Bullying, Young People and the Law Symposium
The Alannah and Madeline Foundation
Sir Zelman Cowen Centre, Victoria University
I acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of the land we are on and I pay my respects to their elders, past and present. And to those other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are here today.
Since I got your invitation, I was made Minister for Education, so the workplace bullying I was to speak of now extends to the schoolyard, and to everyone from five to sixty-five, and even beyond.
Bullying is one of the few things we all know about. We have been there. It is as vivid in our memories when we were kids as a broken arm or a stay in hospital away from our family.
Bullying tortures the souls of our kids at a time when they seek to assert their own identity, their own place in the world. It undermines our children’s confidence not just in themselves, but in those around them, in an environment where being able to seek help and guidance from peers and teachers is essential to learning.
It is worse than disempowerment. It can be, in a schoolyard, the end of almost everything.
In the workplace, it is nearly as bad with just as serious consequences. According to the Productivity Commission it is costing between six and thirty-six billion a year. Small businesses and big businesses lose that much, probably, by the delays, the inefficiencies, the stupidities and the legal costs it occasions.
And it sometimes costs lives. My friends Damien and Rae Panlock know this, and it’s something they found out too late.
Their daughter Brodie, aged nineteen, lost to them forever after suffering months of relentless bullying in the cafe she worked at.
The staff and the owner were eventually fined over one hundred thousand dollars in total but Brodie isn’t here anymore, and Damien and Rae, bereft of the memories, and the grandchildren they now won’t have, will have to learn to live without them.
Money can never compensate, can never restore things to the way they were before.
It never should have happened.
No parent deserves to go through that. No sister, no brother, no cousin.
Bullying and harassment have no place in the Australian workplace, nor in Australia; the home of the fair go.
You should be able to go to work, and come home safe.
That is the Australian way.
Last year about three hundred people and companies gave evidence to a government inquiry on workplace bullying.
And it proved workplace bullying to be a hidden pandemic. So many people said, ‘It’s happened to me.’
It meant for some, not just psychological injury, and physical injury, and misery in the staff canteen, but the loss of a job and a good and worthwhile career.
Workplace bullying reduces employee morale and productivity, increases absenteeism and staff turnover, increases workers’ compensation costs and results in a loss of business reputation.
In February 2012, I tabled the Government’s response to the report by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Employment – Workplace Bullying “We just want it to stop”.
The Committee made 23 recommendations to prevent bullying in the workplace and help the victims and their employers to respond to it effectively.
The Committee recommended the Commonwealth Government encourage state and territory governments to ensure criminal laws are as extensive as Brodie’s law.
The Attorney General, Marl Dreyfus has already written to his state and territory counterparts asking them to consider reviewing their criminal laws in relation to bullying.
The Committee recommended Safe Work Australia urgently progress the draft work, health and safety Code of Practice on managing the Risk of Workplace Bullying.
That draft Code has been released for a period of public comment, which has just closed this week.
Public comments are currently being considered by Safe Work, which includes representatives from each state and territory.
The Committee recognised that the draft Code provides significant practical guidance to employers and workers about prevention and resolution strategies.
I understand the concerns of a quality assurance system for workplace and is a different approach to having a code of practice applying to everybody, no matter the size or type of business.
Within a quality assurance framework you would expect each business to develop their own code of practice, appropriate for their organisation, no matter what size and type.
They would be expected to implement this and would be audited to ensure it has been effectively implemented and they are dealing with bullying appropriately.
The Committee also recommended the Government provide a fast, individual right of recourse to focus on helping people stop and resolve bullying matters quickly and inexpensively.
Fair Work Amendment Act 2013
In June 2013 the Australian Parliament passed the Fair Work Amendment Act 2013.
Regrettably, the legislation did not receive bipartisan support. The Opposition missed an opportunity to stop the negativity.
This Act, for the first time in this country’s history, gave jurisdiction to our workplace umpire, the Fair Work Commission to hear and resolve a workplace incidence of bullying.
We know that harmony in the workplace means the business does better. An unresolved complaint, if not dealt with, and left to fester, contaminates an entire office, erodes team spirit, and hurts everyone in connection with it.
So we’ve made it easier to get to the Commission, and easier for them to deal with it.
Under the new laws, bullying is recognised as repeated unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker, or a group of workers of which the individual is a member, that creates a risk to health and safety.
Reasonable management action, conducted in a reasonable manner, is completely excluded. These laws are clear and do not prevent performance management and employee discipline.
To assist the company to an earlier outcome and a swifter resolution, the Fair Work Commission will be required to commence dealing with a matter within 14 days of an application being made. This may include seeking further information from the parties, conducting a conference to try and resolve the matter, or conducting a hearing.
Where a negotiated resolution proves impossible, or difficult, the Fair Work Commission will have the power to make an order to prevent bullying there in the future.
A breach of an order made by the Commission will attract a fine of up to $10,200 for an individual or $51 000 for a body corporate.
This doesn’t replace existing work health and safety obligations on employers and workers and the work done by work health and safety regulators.
It does however shift the focus to stopping and preventing what in some is a human tendency and in some a sadistic pleasure.
The Fair Work Commission can dismiss applications and order costs on the grounds that they are frivolous or vexatious or without reasonable prospect of success, despite some recent media commentary to the contrary.
And the Fair Work Commission does not have the power to award compensation.
To support the Fair Work Commission’s new jurisdiction, the Government provided $21.4 million in the last Budget to support its work to prevent workplace bullying.
Bullying in Schools
Merely talking about it is, of course, a big step towards its eradication.
But we need, I fear, to start where bullying starts – in, and around, our schools.
A study by the Queensland University of Technology of over 3000 school students found almost half of young Australians surveyed report being bullied face-to-face, online or both.
Bullying in the school grounds is perhaps as old as the concept of school.
Yet the digital age has extended its insidious reach well beyond the school gate.
Through social media, mobile phones, chat rooms and the internet, it is now possible – quite literally – to be bullied 24 hours a day.
- About 30 per cent of students reported they had been 'traditionally' bullied compared to 15 per cent of students who said they had been cyberbullied.
- But cyberbullying victims reported significantly higher levels of social problems, anxiety levels and depression than those who were bullied face-to-face.
There is a generation of our kids who are entering school having known only the digital age. From birth, their every move has been photographed and documented through Facebook or YouTube.
They have grown up with aps and iPhones, and texts and emails, and they are more connected, more hooked up, more hooked in, than many of us can comprehend.
And as the digital age marches on, it is incumbent on us to ensure that the schoolyard bully doesn’t march on with it, and begin to prevail.
Alannah and Madeline Foundation
I salute the Alannah and Madeline Foundation and their role in helping to look after children so threatened, and bruised, and sometimes physically hurt.
The Australian Government provided $3 million to the Foundation for a national pilot of its eSmart cyber safety initiative to help schools create a culture of the smart, safe and responsible use of digital technologies.
E-smart is now in 1,600 schools and its success has meant state governments are also funding this program now.
National Safe Schools Framework
Federal, state and territory governments are all at work on the problem in schools.
The overarching entity, the National Safe Schools Framework, is made up of nine key aims for a safe environment for protect student wellbeing and safety. Importantly, it provides:
- an online audit, advice and resource system for all Australian schools
- examples of how policies on student wellbeing, building resilience and preventing bullying can be put into practice
The Safe Schools Hub
In addition, a safe school hub provides schools, parents and communities with a single destination for information and resources and counselling on school safe strategies underpinning the National Safe School Framework.
The Government has put up just under $4 million in funding to Education Services Australia, which is a body supported by all levels of government to develop and manage the Hub.
It includes a Safe Schools Toolkit with video case studies and lessons and lectures and interviews designed specifically for teachers, and a Safe School Audit Tool to help schools review, improve, refine and refocus their current approaches.
Other initiatives supporting wellbeing
On a broader note, the Australian Government is putting in over $125 million towards a range of cybersafety measures to address online risks.
This helps parents and educators protect children from inappropriate material on the internet.
These include educational, international cooperation, research and law enforcement measures.
The Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy offer the Cybersafety Help Button provides internet users, particularly children, with central access point for cybersafety advice and information.
In part, the Government’s Better Schools Plan is about providing a safe environment for every kid by delivering new resources to tackle bullying and help teachers get on top of behaviour management.
We want to ensure every Australian student gets the very best start in life, which means they need to feel safe at school, and as much as humanly possible, safe on the way home from school, and safe at home when their phone rings, or when their computer signals an incoming message.
We want our kids to leave school and go out into the great world as resilient and balanced young adults.
The needs based funding model allows us to better understand what our teachers and principals are going through in the classroom and the playground and the gymnasium and the sporting field.
I passionately believe that providing schools and teachers with the tools and support they need will go a long way to preventing bullying in the first place.
We are all creatures of the past, and we all remember witnessing or being part of things that shameful or confronting in what should have been our golden years.
We remember, of course we do, the bullying of the kid who could never quite keep up in class, or make the first 18.
Of a person with disability who was left out, sneered at or spoken down to, simply by virtue of having been born with an impairment.
Or the colleague who was harassed into retirement because they didn’t, quote, ‘fit in’.
In 2013 Australia, it is no longer acceptable to turn a blind eye, or to claim ‘innocent fun’, or ‘kids will be kids’, or ‘we didn’t realise it meant that much to him’, or ‘to her’, or ‘they didn’t have a sense of humour’.
The National Day of Action Against Bullying and Violence, held in March each year, calls on school communities across Australia to ‘take a stand together’ against the bullying and violence, and the stripping down of pride to bone and marrow and nerve ends till it snaps and terrible things happen.
I think the response to this initiative shows a good deal. It shows that people do want to take a stand against what we all remember being diminished by, and wounded by.
Like most difficult challenges, victory is not measured in miles, it is measured in inches. But the first inch counts, and it starts a movement onwards, to a better place in the heart of humankind.
Today is another crucial step forward in that direction.
We can and we must put an end to this form of torture, this ignorant, careless hurt of our fellow creatures in our workplaces and, more importantly, in our schools.
I very much look forward to working with you in achieving that common goal.