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ABC Brisbane Mornings with Rebecca Levingston



Subjects: Respect @Work

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: The Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, who today publicly released and responded to this 18-month national inquiry looking at the prevalence of sexual harassment in Australian workplaces. 55 recommendations, the measures to prevent sexual harassment. That'll be the task of Attorney-General Michaelia Cash to implement. Attorney-General, good morning.

MICHAELIA CASH: Good morning Rebecca and good morning to your listeners.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: Gosh, just hearing the Prime Minister then say 39 per cent of women and 26 per cent of men have experienced sexual harassment at work. They are shocking figures.

MICHAELIA CASH: They are, and it is completely unacceptable. And I think what- you know, the report also highlights that every single one of us has a role to play. The Australian government, state and territory governments, employers, industry groups, you know, we all have an important role to play in supporting cultural change, but creating safe workplaces. I mean, I think every one of your listeners would agree everyone has the right to feel safe at work and we need to ensure that is going to occur.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: Michaelia Cash, just remind us, because, I mean, the Prime Minister referenced there more recent events that have been the focus of behaviour and questions asked about Parliament House. But this report, what were the circumstances that actually led to Kate Jenkins, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, actually putting this report together 18 months ago?

MICHAELIA CASH: Well, if you recall- in your opening comments, you were actually right. This was put together by Kelly O'Dwyer some time ago now. It is actually- internationally, it was the first comprehensive assessment of sexual harassment in the workplace in the world. The terms of reference, you know, they were very, very wide looking at national surveys, online workplace- you know, related to sexual and sex-based harassment, the use of technology, the drivers of workplace sexual harassment, the current legal framework - which the report found is incredibly complex and confusing. But it also looked at what is the good practice being undertaken by employers, because we actually need to highlight both domestically and internationally that good practice.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: Kate Jenkins says that Australia lags behind other countries in preventing workplace harassment. She says the rate of change has been disappointingly slow. Why, in a country like Australia?

MICHAELIA CASH: Well, I think that is why we are undertaking the report. That is why internationally it was the first of its kind. And what we have now is an opportunity to make now a real and ongoing difference. When you look at the report, as you said, 55 recommendations. And as the Prime Minister announced today, the Australian Government has agreed [indistinct] principle or in part or noted where, for example, it was to industries - all 55 recommendations in the report. We actually embrace the recommendations made. I personally had the opportunity to speak with the Sex Discrimination Commissioner both last night and this morning. She's very pleased with our response and we've made the commitment to one another. We are going to work together in relation to the implementation of the response. Sexual harassment, it is unacceptable in any context. And what we need to do now, as the Prime Minister said today, this is about bringing Australians together. Let's work together to build a culture of respectful relationships in the workplace. Everyone has a right to feel safe at work.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: You are listening to the Federal Attorney-General, Michaelia Cash on ABC Radio Brisbane. My name's Rebecca Levingston. Attorney-General, I've had a couple of people pick up the phone this morning and say has the government sat on this report? I mean, March 2020 is when it was given to you. What's happened, what's changed in the last 12 months?

MICHAELIA CASH: Well, in the first instance, what I would say is work was actually already underway prior to today to implement the report's recommendations. And in fact, it was in 2020 that the Australian Government, under the women's economic and security state, that we actually committed funding to nine of the key recommendations in the report, and the establishment of the Respect @Work council, which is headed by Kate Jenkins and brings all of the regulators together. That actually was the basic foundation that we then needed to build on to implement the other recommendations in the report, which we have now, as you know, announced today.
I would also say- and the Prime Minister was very honest about it today. 2020, we faced a global pandemic. Our focus was very much on protecting women in particular from domestic violence as a result of the lockdown and the pandemic of keeping employers in business and keeping females in employment. So our focus was still on safety. The report and the work has commenced last year, and today we announce the final response to the report.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: On domestic violence. I note that the Queensland Attorney-General yesterday, Shannon Fentiman, specifically pointed out that Queensland domestic and family violence services are stretched to the limit. She's saying that they need you, they need the Federal Government to step in immediately and continue funding for various agencies. How quickly can you commit to an injection of funding, Michaelia Cash?

MICHAELIA CASH: Well, what I'd say is that since 2013, since we were elected to government, we've actually invested more than a billion dollars to prevent and respond to violence against women and their children. As you know, we have a leadership role which is headlined by the national plan to reduce violence against women and their children in terms of the fourth action plan, which is now in its final 18 months. But that was a $340 million commitment. But just last year, we also invested in $150 million in domestic violence response- response package to address changing needs throughout COVID. So, I would say from the Federal Government’s perspective, our track record speaks for itself. We've actually delivered historic funding levels of funding to deal with the issues of family and domestic violence. The states and territories themselves actually have responsibility for frontline services. So I think we do need to, bear that in mind ...

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: Yeah. I think without getting into sort of tit for tat between you as the federal Attorney-General and Shannon Fentiman as the Queensland Attorney-General, what I'm hearing is that you're saying you've given the funding, Shannon Fentiman's saying we've exhausted the funding. Is there any more money going to come through? Because what we do know is the demand for services is still there.

MICHAELIA CASH: In relation to the $150 million, as I said during the pandemic, that was the additional funding that the Commonwealth Government applied. My understanding is the latest finding is the states and territories are yet to spend all of that money. So I would have to say, the states and territories need to have a look at what they are actually doing with that funding. But I would also say this: the Prime Minister made it very clear today that further funding will be provided across the board. We are currently, as you would expect, working through that process, we'll hand down our budget in approximately four weeks’ time and further announcements will be made then.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: Okay. Well, I mean, that's a really crucial sort of response there, because, as I said, Shannon, Fentiman has said that she's written to Minister Anne Ruston to say that Queensland has allocated all of its COVID-19 national partnership funding, the sector urgently needs more support. You're saying that that may well be forthcoming in the budget. So we'll keep in touch to see what eventually ...

MICHAELIA CASH: [Indistinct] I was going to say, there was a meeting yesterday of the women's safety ministers and these issues were discussed there.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: Attorney-General Michaelia Cash, can I just whip through a couple of the recommendations, which you've made it clear, all of which will be adopted. And there are 55 of them. A couple that stood out to me: recommendation 10, all Australian governments ensure children and young people receive school-based respectful relationships education. We've talked about that a lot on this program. My question for you is, will this be mandatory and not at the principal's discretion?

MICHAELIA CASH: Well, it's certainly something that we are currently working through, as you know, with the states and territories in relation to the respectful relationships program. You do need to ensure that it is age appropriate. You also need to ensure that you are providing training not just to the children, but also to young people themselves. So we are developing ourselves by age appropriate education resources. But what we need to do, because obviously states and territories, they deliver this on the ground, we're engaging with them. And I know the education minister is doing that with the state and territory government on their youth in government and non-government schools.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: Recommendation 17 is to amend the Sex Discrimination Act to introduce a positive duty on all employers to take measures to eliminate discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation. How do you see that playing out in practical terms? And also, how do you see that being enforced?

MICHAELIA CASH: Well, what we've already said is that there is actually already a positive duty under the model health and safety laws. So a person conducting a business or undertaking - so we'll call them an employer - they already have a positive duty to ensure that all persons in the workplace, including workers, are not exposed to health and safety risks. And this actually includes the risk of being sexually harassed. And certainly the commissioner in her report, she actually acknowledged the work health and safety regime, it does create duties to this effect. What we've said is that noting the existing positive duty that already exists, given that [audio skip] report says the current system is complex, confusing for victims and employers to navigate. We're going to assess whether the amendments that are proposed would create further complexity or duplication in the overarching legal framework. So we're going to work- and I'll discuss that with Kate, and we're going to work through that issue. Because what we don't want is to create even more complexity within the system when you already have a positive duty under a separate act.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: Michaelia Cash, I know you've got to go because it's a busy day for you, having launched this response alongside the Prime Minister this morning. But part of what occurs to me is that this is quite complex legal language. And in some cases, it talks about historical workplace sexual harassment. I mean, for a lot of people, at the end of the day, they'll be going, don't be an idiot at work. Be a decent human being. Do you think you can- I guess-

MICHAELIA CASH: I love what you said there. Absolutely. If only more of us actually reflected on that. And when you look at the statistics, unfortunately, clearly people don't, but that-

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: That's right. But my question was going to be, can you legislate decent behaviour?

MICHAELIA CASH: You can certainly put in place education and training programs across a range of sectors. You can put in place consequences for this type of behaviour. But this is why it is a holistic approach, looking from school age, teaching people about respectful relationships, all the way through to, for example, under the Work Health and Safety Act, you can be fined and in fact face criminal penalties if you are found to have breached the act in certain circumstances. So what the government needs to do within reason is address all of those situations from the education and training, right through to the criminal penalties.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: Very much appreciate your time this morning, Attorney-General.