I want to acknowledge the horrifying stories I’ve heard this morning from all sides, but, for me, it’s not about taking political sides on the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021; it’s about taking the side of women who’ve been abused, harassed and subjected to the most horrifying treatment all over the nation, in all sorts of workplaces. For me, it’s about them; it’s not about us. It’s about this legislation, it’s about getting it right and it’s about being serious when we say to women, ‘We are on your side.’
Six months ago, tens of thousands of Australians marched upon town squares across Australia, and on the front lawns of this place, to tell this government that they’re fed up with inaction on women’s equality and safety. Dressed in black, hundreds of my constituents poured onto the streets of Wodonga, Wangaratta, Benalla, Yackandandah, Yarrawonga, Eldorado, Glenrowan and Porepunkah, to name just some of the towns. Two busloads of people from my electorate got up at dawn and came here to Canberra to protest on the lawns of this house. Anna Moran brought her little daughters with her because she had such hope in her heart that they would be witnessing an historic moment when this government would finally listen and act.
These women had a very, very clear message: Australians were sick and tired of seeing cultures of sexism and misogyny bred into workplaces, social clubs, sporting teams and homes across the nation—cultures that disrespect and endanger women and silence their voices. Australians were sick and tired of a lack of leadership to fix it. Many watched on in horror and disgust as the allegations of rape and sexual assault came out of this place. We’ll never forget that moment when the brave Brittany Higgins told her story. Australians were also horrified, but unfortunately not surprised, to watch those in power close ranks around each other, implicitly excusing violence against women and seeking to discredit, ignore and smear the brave woman who came forward.
Many women who marched had experienced the same themselves and refused to stay silent any longer. As one constituent put it to me: ‘This march is about everyone being safe, irrespective of their workplace, and we want our federal parliament to be held to the highest standards.’ I wholeheartedly agree, and I think every member of parliament agrees. We must be held to the highest standards.
This bill should be a proud moment for us all in this place, but it’s not. We should be celebrating a parliament that knows how to come together and heed the call of so many Australians who have stood up to say, ‘Enough is enough.’ But instead what we’ve got is half-hearted action, drip-feed progress. I’m just so disappointed—I really am—to have to make this speech. And I think there are lots of other members who are disappointed too. When we were all gathering at the front of this parliament, we hoped that the day would come very soon when we would be making celebratory speeches in this place.
Since the publication of the Respect@Work report in March last year, I have called on this government, as have so many others, to implement all 55 of its recommendations without delay. Instead, until today it had implemented only three. Last year I met with the former Attorney-General Christian Porter to implore him to take the report off the shelf and act. But he left it there to gather dust.
On the same day as the marches, I seconded a vital and overdue bill from the member for Warringah, Zali Steggall, to close a glaring gap in the Sex Discrimination Act which nonsensically excludes parliamentarians and judges from being protected from or liable for sexual harassment. We urged the Prime Minister to let us debate and pass that bill as a matter of urgency, but he refused. And, when the government finally decided to come to the table after the March4Justice, I met with a new Attorney-General, Michaelia Cash, to implore her: please don’t cherry pick, please don’t delay these important reforms. I’m sad to say that this bill is unfortunate in that it seems to me now that the Attorney-General has ignored that call too, to take this as far as it needs to go.
Many government MPs who have spoken on the bill this morning have said this bill is the first step on a journey of reforms to improve women’s safety in this nation. I ask: what journey are we exactly being taken on? Is it another round of filibuster consultation or a press conference full of hot air? If this government wants to talk about taking steps, it should look at the hundreds of thousands of steps taken by everyday Australians when they marched across this country.
The Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, has described this bill as a ‘missed opportunity’. Today I heard so many members pay their respects to the incredible work that Professor Jenkins does, and yet she tells us this is a ‘missed opportunity’. People like those from the Business Council of Australia support all the recommendations too, and so do I.
As an independent, I review each and every bill on its merits. I do my best to make sure the law we pass in this place is based on sound evidence and responds to community need. And, more often than not, I vote against amendments from the opposition, because they’re not constructive and they turn this chamber in a game of political mud-slinging. But the amendments today are refreshing.
For the life of me I can’t understand why the government doesn’t support laws that would encourage employers to take reasonable steps to eliminate sex discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation in the workplace, or why the government refuses to prohibit behaviour in the workplace that facilitates an intimidating, hostile, humiliating or offensive environment. If the government can write in new reforms like the improvements to compassionate leave for employees affected by a miscarriage—and, gee, I support those; I commend the government for those—I say to them: ‘If you can do that, then you can implement these other recommendations too.’
Kate Jenkins and the Australian Human Rights Commission poured over the Respect@Work report. This is no way to treat it, and I must say it casts a deeply concerning shadow for me over the review into parliamentary workplace culture that Kate Jenkins and the Human Rights Commission are pouring over right now, which I and hundreds of people in this building are participating in right now. And, like women all over the nation, I will not relent on calling for justice. But, unlike women all over the nation, I have a voice in this place, and I intend to use it. I use it today to get real and genuine reform.