“It’s about putting everyone on an equal footing.” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday announced a review of sex discrimination law. Main consequence: parliamentarians, magistrates and civil servants will now be held responsible for the sexual harassment of their colleagues in the workplace.
Until then, they had enjoyed immunity from harassment in the workplace even though they could be subject to criminal prosecution for sexual assault. With this breakthrough, the Conservative government is trying to appease public anger after accusations of sexual assault in Parliament.
The move follows a report titled Respect @ Work released last year following an investigation into sexual harassment. It also comes after a strong feminist mobilization and a few weeks after two resounding cases involving two ministers and which weakened the executive.
A former government employee claimed she was raped in 2019 by a colleague in a minister’s office in Parliament, while the government’s senior legal adviser was revealed to be the minister accused of the 1988 rape of a teenage girl with whom he studied.
Many voices have long denounced the sexist culture of Australia’s political class. Michaelia Cash, who replaced the government’s top legal official last week, said the legislative changes would include making sexual harassment in the workplace a matter of law. “serious misconduct” and would be a valid reason for termination. The government also plans to extend the period during which a victim can report an incident from six months to two years, she added.
Mr Morrison has come under heavy criticism for failing to act on the 55 recommendations made in January 2020 in the Respect @ Work report. The prime minister dismissed the criticism on Thursday, saying his government had already pledged to fund several recommendations it deemed high priority.
“Last year, we focused on these very urgent needs to protect women at a time when they were very vulnerable during the Covid”, he underlined, congratulating himself on being able to “Address these issues in the longer term”.
In Australia in 2016, 1 in 6 women and 1 in 25 men were sexually assaulted before age 15, while 200,000 adults (1.1% of the population) were in the past twelve months. In 2018-2019, 97% of abusers were men.