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Thursday, 28 October 2010
Page: 2001

Mr NEUMANN (10:09 AM) —I speak in support of the Sex and Age Discrimination Legislation Amendment Bill 2010. This bill has two aspects: the second aspect is the creation of a dedicated Age Discrimination Commissioner in the Australian Human Rights Commission; the first aspect deals with protections against sexual discrimination and sexual harassment by amending the Sex Discrimination Act 1984. Since we came into office, we have made significant improvements with respect to aged care in this country. For a long time aged care languished as almost the Northern Ireland of Australian politics, where coalition members were appointed either to get a promotion or to be sent to political Siberia for their sins. We have not adopted that attitude with respect to aged care in this country. We have committed about $44 billion over four years to aged-care funding and changed the funding methodology for residential aged-care premises and providers to bring in a new system called ACFI, which made a big difference in the lives of people in the area. I also applaud the nurses union for their wonderful commitment to aged care, particularly to justice for nurses and other workers in the aged-care sector. We have made a big difference in aged care and there is a lot more to do.

One of the things we did when we came to office was appoint our first Ambassador for Ageing, Noeline Brown. This was an important improvement because it said something about what we felt about aged care in this country. We face an enormous challenge in Australia with respect to adequate provision for our elderly. The cost to the taxpayer will be enormous, but how we treat our senior citizens in the years ahead will say a lot about us as a country. The third Intergenerational report outlined significant challenges for us. By 2050 there will be 2.7 Australians for every Australian living over the age of 65 years. This is an enormous challenge. In the 1970s it was about seven Australians; now it is about five. This will be an enormous cost not just to the health and hospital system but to the Department of Health and Ageing and FaHCSIA, because a lot of the assistance we give our senior citizens through funding for carers comes through that department.

I am pleased to see the dedicated position of an Age Discrimination Commissioner in the Human Rights Commission. I think that is important. I think it is extremely timely. I think it says that we treat discrimination on the basis of age seriously. An advocate, someone to turn to, someone to be there to stand up and to listen to people in the aged-care sector and someone to be a voice for them, is important not just as an ambassador but also as an honest broker. The ageing population in this country has highlighted the need for a dedicated commissioner to engage with residential aged-care providers, to advocate on behalf of the aged and to address discrimination in the workforce. As we get older, more and more people of an age at which our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents would have thought about retiring will continue to work. As we get older, as medicine improves and as the health and hospital system improves, they will work for more years. This is an important reform and it is very warmly welcomed.

The other area of discrimination that I think is most pernicious in our society is the area of sexual discrimination and sexual harassment. About one in three Australian women will suffer physical violence in their lifetimes. In many cases these people will suffer it in their workplaces. Almost one in five Australian women will suffer sexual violence. The impact on our community and our workplaces is simply immense. I commend the government for their commitment to addressing this problem, which was made clear in the National plan to reduce violence against women: immediate government actions April 2009.

We know that 85 to 90 per cent of victims of domestic violence are women, usually assaulted by their male partners. Domestic violence takes many forms. It can be simply a look, a gesture, a phone call, the destruction of property, the physical punching of walls, the use of an implement, cruelty to domestic pets or the showing of a weapon. It takes many guises and has many disguises. Verbal abuse to children is a form of domestic violence. So too are threats to commit suicide, name-calling, ridicule, social abuse and isolation, emotional abuse, stalking, controlling behaviours—so not just the act of sexual violence, which simply is a matter of sexual oppression, power and control. So making a stand against sexual harassment and sexual discrimination in the workplace and strengthening the protections—as this legislation does—are very important. It sends a message that we will not tolerate this, that this is a national tragedy and a disgrace and that we should stand up against the perpetrators of such horrendous deeds, not just in their homes but in the workplaces of Australians.

Nearly one in five complaints received by the Australian Human Rights Commission under the Sex Discrimination Act relate to sexual harassment, and the vast majority of those take place in the workplace, according to complaints data from the Human Rights Commission. It is very sad that more than one in 10 Australians have witnessed sexual harassment in the workplace in the last five years, according to the commission’s Sexual harassment: serious business report. 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—another tragedy. We need to support those who feel that they have been sexually harassed and indeed have been sexually harassed.

There are other aspects of this legislation in terms of amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act. They provide equal protection for men and women. They broaden the prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of family responsibilities to provide equal protection against discrimination, including indirect discrimination, for both men and women in all forms of work. Family responsibilities these days are different from what happened many years ago and what was the perception of the norm in our Australian community, so we are committed to supporting families in any way that we can, to making sure that there are adequate protections in place and to allowing a greater degree of structural flexibility and domestic malleability in people’s arrangements in their homes and workplaces.

I am pleased with the third aspect of the amendments in this legislation: to establish breastfeeding as a separate ground of discrimination, rather than as a subset of sex discrimination. This comes from a recommendation from a committee. We know, as previous speakers have talked about, of the fact that there was an inquiry by the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs into this particular matter and that the committee tabled a report entitled Inquiry into the effectiveness of the Sex Discrimination Act in eliminating discrimination and promoting gender equality. The government’s response to that report of 12 December 2008 was tabled on 4 May 2010 and, as a result of that government response, we have put forward legislation. That report specifically recommended that breastfeeding be noted by way of legislation as a specific ground of discrimination. I am pleased that the government has taken up the mantle and put this amendment in the legislation.

I did mention before the fact that there are strengthening provisions as to sexual harassment in workplaces and schools. We have seen some notorious cases in the media recently, and I will not discuss or go into those, but sexual harassment takes many forms. It can be simply physical, but one of the most serious aspects of sexual discrimination and of sexual harassment in particular concerns areas of cyberbullying. With the proliferation of the internet we have seen more and more of that happening, with Facebook and other forms of internet media becoming an electronic means by which sexual harassment continues.

These amendments are particularly important because they protect the lives of women at home and in the workplace. Also they stand up for the rights of our senior citizens and they make a very clear statement that we in this parliament are against all forms of sexual harassment and sexual discrimination, whether at home or in the workplace and so throughout our community, in any organisation or in any context. These things must be stamped out. We need to say that these things are totally unacceptable in the Australia of the 21st century.