The sexual harassment inquiry report is revolutionary

The sexual harassment inquiry report is revolutionary

Sexual Harassment
I have just read the final report of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Sexual Harassment Inquiry, Respect@Work.

Nearly two years in the making and launched in the heady days after #MeToo first went viral, the “world first inquiry” was informed by an epic 60 consultations and drew on 460 submissions from legal services, unions, women’s services, academic experts and, most importantly, victims.

To Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, who presided over the inquiry, who is a massive sports fan so will appreciate this compliment, left it all on the field.

The report’s 55 recommendations are revolutionary, covering everything from a more robust legal and regulatory framework to more holistic support for survivors. And I will confess, I wasn’t entirely sure it would turn out this way.

When the inquiry launched 18 months ago, then Minister for Women Kelly O’Dwyer stood alongside Kate Jenkins at the launch press conference and placed a heavy emphasis on the need for economic modelling illustrating the cost of sexual harassment to employers and to the economy.

I was concerned the final report would lead on that figure, placing emphasis on the so-called “business case” and using it as a tool to ask employers to voluntarily do the right thing because it was in their “business” interests.

That figure is there. The Australian Government Department of the Treasury commissioned Access Economics to come up with it. It’s $3.8 billion, with $2.6 billion due to lost productivity. But it doesn’t lead or dominate the inquiry’s findings: in fact, it seems conspicuously buried in the report.

It leads with the far higher, and ultimately unquantifiable, price paid by victims. The inquiry process and victims’ many stories have clearly moved Jenkins, and, arguably, radicalised her.

“I have been devastated by the experiences of sexual harassment within the workplace,” she writes in the introduction. “I have heard through the inquiry the harms suffered by victims.”

The more radical elements among the many, many recommendations include significant investment in prevention, the establishment of a Workplace Sexual Harassment Council to guide and implement a more robust regulatory response, the introduction of so -called “positive duties” to place a legal responsibility on employers to take more pro-active steps to stop the harassment from happening in the first place (as opposed to the current model that places the onus on individuals to take action by bringing costly and gruelling legal cases), the extension of liability for sexual harassment to those who aid or permit another person to sexually harass a person, and the extension of timeframes to lodge a complaint with the AHRC from six to 24 months.

In terms of support for victims, the report notes that there is a woeful lack of “holistic” services and that the psychological impact on victims is profound and long lasting. What’s more, many find it difficult, without support, to navigate the system and seek access to justice, which can mean different things for different victims and shouldn’t be presumed to be a legal response.

To that end, the report recommends the re-introduction of Working Women’s Centres in jurisdictions where there currently aren’t any and that they be properly resourced to provide those “holistic” services.

And the report also highlights the fact that the national violence against women counselling hotline, 1800RESPECT, does not currently have sexual harassment as part of its remit — and should. I personally have found it odd that for the duration of the inquiry victims were referred to 1800 RESPECT “for support” when it wasn’t properly equipped to deal with the deluge.

There’s a lot to digest, and, taken together, the recommendations could make a massive difference, as indicated by the almost universal positive response the report has had. This includes a laudatory statement welcoming the recommendations from the Power to Prevent Coalition, which represents 100 organisations in the legal, health, community, family violence, business and union sectors.

Given that, the Morrison Government and newly minted Minister for Women, Marise Payne’s comparatively tepid response is notable.

Payne and Attorney-General Christian Porter said the government will “now take the time to carefully consider the report,” noting state governments and the private sector “also have a key role to play”.

How much more time? What will be the result of yet more time (the inquiry process was nearly two years)?

If the Commission’s recent experience with similar reports and recommendations is anything to go by, the outlook is not good. Just six years ago, the Commission released another “landmark” report on pregnancy discrimination, “Supporting Working Parents: Pregnancy and Return to Work National Review”. It found that little had changed in the 15 years since the Commission’s first inquiry into pregnancy discrimination and 1 in 2 women still experienced it. That report also made many vital recommendations.

The Government’s response? It never formally replied, the Commission informed me when I recently inquired.

Against the broader backdrop of #MeToo and coming so soon on the heels of the Harvey Weinstein verdict, a watershed in the movement, the arch of history, as some like to say, is on our side. Such complacency and indifference must not be allowed to stand.

Kristine Ziwica is a regular contributor. She tweets @KZiwica

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