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Wednesday, 28 November 2012
Page: 13841

Ms O'NEILL (Robertson) (11:39): I rise to speak on what I consider will be one of the very important pieces of work undertaken by any committee in this parliament, this 43rd Parliament. I want to acknowledge the vision, the understanding and the leadership of the minister for bringing this matter to our committee to work on. I particularly want to acknowledge the leadership, the dedication, the determination and the compassion of the member for Kingston, who is the chair, and did an outstanding job in hearing, with great compassion, stories of incredible sadness about people had been impacted by bullying. In this speech, I want, as much possible, to give voice in Hansard to the voices that we heard as were undertaking this work around the country.

To commence with, I would like to put on the record a comment that came from a person with the initials CP, who said:

For those who have not personally experienced bullying or victimisation in the workplace, the health consequences can sometimes be difficult to appreciate. The reality is that for almost all of us, our work is the primary source of our income and consequently the linchpin sustaining most of our aspirations as well as the things we enjoy in our everyday lives. When we are personally denigrated in the workplace on a systematic basis and our key source of income is threatened, the consequences can be devastating. Like a cancer, the experience can seep into every facet of ones life and cause ongoing problems including anxiety, frustration, depressed mood, and difficulty relating to other people in a normal way. The primary cause of the problem is the power imbalance between the bully and the victim, with the latter typically feeling powerless to do anything about the behaviour due to reliance on the income from his or her job, or perhaps a desire for a favourable reference.

Now that is a pretty good explanation of the challenge that really faces people. Power and the inequality and the corrupting potential of power, are at the heart of this inquiry. It is time that we addressed this concern. There is an incredible cost. The cost in human life is the one I want to prioritise first.

In my speech today, I want to acknowledge the contribution of Damian and Rae Panlock, who spoke so eloquently and acted so passionately to make sure that we understand what happened when they lost their beautiful daughter, Brodie Panlock, when she was unable to manage the power that was being used against her in the workplace as a 19-year-old waitress and to put Mrs Panlock'swords on the record here today. Speaking to us in Melbourne, of Brodie she said:

She was a very strong person. I think I have said it a few times, but she used to soldier on and get over whatever was going on, but the impact was too much. It was not just one person it was four men, the owner and three individuals. They just kept on pursuing her. This is the other thing, that people who worked there, other than these men, did try but they did not try enough. A lot of them said it in the court case, they just wished they had done more.

This is an opportunity for us as a parliament to begin to make recommendations that will bring about changes where we all can do more. We have just had White Ribbon Day, which I notice has been warmly embraced by members of this House and out in the community, where we talk about the prevention of violence. Bullying is a form of violence in its own way, and we need to do the same sorts of things about bullying in the workplace that we are proposing to do in the prevention of domestic violence. We need to say we cannot accept it, we will not tolerate it and we will not sit silently watching it and allowing it to go on. How prevalent is this? According to the assistant commissioner of the Productivity Commission, it is probably higher than 15 per cent. Indeed Professor Maryam Omari said that we are not really capturing the full rate of workplace bullying. She estimated that it could be more than 22 per cent to 33 per cent. What does it cost us, apart from the loss of life of people who were unable to face going to work and tragically took their own life, as Brodie Panlock did? The practical costs to the economy are really very significant. The Productivity Commission estimated that workplace bullying costs the Australian economy between $6 billion and $36 billion every year. Let's say that slowly, because we say those numbers and they disappear into the ether: according to the Productivity Commission, the cost is somewhere between $6 billion and $36 billion. When I spoke to a school group recently and mentioned those numbers, I was asked a very incisive question by a 16- or 17-year-old young man from St Edward's College at East Gosford: 'How come you don't know what the cost is? How can there be such a variance between $6 billion and $36 billion?' That points to another issue: bullying has not been on our radar to a sufficient degree so that we have powerful and accurate data about what the cost is. Even if it is at the lower end, at $6 billion, it has a very significant impact on the Australian economy.

Before I address a number of items in each of the chapters, I want to respond to some of the things that the member for Aston said. Sadly, we were unable to reach complete agreement on this report, despite the fact that the committee worked very well together. I was disappointed in the end that there were dissenting remarks. The member for Aston said that it is easy to see what is wrong with a physical problem in a workplace and it is hard to see what is wrong with bullying in a workplace. I would argue that it is hard to see if you are not looking. The reality is that a lot of people have been turning a blind eye to the impact of bullying at the workplace for far too long.

The member for Aston made the point that he fears inflexible compliance regimes. I absolutely agree that businesses that understand the power of having an enabled, healthy and sustainable workplace—where people go every day and know they will go home feeling at least as well as they did when they got to work and their workplace will not have caused them incredible distress of the kind that I have already put on the record this morning—have a great success model and will be already attending to many of the issues that have been highlighted in this report. Sadly, as we have found with OH&S laws that deal with practical unsafe workplaces, there are employers who will exploit every last drop of sweat and tears, and sadly in some cases blood, from their workers because they just do not see them as people; they see them as units of labour. It is for those employers—thankfully, fewer in number than the great employers across most of the nation—that we do need strong legislation, as I hope will be recommended as a consequence of the inquiry and the report that has been tabled in parliament.

Each of the chapters, in the way in which this report has been constructed, commences with a few statements from key people who gave evidence to the committee. In the time remaining, I will put some of those on the record because I think they give a flavour of what the committee understood and what this report contains. The first chapter is entitled 'Workplace bullying: we just want it to stop'. From a person with the initials SF, we heard:

Bullying undermines the victim's deepest sense of self, of who they are. As adults we think we have figured out who we are, and so to have that completely undermined and stripped away is utterly crippling and that is why it is so destructive.

That is a very powerful voice that could not be more eloquent in explaining why bullying in the workplace must stop. Where it is prevalent, it needs to be addressed, identified and given an appropriate response, if necessary by the force of legislation, because there will be people who can be recalcitrant. Chapter 2 addresses the legislative and regulatory frameworks. Sadly, as was put here by Diversity Council Australia, workplace bullying is an issue that is poorly understood in the community. The variety of approaches and definitions in different jurisdictions makes it difficult for individual employers and workers to understand their rights and responsibilities. Further, the overlap of the distinction between workplace bullying, employment law and unlawful discrimination adds to that complexity. Several of the recommendations are to do with the complexity of the legislative framework as it currently stands and really are a call to make changes to make it simpler and clearer that workplace bullying is a workplace issue that must be addressed and can be addressed in a fairly simple way by attending to the legislative instruments.

Chapter 3, From legislation to implementation, commences with a comment from one of our most amazing witnesses, Dr Carlo Caponecchia, who said:

[Workplace bullying] is a systemic problem. It is about individuals in work systems rather than just an interpersonal relationship. That is a big misconception in this area.

It disappoints me to hear some of the comments this morning that this is really just about communication problems. There are problems that are much bigger than that, and Dr Caponecchia's evidence to the committee explained that quite significantly.

I also want to put on the record the sense that I have that in a time of performativity we indicate what matters to us by what it is that we measure. If we are going to have a look at workplace bullying we really need to think about that becoming a part of the measurement in HR, rather than having the whole thing hobbled together in some sort of general statement of performance. We need to look at what is happening with bullying and we need to identify that workplaces that are low in bullying are more productive, and that we measure that, because it is an advantage to the economy and it is certainly an advantage to the people who can avoid bullying.

Chapter 4, entitled Workplace cultures, starts to get to the heart of that issue. From Ms Michele Grow, director of Davidson Trahaire Corpsych, we have the comment:

A healthy and respectful culture is a critical part of the solution.

That is, it is the solution to dealing with bullying. Also, from the National Network of Working Women's Centres we have the comment:

Policies and procedures on their own do not prevent or address bullying. Appropriate leadership that demonstrates skills and confidence in addressing this issue are also required. High level commitment to making positive changes has a big influence on the culture of workplaces.

Just this morning I noticed Elizabeth Broderick on the television speaking in response to White Ribbon Day on what overlaps with this issue: calling for employers to be part of a whole, community-wide response to domestic violence. Workplaces that prevent bullying in the workplace can also be places that provide an understanding for women who work there and how they can access services if they find themselves in a domestic violence situation. It is a matter of really understanding that the whole health of the people who work with you can be enhanced by providing a spot for them to have a bag, or by providing an escape place for them if they need to get away from a difficult situation at home. There should also be workplace bullying responses that allow people who are also feeling conflict from home to bring that to their workplace and get some assistance if they ask for it. To look after the mental health of our workers is also a productivity asset for the country.

Chapter 5, entitled Enhancing tools for the prevention and resolution of workplace bullying, really lays down some territory in terms of what can change. We have to think about prevention, not just reaction. Certainly, reaction is important, but it is prevention that is going to give us the best life outcomes as well as the best business outcomes.

From Mr Michael Maloney we have the comment:

The only way I can see us overcoming [bullying at work] is really for employers to have more tools at their side.

This chapter explains a number of tools where, as Carlo Caponecchia and Anne Wyatt said:

Moving beyond workplace bullying ensures that work is not just balanced with life, but enriches and fulfils it.

For those of us who have had great jobs—including, for me, the one that I hold right now and my former career as a teacher—having a great job and working with great people enhances our lives. It makes for a better country all around.

The final chapter, No. 6, deals with enforcement and remedies. These are important indicators of work that needs to be done. I commend the report Workplace bullying: we just want it to stop to the House.

Debate adjourned.