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Wednesday, 11 May 2011
Page: 2331

Senator WORTLEY (South Australia) (17:55): I rise this evening to address the Sex and Age Discrimination Legislation Amendment Bill 2010. The bill before us is a product of an important election com­mitment. It represents additional strength­ening of protections against sex and age discrimination. Our Sex Discrimination Act, now more than a quarter of a century old, realised our obligations as a ratifying party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. It encompasses, too, parts of the ILO Convention 156 which refers specifically to those workers who have family respon­sibilities.

We all know that the act's overriding intention is to promote equality between men and women. It eliminates discrimination on the basis of gender, marital status, pregnancy, and family responsibilities in the context of unlawful dismissal. It aims to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace, in education, and in the provision of accommodation, goods and services. The Sex Discrimination Act has proved its worth over more than 25 years of profound social and economic change in our country.

The Age Discrimination Act 2004 is an equally worthy adjunct. Its aim is to ensure that a person's age does not result in less favourable treatment in the areas of employment, education, or the provision of goods, services or Commonwealth programs. The act also protects those whose age might otherwise disadvantage them. Individually and together, these acts have assisted and protected Australians—both women and men—in all walks of life and enabled them to participate fully in our social, public and economic environments.

I turn to the bill before us. It will augment the provisions of the existing Sex Discrimination Act 1984 by strengthening protections against sex discrimination and sexual harassment, and it will establish the position of an Age Discrimination Com­missioner in the Australian Human Rights Commission to make certain the proposition that all citizens, whatever their age, are able to participate in Australian society. The amendments intended to improve protection against sex discrimin­ation and sexual harassment are just one element of the government's response to the inquiry of our Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee into the effectiveness of the Sex Dis­crimination Act in eliminating discrimination and promoting gender equality.

This bill represents four strategic amendments to the present sex discrimin­ation legislation. No. 1, it will make certain that the act provides equal protection to both women and men. No. 2, it will enlarge the ambit of the prohibition on discrimination with regard to family responsibilities. This would ensure equivalent protection from discrimination to both men and women in every sphere of endeavour. This prohibition will of course encompass indirect discrimination as well.

Unlike those opposite, our Labor government will never treat Australian workers and working families with disdain, as units in an economic equation that takes no account of personal circumstances or personal need. We are committed to supporting our people, to enhancing productivity, to allowing workplace flexibility, and to underpinning our com­petitive edge. For these reasons, the third amendment will establish discrimination with regard to breastfeeding as a distinct and separate ground of discrimination rather than as an element of sex discrimination. And No. 4 will strengthen the protections against sexual harassment in schools and workplaces.

Court cases featured in the news over the last 12 months or so have highlighted the fact that sexual harassment continues to be a significant problem in the workplace. profile of our Sex Discrimination Commissioner in a recent edition of Fairfax's Sydney Magazine indicated her ongoing concern with this matter and re-emphasised the need 'to focus on the alleged behaviour and whether such a thing could happen where we work', rather than on the appearance of the complainant or the quantum of the com­pensation sought. It is incumbent upon us as legislators to ensure that the message is loud and clear: sexual harassment—against women or men—will not be tolerated. I fully support these amendments, and turn now with equal enthusiasm to those related to the Age Discrimination Act.

These amendments will establish and administratively support the position of Age Discrimination Commissioner within the Australian Human Rights Commission. This is a timely initiative, and one which will simultaneously provide a specific advocate for the rights of mature Australians in the workforce and elsewhere and enable our Sex Discrimination Commissioner, who has thus far been responsible for both areas, to focus specifically on sex discrimination matters.

It is undoubtedly the case that we have an ageing demographic. Our forward planning has highlighted the requirement for a dedicated role in age discrimination matters: to engage with employers, employees and communities; to address workplace and community age discrimination; to educate people about the values of fairness and respect; and to alleviate the attitudes and the stereotypes that often, regrettably, hurt our older people and dissuade or prevent their full engagement. Our mature citizens, our mature workers, our mature carers and volunteers all represent invaluable skills and resources and provide invaluable services. They are our social memory and, increasingly, often our corporate memory.

The bill we discuss today provides, through its amendments to the act, the mechanism for the appointment of the new Age Discrimination Commissioner, whose term is scheduled to begin from July this year, and the terms and conditions of his or her employment. By virtue too of the amendments, the commissioner will be a member of the commission and have the same advocacy powers as his or her fellow commissioners.

These amendments will: impact positively on and strengthen protections for working families by expanding the prohibition of discrimination for both men and women on the ground of family responsibilities; send a strong message that sexual harassment is unacceptable anywhere, including in the workplace; and confront the incidence of age discrimination in the workplace and in the broader community. They will contribute also to the ongoing cultural change that consequently improves understanding and cooperation and enhances the dignity of and respect for all of our people, whatever their stage of life. I commend the Sex and Age Discrimination Legislation Amendment Bill 2010.