Scott Morrison has unveiled plans to stamp out sexual harassment in the workplace, with the government to adopt all recommendations of the Respect@Work report in part or in full.
The new women’s taskforce met for the first time on Tuesday and discussed the government’s response to the report handed down by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins more than a year ago.
Mr Morrison confirmed the federal government had accepted all 55 recommendations – which he described as a “game changer” – either wholly, in part, or in principle.
The measures would place more onus on employers to stamp out sexual harassment and discrimination.
“Sexual harassment is unacceptable. It is 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 told reporters in Canberra.
“This is a culture we have to change across our society.”
Mr Morrison said the government would prioritise prevention of sexual harassment and make the complaint system easier to navigate.
He said Ms Jenkin’s report also revealed an urgent need for better data on sexual harassment.
The report found nearly 40 per cent of women and 26 per cent of men had suffered sexual harassment in recent times.
Attorney-General Michaelia Cash said the alarming rate was “unacceptable” and the cabinet was “united in our response” to the report.
“In our response, what we do is set out our long-term commitment to preventing and addressing sexual harassment in the workplace,” she said.
She said Ms Jenkins was “very pleased” with the government’s adoption of her recommendations that would simplify an “incredibly confusing” system for employers and employees.
After months of criticism directed at the government over its handling of the Brittany Higgins rape allegation, Ms Cash said the government would introduce a “suite” of changes.
The definition of serious misconduct under the Fair Work Act will be amended to include sexual harassment, which will also be included as a valid reason for dismissal.
“Our aim is to reduce complexity but also strengthen the national framework for addressing sexual harassment,” she said.
The Sex Discrimination Act would also be extended to include MPs and judges, while a complaint period would be extended from six months to 24 months.
But Labor frontbencher Kristina Keneally said that commitment could not be taken seriously while Andrew Laming, an LNP MP who admitted to harassing and bullying women online, remained in the Coalition.
“Give us a downpayment on that Prime Minister, give us a downpayment on that commitment,” she said.
“Boot Andrew Laming from the Liberal party-room (and) stop sheltering Andrew Laming in your government.”
She said the prime minister’s announcement lacked detail and did not reveal the reporting mechanisms which would be implemented.
Ms Cash confirmed that she agreed “in principle” with establishing a “positive duty” for employers, requiring them to actively stamp out sexual harassment and discrimination.
But more than a year since the report was handed down, Mr Morrison rejected suggestions the government had only been pressured into responding by two months of scandal.
He claimed the COVID-19 pandemic had put several issues on the backburner.
“Last year was a very extraordinary year, we would all agree with that,” he said.
“There were many issues that we were not allowed to advance last year because of the demands and pressures of COVID.
“Not one occasion was I asked about this matter in the House of Representatives, nor were my ministers.”
The federal government hoped to introduce the recommendations as part of a legislative package before the May budget, Mr Morrison said.