Government’s respect road map still has a way to go – NFAW Opinion Piece SMH 9 April 2021

For more than 30 years, the National Foundation for Australian Women (NFAW) has been dedicated to promoting and protecting the interests of Australian women, including intellectual, cultural, political, social, economic, legal, industrial and domestic spheres.

Yet, rarely has there been a greater focus in Australia on gender equity. There is overwhelming national demand for equality and for cultivating a greater culture of respect. It is a pity that this interest has been generated by such flagrant breaches of the principles of equality and respect, but experience shows us that real action is often driven by attempts to clean up after massive failures.

Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations Michaelia Cash and Prime Minister Scott Morrison reveal the Roadmap For Respect in Canberra on Thursday.
Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations Michaelia Cash and Prime Minister Scott Morrison reveal the Roadmap For Respect in Canberra on Thursday.CREDIT:ALEX ELLINGHAUSEN

So, interest in this week’s first meeting of the cabinet’s Women’s Taskforce was high, not just in Canberra but across the country.

On the agenda was delivering the government’s response to the Respect@Work report. Delivered by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins more than one year ago, the report delivers recommendations for preventing and addressing sexual harassment. NFAW, along with many others, had written to the government to highlight the need to implement the 55 recommendations in full.

In its Roadmap for Respect, the government pledges to agree to (in full, in-principle, or in-part) or note all 55 recommendations. On the surface, a strong marketing tagline but NFAW has taken a closer look.

The reforms the government has agreed will be a significant step forward, with commitments that have long been outstanding. It is well overdue that the government has agreed to extend coverage of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 to judges and members of parliament, a particularly timely commitment that was not actually recommended in Respect@Work.

The Respect@Work Council will, over time, drive learning, alignment and continued attention to addressing the scourge of sexual harassment.

NFAW is pleased the government has committed to funding the Roadmap in the forthcoming Budget, although it does not yet include specific funding allocations. We will be watching closely to ensure that the Budget allocation is adequate. Women (and many men) are in no mood to accept half-hearted allocations to this important issue.

There are other areas where NFAW identified that the government has in fact rejected recommendations, even if it ostensibly “accepted” them. In particular, the failure to agree to impose a positive duty on employers to eliminate sexual harassment is not good enough. The federal Workplace Health and Safety Legislation imposes a positive duty, so it is difficult to see why the government would not align the Sex Discrimination Act. Likewise, the government has failed to agree that the Sex Discrimination Commission should have an own-motion power to audit workplaces for compliance with the positive duty, and to initiate inquiries into sexual harassment.

These are absolutely missed opportunities. The government said it would be willing to consider a power to conduct direct investigations where it refers the investigation itself, but has not stepped up to this recommendation. Wouldn’t Australians be better off if the commission could conduct an own-motion investigation into parliamentary behaviour?

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Minister for Women Marise Payne led the first meeting of cabinet’s new women’s taskforce.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Minister for Women Marise Payne led the first meeting of cabinet’s new women’s taskforce.CREDIT:ALEX ELLINGHAUSEN

While sexual harassment is rooted in disrespect, it is much more than bad behaviour. Collapsing it solely into a lack of civility overlooks the structural inequalities in which sexual harassment is embedded. To accelerate progress on gender equality, the government needs a deeper approach.

Many nations, especially the best performers on global rankings of gender equality (from which Australia has fallen far and fast) embed gender across the full range of policy-making. They recognise that key drivers of women’s inequality and harassment lurk within policies that aren’t conventionally considered to be biased or discriminatory, such as taxation, environmental protection, and economic development.

Applying a gender perspective to the budget process is best practice internationally. In 1984, when Australian introduced the world’s first Sex Discrimination Act, it also introduced the world’s first Women’s Budget Statement. Yet, the practice of gender budgeting in Australia has been discontinued.

Each year, NFAW publishes a Gender Lens report on the federal budget (through the volunteer effort of many talented women). It analyses budget commitments and assesses the ability of each program, and federal government spending as a whole, to support progress towards equality between women and men. Report cards have been mixed but generally disappointing. In 2021 and beyond, gender budgeting is required from the government if there is to be the “game changer” they claim to seek.

The time is overdue to deliver real, sustained, well-financed priority to addressing inequality and harassment. Without meaningful cultural and systemic change to address gender inequity, Australia will not regain its proud record of being a country that gives all a “fair go”. Australia will be less fair, less equal, less clever and less well positioned to respond to the challenges of the 21st Century.

Jane Madden (president) and Sally Moyle are directors of the National Foundation for Australian Women, a feminist organisation, independent of party politics and working in partnership with other women’s organisations.