I love how everyone is so excited the government has agreed to adopt all 55 of the recommendations from the Respect@Work report.
Me too. Except my memory is a long one and I have a few words for you. The Hayne royal commission.
But hold on, some background for you. The Australian Human Rights Commission's sex discrimination commissioner, Kate Jenkins, delivered this report into sexual harassment in the workplace to the federal government some time late in 2019. For weeks, journalists were ringing the relevant minister - one Chrisitan Porter - asking for news about when there would be a response to the report. The report and the pandemic hit our inboxes around the same time, in March 2020. The report was ignored.
In the meantime the incidence of family violence was soaring, so there was some attention to that category of violence against women. But the report languished, and continued to languish.
Enter former Liberal Party staffer Brittany Higgins, who early this year stormed on to the national stage with an allegation of workplace sexual assault which horrified everyone.
We didn't need to have daughters, as the Prime Minister seemed to have to, to recognise that sexual assault anywhere is wrong, but it is made worse when your employers deny and deflect and demean. Higgins's story was an extension of earlier revelation in the media by Dhanya Mani and Chelsey Potter of their own experiences of sexual assault.
We knew from the work of researcher Maria Maley that political workpaces were toxic binfires and the people within had few rights (and now we know that also means no support when it comes to allegations of rape).
And here we are, over a year since the report lobbed into the Attorney-General's office, and the government's response is: "The government sets out its strong, long-term commitment to building a culture of respectful relationships in Australian workplaces by agreeing to (in full, in part or in principle) or noting all 55 recommendations in the report."
At least that tells the truth of what will really happen. "In principle" means stuff all in the long run. Let me remind you of the last vital report the government ignored.
Jeff Morris is the bloke who blew the whistle on the Commonwealth Bank. HIs revelations about dodgy financial planning to journalist Adele Ferguson led, in part, to the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry under the eye of Kenneth Hayne.
Remember how often the Coalition resisted that inquiry? A zillion times.
They were dragged kicking and screaming into the royal commission. We got there in the end, and we all thought, phew, won't be ripped off by our banks anymore.
What does Jeff Morris say about this government's response to the Respect@Work report?
"I would say you can't believe a word this government says. They are shamelessly attempting to renege on the recommendations of the banking royal commission," says Morris.
He also recalls the hope he had when the government said it would reform whistleblowing laws, but that too was a lie.
"This is the government itself which said it would protect whistleblowers like me. They say one thing and they do another. It is becoming clear how untrustworthy they are."
Well, yeah. Now the government is trying to roll back responsible lending protections while we aren't watching. [I know that sounds dull but it is one way to ensure banks don't continue to rip us off. Sure, banks have done a good job during the pandemic. Doesn't mean we return their thieving licence as a reward.] Jeff wants to remind me that while I might have a bee in my bonnet about banks, the banks will take whatever licence the government gives them.
"There is a genuine failure of institions, but the government is leading to that decline because it has no standards and no moral compass," he says.
His view is that, just as it did with the banking royal commission, the government finally responded to Respect@Work because it had been backed into a corner.
"It is just a response to the current political crisis and the moment they feel the coast is clear and the heat is off, they will renege because they have no conviction. It is all driven by expediency."
Harsh. But fair.
There is some good news. The government claims it will add sexual harassment to the definition of "serious misconduct" and make clear in the Fair Work Act that it is a reason to sack an employee. It will also broaden coverage of the Sex Discrimination Act to include MPs, judges and state public servants. This is fabulous, and I know that there are some who must be terrified right now. Good. Real consequences for sexually harassing staff at work. That will be a first. I won't however hold my breath.
But we also have the new Attorney-General, Michaelia Cash, saying that we don't really need to change legislation to require employers to proactively stamp out sexual harassment because "a positive duty already exists for employers under the Work Health and Safety Act". And that's working so well.
Cash says we want consistency. I'd settle for punishment. If we don't act immediately - and thoroughly - we will still be in the place we are now, a place where women don't feel safe at work.
And here's a brief reminder - Kate Jenkins' report only deals with the workplace. We still have the bigger challenge of changing the rest of the world, because we deserve to be safe on the train, the bus, the parks and our homes.
It will take more than this government's response to make that happen.
- Jenna Price is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University and a regular columnist.