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Sexual harassment now a sackable offence under new laws

Sexual harassment will be a valid reason to fire someone under new federal laws.

Sep 02, 2021, updated Sep 02, 2021
Attorney-General Michaelia Cash. Photo: Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS)

Attorney-General Michaelia Cash. Photo: Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS)

Attempts by Labor, the Greens and crossbenchers to impose on employers a duty to prevent sexual harassment failed.

Employment Minister Michaelia Cash defended the bill as putting in place practical and immediate changes.

“The government has prioritised those reforms which could be implemented quickly and easily,” she told the Senate before the bill passed on Wednesday night.

“More complex reforms … will require additional consideration and consultation.”

The government voted down amendments including to put the onus on employers to prevent sexual harassment and bring in a new complaints process under the Fair Work Act.

It also rejected introducing 10 days of paid family violence leave as a universal right, as well as broadening the powers of the sex discrimination commissioner to instigate inquiries.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions labelled the government’s bill inadequate, saying the burden was still on women to enter into lengthy complaints processes at their own cost and risk.

“Prime Minister Morrison had an opportunity to back up his talk on sexual harassment at work and violence against women,” ACTU president Michele O’Neil said.

“Instead, his government voted against the very changes needed to make a difference.”

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The bill, which now goes to the lower house for the green light, clarifies sex discrimination laws extend to parliamentarians, their staff, the judiciary and all levels of government.

It also makes sexual harassment – defined as unwelcome and demeaning conduct that could reasonably be anticipated to offend, humiliate or intimidate – a valid reason for dismissal.

Sexual harassment is already prohibited under the existing Sex Discrimination Act, but the new laws are designed to make sure this is better understood.

Greens senator Larissa Waters accused the government of botching the legislation.

Labor senator Louise Pratt said it did not come close to the comprehensive recommendations put forward by commissioner Kate Jenkins.

Her report followed former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins’ allegation she had been raped in a minister’s office before the 2019 election.

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