Victoria to criminalise workplace bullying

ALI MOORE: Workplace bullies in Victoria will face up to 10 years in jail under changes to stalking laws.

The criminalisation of bullying was prompted by the death of 19-year-old Brodie Panlock in 2009. Brodie took her life after being relentlessly bullied at the cafe in which she worked.

Both employers and unions have welcomed the laws but say there needs to be education about what actually constitutes bullying.

From Melbourne, Hamish Fitzsimmons reports.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: It was a case which appalled the nation when it came to light.

In 2005 and 2006 Brodie Panlock was physically and verbally abused by three of her coworkers at this cafe.

They even offered her ratsack when they found out she’d attempted suicide, and in the end, she couldn’t take the torment any longer.

RAE PANLOCK, MOTHER: What happened to Brodie that was really a very toxic environment that she worked in and it was assault and it was very serious and it can’t be tolerated and it’s not going to be anymore.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: As a result of the death of Brodie Panlock the Victorian State Government has now introduced some of the toughest anti-bullying laws in the country.

They’ll apply to any online, or physical harassment, that harms an individual.

ROBERT CLARK, VICTORIA’S ATTORNEY GENERAL: This legislation is intended to send a very clear message that serious bullying is a serious crime that carries a serious jail term.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: Those who bullied or aided bullying Brodie Panlock – Nicholas Smallwood, Rhys MacAlpine, Gabriel Toomey and cafe owner Marc da Cruz – were fined over $300,000 under occupational health and safety laws.

Her parents call it a slap on the wrist and say the new laws provide a better deterrent.

DAMIAN PANLOCK, FATHER: If you do it you’ll go to jail, if you push it all the way and that’s what they did to her, they pushed her.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: The former chief justice of the family court Alastair Nicholson has long campaigned against bullying. He says the laws are encouraging, but fraught with legal difficulties.

ALASTAIR NICHOLSON, NATIONAL CENTRE AGAINST BULLYING: It covers a very wide range of subjects, and the normally accepted version of bullying, is a repeated act of harass and cause harm. You then have to ask the question, is it deliberate? And what does deliberate mean?

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: Justice Nicholson says preventing bullying it should start in schools.

ALASTAIR NICHOLSON: If you’re going to affect this sort of behaviour, you’ve got to do it early. If you’re going to eliminate bullying or make bullying unacceptable as a form of conduct in the schools, it’s going to flow over into later life.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: And employer groups have cautiously welcomed the laws.

CHRIS JAMES, VICTORIAN EMPLOYER’S CHAMBER OF COMMERCE AND INDUSTRY: The Brodie Panlock case was a great tragedy, it was very much at the extreme end of the workplace bullying spectrum it certainly raised consciousness of this issue, it made a lot of employers and employees sit up and take notice of the issue.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: Unions say bosses need to take a stand against bullying.

GED KEARNEY, ACTU: We need to see very strong sanctions against employers as well for allowing bullying behaviour in the workplace. We want to see employers make the workplace safe for employees to blow the whistle on that behaviour.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: The Panlock family knows no laws can help their daughter but they do hope other families now won’t have to share their grief.

RAE PANLOCK, MOTHER: Nothing’s ever going to bring Brodie back but it is nice to know that something positive for people to remember Brodie for and hopefully she’ll make it a lot easier for people who have those same problems.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: Hamish Fitzsimmons, Lateline.