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Wednesday, 11 May 2011
Page: 2333

Senator FEENEY (VictoriaParliamentary Secretary for Defence) (18:02): I thank honourable senators for their contributions to the debate on the Sex and Age Discrimination Legislation Amendment Bill 2010. The bill will make important amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act to better protect both women and men from discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace, in schools and in the community at large. In particular, the bill will ensure the act provides equal protection to women and men. It will also broaden the prohibition on discrimination on the grounds of family responsibilities to provide equal protection from discrimination, including indirect discrimination, to both men and women in all areas of work. It will also establish breastfeeding as a separate ground of discrimination rather than as a subset of sex discrimination. Finally, it will strengthen the protections against sexual harassment in workplaces and schools.

The amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act contained in this bill implements in part the government's response to the 2008 report of the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs into the effectiveness of the Sex Discrimination Act—and what a fine and upstanding report that is indeed, Acting Deputy President Crossin. Other recommendations will be considered as part of the government's broader review of Commonwealth antidiscrimination laws.

The bill also includes historic amendments to the Age Discrimination Act to establish the position of Age Discrimina­tion Commissioner within the Australian Human Rights Commission. There is a need for a dedicated commissioner to engage with stakeholders including industry and community representatives, to address discrimination in the workplace and in the community, to promote respect and fairness and to tackle the attitudes and stereotypes that can and do contribute to age discrimination.

The government has committed additional funding of $5.7 million to the Australian Human Rights Commission for the appointment of a new Age Discrimination Commissioner and a stand-alone Race Discrimination Commissioner, which will mean that once again we will have stand-alone race, sex, age and disability dis­crimination commissioners. This will ensure that the Australian Human Rights Com­mission continues to play a leading role in the protection and promotion of human rights, including their valuable public education role and advocacy for vulnerable members of our community. Appointment processes are currently underway and the new commissioners are expected to commence their duties on 1 July 2011.

I thank the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee for its report on this bill. In its report the committee recommended that the explanatory memorandum be revised to specifically recognise the role of the Age Discrimination Commissioner in protecting and promoting the rights of younger Australians. I would like to take this opportunity to address the committee's recommendation and in particular confirm that the new Age Discrimination Com­missioner will be an advocate for all Australians who are susceptible to age discrimination, regardless of their age. This could include children, teenagers, retirees, mature Australians and everyone in between. A specific area which the new commissioner will focus on is the need to address issues in employment against older workers, which continues to be the most common cause for complaint under the Age Discrimination Act.

The committee also recommended that the government consider the outstanding recommendations in the committee's 2008 report on the effectiveness of the Sex Discrimination Act as part of the review of antidiscrimination laws under Australia's human rights framework. I would like to reiterate that the government will and, indeed, is doing something. The review and consolidation of federal antidiscrimination legislation into a single act is underway and the government will be undertaking public consultations in 2011.

The committee also considered the inclusion in the bill of an exemption from marital status discrimination for state and territory laws relating to the legal process for changing a person's sex on the births, deaths and marriages register. The exemption has been included to maintain the existing policy position that the registration of change of sex is a matter for states and territories.

I will just make a few remarks concerning the proposed opposition amendments. Senator Brandis has foreshadowed that he will be moving opposition amendments to the bill during the committee stage. I will address each of the proposed amendments in more detail during that stage, but let me now say that the government will be opposing each of these amendments. I would also like to note at this stage that the government does not agree with the opposition's character­isation of the amendments contained in the bill.

In conclusion, this bill will implement important reforms in the areas of age and sex discrimination. These reforms are but one part of the government's strong and continuing commitment to fostering an inclusive Australia and ensuring our antidiscrimination laws are relevant to both now and into the future. I commend the bill to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.