More needed beyond 'respect at work' laws

·3-min read

The Morrison government says its commitment to women is "unmatched", but advocates warn a historic opportunity to boldly legislate to end sexual harassment is being botched.

"In its current form, the respect at work bill is insufficient to really stamp out sexual harassment," Lisa Annese, head of the Diversity Council Australia, said on Tuesday.

"Most people never make complaints, they tolerate behaviour."

Sara Kane, chief executive of Green Circle Legal, said creating and facilitating a hostile, humiliating, offensive environment on the basis of gender should be expressly prohibited.

"The time is now, it's 2021, we have the absolute magic moment to make a difference," Ms Kane said.

Labor and the Greens want all of last year's recommendations from Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins to be wholly reflected in the proposed laws currently before parliament.

The draft bill establishes that harassment is a legal and valid reason for dismissal and gives the commissioner more opportunities to put in place punitive measures such as stop orders on workplaces.

"The government's commitment to women is unmatched," Liberal senator Sarah Henderson said during Tuesday's debate on the bill.

"Sexual harassment is a blight on our workplaces. It corrupts the bond of trust which workers should develop for one another, and clothes its victims in fear and shame."

The proposed laws also expand the mandate of the regime to public officials, including members of parliament and their staff, public servants, and judges.

Former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins, who worked for then Defence Industry minister Linda Reynolds, ended her silence last year about her alleged rape in the ministerial wing of Parliament House in March 2019.

Other women also came forward, putting further pressure on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to take action.

The government has committed to implementing most of the recommendations of the Jenkins Respect at Work report, but merely "noted" a number of them and will only partly adopt others.

Labor says the bill only reflects six of 17 legislative recommendations out of the total of 55 in the report.

Centre Alliance senator Stirling Griff agreed the bill "does not go far enough" but he will support it.

Greens senator Janet Rice said the bill leaves "gaping holes" for trans, gender-diverse, non-binary and intersex people.

Almost a third of all workers report sexual harassment at work, and 40 per cent of women.

Harassment is estimated to cost the Australian economy $3.5 billion a year.

Labor's Tony Sheldon said as work becomes more precarious, the power imbalances for men and women mean it is riskier to speak out, and that's why stronger laws are so important.

Advocates urge the government and businesses to take a more proactive approach to prevent harm.

Just as a worker is taught how to safely lift heavy things rather than their employer waiting for them to have a back injury, people need to learn how to work together in a different way.

Debate was interrupted for other government business.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting