Politics

MPs and judges to be covered by sweeping new sexual harassment workplace laws

Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra. Source: AAP

Scott Morrison announced his government would accept all 55 recommendations of the Respect@Work report, as it faces enormous pressure to address women's safety in the wake of recent sexual harassment allegations.

Politicians and judges will be subject to the same sexual harassment laws as the wider population under major workplace reforms announced by the federal government.

Sexual harassment would officially become grounds for dismissal under recommendations backed by the government in its long-awaited response to the Respect@Work report. 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday announced his government would accept all 55 recommendations of the report into workplace harassment either wholly, in part, or in principle.

The report was the culmination of an 18-month inquiry conducted by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins examining the nature and prevalence of sexual harassment in Australian workplaces.  

Ms Jenkins handed the report to the government in January last year. The government's delayed response to its findings has recently become a point of scrutiny.

Mr Morrison said the government's response was about changing Australian workplaces to keep all people safe.   

"Sexual harassment is unacceptable," he told reporters in Canberra.

"It's not only immoral and despicable and even criminal, but particularly in the context of the Respect@Work report, it denies Australians, especially women, not just their personal security, but their economic security."

He described this behaviour as "immoral" and despicable", saying it risks denying women both personal and economic security.  

"It's important that as we address these issues, that we do it not in a way that sets Australians against each other," he said.

Attorney General Michaelia Cash said the report had found frameworks for addressing workplace harassment were both "complex" and "difficult to navigate" for workers and employers. 

She said the government's response wanted to "simplify" and "strengthen" the legal framework around addressing concerns over workplace harassment. 

"Our aim is to reduce complexity, but also strengthen the national framework for addressing sexual harassment," she told reporters.

Attorney-General Michaelia Cash at a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra.
Attorney-General Michaelia Cash at a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra.
AAP

The definition of serious misconduct across all workplaces would also be changed to include sexual harassment, meaning it would become a valid reason for dismissal.

Under the reforms, judges and politicians would be subject to the same sexual harassment laws as the wider population. Previously they had been exempt.

Under human rights laws, the scope for complaints would be extended from six months to two years to give victims more time to come forward. 

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Senator Cash said the government intended to implement a range of "legislative and regulatory reforms" to strengthen the nation's framework for addressing sexual harassment.

It comes as the government faces enormous pressure to address women's safety after recent rape and sexual harassment allegations.

The timing of the government's response also appears linked to its attempt to reset its approach to women's issues amid the political fallout over these concerns.    

Mr Morrison said the events of recent months had reinforced the need to act on concerns around workplace and sexual harassment.  

"It all starts with disrespect," he said. "That's where it starts and I would argue not just disrespect towards women, disrespect full stop." 

The Sex Discrimination Commissioner's report found that 39 per cent of women and 26 per cent of men had recently experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.   

"This is unacceptable," Senator Cash said.

Mr Morrison said the government had responded last year to nine of the 20 recommendations pertaining to federal responsibilities.
 
The federal government intends to work in consultation with states and territories in relation to responding to other recommendations within the report.  
 
A number of legislative changes would be required to enforce the reforms.
 
Mr Morrison said he was committed to taking action towards this by at least the end of June.

"But it’s important, I think, with such sensitive legislation, that we engage with the drafting of that legislation and we consult on that," he said. 

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