What’s Been Happening in Australia in Relation to Sexual Harassment, Discrimination and Bullying from 21– 28 February 2021

Insiders’ View: ‘The Only Choice is to Put up With it or Leave’

In the wake of Brittany Higgins exposing her alleged sexual assault inside Parliament House,Parliamentarians from across the political spectrum say they want a review of the culture in their workplace. Although this is a positive step, tangible change requires acknowledgement of all forms of bullying, intimidation and harassment in their offices. While Parliamentary staff are employed under the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act 1984, or MOPS act, with similar legislation at state and local government levels, these rules are defined by parliament itself. This exercise in making their own rules in conjunction with the fact that ministerial and electorate offices are small, autonomous teams, means un-regulation is the norm. There is no requirement for transparent recruitment or merit-based selection. A staffer’s employment is tied to their boss’ success. The precariousness of their employment is always present, which ultimately dissuades staffers from reporting bullying, harassment or intimidation.

Former MP Makes Bombshell Claims Against Labor Party

Amid increased scrutiny into the workplace culture at Parliament House, sparked by Brittany Higgins’ rape accusations, former Labor MP, Emma Husar, has levelled a series of accusations against Labor. Notably, she accused the party of showing a continued “disdain” for women and employing a “cover up culture” towards abuse and slut-shaming. These accusations were posted to Twitter in a lengthy open letter to Labor leader Anthony Albanese. Ms Husar said she made the decision to speak out about her experience because she could no longer watch people within the Labor Party think this type of misconduct only happens on the other side of politics. She claims that when she reported instances of sexual harassment to the General Secretary and members of the Caucus, there was no action taken and her concerns were “buried under the carpet.”

The Brittany Higgins Allegations Have Unearthed Fury Among Women Staffers and Politicians

Women staffers and politicians have expressed their severe discontent at the male-dominated culture in Parliament – a fury which, until now, has gone largely unacknowledged. Brittany Higgins, staffer Rachelle Miller, Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young, conservative Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Labor senator Kristina Keneally, and barrister Kathleen Foley have all spoken of a toxic male-dominated culture which urgently needs to change. They see the Prime Minister, who apparently is only able to fully grasp the gravity of the serious crime Higgins alleges when his wife speaks to him, and even then, apparently only because he is the father of daughters, as evidence of this toxic culture. Further, they claim that it is unlikely the Prime Minister was unaware of these allegations before they were made public knowledge. Even if the staffers involved didn’t think this grave allegation was enough to trouble the Prime Minister, this demonstrates a culture of “don’t ask, don’t tell” about grave matters affecting women. More women are needed in Parliament, but nothing will change until people stick their heads above the parapet to describe how toxic the culture in Canberra can be for women.

Labor Adopts New Code of Conduct for Sexual Harassment and Bullying Complaints

Brittany Higgins’ allegation of sexual assault against a former colleague in Parliament House elicited calls for change in federal politics. Labor’s national executive on Friday adopted a code of conduct and three policies dealing with sexual harassment prevention and response, harassment and bullying, and complaints handling. The party’s working group on the issue will report back in June on feedback from members, proposals for additional training and support, and a “roadmap” to harmonise policies and procedures across all state and territory branches.

Push to Widen Parliamentary Sexual Misconduct Inquiries

Independent MP, Zali Steggall, says that Federal parliament’s review into sexual misconduct in politics should accept anonymous reports and delve into historic issues. Ms Steggall claims she’d been contacted by numerous former staffers with “disturbing” stories from their time in politics. This recommendation came after a total of four women have come forward with allegations against the former government staffer who allegedly assaulted Brittany Higgins in 2019. Ms Steggall joined growing calls for Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, former commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, or experienced public servant and investigator Vivienne Thom to lead the reviews. The government has also been pressured to urgently implement the recommendations of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2020 inquiry into sexual harassment in the workplace, which Ms Steggal claims has been ignored in Canberra.

Labor Staff ‘Furious’ Over New Workplace Bullying, Sexual Harassment Policy

Labor staff are “furious” and “upset” they were not properly consulted on a new party policy for handling workplace bullying and sexual harassment. The proposed policy was developed via consultation with a working group, unions and a Workplace Health and Safety Committee. However, many staff are concerned they were not given a chance to directly provide feedback or be involved in its creation. For instance, an early draft of the new policy requires that complainants submit, in writing, details of their allegations, their name and the name of the person they are accusing. The draft also only mentions sexual harassment, not assault or rape. These characteristics of the policy raise concerns that it “lacks confidentiality protection” and “clear consequences” for breaches.

Gender Equality Commissioner to Oversee Sexual Harassment Audit

Australia’s first Public Sector Gender Equality Commissioner, Dr Niki Vincent, will oversee consultation with staff in all public organisations to ascertain the number of sexual harassment incidents at the state’s 300 employers and also how many incidents are going un-reported. Victoria’s 380,000 public sector employees will be asked to say anonymously if they have been sexually harassed at work, who the perpetrator was and if they were satisfied with how the incident was handled. The process falls under laws introduced in Victoria’s landmark Gender Equality Act 2020, which come into force on March 31 and cover 11 per cent of the state’s workforce. Dr Vincent states the importance of gaining an understanding of the extent of the problem, especially in light of the national dialogue about the prevalence of sexual harassment following allegations by Brittany Higgins of rape inside Parliament House.

Business Owner Under Investigation Over Alleged Exploitation of Migrant Workers

The Fair Work Ombudsman is investigating claims migrant workers were exploited by a Brisbane business, including allegations they did domestic work on weekends for the company’s multimillionaire owner in return for hostel-like accommodation where some workers slept on the floor. The men claim over six years Hitec owner Jozef Lewandowski expected them to work on weekends at properties in Brisbane’s south-east, including at his $3.3 million mansion in Chandler and a $2.4 million waterfront property in Cleveland. Hitec Welding, which lists BP, Caltex, Santos, Rio Tinto Aluminium, Origin and other big resources companies among its clients, was banned in 2016 as a sponsor in the 457 visa program for five years over issues unrelated to these workers’ claims.

Businesses Can’t Force Staff to be Vaccinated

In a statement last week Christian Porter, Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations announced that “the overwhelming majority of employers should assume they will not be able to require their employees to be vaccinated. This statement is qualified by the expectation that “the overwhelming majority of Australians will want to be vaccinated to protect themselves and their loved ones.” The guidance was developed after a series of roundtable meetings with employers and unions, ahead of Australia’s initial vaccine rollout of 142,000 doses. There are currently no laws or public health orders in Australia that enable employers to enforce mandatory vaccinations upon their employees however, there are limited circumstances where they might be considered. These exceptions include where a specific state or territory public health law requires the vaccination, and where the vaccination is included in an enterprise agreement or employment contract.

Fair Work Commission Gives Go Ahead for Vaccine Refusal Case

The Fair Work Commission has ruled that an aged care worker who was placed on unpaid leave, and later considered to be terminated, after she refused to get vaccinated may now file her unfair dismissal complaint. The case involves an Ozcare employee who declined the influenza vaccine due to her personal medical history. Allegedly, the complainant nearly died as a child when she experienced anaphylaxis from a vaccination. It is expected to become a landmark battle, particularly at a time when companies in Australia are closely considering their options for mandatory staff vaccinations against the other highly contagious disease COVID-19.