09 April 2021

SUBJECT: Proposed changes to the Sex Discrimination Act.

SUBJECT: Proposed changes to the Sex Discrimination Act.


BEN O’SHEA, HOST: The federal government is set to amend the Sex Discrimination Act to include politicians and judges, in response to a report by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins. It was delivered way back in January 2020. Federal Labor Member for Brand Madeleine King joins me now. Welcome back to the show, Madeleine. 


O'SHEA: Now, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said adopting all 55 recommendations of Kate Jenkins report was a game changer. What do you call it? 

KING: Well I don’t know if it is game changer. We’ve had to wait for any kind of change from this government, we’ve had to wait fifteen months. This is a government that has had fifteen months to consider a very extensive report from the sex discrimination office, and yet we've had a rushed announcement. Not all 55 recommendations are being implemented in full. There are carve-outs and bits and pieces of it. Some are, some aren't. That's not entirely clear from the government's announcement at its press conference last night, and then I note that the detail came out later. So, it's a bit of spin from the government. But you know, having said that, at last, they're looking at it. It shouldn't have taken the incident. The terrible, tragic, alleged rape of Brittany Higgins and the other conduct in the Parliament House to make them finally take notice of this report from Kate Jenkins.

O'SHEA: A couple of words there that you said Madeleine really jumped out at me. One was that it was rushed through, the second was the word spin. The report came out a year ago. Why do you think the federal government has chosen now to announce it was acting on it?

KING: Because I think they've been reminded that the report existed. I think what happened is that the report got done, a lot of people did a lot of hard work, there was a lot of consultation carried out by Jenkins and her team, and it got put on the shelf by the former Attorney General. Now there's an extraordinary movement in the country of women who are distressed by what's going on in their own workplaces, what's going on in my workplace, and what do you know, the report comes back into the limelight. As well it should, but not before at the time. The problem with now releasing support, or pseudo support for some of the recommendations, is that in that fifteen months the government has not undertaken consultation with business and community groups around those recommendations. That has not happened, and if you were going to take that long to respond to that report, you want to make sure you've done a bit of work before you've done the response. But this government has failed to do that at all. They've pulled it out of the backdoor, dusted it off, had a quick look at what they could do, what they can't do, what they might do, or think about doing, and then done another media release on it.

O'SHEA: Do you think it's an exercise in PR for the government as much as anything else?

KING: Absolutely. I think it's turning to something that existed, that should have had more attention paid to it at the time. But I guess we should be grateful for small mercies. At last, they're looking at the issue of sex discrimination in the workplace and respect at work. But it's all spin and no substance from this government. Having said that, we will look at these recommendations, well we've looked at these recommendations, but we will look at the government's response to the recommendations carefully and prosecute, and quite frankly try and get more of the recommendations put through the Parliament and have an adequate response from the government.

O'SHEA: Well, the government has called for Labor to support the legislation when it is brought before Parliament. Do you see that this is something that you would support in its current form? Obviously, you have to see what the legislation will be. Do you see a possibility where they might try and wedge you on this issue?

KING: There's no issue on which the government won't try and wedge Labor, Ben. I'm confident that will happen. It is a positive thing that this report is now being taken seriously and that some measures in it are being implemented. So Labor will seek to support what it can but trying to make everything bipartisan, such that an opposition party can't call out deficiencies in a governments reaction to a report like this, is not the right way for our system to work. Labor has a responsibility to call out the government when it's tapering over the holes into its own policy, or its policy response, to reports like this one from the Sex Discrimination Commissioner. So, we will look at it, we will look at the legislation, as you say I've no doubt much of it we will support. I predict that we will find it inadequate. I can't guarantee that, but that's what I think will probably happen. The legislative response from the government will be inadequate. Right now, there are things that government can do immediately. There are things within Scott Morrison's power to show that he's taking the issue of sexual discrimination and harassment seriously, and one of them is throwing Andrew Lamming out of the Liberal Party. He can't sack an elected member of Parliament, but he sure can move them out of the party, and if he did that, that would show he's taking these matters seriously. 

O'SHEA: We certainly haven't seen him make many moves towards doing that. Looking at what the government said last night, do you think that the proposed changes to the act will protect women in Canberra?

KING: It's not always about legislation. You hope legislation can do it all, but it simply can't. There's a cultural issue within the Parliament that has developed over decades, in my opinion, and that is an issue around power. That is why it is hard for any party to introduce the idea of quotas to make sure more women get elected. Once you do that, men that may have expected to get elected for many years in their clubs, in their schools, or whatever, lose that grasp into power, their pathway into power. So, it is challenging. It was hard for the Labor Party to introduce quotas, but we did it, and it has transformed our parliamentary party. This is what the Liberal Party is grappling with. I commend those women like Karen Andrews and others who are trying to push for this move. Once you change that dimension of the building, who is actually in it, whether it's members, senators or staff, that you're able to change the culture. I've said this before, if you can't change the culture in Parliament House to protect women, for women to be able to walk around safely without having to worry about potentially being attacked, what hope has the country got. This should be the model of behaviour across the country, and it's distressingly sad as an elected member that it isn't.

O'SHEA: Now victims will have two years to make a complaint instead of six months if the changes go through Parliament. How significant is that?

KING: That is significant because we know that when you have been harassed or discriminated against, it takes a while to process what has actually happened to you. It's a did that just happen kind of moment that people have but don't necessarily want to talk about because they don't quite believe it still happens. Yet it does, so extending that period is important. It's important for all employers to be really positively aware that they should not discriminate on any grounds, but sexual grounds are the ones we're talking about. There has to be a positive onus on employers to make sure they're not doing it, and quite frankly, we find that most employees do not discriminate. They make sure they've got good workplaces. For those who don't, there needs to be an ability for people to raise these complaints and have enough time to do so.

O'SHEA: Is it possible do you think that when the legislation goes through, assuming it does, that if victims now have two years to make a complaint, we might see complaints emerge from Canberra?

KING: It is entirely possible. Yes, absolutely, and so they should. Let the light shine in is something I believe in strongly. If people have been harassed or discriminated against, they should feel free to make a complaint. In saying that, it's much easier to say than for people to raise those issues because they will still fear for their future, and sometimes it is very traumatising. Who can be bothered going through the struggle again and facing it all? So, I don't want to make it sound like this cures all. Just by me saying everyone come and tell your story doesn't mean they are able to. It's much more complex and more challenging than that. So, legislation like this is not going to be the cure-all. The cure-all, in my opinion, is everyone having a look at the culture in their own workplaces and making sure they really walk the walk, do what they say they're going to do, and have these non-discriminatory open workplaces with good and positive cultures.

O'SHEA: If there can be one positive to come out of what we've seen in Canberra over the past month and a bit, it's hopefully that those conversations are starting and more importantly, as you say, people are starting to walk the walk.

KING: Absolutely. People have got to make a positive commitment to look around at workplaces. We're all very busy. I get that, but you've got to take a breath and have a look at what's happening in your own workplace. If you see it happening for an MP in another office, it's worth speaking to other members about what they perceive is happening. I think those open conversations about making a positive workplace that people want to go to and we fairly have, but right now, who wants to work for a Member of Parliament in a workplace that has been scandalised by these kinds of unacceptable behaviours. I want my workplace to be somewhere that young women, young men, older women and older men want to come and work and be really proud of working there. It's only by taking these positive steps and actually doing the job that's going to happen, Ben.

O'SHEA: Well, that's the dream. Federal Labor Member for Brand Madeleine King, thanks for your time again this morning.

KING: No worries, Ben.