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Tuesday, 31 August 2021
Page: 15


Senator HENDERSON (Victoria) (13:24): [by video link] It's my pleasure to rise and speak on the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021. Sexual harassment is a blight upon our workplaces. It corrupts the bonds of trust which workers should develop with one another and clothes its victims in fear and shame. It is absolutely unacceptable that this kind of behaviour still persists in our great nation. As we heard in this debate, the statistics on sexual harassment in Australia tell a grim tale. Very concerningly, the Australian Human Rights Commission found, in 2018, that only 17 per cent of those who experienced sexual harassment in the previous five years had come forward to make a formal complaint. This means that most victims of sexual harassment suffer in silence. We cannot allow this situation to continue.

This bill is just one of the ways the government has responded to the need to bolster and supplement our already strong laws against sexual harassment. In particular, it responds substantially to the Sex Discrimination Commissioner's Respect@Work report, and I want to commend the exceptionally hard work of Kate Jenkins. The bill makes a wide range of improvements, such as clarifying that harassing a person on the basis of sex is prohibited under the Sex Discrimination Act by making this explicit on the face of the act. It provides that more workers will be protected from sexual harassment, particularly vulnerable workers, volunteers, interns and self-employed persons. It extends the time frame for which a complaint can be made to the Australian Human Rights Commission to reduce procedural barriers for complainants under the Sex Discrimination Act. It clarifies that the Fair Work Commission may make orders to stop sexual harassment in the workplace, which is a very important provision of course. It clarifies that sexual harassment can be a valid reason for dismissal under the Fair Work Act—another very important provision. And the Sex Discrimination Act aims to achieve so far as practicable equality of opportunity between men and women. It also amends the Sex Discrimination Act so that a person who assists someone to sexually harass a person can also be found to have engaged in unlawful conduct.

This is the kind of bill which the Australian people expect from this government. It is based on sound evidence, it is realistic and it is effective. It is also a bill that is the result of the hard work of the coalition government. I want to particularly recognise the former Minister for Women, Kelly O'Dwyer, who initiated the Respect@Work inquiry which resulted in these recommendations and now this bill before the parliament.

As we've heard in this debate, Labor and the Greens are very good at throwing mud, but sex discrimination hasn't just been an issue since our government was elected in 2013. It was very much thriving when Labor was in power, yet we saw no such measures from Labor to provide these important protections in the workplace. The government's commitment to women was also highlighted in the recent budget, and it is incredibly substantial, with over $3 billion worth of funding allocated for women's safety, women's economic security, affordable child care, health and wellbeing, and domestic violence support. The government is also providing more than $64 million over four years to implement its response to the Respect@Work report, including over $43 million for additional legal assistance funding for specialist lawyers with workplace and discrimination law expertise. As we have seen in the budget, as we have seen in this bill and as we have seen in all of the other government's measures, the government's commitment to women is unmatched.

In keeping with this commitment, the bill doesn't stop at just sexual harassment; it also includes a very significant amendment to the Fair Work Act to enable an employee to take compassionate leave if they or their spouse or de facto partner have a miscarriage. Not only will this promote women's workforce participation and women's economic security; it also represents government at its best—caring for those whose lives have been seared with the scars of suffering.

 

I want to particularly address the concerns raised by senators opposite, particularly Senator Waters, because I am concerned that the government's position in relation to some recommendations made by Commissioner Jenkins has been substantially misrepresented.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Chandler ): Senator Henderson, you'll be in continuation when the debate resumes. It being 1.30 pm, we now move to two-minute statements.