What’s Been Happening in Australia in Relation to Sexual Harassment, Discrimination and Bullying from 4 December 2023 – 10 December 2023

Independent Review Reveals Bullying, Harassment and Safety Concerns at a South Australian Forensic Mental Health Service

An independent review has revealed reports of bullying, harassment, gaslighting and feeling unsafe at work at a South Australian forensic mental health service. The external review was conducted in light of a letter sent by “concerned staff” at James Nash House in Adelaide this year, which alleged a culture of bullying. The review said that “there were many signs and symptoms …before the circulation of the anonymous letter which triggered this review.” The report found a “significant number” of staff members had reported bullying and harassment, while many claimed they did not feel psychologically safe at work. The report said that “concerningly, a few described ‘gaslighting’ and suicidal ideation. Some staff resigned.” It said that “these observations were reflected in high turnover rates, absenteeism and a workplace which relied heavily on industrial representation to solve problems.”

Approximately Two-Thirds of ASX300 Company Directors Not Ready for New Sexual Harassment Laws

Almost two-thirds of ASX300 company directors believe that their boards are not prepared to meet new laws to address workplace sexual harassment. The new laws commenced on Tuesday this week, which gave the Australian Human Rights Commission more powers to “crack down” on companies that do not take proactive steps to eliminate workplace harassment and sex-based discrimination. This action has been described as a positive duty; a key landmark of the Respect@Work report led by former sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins. In handing down her report, Ms Jenkins said that the positive duty would be the “single most revolutionary change that will impact sexual harassment”. Research conducted by the Australian Institute of Company Directors and the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors (ACSI) found that, while 85% of ASX300 directors believed that the prevention of sexual harassment was a high-priority issue for their boards (an increase from 19% two years ago), only 38.5% of directors were fully prepared. The general manager of AICD, Louise Petschler, said that “the issue of workplace sexual harassment is endemic in Australia.” Further, Petschler said that “the Respect@Work report showed us this is a broad societal problem. We need leadership and a cultural change to lift our focus.”

Brittany Higgins Denies Attempting to ‘Blow Up’ Re-trial of Bruce Lehrmann

Brittany Higgins has given evidence that she volunteered to be a witness in any defamation case brought by her alleged rapist, Bruce Lehrmann. Ms Higgins said that she would give evidence because she “would not let my rapist become a millionaire for being a rapist”. During Ms Higgins’ final day on the witness stand, Steve Whybrow SC (barrister for Mr Lehrmann) asked why she had posted on social media about defending against defamation cases six days before the charges against his client were dropped. Ms Higgins said that “I was tweeting that from a hospital, but that’s why I have a legal minder nowadays, so I can’t do anything dumb, but yes. Even though I was in hospital, the decision to go ahead wasn’t mine to make. It was the doctor’s and the DPP’s and I wasn’t in well health and so I had to accept that decision.” Ms Higgins additionally gave evidence describing the amount of compensation she had received from the Commonwealth in relation to her personal injury claim. She said that the Commonwealth “came to an agreement that a failure of a duty of care was made and they did pay me.” Ms Higgins said that the amount was “around $2.3 million.” Mr Lehrmann has sued Network Ten and Lisa Wilkinson for defamation in relation to an interview. His trial was abandoned due to juror misconduct last year and he has consistently maintained his innocence. A second trial did not proceed due to fears for Ms Higgin’s mental health.

Insurance Australia Group Loses General Counsel After Falling Short of Code of Conduct

The general counsel of Insurance Australia Group (IAG) has left the company after what has been described as an ethics and conduct breach. In a statement on the Australian Securities Exchange this week, IAG said that the general counsel Peter Horton was to leave the company, effective immediately. Mr Horton had joined the company in 2019. The chief executive of IAG, Nick Hawkins, said that “the company has concluded that Mr Horton’s behaviour has fallen short of the expectations in IAG’s employee code of ethics and conduct.” Further, he said that “this includes the importance of being inclusive and respectful. We will hold people to account if they fail to meet these expectations.” The company has outlined that “breaching our code is a serious matter” and that “if you breach our code, you will face consequences. In serious cases this could include the termination of your employment.”

Councillor in Melbourne Suspended for Four Months, Accused of Bullying Staff

A councillor in Melbourne’s west has been suspended for four months after being accused of bullying staff. The Councillor Conduct Panel has made a finding of “serious misconduct” against Wyndham City Councillor Jasmine Hill in relation to two complaints. The suspension will take place from 12 December this year following a council meeting. The two staffers alleged that Ms Hill screamed and shouted at them on several occasions. One staff member reportedly felt “flat” and “really fragile” for several days after one instance. The other staffer claimed that Ms Hill screamed at her so loudly that she had to turn down the Bluetooth in her car. The panel said that Ms Hill showed “no remorse or understanding” of her actions. In her submissions to the panel, Ms Hill said that “I do not scream at members of council staff nor do I tolerate anyone who does.” She said that “screaming is unprofessional, disrespectful, and counterproductive.” Wyndham City Mayor Jennie Barrera said that Ms Hill would not perform her duties for four months in light of the findings. She said that “staff have the right to feel safe when coming to work and this is a priority for Wyndham councillors and the CEO.”

Liberal Senator Linda Reynolds Sues the ACT Government for Defamation

Liberal Senator Linda Reynolds has sued the Australian Capital Territory government and the territory’s former top prosecutor Shane Drumgold for defamation in relation to comments made about her conduct. Ms Reynolds has commenced legal action in relation to a letter sent by Mr Drumgold to the Australian Federal Police during Bruce Lehrmann’s now-abandoned rape trial. Mr Drumgold accused Senator Reynolds of “disturbing conduct” in the letter. The letter was later published in the media following a freedom of information request. Lawyers for Senator Reynolds said in a statement that the ACT government was “vicariously liable” for any defamation as a result of its decision to release the letter under the FOI processes. The statement read that “the release resulted in widespread republication of false and defamatory allegations.” In a statement released by the ACT government, a spokeswoman said that the territory was aware that Senator Reynolds “had issued a concerns notice in relation to what she alleged to be defamatory statements.” The statement said that “the territory has only just become aware that Senator Reynolds has apparently filed legal proceedings, but those proceedings have not been served on the territory nor has the territory seen them.”