Skip to main content

2GB Afternoons with Joe Hildebrand



Subjects: Respect @Work

JOE HILDEBRAND: Now as we heard, obviously, at the top of the headlines, massive sexual harassment reforms, dozens of recommendations from the Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins have been implemented, or accepted I should say, and will be implemented at least in part and largely in full by the Federal Government. And the woman who's going to do the implementing is the Attorney-General Michaelia Cash and she joins us on the line right now. Hi, Minister. How are you?

MICHAELIA CASH: It's always great to be with you, guys, Joe. How are you going? [Laughs]

JOE HILDEBRAND: I'm going very, very well. Thank you, ma'am. Look, a huge day for the Government and for the country today. I think I speak for a lot of people when I say I'm surprised that sexual harassment wasn't already grounds for dismissal. Can you take me through what the case was previously and how this will change it?

MICHAELIA CASH: Yep. It was grounds for dismissal. However, because it was not explicitly stated, employers really struggled to make the decision to terminate on the basis of sexual harassment. So what the report actually found was complexity and strengthening legal frameworks was key, but also ensuring that employers are clearly empowered, because that's what they said to Kate. We are actually not empowered to do this, because it is not in the Fair Work Regulations. We need to be able to do dismiss perpetrators of sexual harassment when appropriate. So what we'll do is we will amend the Fair Work Regulations to state that sexual harassment can be conduct amounted to a valid reason for dismissal. But also, we will amend it, as you've said, the definition of serious misconduct to include sexual harassment. So what we are saying to employers is this now gives you the certainty you told us you needed to take meaningful action against perpetrators in the workplace. But Joe, what I also hope it says to those who have been subjected to sexual harassment: there are consequences for perpetrators in the workplace. So come forward, raise it with your employer, because if proven, they can now take that action they were telling us they didn't feel empowered to take.

JOE HILDEBRAND: And as you might have heard, Minister, we had some people sort of questioning, I suppose, what the definition of sexual harassment would be, what it would extend to. How is that going to be defined, because I suppose we know that it's often in the eye of the beholder, someone can quite legitimately feel they've been sexually harassed when there was in fact no malice or no intent of any ill will on the part of the person who made- inadvertently said something that was taken the wrong way?

MICHAELIA CASH: You know, that is actually right. So sexual harassment itself is already defined. And within reason, let's say, it's unwanted conduct or unwelcomed conduct of a sexual nature. Now, if you raise an allegation and you say: I have been subjected to unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, the employer still has to offer the perpetrator or the alleged perpetrator due process, and that's when you look at what was the conduct. So for example, it was raised with me today, if someone said to me: I really love that dress you're wearing. Could I take that to be sexual harassment? Look, probably not. But if the person you're saying it to said to you: you know in the workplace, I actually don't like those comments, and I'd appreciate it if you did not say it to me again. And then the person continues on a daily basis to make comments in relation to, say, the way you dress, your appearance, well then you're into different territory, okay? But again, each one does need to be determined on its own merits.

JOE HILDEBRAND: And in terms of the reporting period, that's been extended from six months to two years. We know, I suppose, with things like sexual assault, it often takes victim's a long time to work up the courage to come forward, or there's often an arduous process.

MICHAELIA CASH: That's exactly right.

JOE HILDEBRAND: Is that the same here for what is, I suppose, a lower threshold of behaviour? I mean do we really need- can it be- is this going to make a big difference? Is there data that shows people are experiencing this and taking a long time?

MICHAELIA CASH: It is in particular for those people who have really suffered detriment as a result of the sexual harassment, because of course, you know, there's a scale. There could be a comment, but then there really could be that conduct of an unwelcomed nature that severely undermines your productivity in the workplace, it is something that you are very distressed by. There will be people who- that six months is just not enough time for them to really come forward and say: I want to make a complaint. And that's really what that evidence shows. And so Kate recommended extended out to 24 months before the precedent can actually terminate a complaint on the basis of time to allow those victims who are really struggling more time to make that complaint. And I have to say I do think that is the right thing to do.

JOE HILDEBRAND: And another thing, Attorney-General, that a lot of people I think we're surprised to learn this morning is that judges and MPs were not already beholden to the same set of laws or rules around workplace conduct that the rest of us were. Can you talk us through why?

MICHAELIA CASH:  Yeah, absolutely. There was some discrepancy in whether or not the act does apply. So we are going to make a change to make sure that it is very clear. The Sex Discrimination Act applies to judges and MPs, as quite frankly, it should. We all should be held to the same standard in the workplace. And that is why judges and MPs, we will make sure it is clarified, and everybody knows they will be subject to the same and everybody else.

JOE HILDEBRAND: Is it- I mean, obviously I don't think anyone disputes that they should be subject to the same laws as everybody else. But is it a source of, I suppose, disappointment to you, or a sad indictment perhaps, that the people who uphold our laws and the people who write our laws don't already hold themselves to this higher standard? That they would actually need to be told that this sort of behaviour is not acceptable.

MICHAELIA CASH: So what we are doing- no, I'd have to say I think people are aware. And you know, it's a really good point you made, though. It was actually across Australia. There's not much feedback was given to Kate Jenkins in relation to a lack of understanding. And this was across industries, it was across employers, it was across employees, it was across teachers, it was across students. What are my rights and responsibilities? And that's something that as a government- or should I say governments, because this is state, Federal, and territory governments, we need to take action on. You can't prevent sexual harassment if people do not understand their right. Or should I say in the first place, their responsibilities, and of course their rights. And so a key part of this report to really support that preventative action at the national level, is to deliver education and training programmes across a range of sectors. But Joe, also on the point that you make in relation to, in particular, MPs. As you know, because of recent events the sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins, she is undertaking another inquiry into Parliament House as a workplace and I have no doubt- I'm not going to pre-empt her recommendations. But I would be a big supporter, a huge supporter of MPs and also their staff. Anyone really who works with us, undertaking this type of training. To ensure that there is no excuse, no excuse in terms of not understanding what your responsibilities are, but also your rights as a member of staff.

JOE HILDEBRAND: And it one of the issues that has been raised with me and I know other people, and I spoke to Katie Ellis about it who has just written a book including women across the full range of the political spectrum from Sarah Hansen Young to Pauline Hanson, and their experiences. She has said that when you have more women in the party room, or indeed in the parliament the problem gets better. It might not eliminate it, but it's better. And she's pointing to the difference, obviously, between the percentage of Labor MPs that are women versus Coalition MPs. Do you think the liberal party now needs to set a quota and do you think it is a, again, a sort of sad state of affairs when a party can't actually do these things without having to have a mandated quota? That they can't identify talent within its female ranks and promote that without having to have some kind of formal target?

MICHAELIA CASH: And so the first instance what I'd say is, under Prime Minister Scott Morrison, we have the highest number of female representation in cabinet and the ministry than under any other government. And when you look at the roles that the females have, they're pretty meaty roles. I am now fortunate to be the Attorney-General and the Minister for Industrial Relations. Marise Payne, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, but also the Minister for Women. Anne Ruston, the Minister for Women's Safety. Karen Andrews, the Minister now for Border Protection. So, I'm very proud to be part of the Morrison Cabinet. I really am. In terms of quotas, I don't think they're the ultimate answer. I think if you actually don't change the behaviour, if you don't change the way you look at pre-selections, if you don't go out and actually get that pipeline of women who want to enter Parliament. I think that quotas really- it may increase the numbers, but it's not actually tackling what all of the other issues are. So I really believe you need a holistic response. And certainly, for example, in Western Australia. We have a group run by one of our former State presidents actually, a female, the first female State president Danielle Blain, called Emergent Women. That is all about attracting women from outside of the party. Bringing them in, not necessarily to the party, but exposing them to politics and political life. And then saying to them if you want to support to run for a seat, we will assist you with that. And I know that out we've obviously suffered an election loss in Western Australia, but at least two of our candidates were from Emergent Women. People who had previously not had a lot to do with the party. So I think it's not just about quotas. It's got to be about addressing everything, including the way you treat women, the culture in the workplace, how you attract women into the party. All of that needs to be addressed.

JOE HILDEBRAND: And can I ask, Minister. Your predecessor as Attorney-General made the point that you don't want to get into a situation in Parliament, or indeed in any workplace, where a simple allegation can end someone's career. Are you confident that there are enough protections in this important legislation? That it won't just be a matter where anyone who doesn't like someone else at the workplace can just say; well you sexually harassed me. And that will put a huge amount of pressure on employers to get rid of that person in order to avoid any kind of, I don't know, unpleasantness or stigmatisation of the organisation?

MICHAELIA CASH: Look, in any case that is raised there should always be an investigation to prove whether or not the conduct actually occurred. If you have someone who is deliberately raising, whether it's an issue of sexual harassment or sexual discrimination, and they are merely doing that to get back at someone else. There will be consequences for that person who deliberately raised an untrue allegation in their own workplace. I would say to anybody who's thinking of doing that they would be consequences for you in relation. I see into your own workplace. So I would say to anybody who was thinking of doing that, there would be consequences for you in relation, I assume, to your own workplace.

JOE HILDEBRAND: Okay, good. And also, just finally Minister. Why is it taking the Government so long to act on these represent- recommendations? It's been a year, I believe, since that this report was handed down. Why has it taken so long for the government to do something? Is it just because of this political pressure and the scandals engulfing?

MICHAELIA CASH: No, and I know that's sort of what the perception was. Actually, last year, we actually committed funding to the implementation of nine of the recommendations from the report. They were key recommendations, including the establishment of the Respect at Work Council, which is chaired by Kate Jenkins, who's a Sex Discrimination Commissioner. And brings together, first time, the key agencies: Fair Work Ombudsman, Fair Work Commission, Safe Work Australia, Human Rights Commission, that deal with sexual harassment. They- that was basically the foundation for implementing other recommendations. Work's already started on the Respect at Work website. That's the online platform to provide free and practical information and education. The training resources. The education resources are currently being looked at. And also preparing for the fifth national survey on sexual harassment in Australian workplaces. So we actually had last year, committed to and funded those nine recommendations. But the Prime Minister, I think, was pretty up front today. We also faced a global pandemic last year. And our focus as a government was on getting Australia through. And within reason keeping employers in business, and keeping women and men in jobs. But as of today, we have now responded in full to the report.

JOE HILDEBRAND: Okay, well look, you've obviously got a huge amount of work to do. I'll let you get back to it. Attorney-General Michaela Cash. Thank you so much for joining us on Afternoons.

MICHAELIA CASH: Always great to be with you. Thank you very much Joe.