Complaints and enquiries continue to be received by my office mainly in relation to the grounds of sexual harassment, race, age, and disability. Yet again, disability is the single-most common ground for discrimination complaints. In the past 12 months, they have increased proportionately as a result of COVID-19 and various public health policies and mandates.
A Guideline on Disability Employment Practices was launched to assist and encourage businesses to employ persons living with disability, and we continue to work collaboratively with organisations such as JFA Purple Orange and the Disability Information and Legal Assistance Unit within the Legal Services Commission to assist the community.
However, my office has limited ability to lead the type of change required to achieve significant reductions in the number of disability complaints. I particularly look forward to working with the Hon Nat Cook, Minister for Human Services and her department in the year ahead. I hope that our collective efforts will see a reduction in discrimination against people living with disability.
In last year’s Annual Report, I noted in respect of the Review into Harassment in the South Australian Legal Profession completed in April 2021 that the legal profession’s response to the review demonstrated a determination to ‘turn the ship around’. I remain of that view. Positive changes have been made by all parts of the profession.
The benefits of extensive, evidence-based reviews of harassment and discrimination in particular industries and workplaces are plain to see, especially when there is a determination to act on recommendations and implement change.
In contrast, I repeat the concern expressed a year ago that progress in respect of the Review into Harassment in the Parliament Workplace provides less cause for optimism. Published in February 2021, the Review contained 16 recommendations, one of which was that the implementation of the recommendations and their effect on culture and practice in relation to sexual harassment and discriminatory harassment be reviewed within 3 years.
While the Parliament resolved to establish a centralised People and Culture Unit following the recommendation to do so, recently I wrote to the Presiding Officers advising that I was unaware of the status of most of the 16 recommendations, and requested a progress report on each one. This included advice as to which ones have been completed, which are incomplete, which are underway, and an estimate of timeframes as to completion.
I was particularly keen to receive a comprehensive report given the number of new Members of Parliament and staff in place following the March election.
The letter of response did not include an update, but advised that the Presiding Officers will “inform the Parliament of certain matters relating to the report including recommendations…” during the Parliamentary sittings in September.
By then, it will be halfway through the 3 years from publication of the report to commencing another review. I remain concerned that progress has been inexplicably slow.
In the last 6 months, a number of approaches have been made to my office about bullying, intimidation, harassment and discriminatory conduct in several industries, most notably the hospitality sector. Some industry representatives have advised that such conduct is commonplace and that underreporting, a well-known hallmark of sexual assault and harassment, is widespread.
I met with industry body leaders in June, and will carefully assess the types of complaint mechanisms and supports that currently exist for workers in the industry. I will continue discussions with United Workers’ Union which is also concerned about the prevalence of harassment and sexual assault in the industry.
The hospitality industry, diverse in its nature, has endured significant challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and, understandably needs time to continue its recovery.
Nevertheless, the reviews undertaken by this office into harassment in the legal profession and the Parliamentary workplace highlighted systemic problems, identified entrenched deficiencies, and made sensible recommendations to address them. A similarly resourced review of South Australia’s hospitality sector is, in my view, desirable in the next 1-3 years.
Administratively, improvements to the operations of the office and the way it does business continue. A focus on complaint handling, from improved customer forms to the development of procedures for timely and consistent decision-making, has increased efficiency and provided a stronger dispute resolution service to the community.
I am thankful for the efforts of the staff in my office, as well as those in the Attorney-General’s Department who provide significant support in the areas of ICT, governance, finance and human resources.
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