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Monday, 21 March 2011
Page: 1251

Senator CAROL BROWN (1:31 PM) —I rise to make my contribution on the Sex and Age Discrimination Legislation Amendment Bill 2010. The bill we are debating today amends the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 to strengthen protections against sexual harassment, establish breastfeeding as a separate ground of discrimination and extend protections against discrimination in work on the ground of family responsibilities.

As the explanatory memorandum sets out, the Sex Discrimination Act, which has been in place for over 25 years, has been an important tool in addressing discrimination and changing attitudes about the participation of women and men in a range of areas of public life. The Sex Discrimination Act, like other antidiscrimination laws, has been an important mechanism in changing community perceptions and providing protection for men and women so they can fully participate in the social, economic and public life of Australian society.

This bill broadens the constitutional basis of the Sex Discrimination Act to provide equal protection for women and men from sex discrimination. As I begin my contribution today I, firstly, welcome the support of those opposite for this important piece of legislation. To have their support for this important piece of legislation is something that all Australians will be happy to hear. Indeed, all Australians will be happy that both sides of politics are sending a message that discrimination will not be tolerated in a modern Australian society. This bill forms part of the Gillard Labor government’s commitment to support working families by placing adequate protections in the workplace. As the Attorney-General, the Hon. Robert McClelland, pointed out:

We hope that this does lead to a cultural change to recognise the idea of a fair go for all regardless of sex, age or family responsibilities or any other circumstances.

The bill will enhance protections against discrimination by broadening the prohibition on discrimination on the grounds of family responsibilities beyond termination of employment. Protections will be expanded to now include other forms of direct and indirect discrimination, and discrimination in all areas of work.

It will also give the Australian Human Rights Commission the power, with the leave of the court, to intervene in proceedings relating to discrimination on the grounds of family responsibilities at a time when it is becoming more common for men to seek special arrangements with respect to their jobs to play a more active role in child-rearing arrangements. This bill gives both men and women the opportunity to play an active role in raising children, without the fear of reprisal or discrimination from their employer. This amendment to the act will help to break down the barriers and provide parents with an increased number of options when determining working arrangements after the birth of a child.

This amending legislation is particularly important as it comes on the back of our historic paid parental leave scheme, which, for the first time, will provide parents with government funded paid parental leave. Also for the first time, the bill will also make breastfeeding a separate ground of discrimination, which I am pleased has finally been implemented. It means that women can undertake their child-rearing duties without fear of reprisal or discrimination. The changes to the act will also ensure that men and women receive equal protection from sex discrimination in the workplace, at school and in the wider community.

It will also strengthen the act to provide greater protection for men and women from sexual harassment. The Minister for Employment Participation and Childcare and the Minister for the Status of Women, the Hon. Kate Ellis MP, has stated that the bill:

… recognises that sexual harassment does take place far too often within Australian workplaces but that there are also changing forms of harassment with the advent of new technologies.

This bill will make amendments to extend protection against sexual harassment to students, regardless of their age. It will remove the requirement that the person responsible for the harassment must be at the same educational institute as the victim of the harassment. It will protect works from sexual harassment by customers, clients and other persons with whom they come into contact in connection with their work. The bill will also amend the test for sexual harassment so that harassment occurs if a reasonable person would anticipate the possibility that the person harassed would be offended, humiliated or intimidated.

The bill also includes amendments to establish for the first time at a federal level the position of a stand-alone Age Discrimination Commissioner. This position will be located within the Australian Human Rights Commission. Our moves to establish a dedicated Age Discrimination Commissioner is recognition of the changing demographics in Australian society as well as of the need to provide protection to our senior Australians. This bill is another step in providing a fair and equitable Australia, no matter what a person’s age or sexual orientation may be. The Age Discrimination Commissioner will have the responsibility of advocating on behalf of all Australians who face age discrimination no matter what their age is, whether they are young or old. This bill builds upon the Labor government’s Same-Sex Relationships (Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws—General Law Reform) Act 2008, which made changes to the Commonwealth law to ensure that people were not discriminated against because of their sexuality. The changes were implemented and allowed same-sex couples the same access as heterosexual couples to Commonwealth superannuation, child support, the PBS safety net and the Medicare safety net, as well as to many other areas of common law.

While we have undertaken these important reforms for same-sex couples as part of Commonwealth law and strengthened the Sex Discrimination Act as part of the legislation we are debating here today, we recognise that there is still more work to be done. As a part of their inquiry into the bill, the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee made a number of recommendations which have implications for other areas of federal antidiscrimination law. The Attorney-General has made it clear that the government will address these recommendations as part of the work on Australia’s human rights framework to streamline federal antidiscrimination legislation into a single consolidated, comprehensive act.

In conclusion, I look forward to working as part of the Labor government to provide for people an increased protection against discrimination. The bill implements important reforms in the areas of age and sex discrimination. It will help deliver conditions to create a more equitable and productive workforce, which is in the best interests of all Australians. These are reforms which highlight the government’s strong commitment to fostering an inclusive Australia. The bill will also ensure that our antidiscrimination laws are the most appropriate, by bringing them into the 21st century. The government is serious about discrimination. That is why we are making these changes to the Sex Discrimination Act as well as continuing our work on Australia’s human rights framework. I commend the bill to the chamber.