What’s Been Happening in Australia in Relation to Sexual Harassment, Discrimination and Bullying from 13 November 2023 – 19 November 2023

Cost Reforms Introduced to Better Protect Applicants in Discrimination Matters

On Wednesday this week, the Albanese Government introduced the Australian Human Rights Commission Amendment (Costs Protection) Bill 2023. The bill would implement the Government’s response to Recommendation 25 of the Respect@Work report. The report had previously found that applicants were “often deterred from proceeding to court with sexual harassment matters because of the risk of having to pay a respondent’s costs.” However, by preventing a court from ordering an applicant to pay a respondent’s costs other than in certain circumstances, this Bill will remove a “significant barrier for those seeking justice through federal court proceedings for unlawful discrimination matters.” The Bill reflects the outcome of the analysis conducted by the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee.

University of Tasmania Employees Fail to Intervene After Students Sexually Harassed by Staff Member

The University of Tasmania has admitted this week that employees had failed to intervene after they became aware that a student was allegedly sexually harassed or assaulted by a staff member. A student had informed the university in 2021 that she had been raped and sexually harassed by a professor from its College of Sciences and Engineering. Despite the severity of the allegations, the staff member was permitted to continue to have direct contact with students during an investigation commissioned by the university. This initial investigation was abandoned after the staff member resigned. A second university inquiry was carried out by Jocelyn Sparkes (director of the university’s Safe and Fair Community Unit). In a letter to another staff member, Ms Sparkes wrote “that the allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault had in her view been substantiated and made findings against the university itself.”

Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Attorney-General Shocked Over Former Greens MP Jonathan Davis Sexual Harassment Allegations

ACT Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury stated this week that the community was left in shock following the resignation of Greens backbencher Jonathan Davis. Mr Davis resigned on Sunday after it had been alleged that he had an inappropriate relationship with a 17-year-old and 15-year-old. Mr Rattenbury said in a statement that his office had been in contact with a man who had claimed to have a sexual relationship with Mr Davis when he was 17. He wrote “there has not been any person come forward to me who has said they were 15 at the time of any sexual interactions with Johnathan, but other people have raised concerns that they believe that did occur.” Further, he said that “if that did occur, it is a very serious matter and I am grateful to those who recognised its seriousness and had the courage to bring it to my attention. It was with the same concern that my office referred what had been shared with us, to police.” Mr Davis has not been charged in relation to the allegation.

University of Adelaide Professor Joshua Ross Cleared of Sexual Harassment

Professor Joshua Ross of the University of Adelaide was cleared this week of sexually harassing a colleague. The South Australian Civil and Administrative Tribunal dismissed the complaint of senior mathematics lecturer Giang Thu Nguyen. Dr Nguyen had accused Professor Ross of “unlawful sexual harassment,” which was alleged to have occurred within his hotel room.

Dr Nguyen and Professor Ross attended a three-day conference at the Stamford Grand Hotel at Glenelg, in Adelaide’s south-western suburbs, in 2019.

Both, alongside a group of university employees, went out for dinner and social drinks at Sammy’s on the Marina and Moseley Bar and Kitchen on October 30, 2019.

Documents stated that the pair went to the Glenelg Pier Hotel before returning to Professor Ross’s hotel room about 1:43am.

The tribunal held that “I am not persuaded and am not able to find on the evidence that Dr Nguyen’s cognitive function was so impaired by alcohol consumption that she could not make a competent, autonomous and valid choice to engage in sexual activity, that she did not consent to the sexual encounter with Prof Ross, or that she found it to be subjectively unwelcome at the time,… “In fact, the evidence which I accept demonstrates that Dr Nguyen invited the sexual encounter and was an active and enthusiastic participant for the duration of the incident.

“I am satisfied that the Applicant embellished her evidence, was untruthful in some respects, has patchy recall and has reconstructed a version of events which she may now genuinely believe occurred, but which is simply not supported by the objective facts.”

The tribunal found that Professor Ross was not acting in the course of his employment when the sexual encounter happened.

“The University had no expectation that its employees would even stay overnight at the Grand Hotel, let alone socialise at local bars into the late evening,” Ms Rugless said.

She stated that even if she had found Professor Ross had engaged in unlawful sexual harassment, the university would not have been “vicariously liable” for his conduct under the Equal Opportunity Act.

Dr Nguyen had previously sought remedies of more than $1,150,000 from the Professor and the university.

Universities Sign Charter to Address Sexual Violence on Campus

This week, Australian universities have agreed to a new charter in relation to sexual harm. The charter bears resemblance to the commitments made previously in 2017. It outlines the priorities for addressing sexual harassment and assault within a university context. The charter has been introduced ahead of the state, territory and federal education ministers meeting next week, where how to respond to sexual violence at universities will be discussed. The nine points of the charter include, among others:

• Publicly reporting annually on the number of reported instances of sexual harm at institutions;
• Clearly educating university communities on where and how to report incidents; and
• Strengthening, developing and implementing policies that make clear that sexual harm is unacceptable.