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Thursday, 26 February 1987
Page: 687

Senator PETER BAUME(1.01) —Mr Deputy President, today I want to raise a serious case of sexual harassment, in this case related to unwanted and repeated remarks within employment-actually Commonwealth employment. The victim was an operator working in a community youth support scheme and was one of my constituents. She failed to obtain relief even though she sought it through all the mechanisms established by the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women (Senator Ryan) and the suggestions made were of a personal, aggressive, repeated and sexual nature. It was really quite a serious and upsetting situation. Such harassment is, of course, part of a pattern of behaviour that is seen too often, one that I think no one in this Parliament would condone. It is one that members of the Opposition, the Government, indeed all parties, would refuse to tolerate when visited on their constituents. It is one about which we will always speak out in the Parliament. The Government has made great play of the importance of the Sex Discrimination Act. Senator Ryan claimed quite recently that the Act does offer protection to victims of discrimination. Perhaps it offers some protection but it contains deficiencies and my constituent, Mrs Marie Wharton, who lives in the Illawarra and worked at the Warilla CYSS, has failed to obtain relief. I remind the Senate, Mr Deputy President, that in the final report of the Human Rights Commission, Commissioner Pamela O'Neill of the Sex Discrimination Commission claimed:

Under the inspiring leadership of Dame Roma Mitchell, the Human Rights Commission has established the Sex Discrimination Act as an effective opponent of discrimination.

But the sexual harassment and discrimination experienced by my constituent, Mrs Marie Wharton, makes these words sound so hollow. It is people like her who really have to be able to obtain protection and relief if the Act is to work properly and be something other than mere symbolism.

Mrs Wharton first approached me on 17 December 1986. She came to ask for help because I was the Opposition spokesman on matters relating to the status of women. She claimed to have suffered sexual harassment and discrimination while working as an employee of Warilla CYSS which, I remind the Senate, is an agency funded by and part of the apparatus of government-at this stage, the Labor Government. After the events occurred and before Mrs Wharton came to me, she first quite properly raised the substance of the matter with the management committee of the Warilla CYSS. She raised it then with the Sex Discrimination Commissioner and, finally, with the Human Rights Commission. She sought several things. She sought recognition that sexual harassment and discrimination had occurred. She sought an apology from a Mr Bill Kerr, the person against whom the complaint was made. She sought compensation for the time during which she had been off work without pay pending resolution of the matter. They are not unreasonable things to have sought.

Senator Ryan —I have to leave the chamber now but I would just like to say by way of interjection that I will take the record of what Senator Peter Baume is saying and make sure that the Human Rights Commission looks at the matter again.

Senator PETER BAUME —I thank the Minister for her interjection. The response of the management committee of Warilla CYSS to the complaint made by Mrs Wharton was, first, to play the matter down-to try to ignore it-and then when she insisted that there was a problem and action should be taken, to put her off without pay. She was laid off from her job for about a year.

The Sex Discrimination Commissioner did attempt to conciliate the matter but failed because the person against whom the complaint was laid, Mr Kerr, was not prepared to sign any statement admitting that harassment or discrimination had occurred, and apologise for it. Therefore the matter went before the Human Rights Commission. Mrs Wharton was eventually pressured-a settlement was made by her legal representatives-into settling the matter because, she was told, the Commission was imminently to be wound up and that otherwise the matter would go round all over again and might never be determined. She was told that there was a lack of time in which to hear the matter. Honourable senators will recall that the Human Rights Commission was indeed wound up. The events before the Commission took place shortly before that happened.

I want to make two points about the settlement. Firstly, I am advised that one of the main reasons why time was not available to hear the matter was that there was a deliberate strategy on the part of the Federal Department of Employment and Industrial Relations and its lawyers to take technical legal points repeatedly to prevent the substance of the matter being dealt with. It was delayed and delayed because of intervention by this Labor Government's own lawyers from the Department of Employment and Industrial Relations, intervention which made it almost impossible for Mrs Wharton to have her case dealt with. The length of time that it would have taken to resolve these points was a factor in preventing a hearing taking place when there was still time for the Commission to deal with it other than in a hurried way. So it is not good enough for Senator Ryan to put through the Parliament a Sex Discrimination Act to champion women's rights if her colleague the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations, Mr Willis, administers a department whose lawyers do their best to frustrate and thwart the operation of the Act when people who have been harassed seek relief and the enforcement of the rights so provided.

The second point that I want to make is that I can understand why Mrs Wharton finds the settlement unsatisfactory. The supposed admission and apology obtained were so weak as to be meaningless. I will not read the relevant part but it is a meaningless statement which does not in fact acknowledge that the harassment took place. That is the central point that she wants recognised. I am surprised that the Chairman of the Human Rights Commission, Dame Roma Mitchell, could say of the settlement:

The mark of a good settlement often is that nobody is completely satisfied that right has been done. I have got no doubt this is a good settlement on that basis.

I wonder about the usefulness of having a Human Rights Commission if this is how it performs-if it seeks, as a good settlement, one that leaves nobody completely satisfied that right has been done. I have looked as much as I have been able at the primary material available. It indicates that a Mr Kerr did repeatedly harass Mrs Wharton. In that case I cannot accept that the settlement reached is either reasonable, fair or adequate. In my view a good settlement should resolve a matter in favour of the person who is in the right. The Commission should have worked towards such a settlement. Instead Mr Kerr seems to have escaped without rebuke or loss of pay while Mrs Wharton has had a year off work and much stress, strain and pressure because of the harassment described. Her life has been greatly disturbed.

I now want to detail the harassment involved to set on the public record what Mrs Wharton has had to endure and the inadequate way in which the Department of Employment and Industrial Relations has responded-in fact, the way in which it has sought to frustrate any attempt to get relief. The information that I have obtained clearly shows that a Mr Kerr, who worked at the Warilla CYSS, did harass and discriminate against Mrs Wharton. If the Sex Discrimination Act is to mean anything at all Mr Kerr should have been made to admit this harassment and required to apologise for it. Mrs Wharton had to step down from her job in early 1985 after she complained about the harassment, which had intensified during the previous year, 1984. Although Mrs Wharton was not physically harassed, touched or worried in that way, she experienced the sort of oral harassment that some men still feel is fair play and believe that they can subject women to. It is very unpleasant; it is the sort of thing which should be stamped out if women are to get a fair go in the work place. I have a detailed statement from Mrs Wharton setting out the type of discrimination and harassment that she has experienced. I have supporting statements from several of her co-workers, Phyllis Jean King, Catherine Elizabeth Allen and Kathleen Lorraine Perry, which demonstrate the type of harassment that was undertaken by Bill Kerr. I have also obtained some very good character references concerning Mrs Wharton. I have met her on several occasions. I have no doubt that she is a person of good character and I must say that she is a very credible person. I believe that she is telling me the truth.

In her statement Mrs Wharton alleges that Mr Kerr regularly, not once but regularly, made the following kinds of statements to her: `Do you have orgasms?'-I might interpolate that that is none of his business; `You are here on your own with two men; we could rape you'; `Was having a baby like having a giant orgasm?'; `Don't you fancy sex with someone else or don't you fancy a bit on the side?'. In addition, she refers to Mr Kerr's action in putting certain X-rated videos on in front of several of the employees. I will not set out the details of what some of those X-rated videos included. There are many other examples in her statement of the behaviour which took place in the Warilla CYSS. They do represent the form of harassment and discrimination that was directed towards the female workers of that organisation. In a statement of which I have a copy Mrs Phyllis Jean King said this about Bill Kerr:

I think he was preoccupied by sex. He constantly talked about sex. I accept that some talk about sex can be inoffensive but most of what he said was offensive.

Bill often said to me words to the following effect: `Do you play around, Jean?'

Her statement goes on to corroborate many of the other accusations made by Mrs Wharton. The statement of Catherine Elizabeth Allen makes the following points about Mr Bill Kerr and his actions:

Bill made a lot of offensive comments to me. He asked questions about sex that other people would not ask. I heard Bill make a few sexual remarks to Marie'-

that is Mrs Wharton-

but I cannot remember them.

Kathleen Lorraine Perry says in her statement about Bill Kerr:

Bill has asked me questions of a sexual nature on about six occasions since I have been at the centre. He said words of the following effect to me: `Do you get bored being with one fellow all these years?'.

Having read these statements about Mrs Wharton's good character, my personal conclusion is that she was harassed, that she has been discriminated against by Mr Kerr in the way she claimed and that she has failed to obtain relief by following the procedures laid down under the Sex Discrimination Act; further, that this is due, at least in part, to the resistance and opposition which came from within the Federal department concerned, which did its best to thwart the investigation and resolution of this matter.

I am disappointed that mechanisms such as those provided under the Act, mechanisms such as recourse to the Sex Discrimination Commissioner and the Human Rights Commission, have not given Mrs Wharton the relief to which I believe she is entitled. She has not received an apology; she has been offered but has not yet received compensation. Even so there has not been any adequate compensation for being put off work as a result of complaints that she made about what had happened to her. I am grateful to Senator Ryan for her interjection to the effect that she will look into this matter. I believe that this person has not been treated fairly. The Whartons have used their life savings to meet the legal expenses associated with having this matter heard. The nervous stress has been continuous and extreme. Mrs Wharton's employment has been jeopardised. There has been much publicity in the Illawarra region, a lot of it of a fairly adverse nature and not helpful to her. All she wants is that those people among whom she lives should know that her complaint was well based, was justified, that she was harassed and is entitled to an apology. I have given the Senate her account and that of several of her co-workers. I would say in conclusion that I have also met Mr Wharton. It is very good to see a couple offering mutual support as they have done. He has stood by her throughout. It is a pity that the Department did not see its way clear to do its duty in this matter as it should have done.