Cash backs ‘exemplary’ executive of problem-riddled Rio Tinto to chair Safe Work

Industrial Relations Minister Michaelia Cash has defended the appointment of a Rio Tinto executive to chair Australia’s workplace safety watchdog despite her presiding over an environment of alarming rates of sexual harassment, racism and bullying in the workplace.

Senator Cash said Joanne Farrell, who looked after health and safety at the mining giant, was qualified to head Safe Work Australia, and stressed to a parliamentary hearing the executive was appointed before the findings of a damning report, and no wrongdoing was found against her.

Joanne Farrell was a health and safety executive at Rio Tinto.

“Ms Farrell has an exemplary resume,” Senator Cash told a Senate estimates hearing under persistent questioning from Labor’s Tony Sheldon over the mining executive’s government appointment on Wednesday.

“I am satisfied that Ms Farrell is qualified to undertake the role.”

As part of an independent investigation commissioned by Rio Tinto, former sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick surveyed more than 10,000 of Rio Tinto’s 45,000 employees and found systemic bullying, sexism and racism were common.

The report released by the miner at the beginning of the month found such behaviours were often tolerated or normalised, the report said alongside findings that more than one in three female employees aged 25-34 experienced sexual harassment in the past five years. Twenty-one women reported experiencing actual or attempted rape or sexual assault in the past five years.

Attorney-General Michaelia Cash says Joanne Farrell is qualified to chair Safe Work Australia.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

The government is facing heightened scrutiny over women’s workplace safety following the findings of Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins’ review into parliamentary culture, prompted by allegations former government staffer Brittany Higgins was raped in a ministerial office.

Senator Cash and officials from the Attorney-General’s Department told the hearing that due diligence had taken place in recruiting Ms Farrell to the senior public position and the minister was legally required to consult with state and territory counterparts, none of whom raised any concerns before the executive’s December appointment.

Senator Cash said she was unaware of the independent investigation taking place at the time of Ms Farrell’s appointment, nor had anyone advised her of it, adding that, although she was aware of the issues raised in the report, she had not read it before being grilled about it on Wednesday morning.

Following media reporting in September about female Rio Tinto mine workers testifying before an inquiry about sexual harassment, Senator Sheldon suggested a “simple Google” could have revealed workplace issues facing the miner.

Attorney-General’s Department first assistant secretary Anne Sheehan said due diligence was focused on a candidate’s qualifications and experience, and would not extend to issues affecting an industry or employer “in a more general sense as opposed to that individual”.

Departmental deputy secretary Martin Hehir said no state or territory authority consulted identified any issue with Ms Farrell.

The Broderick findings also reported women employed by Rio Tinto spoke of the “lack of consequences” when reporting sexual harassment by male colleagues, “and of having to carry the burden of managing the situation themselves, rather than receiving support from management or human resources.”

One anonymous interviewee was quoted as saying: “I’m in HR and I don’t think I’d report. There would be recriminations.”

Senator Cash said Ms Farrell, who joined Rio Tinto in 2016, had decades of experience in workplace health and safety and had occupied board roles in West Australian institutions.

“The Broderick report didn’t make any report of any findings of any wronging against Ms Farrell, and I hope you’re not implying that it did,” she said to Senator Sheldon, adding Ms Farrell had a right of reply under Senate committee procedures.

Comment has been sought from Safe Work Australia regarding Ms Farrell’s appointment.

In response to the issues the report documented, Rio Tinto sanctioned 142 supervisors and dismissed 38 supervisors for disrespectful behaviour. Chief executive Jakob Stausholm previously said he was determined to address all the issues raised in the report.

Senator Cash said her understanding was “they are absolutely going to be putting in processes to address this behaviour”, adding the welfare of workers “should always be paramount”.

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