BILL: Equal Opportunity in Parliament

In Parliament today, Mark spoke in support of amending the Equal Opportunity Act to ensure that sexual harassment by one Member of Parliament against another Member of Parliament will be covered by the law. The Act is clear that a Member of Parliament cannot sexually harass staff or anyone else, who in the course of employment, performs duties at Parliament House but there is no explicit mention of harassment against other MPs. Mark noted the importance of the Bill and the need for Parliament to be a leader in best practice and a model for others to follow.


Equal Opportunity (Parliament) Amendment Bill

As Australians, we like to think of ourselves as equal before the law and that regardless of one's position or status in society we are all bound by the same laws. As legislators, we know that this is not true. At worst, the law can be plain discriminatory. At best, there are inevitably loopholes and unintended consequences in our state laws. Technical matters are easily fixed, but fixing institutional problems always takes more effort.

When it comes to institutional reform, this is rarely more difficult than it is with Parliament. In many fields, Parliament has had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the modern world. As a consequence, Parliament has been described in many unflattering terms, including likening it to a 19th century boys club.

When it comes to laws governing the safety of the workplace and appropriate behavioural standards, most Australians would expect that these laws would be universal. When confronted with unacceptable behaviour, the average Australian would say, 'I don't care who you are; you can't behave like that.' Australians expect the same processes and consequences to follow inappropriate behaviour regardless of where you are in the workplace hierarchy.

Back in February, when debating a motion calling for the Equal Opportunity Commissioner to be asked to conduct an inquiry into the conduct of the Member for Waite at the now infamous 2019 crossbench Christmas party, I said:

When high profile people behave badly there is usually plenty of collateral damage, and that is the case here. That is why I think we owe it to our work colleagues to not only sort out the events of Friday the 13th but also to make sure that if something similar ever happens again in the future, it would be dealt with quickly and appropriately…

Which brings us precisely to the purpose of this bill.

The problem this bill seeks to remedy is that section 87 of the Equal Opportunity Act does not explicitly state that sexual harassment by one Member of Parliament against another Member of Parliament is covered. The Act is quite clear that a Member of Parliament cannot sexually harass staff, whether that be their own staff, the staff of other MPs, the staff of the Parliament or in fact anyone else who in the course of employment performs duties at Parliament House. So external contractors working in the building are covered and so, too, are unpaid workers such as interns and work experience students, but there is no explicit mention of harassment against other MPs. This bill makes it clear that this circumstance is covered.

Back in February, I stated my view that the provisions of section 87(6c)(d) could be interpreted to cover the situation where one MP sexually harasses another. However, it does require some legal gymnastics because the words are 'any other person who in the course of employment performs duties at Parliament House.' I said back in February that this is probably broad enough to cover situations where the victim is another MP; however, I also said back in February that it would be far better to make it explicit rather than relying on convoluted legal interpretation. This bill clarifies and makes explicit what was previously a potential lawyers' picnic.

As an aside, I would be interested if the Minister could answer a question I have about the scope of section 87 as it relates to conduct by MPs outside Parliament House. For example, there are dozens of staff, contractors, interns and work experience students who do not necessarily work in Parliament House but work in a member's external electorate office: are they covered by section 87?

The Act also prohibits sexual harassment in any workplace, but I am always nervous when it comes to statutory interpretation because when you have a specific provision in an Act—as we have in the case of Members of Parliament and subsection (6c)—it can be regarded as the final word on the matter, or covering the field, with other catch-all provisions interpreted as not applying to that situation. I would appreciate if the Minister could look at this because it would be most unfortunate if the rules that cover Parliament House do not also cover electorate offices. If it proves to be a potential problem then this bill would be the place to fix it.

In conclusion, I think it would be a shame if this bill was to be seen only as a minor technical fix-up. I think it is far more important than that, and that is because the institution of Parliament needs to be and needs to be seen as a leader in best practice and a model for others to follow. We make the laws of this state and the public rightly expects us to ensure our own house is in order before we tell others how they should behave. I am pleased to support the second reading of the bill.