It took more than a year but the government has finally decided to respond to Australia’s landmark workplace sexual harassment Respect@Work report released by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins in early March 2020.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced with Attorney-General Michaelia Cash yesterday that the government would accept all of the report’s 55 recommendations “wholly, in part, or in principle” through a “roadmap to respect”.
The goal is to introduce legislative changes before the next budget to simplify and streamline sexual harassment legislation.
Morrison continued to blame the pandemic for not responding to the Respect@Work report sooner, pointing to (paltry) funding made available to domestic violence organisations as “action”. He again blamed social media for a lack of respect among Australians.
It comes a day after the government launched a national survey on how to end domestic and family violence, asking respondents to rank the importance “perpetrators are held to account” and victims “are heard and have their experiences acknowledged” from highly relevant to not relevant.
No exemption for parliamentarians
Parliament House will be subjected to the same duties as an employer and workplace under the new laws. State public servants were previously exempt from sexual harassment penalties due to parliamentary privilege, with MPs unable to be removed from office.
“We will be subject to the same law as anybody else, which means we’ll be subject to the same consequences,” Cash said.
“There would be consequences for any members of Parliament themselves … found to have breached the Sexual Discrimination Act.”
MPs and senators will act as employers in charge of taking action with the legislation.
Serious misconduct to be grounds for dismissal
The Fair Work definition of serious misconduct will be amended to include sexual harassment. Serious misconduct will now also be listed as a valid reason for termination, meaning proven sexual harassers can be fired for abuse.
One recommendation of the Respect@Work report was to put a positive duty on employers to protect employees from sexual harassment. This exists in the Work, Health and Safety Act but currently doesn’t exist in the Sex Discrimination Act. Cash said the government will look at ways of implementing sexual harassment into the Sex Discrimination Act.
Workplace sexual harassment council
Another recommendation was to establish a government-funded workplace sexual harassment council supported by a permanent secretariat to improve coordination, consistency and clarity across the key legal and regulatory frameworks, to improve prevention and response to sexual harassment and to provide expertise and advice on specific issues or areas of work relating to sexual harassment.
Respect@work report recommends public campaigns
An additional recommendation of the Respect@Work report was that all Australian governments and jurisdictions ensure children and young people receive age-appropriate, evidence-based and school-based respectful relationship education to address the drivers of gender-based violence.
Morrison said he is “open” to public information campaigns to help address unconscious behaviour, saying it “all starts with disrespect”.
He also said he would consider increasing funding for frontline services but pointed to unspent pandemic-related domestic violence funding by states and territories.