The 2020 budget fails women in more ways than one: its response to sexual harassment is pathetic

The 2020 budget fails women in more ways than one: its response to sexual harassment is pathetic

NFAW Gender Lens

This week marks the 3rd anniversary of the #MeToo movement going viral in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations.  

If that has you in a reflective -mood — wondering how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go — it’s worth noting that buried deep in the 2020 budget papers and Women’s Economic Security Statement (WESS) is the government’s pathetic response to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s sexual harassment inquiry, which was launched to much fanfare in the months after the movement took off.

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, who oversaw the inquiry, presented the final report earlier this year. It included more than 55 recommendations drawn from extensive consultations with victims and experts over nearly two years — and it covered everything from legal and regulatory reform, to better support for victims and prevention. 

So, what did we get?

The budget and WESS set aside just $2.1 million “to help prevent sexual harassment in Australian workplaces”. A spokesperson for Minister for Women Marise Payne told me those funds will “deliver on key recommendations made by the AHRC in its landmark report to establish a Respect@Work Council”. 

Really?

The spokesperson went on to explain that the Council will: develop a training package that focuses on the nature, drivers and impacts of sexual harassment, as well as the rights and responsibilities of employees and employers; create a new online platform that brings together relevant information and resources for employers and workers in a single portal; and conduct a follow up survey in 2022 to monitor whether new measure are having an impact and identify where further work is needed. 

The thing is, the Respect@Work Council, as envisioned in the inquiry’s report by Kate Jenkins, is meant to do a heck of a lot more than put together some training, a portal or coordinate another incidence survey … in two years. 

The Council, as envisioned by Jenkins, is meant to have much more far reaching powers to help bring about change, including coordinating some of those much needed regulatory and support functions among the inquiry’s other recommendations. 

And since we’re on the topic, what about the inquiry’s other 54 recommendations?

Payne’s spokesperson told me that the funding and the establishment of the Council was essentially a stopgap while they “consider the report and its other recommendations”. But I suspect it’s indicative of the Morrison government’s intention to kick the issue of sexual harassment into the long grass — possibly never to return to it.

So, on the third anniversary of #MeToo, consider this my public service reminder to the women of Australia: we can’t let that happen.

It’s worth remembering that the Coalition has form here. They never responded to the AHRC’s 2014 inquiry into pregnancy discrimination (which affects 1 in 2 women) — or any of its recommendations. They did, however, provide a small amount of funding ($150,000) for employers to develop “resources to best manage and support working parents through pregnancy”.

Sound familiar? They do just love “training” and “resources” in lieu of genuine law reform, prevention and support for victims, don’t they.

What’s more, they never bothered to check that those “resources” alone, in the absence of any of the pregnancy discrimination inquiry’s other recommendations, had the desired impact because they declined to fund another pregnancy discrimination incidence survey, one of the inquiry’s other key recommendations. 

So, I suppose in that regard, this latest attempt at obfuscation is “slightly” better insofar as the Morrison government has not orchestrated a situation where it can continue to pretend that sexual harassment isn’t a problem (and I do acknowledge that a further incidence survey will, at the very least, help keep the issue on the agenda). But without more than “training” and a “portal”, I predict that in two years’ time we’ll have another sexual harassment incidence survey that shows the problem remains as bad as ever, if not worse. And then what? 

In the three years since #MeToo went viral and landed on Australian shores, we’ve had many fits and starts, including moments of despair when many have wondered if anything would ever really change. Kate Jenkins and the Australian Human Rights Commission’s landmark inquiry report offered a much-needed roadmap.

It’s now up to us to ensure that report — and its recommendations — get the respect they, and the women of Australia, so rightly deserve.

Kristine Ziwica is a regular contributor. She tweets @KZiwica

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