Australia needs action, not accusations - Speech, House of Representatives


The issue of sexual harassment has been roiling this building and has a significant economic cost. It is also an issue about which the government could be doing much more. So, I intend to use my opportunity today in this appropriations debate to discuss the issue of sexual harassment and what can be done to reduce it in Australia.

Australian women are angry. We saw this from the March 4 Justice. We've seen it from so many women who've written to parliamentarians, calling for Australia to do better. This is a moment at which Australia needs leadership, and we didn't get that leadership this morning. We've seen advisers being shown the door. Last week an adviser to the member for Deakin was dismissed after being accused in the Tasmanian parliament of using a sexist slur—which I won't deign to repeat here. We've also had the dismissal today of another coalition staffer, who was engaged in abominable behaviour. And we still have the questions as to what the Prime Minister knew about the alleged rape in a minister's office two years ago.

The Prime Minister has not been straight with the parliament in his discussion of the review taking place by the secretary of his department, Phil Gaetjens. He told parliament on 18 March, 'He has not provided me with a further update about when I might expect that report.' In fact, Mr Gaetjens had given the Prime Minister an update, on 9 March, that he had paused the inquiry. By failing to let parliament know that the inquiry had been paused, he was, in David Crowe's words, 'caught out being too tricky by half'.

We need a Prime Minister who will act on these serious charges. As Katharine Murphy has said:

Australian women will need more than words from the prime minister, they will need action.

Yet today we saw from the Prime Minister, after some heartfelt opening words, an extraordinary exchange with Sky News journalist Andrew Clennell. When asked whether he'd lost control of his ministerial staff, the Prime Minister told Andrew Clennell:

… you would be aware in your own organisation, there is a person who has had a complaint made against them for harassment …

And that matter is being pursued by your own HR department.

He went on, extraordinarily, to repeat specifics of the alleged incident. Andrew Clennell, as I understand, was not aware of that complaint. But it does make it even more extraordinary that the Prime Minister has the temerity to traffic in gossip about what's going in news organisations yet still claims to be unaware of an alleged rape in a ministerial office just metres from where his own office his.

Today the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia held a forum in Parliament House. It was on the theme 'Gender, power, violence: creating a better normal'. The contributions reflected what social science can bring to our understanding of sexual harassment and to reducing it. Pauline Grosjean pointed out that sexism has a cost for the economy and that violence between men tends to be related to violence in the home. She noted that sexism has deep historical roots, noting the findings of her own research that the gender ratio in 19th-century Australia still has an impact on masculine attitudes and gender norms in Australia today. And she noted that social attitudes are shaped by the views of neighbours, pointing to a survey from Saudi Arabia that found that a large majority of Saudi men favoured women working in the paid workforce but thought that most other men didn't.

When given information about other men's beliefs they became much more positive about the issue. Pauline Grosjean also talked about the importance of intervening at the school level on respectful relationships and sexual harassment.

Michael Flood pointed out that it is possible to change the patterns of violence, it is possible for communities to have real change put in place and it is possible for this to happen driven not only by communities at the local level but also by governments. He noted that too many men have stayed silent in the face of the clear evidence of sexual harassment in the community and that they can do three things: look at their own behaviour, challenge misbehaviour by other men and support better policies. He called on male politicians to break ranks from the boys club and bring parliament into the 21st century.

JaneMaree Maher pointed out that a sense of male privilege can lead to a sense of entitlement which can lead to violence and she talked about the importance of unconscious bias shaping the world in which men and women work. She gave the example in academia of student evaluations systematically being higher for male lecturers than for female lecturers and discussed the way in which class, race and disability intersect with the issue of gender bias.

She also made clear that it is important for leaders to act even in the absence of a formal complaint. As JaneMaree Maher pointed out, if an employer saw somebody sending substandard correspondence out of the organisation then they would bring the person in to correct that. They wouldn't wait for the recipient of that correspondence to complain. Similarly, she said that, if employers know that somebody is being a sex pest, they need to call that behaviour out immediately, not wait for a complainant to come to them.

JaneMaree Maher also spoke about the importance of putting in place quotas. This is something that this side of the House did in 1994. We instituted a quota saying that, for winnable seats, 35 per cent of Labor candidates would be women by 2002. That level was raised to 40 per cent in 2012. At the time there were suggestions that that would lead to a diminution in the quality of Labor candidates, but, if anything, the opposite was true. Labor went out in that era and identified candidates like Julia Gillard, Jenny Macklin, Nicola Roxon and Tanya Plibersek—among Labor's star performers in the last generation.

It is ironic that when the other side of the House are putting together a cabinet they have quotas for the number of Nationals, they have quotas on a state level and they have quotas between the hard Right and the moderates, but they reject quotas when it comes to choosing candidates for parliament. I think that's a mistake. I think the Liberal and National parties would be better off if they considered the role of quotas in improving their work.

Then there's the Respect@Work report handed down by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins last year. As Jenna Price has written:

… but here we are: we have a government responsible for implementing it that appears riddled with people who have a complete disdain for women parliamentarians and staffers. And, unsurprisingly, well over a year since the report was handed to the Attorney-General only one recommendation is in action.

This is an important report. It notes that Australia used to be a leader on questions of gender equity. As well as being one of the earliest countries to extend the franchise to women, we put in place in the 1970s state anti-discrimination laws on the basis of sex and the Sex Discrimination Act in 1984. Yet we've fallen behind other countries in acting on the crucial issue of sexual harassment. This is despite the fact that the 2018 survey on sexual harassment found that 39 per cent of women and 26 per cent of men had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the previous five years. It's despite the fact that we have in Australia 38 per cent of corporate boards with no women, compared to just 0.8 per cent of corporate boards with no men.

Only 17 per cent of Australian CEOs are women. And, while many young men have more progressive attitudes on gender equity than older generations, we have the scourge of ubiquitous pornography, which Maree Crabbe has written about, that is reshaping attitudes towards sex and sexuality in potentially dangerous ways that can undermine the progress that's being made on gender equity.

The Respect@Work report notes that workplace sexual harassment can sometimes end in sexual assault. It observes that sexual harassment, when it occurs, occurs sometimes electronically through technology but sometimes in person. Fifty-two per cent of those who were sexually harassed said it occurred at their workstation or where they worked. Those workplaces which are particularly subject to sexual harassment include workplaces that are male dominated, workplaces where the work is considered non-traditional for women, workplaces where there is masculine workplace culture, workplaces where there is high-level contact with third parties and workplaces where it is organised according to a hierarchical structure. I note in passing that all of that describes the federal parliament.

Sexual harassment, the report notes, also reduces productivity. It increases turnover. It does damage to the reputation of firms. It has a negative impact on workplace culture. Deloitte has conservatively measured that the impact of sexual harassment on the Australian economy is $3.8 billion. But, even if there was no dollar cost, we should all be committed to stamping out sexual harassment because it is simply wrong. Yet we know that there is a cost. We know that this is one of the chief causes of the gender pay gap. My former colleague at the Australian National University Deborah Cobb-Clark has worked extensively on the relationship between sexual harassment and the gender pay gap in Australia, noting that it can particularly be a cause of the high gender pay gap among professionals, and we know that the gender pay gap, as a percentage, steadily rises as you go up the wage distribution.

The recommendations that flow out of the Respect@Work report include recommendation 26: that the Australian government work with state and territory governments to amend state and territory human rights and antidiscrimination legislation to achieve consistency with the Sex Discrimination Act without limiting or reducing protections. It includes the recommendation that the fair work system be reviewed to ensure and clarify that sexual harassment, using the definition in the Sex Discrimination Act, is expressly prohibited. Recommendation 29 is that there be a ‘stop sexual harassment’ order, equivalent to the ‘stop bullying’ order in the Fair Work Act, designed to facilitate the order's restorative aim. And recommendation 30 is that section 387 of the Fair Work Act be amended to clarify that sexual harassment can be conduct amounting to a valid reason for dismissal in determining whether a dismissal was harsh, unjust or unreasonable.

The government must pay greater attention to the Respect@Work report. It is a crucial piece of work in stamping out sexual harassment. But the government also needs to look more closely at its own culture, at its own ranks. The Prime Minister needs to stop seeing this issue as one for which you can find a quick political fix and to recognise that this is a seismic moment in Australian history. He has the opportunity to do what Paul Keating did after the Mabo decision or what John Howard did after the Port Arthur massacre—to show Australians that he's fundamentally different from the boys club in which he has been brought up, that there are problems deep-seated in this parliament and that to date many of the problems that have emerged have been in coalition ranks, and that if he leads Australia will be the better for it. We will be a more inclusive nation, a more productive nation, a more equal nation and a nation which moves with the rest of the world in addressing issues of sexual harassment and gender equity.


Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.