AG invites consultation for outstanding Respect@Work reforms

By Melissa Coade

February 15, 2022

Michaelia Cash
Attorney-general Michaelia Cash. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Attorney-general Michaelia Cash has opened consultation about law reform to implement the recommendations of the national Respect@Work report that was published in 2020.

In a statement, Senator Cash said the feedback would help the government decide on the next steps to consider the legal frameworks protecting people from sexual harassment in Australian workplaces.

“I encourage everyone — including legal experts, legal practitioners, representative organisations, employers, businesses and individuals who have experienced sexual harassment — to get involved,” Senator Cash said.

People interested in making a submission can complete a survey (closing on 18 March) and download a consultation paper from the Attorney-General’s Department website. 

The AG also noted that the government had already implemented six Respect@Work report recommendations – tackling nearly half of the law reforms proposed by Jenkins. 

“The Respect at Work Act was a significant achievement and immediately strengthened the overarching legal frameworks with respect to sex discrimination and sexual harassment in workplaces,” she said of new laws that commenced in September last year. 

A total of 13 out of 55 of the report’s recommendations addressed the scope to change commonwealth legislation. This consultation concerns the outstanding six recommendations for law reform.

Last April, prime minister Scott Morrison said all of the Respect@Work recommendations were ‘either agreed wholly, in part, or in principle’. One of his major announcements then was that MPs and judges would be subject to the Sex Discrimination Act, making them subject to complaints for sexual discrimination to the Human Rights Commission.

The PM also outlined five core principles underpinning the government response to the Respect@Work report prepared by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins. 

The principles included: the right to be safe at work; the need for evidence-based policy; a focus on prevention; that the law must be clear; and legislative reform must accord with ‘broader legal frameworks and fundamental legal principles’. 

Senator Cash confirmed more than $66 million in funding had been invested implementing relevant policies in the 2020-21 and 2021-22 budgets, adding that 42 of the 55 recommendations have been implemented or fully funded.

Meanwhile, in Cash’s home state, the WA Labor government has introduced three new codes of practice to deal with inappropriate behaviours in the workplace following ‘increasing concerns’ in several industries. 

These include a code of practice on workplace behaviour (misconduct, prolonged conflict, discrimination, harassment, sexual harassment and bullying); psychosocial hazards (violence, aggression, fatigue, burnout, stress and trauma); and violence and aggression (physical assault, verbal abuse, threats, intimidation and harassment). 

The state’s former operating code was modernised by the WA Commission for Occupational Safety and Health following consultation with industry, the unions and the community. 

WA industrial relations minister Bill Johnston said the government saw mental and physical health workplace safety as a major priority. These new protocols would help manage the risks unique to each workplace, he said. 

“Managing psychosocial hazards is the responsibility of employers, but it can be extremely challenging and a proactive and comprehensive approach is needed, hence these very specific codes,” Johnston said.

Owen Whittle, secretary of UnionsWA, welcomed a new code and commended the government for this work building on reform to work, health and safety laws. 

Modernising our codes to include better protection for working people from harassment, violence and bullying will be important for those most at risk, especially working women, young people, and those from diverse backgrounds,” Whittle said.

“A code of practice focused on psychological health is very welcome and important for those who experience work-related stress arising from insecure jobs, and high workloads as well as those who witness traumatic events or are exposed to other people’s traumatic experience.”

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