New sex discrimination commissioner eyes fresh approach

By David Donaldson

February 12, 2016

George Brandis, Kate Jenkins and Michaelia Cash.

Despite having been an equal opportunity lawyer herself for much of her career, Australia’s new sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins thinks the fight against sexism has been “quite legalistic” following the introduction of equality laws in the 1970s and 80s.

Jenkins told ABC Radio’s John Faine that her strategic focus will be on four areas: sport, workplaces, education and the media. “Those are the four places that if you change those, you would shift the community,” she explained.

But first will come consultation. She says she will “start by talking to as many people as I can and really identifying whether there are things we’re missing”.

The former Herbert Smith Freehills partner and current Victorian equal opportunity and human rights commissioner was named as the successor to Elizabeth Broderick yesterday, filling the role that had been empty  since September.

By the time she starts her five year appointment in April, Australia will have been without a sex discrimination commissioner for seven months.

Jenkins suggests a broader approach is needed than the focus on policies, training and complaints procedures — just as the police can’t arrest their way out of the drug problem, you can’t litigate your way out of discrimination.

Despite many large organisations having had processes and policies in place for a good couple of decades, many — such as the ANZ bank, which was rocked by claims of lewd workplace conduct last month — still suffer entrenched sexism below the surface, she said.

“Lots of large organisations would, sadly, have a similar story, and in my current role I’ve heard those stories, but people are too petrified to speak out,” she said.

“The more we hear those stories, the more right thinking, normal citizens think: ‘that’s not okay and if there’s a little thing I can do I’ll do it’ — and that’s how we’ll get change.”

Compromise choice?

The long process that eventually led to her appointment as Australia’s sex discrimination commissioner — which saw Attorney General George Brandis admit earlier this week he had decided on a candidate in September before the Liberal leadership spill put his plans in disarray — has faint echoes of the political controversy that led to her elevation as Victorian equal opportunity and human rights commissioner.

Originally Hugh de Kretser was recommended by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission board for that job, but then-Victorian attorney general Robert Clark refused. The Labor opposition accused him of undermining the commission and the board resigned. Jenkins, who had worked with the commission for 20 years, emerged as a compromise candidate.

She has held the role at the head of the VEOHRC since 2013. During her time there she has worked on a range of gender-related projects, including the independent review into sex discrimination and sexual harassment, including predatory behaviour, within Victoria Police; establishing the Victorian-based the Male Champions of Change program and the upcoming review into equity and gender within the Metropolitan Fire Brigade and Country Fire Authority.

Her other work has included chairing the Disability Reference Group to address issues of discrimination for people with disabilities, overseeing the implementation of the recommendations of the Commission’s Beyond Doubt report, working with the Aboriginal Justice Forum, developing guidelines for transgender people in sport and co-chairing Play By The Rules.

She also sits on the Carlton Football Club and Heide Museum of Modern Art boards.

Rights in focus

Brandis praised Jenkins’ efforts in the gender and human rights fields.

“Ms Jenkins has an outstanding record in advancing gender equality and as a human rights leader more broadly.  This has been demonstrated in particular through her current role as Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner,” he said.

“We are deeply impressed by Ms Jenkins’ leadership on issues of sex discrimination and sexual harassment and thank her for agreeing to bring her dedication and energy to the national stage.

“We look forward to Ms Jenkins’ contribution to the work of the Australian Human Rights Commission where she will extend her productive relationships across the Australian Government and the broader Australian community, building on the outstanding work of her predecessor, Ms Elizabeth Broderick AO.”

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