This federal government will not fix sexual harassment at work. Not at your work, nor at mine. Members of the government don't even appear to be all that interested in fixing what happens in their own workplace. This government is not interested in listening to women, except the ones in its own party.
Only six of the recommendations from Kate Jenkins' landmark Respect@Work report are going to be adopted - that's six from 55, mind you. While the bill prohibits sexual harassment, it does absolutely nothing to stop sexual harassment from happening in the first place.
As Michele O'Neil, president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, tweeted on Thursday: "Scott Morrison and the whole of his women's cabinet just voted against putting all of the Respect@Work report. Every single time, he lets down the women of Australia."
This is happening with workplace safety. It is also happening with the invitation-only round tables at the National Summit on Women's Safety. Antoinette Braybrook of Djirra, a Victorian family violence prevention and legal service for First Nations people, is attending as Victorian delegate. She says successful advocacy finally ensured an invitation for the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Family Violence Prevention and Legal Services Forum. She sincerely hopes the round tables will be well organised, because so far they haven't been. Papers and an agenda were only provided at the very last minute.
"We feel strongly there needs to be a dedicated summit for First Nations women," she says.
There is no transparency when it comes to those with input to this summit. It's nearly impossible to see who is going and whose input will be considered. As far as I can tell, it's a closed guest list chosen by those who have been ignoring the voices of women forever.
Voices of women need to be at the heart of these transformations. Crucial changes need to be in the hands of women. It is utterly baffling to me that the women's cabinet does not think a positive duty on employers to take reasonable steps to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace is key to a shift in thinking.
Of the many important recommendations in the Jenkins report, the most significant, the positive duty, has been left out. It is the one recommendation which would ensure that employers work to make workplaces safe. The way it is now, all the responsibility lies on the shoulders of the person being harassed. Right now it takes immense bravery to complain to an employer. Imagine if, instead, we had a system where employers took reasonable steps to prevent sexual and sex-based harassment at work.
As a result of the government's decision to reject the positive duty, it has now been left to the states to sort out. Attorney-General Michaelia Cash says we have regulators in each of the states to address workplace health and safety.
But Hall and Wilcox industrial lawyer Fay Calderone says shifting the burden to state regulators would be chaotic. We don't have codes of practice to look at what this will mean. Each state and territory regulator would have to initiate separate units to investigate sexual harassment and then determine what compliance looks like. Plus how on Earth are we going to get trauma-informed investigators to deal with this in a consistent manner across jurisdictions? Calderone makes excellent points.
"We have to have a federal approach to have consistency," she says.
One Nation leader Pauline Hanson said the anti-harassment laws would lead to persecution of men.
"It's like we're raising a nation of sooks," she said.
Apparently that powerful critique has shrivelled the government's intent to nothingness. How is it that Pauline Hanson gets to have this power? It is a disgrace.
While both of these cock-ups are happening right now, there's one other important recommendation made in the Jenkins report which is being ignored: Working Women's Centres in every state and every territory. These are brilliant organisations which have been worn away by years of neglect, and now we need them more than ever. Abbey Kendall is the director of the WWC in South Australia, and says the centre gets fantastic support from the state Liberal government. She is calling on both the federal government and all the other state and territory governments to get out there and either re-establish centres where they have closed or fund the ones currently in peril, including those in the Northern Territory.
They have never been more needed. It is just possible that the work of Brittany Higgins in highlighting workplace sexual harassment and assault will mean many others will also have enough support and bravery to tell their stories, and Working Women's Centres provide the support to make bravery possible. If we can't accept that we need a positive duty, we must ensure women have the means to get the help they need.
"We don't want a culture where we expect the onus to be on the victim or survivor and therefore make women take the first step and react to sexual harassment, as opposed to stopping it from happening in the first place," says Kendall.
"If we don't have a positive duty and we are not focused on preventing sexual harassment, then every service provider must be funded as a stand-alone service. We aren't doing anything to eliminate the problem, so the requirement will be huge. That's a job bigger than the services we have."
The summit round tables are running this week and next. I don't know who is going, either as a participant or as a person with delegated authority. I don't know whether any change will come. I do not know who has power. This government is the first to have a special women's cabinet, with added Barnaby Joyce. I have no idea what the women's cabinet is doing.
At the outset of this column I said this federal government won't fix sexual harassment at work. I do not know what they will fix, or even if they have the will to fix what ails women.
- Jenna Price is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University and a regular columnist.