundation of our society. Through our policies, we aim to give families every opportunity to find a harmonious balance between work and family life.

I will turn now to the provisions in the bill. The bill proposes to make four substantive amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act: to extend the act to ensure equal protection for men as well as women; to broaden the prohibition on discrimination on the grounds of family responsibilities to include indirect discrimination against both men and women in all areas of their work; to establish breastfeeding as a separate ground of discrimination; and to strengthen the protections against sexual harassment in workplaces and schools to also include cyberbullying and electronic harassment.

The amendments to the Age Discrimination Act provide for the establishment of an Age Discrimination Commissioner in the Australian Human Rights Commission. This is intended to reflect the increasing needs of an ageing population and to address the factors that contribute to age discrimination in the workplace and community. To date, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, has had responsibility for age discrimination issues. The coalition would like to acknowledge her good work and strong advocacy in this area. Commissioner Broderick said in a media release on 1 October this year:

It is vital that we recognise age discrimination for what it is—something that stereotypes people, strips them of their individuality, robs them of choice and control and prevents them from being assessed on the basis of merit. Ultimately, age discrimination—like any form of discrimination—will result in less diversity in our workplaces.

Australia’s ageing population has highlighted the need for a dedicated commissioner to promote respect and fairness and to tackle the attitudes and stereotypes that can contribute to age discrimination.

This bill has already been referred to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee, and the coalition reserves the right to move amendments pending the outcome of the committee’s report. There are certainly some things within the bill that we believe require further illumination, in particular the inclusion of relevant international instruments—a very extensive number of international instruments. We are very keen to find out exactly what that means and exactly how that might work within Australian law. Those are the sorts of issues that we will be particularly keen for the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee to inquire into and we will also be keen for them to highlight what is actually going to happen when all of these extensive international instruments are incorporated within this act. On those grounds we support in principle this bill but we reserve our right to make changes in the Senate based on the outcome of that committee report.