Members of parliament have been put on notice that there will be “consequences” for sexual harassment, as the government announces it will overhaul federal laws to try to stamp out sexual misconduct in Australian workplaces.
Responding to the Respect@Work report completed by sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins in March 2020, the government announced on Thursday that it had accepted most of the report’s 55 recommendations either in full, in part or in principle.
However, the government has pushed back against a key recommendation relating to the private sector, suggesting it will not legislate a “positive duty” that would force employers to take steps to eliminate sexual discrimination in the workplace.
Although not recommended in the report, one of the key measures announced by the government on Thursday is to amend the Sex Discrimination Act to include MPs, judges and public servants who are exempt under current sexual harassment laws.
The definition and scope of sexual harassment will also be broadened, with the “serious misconduct” provisions in workplace laws clarified to make sexual harassment a valid reason for sacking an employee.
In another major change aimed at encouraging victims to come forward, people will be given two years to lodge complaints to the Australian Human Rights Commission, extending the current six-month time limit.
Morrison said the government would announce a funding commitment for the changes in the May budget, and acknowledged the events of the past two months had exposed the need for action.
“There is no doubt that the events of recent months has re-enforced the significance [of the problem] and highlighted it once again,” Morrison said.
Since February, the government has been under fire for its response to a series of misconduct scandals, including the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins by a colleague in the ministerial wing of Parliament House, a historic rape allegation against frontbencher Christian Porter, which he stridently denies, staff members sharing lewd pictures in Parliament House, and the poor behaviour of Liberal National MP Andrew Laming.
Morrison had already announced a front bench reshuffle that promoted women, while also establishing a new cabinet taskforce to bring a “fresh lens” to government deliberations.
Jenkins, who will lead a new taskforce to implement the government’s response to the Respect@Work report, is also undertaking a separate “bespoke” review into the work culture of Parliament House.
Declaring that “everyone” has a right to be safe at work, Morrison said the government needed to work out how to ensure that MPs – who are elected and not employed – were captured by the new laws.
“Members of parliament find themselves in a different situation because of the nature of how we come to be in these jobs,” Morrison said.
“We have one boss, and that is the Australian people who elect us, and that is a process that we’ll have to work through carefully in the drafting.”
“The recommendations are not … granular when it comes to the drafting in many of those provisions and how those matters are worked through. What’s important, though, is the principle that is established and that MPs and that is judges… [and] state public servants are not exempt from these arrangements.”
Morrison said the government would prepare a package of legislation to be introduced to parliament this year, saying there would be consultation to achieve bipartisan support for the changes.
The newly appointed attorney general, Michaelia Cash, said the government wanted to reduce complexity in the existing system for both employers and employees, but has shied away from a recommendation to introduce a positive duty on employers.
“We want consistency and we want to reduce complexity. So we’re going to now look at how you could implement that in the Sex Discrimination Act, but not make the system more complex and not confuse people as to where to go,” Cash said.
Jenkins had recommended changing the Sex Discrimination Act to introduce a positive duty on all employers “to take reasonable and proportionate measures to eliminate sex discrimination” in the workplace, with the Human Rights Commission given the power to assess compliance.
But in response to the recommendation, the government has said it will assess whether this may “create further complexity, uncertainty or duplication in the overarching legal framework.”
On a range of other recommendations relating to the private sector – mostly around training and reporting – the government has said it “strongly encourages the sector to engage with the council.”
“The government notes that engagement from industry groups and the private sector will be crucial for delivering economy-wide change.”
A recommendation for the government to ratify the International Labour Organisation Convention concerning the Elimination of Violence and Harassment in the World of Work has not been agreed to, nor has a change that would allow unions to bring representative cases to court.
The government has indicated it will do more on preventative measures as it seeks to foster broader cultural change, flagging new education and training programs across a range of sectors, more research on prevention strategies and better data collection.
Morrison said the problem of harassment in the workplace was a “culture we have to change right across our society”, and urged people to work together to achieve results.
“We will be stepping up to our responsibilities but we all, each and every one of us individually, have a responsibility for our own behaviours and our own actions and what we can positively do to ensure that we can change the culture of behaviour.”
He also said people needed to call out inappropriate behaviour in their everyday lives, some of which might arise from “unconscious behaviour”.
“That’s the sort of conversation that we have to have in our relationships, in our communities, in our homes, in our clubs, in our churches, wherever you happen to be. We’ve just got to have these conversations and people need to understand in our own workplaces what is OK, what’s not OK.”