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

Images Show Senior Government Staff Performing Sex Acts at Parliament House

A Liberal staffer has been sacked after a leak of images and videos of male senior government staff performing sex acts in Parliament House. The Prime Minister said it was “not good enough” and “totally unacceptable” after the graphic images and videos of staff performing lewd acts — in one instance, on the desk of a female MP — were shared with Network 10. One of the images shows a man sitting at a desk and exposing himself, with a copy of the Parliament House rule book behind him. Another showed a male pointing to the desk of a female Liberal MP, before performing a solo sex act on it. The parliamentarian insider who leaked the images also claims the government staffers and even MPs would use a prayer or meditation room on the upper level of Parliament House as a place to have “a lot” of sex. A second independent inquiry – led by sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins – will be conducted into the culture of Parliament House, co-ordinated by Finance Minister Simon Birmingham, who said he hoped it will focus on safety for staffers.

Emotional PM Orders Parliament to ‘Get House in Order’

After more concerning allegations about staffers’ conduct in Parliament emerged, Prime Minister Scott Morrison faced the media at Parliament House to address sexual misconduct in the building. In the five weeks since Brittany Higgins went public with her allegation of rape inside Parliament House, questions have swirled over the culture among MPs and staffers. Mr Morrison has ordered Parliament to “get this house in order” and called on attitudes towards women to change. He admitted his own approach to the scandals, which began with former Liberals staffer Brittany Higgins alleging she had been raped by a male colleague in the office of Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, had not been perfect. Appearing at times angry and emotional during the media briefing, Mr Morrison said he was “shocked” and “disgusted” by the multiple reports which have rocked Canberra and Australia. He rejected the suggestion he had lost control of his ministers and staff.

Public Servants Demand Change Amid Rumours of Cabinet Reshuffle

Public servants and Parliament House staff have signed an open letter urging the Morrison government to increase their workplace safety and install a sufficient complaints process, following multiple sexual assault allegations and increasing calls for the government to act. The public servants’ demands have come amid growing speculation that Attorney-General Christian Porter and Defence minister Linda Reynolds will lose their portfolios as a result of the scandals. Parliament House staff and employees from a number of Australian Public Service agencies have made five key demands for the government to make changes in the workplace, including:
1. An independent and confidential complaints process, which is victim-centric, that staff can have confidence in, and that ensures there are consequences for poor behaviour;
2. A safe workplace that guarantees public servants and other workers’ workplace health and safety rights, that includes mandatory training for parliamentarians and staff, safe reporting mechanisms, and data reporting to workplace health and safety committees or equivalent;
3. Provisions to mitigate gendered violence and sexual harassment agreed to in the MOPS Enterprise Agreement currently under negotiation, and in the current workplace health and safety policies for the Department of House of Representatives, Department of the Senate, Department of Parliamentary Services, Department of Finance and Parliamentary Budget Office and other APS agencies, until they can be inserted into relevant industrial agreements;
4. Appropriate, specialised, and ongoing support services for all workers in Parliamentary workplaces;
5. The immediate implementation of the 55 recommendations of the Respect@Work report.

Bill Could Make it Harder for Sexual Misconduct Victims to Access Their Files

Changes to privacy rules for participants of an inquiry into sexual assault and harassment in Parliament House could leave victims without access to materials relating to their own cases. A group of women from across the political spectrum called for submissions into an independent review of parliamentary workplace culture to remain confidential and exempt from Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. The government has passed these exemptions through the Archives and Other Legislation Amendment Bill in the Senate, but included a clause that would also exclude anything handed to the inquiry from ministers’ offices and departments from being made publicly available via FOIs. MP Zali Steggall believe this is a huge overreach unnecessary for the inquiry. She said the clause meant complaints made to a minister or department, or reviews of claims of bullying and harassment made to a political party, would be exempt — whether or not those documents pre-dated the inquiry. That could have ramifications if a former staffer is taking the minister or department to court for unfair dismissal, or launching a civil court claim for assault. Ms Higgins is concerned the additional clause to the bill will mean previous documents from her case, such as CCTV from outside the office, or a cleaners’ report the morning after her alleged assault, will no longer be available to her.

Man Accused of Raping Brittany Higgins Allegedly ‘Demanded’ Sex from Former Housemate

A former housemate of the man accused of raping former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins, Kriti Gupta, has told police he made unwanted sexual advances towards her during the time they lived together. She is the fifth woman to raise allegations against the man, who is accused of raping former colleague Ms Higgins in the office of then Defence Industry Minister Linda Reynolds after drinks in March, 2019. Over a five-month period, Ms Gupta told police the man, who she considered a friend, touched her in ways that made her feel unsafe. She also claims that he demanded sex from her, forcing her to push furniture up against the door so he could not get in. Ms Gupta said she was prompted to go public with the allegations after hearing other women had come forward.

PM’s Staff Rape Inquiry May Hamper Police Investigation

An investigation into what the prime minister’s staff knew about an alleged rape of a former Liberal staffer has been paused over fears it could interfere with police. Former ministerial adviser Brittany Higgins says she was raped by a former colleague inside Parliament House in March 2019. Scott Morrison last month tasked Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Phil Gaetjens with investigating who in the prime minister’s office knew about the allegation and when. Mr Gaetjens told Senate estimates the commissioner advised him to pause his inquiry because it could compromise the criminal investigation. Mr Morrison, who initiated the investigation on February 17, didn’t reveal the delay last week despite being asked in parliament about its progress. He denied misleading the lower house after Labor leader Anthony Albanese pursued the issue in Question Time. Mr Gaetjens claimed he paused the inquiry for the benefit of Ms Higgins, sparking a furious backlash from Labor and Greens senators. Labor’s Penny Wong and Katy Gallagher and Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young accused Mr Gaetjens of a “cover-up”.

Three Women Allegedly Bullied by WA Labor MP

Janelle Sewell worked for Kalamunda MP Matthew Hughes from March 2018 to June 2020, while Sally Spalding worked for him for five months in 2017, but both women said they were forced to leave the office because of bullying, denigration and belittling that eroded their confidence and mental health. A third woman, Meg Travers, chose to leave after her three month probation period in December 2017. The women said there was a culture among electorate officers to avoid complaining about MPs for fear of losing their jobs and their standing in the party. They also felt let down by Mr McGowan and WA Labor, who have backed Mr Hughes despite a growing push to take workplace complaints from women more seriously following the Brittany Higgins rape allegations and claims Sanja Spasojevica was unceremoniously sacked from Deputy Premier Roger Cook’s office

Morrison Accused of ‘Outing’ Sex Assault Victim During Apology to Sex Assault Victims

Scott Morrison has launched an extraordinary attack on a journalist and aired sensitive details of a sexual assault claim at a media briefing where he apologised for his handling of sex abuse allegations inside Parliament. The Prime Minister appeared on the verge of tears as he acknowledged he “could have chosen different words” in responding to concerns of women about sexual assault, misconduct and gender inequality in federal politics. Sky News political editor, Andrew Clennell, asked about parliamentary culture, which prompted Mr Morrison to become defensive, airing detailed knowledge of an alleged sexual assault that he claimed had occurred within News Corp. Several Canberra journalists were outraged by this sharing of sensitive details regarding the alleged assault and questioned Mr Morrison’s reasons for doing so. He has been accused of weaponising the complaint to make up for his own failings.

News Corp Denies Harassment Complaint Claim

A shock claim about the harassment of a journalist in a women’s toilet has triggered a rebuke from News Corp Australia to Prime Minister Scott Morrison over his assertion the company was dealing with a human resources complaint over the matter. News Corp executive chairman Michael Miller declared Mr Morrison’s statement to be “simply untrue” and said there was no such incident in a toilet and no complaint before the company. Mr Morrison issued an apology in a post on Facebook. He said that he “deeply regrets (his) insensitive response to a question from a News Ltd journalist by making an anonymous reference to an incident at News Ltd that has been rejected by the company.” He also apologised to the individual at the centre of the incident.

Former Coalition Staffer Josie Coles Shares Her Story After Appearing on Four Corners

A former Coalition staffer has spoken of being “bullied horrifically and mistreated” during her time in Canberra, as she said she refuses to keep secrets for those who “misuse their power” after a bombshell Four Corners report. Josie Coles, who worked at Parliament House for four years from September 2016 to January 2021, briefly appeared on Monday night’s program – in which a veteran security guard said she found Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins naked and asleep after her alleged rape. Ms Coles said she stayed quiet over the years and was “terrified” to speak out, but when she saw Ms Higgins’ story, she could relate. Ms Coles spoke out against the Government push to change a clause in National Archives Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2021, which she claims “would allow and enable Ministers and agencies to bury documents pertaining to historical and existing complaints of bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault”.

Brittany Higgins: Parliament House Security Guard on Finding Alleged Rape Victim

Parliament House security guard on duty the night of the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins has revealed her “shock” at finding the Liberal staffer naked and asleep in a ministerial office but questioned the Prime Minister’s claim the incident involved a security breach. Nikola Anderson, an experienced and veteran security guard who has worked at Parliament House for over a decade, told ABC’s Four Corners how she found Ms Higgins. “As I opened the door, I noticed that the female was lying on her back, completely naked, on the lounge that was adjacent to the door, But Ms Anderson insisted she had no reason to believe an alleged crime had been committed and now fears she could be scapegoated in any inquiry. “I made sure her dignity was intact by shutting this door … I was trying to do the right thing by keeping her dignity intact.”

Law Student Shines Light on Sexual Harassment in Australia

From research with a senior lawyer and academic, an Australian National University law student has analysed why sexual harassment still faces a “risky and costly road to justice” despite a landmark decision that should have set a new standard. ANU bachelor of arts/laws honours student Madeleine Castles has contributed to a new study that analysed the (little) effect that a 2014 landmark civil case (Richardson v Oracle Corporation Australia ) should have had on the costs of sexual harassment in Australia. Through the research, she ultimately discovered that “the whole system is pretty broken”. For starters, she says, the system is very individualised; it requires individuals targeted by sexual harassment to bring a claim. A union can’t bring a claim nor can the Australian Human Rights Commission, as per the Sex Discrimination Act. This has serious consequences both in terms of finance and mental health, and means the individuals are forced to carry the burden of this law. Ms Castles and her fellow researchers also found that the #MeToo movement had generally “done little to shift employer attitudes to sexual harassment”. While workplaces may have to pay higher amounts in settlements, she said it does not necessarily mean they will “enact systematic change across the workplace.”

‘Unsafe in this Place’: Greens MP Claims Sexual Harassment by Government Senators

A Greens senator, Lidia Thorpe, has levelled explosive allegations against several government parliamentarians, accusing them of unwanted touches, lewd comments about her appearance and eating habits, and even unwarranted calls from a particular senator. The Greens senator said she had previously been reluctant to go public with the allegations because she didn’t want to draw attention away from other women speaking out against abuse, rape and sexual harassment. Ms Thorpe said she believed there was a lack of accountability for parliamentarians and staffers, and that nothing had come of the many allegations that have been made. “The can do whatever they like, and they’ll get a slap on the wrist. I mean what do you get for being guilty of sexual harassment, or sexual assault or even rape in this place? What do you get? You get nothing. There’s no action,” Ms Thorpe said.

Former Attorney-General says she was Groped by a Judge at Parliament

Queensland Health Minister Yvette D’Ath has revealed she was groped by an international judge at a Parliament function, as MPs from all sides of politics demanded “appalling behaviour” against women must stop. Ms D’Ath was compelled to speak out last week about her own experiences of harassment after thousands of women marched through the streets of Brisbane at the March 4 Justice. The minister also said she was viciously attacked on social media after she had shared stories of harassment. She read out comments, which included “No way, she’s way too ugly for this to be true”, “must have been a blind man”, “for God’s sake, get over yourself”, “blah, blah, blah, it’s three decades, shut up,” and “they only harassed her because she was a super ugly bottle blonde”. “They wonder why women won’t speak up – this is appalling behaviour,” Ms D’Ath said.

Government to Convene Summit on Violence Against Women

A national summit will be convened within months to set new goals to prevent violence against women as Prime Minister Scott Morrison battles a political storm over rape and sexual assault in Parliament and the community. The summit is expected to hear from community leaders, experts and state governments in a bid to create a national plan that builds on previous deals to fund emergency housing and other help for women and children. Federal and state ministers will meet after Easter to discuss the timing of the summit as well as the money and policies needed for the next national plan, aiming for a draft agreement by September.

Brittany Higgins Has Thanked Everyone Who Came to The March 4 Justice Protests Around Aus

Brittany Higgins, the former Liberal Party staffer who brought forward an allegation of sexual assault inside Parliament House, has thanked everyone who attended the March 4 Justice protests that occurred around Australia. These protests were sparked by mass outrage regarding the government’s handling of the allegation and consequent revelations of sexual assault and harassment at all levels of society. The protests attracted over 110,000 people and solidified this issue as requiring urgent attention nationally. Ms Higgins expressed appreciation for those who took the time to advocate for a “safer, more equitable” Australia.

Christian Porter and Linda Reynolds to stay in Cabinet after Reshuffle

Christian Porter and Linda Reynolds will remain in Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s cabinet after an impending reshuffle. The Prime Minister did not deny he planned to move both ministers but he said they would “continue to play a very important role in my cabinet”. The reshuffle comes in the wake of the historical rape claim against Mr Porter in early March and outrage regarding Ms Reynolds’ handling and response to Brittany Higgins alleged rape inside parliament house. Mr Morrison’s comments came as Tracey Grimshaw questioned him about the shocking sexual harassment and abuse allegations raised by women in recent weeks. Grimshaw said “you don’t need processes to know how to act humanely” and asked why Ms Higgins was “on her own” and why people who knew of the incident weren’t fired. Mr Morrison said: “They were trying like everyone else would be trying in those circumstances.” He also stated that his decision would be announced once makes a final judgement.

Liberal MP Andrew Laming to Quit Politics at Next Election

Queensland backbencher Andrew Laming will resign from politics at the next election, after allegations aired by Nine News in a series of reports. The announcement comes after two prominent female Liberal politicians said Dr Laming should resign from federal politics in a joint appearance on the ABC’s Insiders program. The investigation uncovered allegations of inappropriate behaviour by Dr Laming towards three separate women, including one who alleges he took photos of up her skirt. Dr Laming has released a statement that he would take courses in empathy and communication “not just to be a better MP, but to be a deeper and more empathic person”. He has also taken medial leave.