What’s Been Happening in Australia in Relation to Sexual Harassment, Discrimination and Bullying from 9 October 2023 – 15 October 2023

Lawyers and Barristers Placed on Notice in Relation to Sexual Harassment

The watchdog for the legal profession has warned that barristers and solicitors may face disbarment or losing their right to practice if they fail to take adequate steps to prevent sexual harassment or discrimination of their staff. Practitioners will be closely watched as to how they comply with the new duties to prevent workplace sexual harassment when it commences in December. The legislation came into effect last December, but the commission’s powers to investigate and enforce compliance only come into force this year. Ms Anna Cody, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, has stated that the Human Rights Commission was “resourced up” in order to target workplaces that had not acted on this new duty, noting that professions “with especially poor records of sexual discrimination and harassment” will be the first to be addressed. The chief executive Victorian Legal Services Board and Commissioner Fiona McLeay stated that “we have been clear with the profession that sexual harassment is totally unacceptable and that any lawyer who engages in this behaviour in the workplace is breaching rules of professional conduct and opening themselves up to serious professional consequences, as well as possible civil and criminal liability.” Further, Ms McLeay said that “we’re hopeful that the commissioner beginning to enforce the positive duty is a reminder to those in the profession who haven’t already implemented these interventions and risk management tools to do so urgently.”

Ageism is a “Serious Problem” in Australia

A survey conducted by EveryAGE Counts found that 70% of respondents agreed that ageism is a “serious problem in Australia.” The survey involved more than 1,000 Australians over the age of 50 years. The co-chair and spokesperson of EveryAGE Counts, Richard Tickner, stated that the results demonstrate “rampant” prejudice against older people. Mr Tickner said that “ageism is not some hollow trendy word, and there was hard evidence that stereotyping against older people was damaging to the health and wellbeing of older Australians in many areas.” Mr Tickner described that ageism “often starts when people in their early 50s are denied jobs or promotions.” Further, he stated that “some older people may need support, but the bottom line is that it is best to see older people as individuals and not make general assumptions or gratuitous, thoughtless offensive jokes about their age.” The chief executive of Council of the Ageing Australia, Patricia Sparrow, stated that “reducing ageism in public policy, workplaces and community will unlock the experiences and talent of older people to benefit everyone.” Further, she said that “we know that one in three recruiters are open about their hesitancy in hiring an older person” and that “the problem is clear, the action we need to take is clear, and the benefits for every generation of taking action are also clear.”

New Data Finds Almost 1 in 2 Workers Experienced Bullying in the Workplace

Recent data released by the Australian Workers Union (AWU) has found that one in two Australian workers have experienced bullying, harassment and inappropriate behaviour in the workplace. Of the 1200 respondents, 49.87% reported experiencing “poor workplace relationships,” including bullying, harassment, discrimination and unreasonable workplace behaviour. A number of industries were included in the survey, including manufacturing, mining, construction, health and community services. Further, the survey found that 31% of respondents had suffered from a mental health injury in the last 12 months. The Productivity Commission has estimated that psychological and psychosocial injury costs the Australian economy $12.2 billion and $39.9 billion per year due to the loss of productivity and participation. National secretary for AWU, Paul Farrow, stated that “to see in black and white one in two Australian workers have experienced being bullied, harassed or exposed to conflict or inappropriate behaviour in their workplace is disturbing.” Further, he said that “we are seeing chronic levels of unrealistic workloads, poor training and exposure to traumatic incidents.” Mr Farrow stated that “last year all states in Australia brought in new laws to hold employers responsible for psychological and psychosocial hazards in the workplace, this survey is a wakeup call to them to start being proactive otherwise they will feel the consequences.”

Lack of Sexual Harassment Data in Australian Medical Workforce ‘Inexplicable’

A former medical director of the United Nations has stated that it is ‘inexplicable’ that Australia does not collect data on sexual harassment in its regular survey of trainee doctors. The Medical Board of Australia (MBA) sponsors the medical training survey, which records the quality of medical training, as well as “questions respondents on workplace culture, including experiences of harassment, racism, discrimination and bullying.” The survey does not specifically ask about sexual harassment and, instead, asks about general harassment. The chief executive of A Better Culture, Dr Jillann Farmer, stated that she has raised her concerns with the MBA, saying that “I have consulted with a number of workplace experts, and I have not found a single person who agrees that it is appropriate to bundle harassment and sexual harassment in together.” Further, Dr Farmer said that “although the word harassment appears in both, the dynamics and impacts – and in fact, the criminality in some cases – are completely different.” She stated that “the net impact of continuing to bundle them together is to silence the people who experience this – who are predominantly, but not exclusively, women.” A spokesperson for the MBA stated that “the board reviews questions every year and will consider whether more granular data – splitting out sexual harassment from harassment more widely – will help drive positive change and build a culture of respect in medicine.”

Perth Children’s Hospital Face New Reports of Alleged Sexual Safety Incidents

This week, the Mental Health Advocacy Service (MHAS) released its annual report which found that four serious sexual safety issues were among 68 potential serious issues from June 2022 to 2023. One of the four reports of alleged serious sexual safety incidents in relation to young mental health patients occurred at Perth Children’s Hospital. Sarah Pollock, the chief Mental Health Advocate for Western Australia, stated that one incident occurred after the alleged rape of a 13-year-old girl at Perth Children’s Hospital in January 2022. Ms Pollock stated that MHAS identified a serious issue if it presented an actual or potential risk in relation to consumer safety (including physical abuse, verbal/psychological abuse, sexual safety and financial abuse). An investigation that was carried out in relation to the January 2022 incident by the Office of the Chief Psychiatrist made 11 recommendations, and while all have been accepted, only seven have been implemented. Health Minister Amber-Jade Sanderson defended the delayed implementation in Parliament this week, stating that “that work of planning and going through that infrastructure process is ongoing. It needs to be planned very carefully.” Further, Ms Sanderson stated that “it is the only in-patient unit in the state which can support children and adolescents in an in-patient setting.” Premier Roger Cook stated this week that “sexual assaults obviously take a range of forms” and that “because of the complexity of the issues that these children face, because of the nature of the care that’s provided, we can’t always be everywhere at all times.”

Two Defamation Cases Between Linda Reynolds, David Sharaz and Brittany Higgins May Be Merged

Justice Solomon has decided to hold a strategic conference on 8 November in relation to the two defamation cases relating to Brittany Higgins and her partner David Sharaz to discuss whether the two cases should be merged. An issue in the case is the repeat cross-examination of former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins, who faced days of questioning in relation to the man accused of raping her. Senator Reynolds had claimed that Ms Higgins posted defamatory material about her on Instagram and X (formerly Twitter). Further, Ms Reynolds has alleged that Ms Higgins has breached the “non-disparagement” clause in a settlement over the contents of the Instagram post. Additionally, Senator Reynolds is suing Ms Higgins’ partner, David Sharaz, for defamation in relation to tweets and a Facebook comment he made in 2022. Ms Higgins alleged that she was raped in Parliament House in 2019 by Bruce Lehrmann inside the ministerial office of Senator Reynolds. Mr Lehrmann’s trial in the ACT Supreme Court was abandoned last year following juror misconduct. The prosecutors decided to not pursue further action after concerns were raised about Ms Higgins’ mental health. Mr Lehrmann has vehemently denied the accusations against him. Justice Solomon urged the parties in August to go to mediation and has previously expressed his concern over the “human cost” of litigation.

Indigenous Voice to Parliament Fails to Pass in Referendum

The Indigenous Voice to Parliament did not pass this week after Australians voted against enshrining the body and recognising First Nations peoples in the Constitution. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese stated that “the issues we sought to address have not gone away, and neither have the people of goodwill and good heart who want to address them.” The Australian Capital Territory, which did not count towards the state element of the double majority, was the only region to vote Yes. Mr Albanese stated that “we are all Australians, and it is as Australians, together, that we must take our country beyond this debate without forgetting why we had it in the first place. Because too often in the life of our nation and in the political conversation, the disadvantage confronting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has been relegated to the margins.”