‘Like Fresh Meat’: Detailing rampant sexual harassment in the Australian Parliament

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MELBOURNE, Australia – Men walking down hallways looking at women from head to toe. Women with false binders to block unwanted advances. Forced touches, kisses, comments about appearance. Fear of speaking out.

A sweeping overhaul of workplace culture in the Australian Parliament paints a scathing picture of widespread sexual harassment, with workers sharing harrowing stories of an alcohol-soaked atmosphere where powerful men blurred boundaries and crossed borders with impunity.

The report, released Tuesday, was commissioned by the Australian government in March, shortly after a former staffer’s report of rape in Parliament House sent shockwaves through the halls of power in Australia. It turned out that a third of parliamentarians – 40 percent of women – had experienced sexual harassment. About 1 percent of the more than 1,700 people who took part in the review said they had been victims of attempted or actual sexual assault.

In response, Kate Jenkins, the Australian Commissioner for Sex Discrimination, who conducted the inquiry, proposed a series of measures to address the power inequalities, gender inequalities and lack of accountability, which she said had made Parliament a hostile workplace for many employees, especially young female staff members. .

Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the findings of rampant sexual harassment “appalling” and added: “I wish I found them more surprising.” He said the government would review the report’s recommendations – including the creation of an independent central complaints body, a code of conduct and alcohol policy – but declined to accept them.

The Australian Parliament has long had a reputation as a testosterone fueled bunker, a place that lagged behind the rest of society as the country’s businesses and other institutions took gradual steps towards gender equality. Over the past 20 years, Australia has fallen from 15th to 50th in the world in terms of parliamentary gender diversity.

After Brittany Higgins, a former parliamentary staffer, said early this year that she had been raped by a senior colleague in the defense secretary’s office, thousands of women marched in cities across Australia to demand change.

Women in politics who never felt they had an outlet to share their experiences came forward with stories of misogyny and sexual assault and harassment: stories of groped, humiliated, insulted, ignored, interrupted. Several federal female legislators have shut down in recent years, in part due to disrespect and abuse.

The new report sought to both figure out the magnitude of the problems in Australian politics and add, in sometimes painful detail, to the stories that have emerged. Among the comments participants shared anonymously with researchers:

  • “The MP sitting next to me leaned forward. Thinking he wanted to tell me something, I bent down. He grabbed me and stuck his tongue down my throat. The others all laughed. It was disgusting and humiliating.”

  • “Aspiring male politicians who thought nothing of it, in one case, picking you up, kissing you on the lips, lifting you up, touching you, knocking on the bottom, comments about appearance, you know, the usual.”

  • “It’s a man’s world and you are reminded of it every day thanks to the looks you get, the representation in the parliamentary chambers, the preferential treatment politicians give senior male journalists.”

  • “I thought it was normal to tell people to avoid certain people at events. I thought it was normal to tell people how to take alcohol to stay safe. Now that I look back on it, that’s insane.”

  • ‘I often describe Parliament House as the sexiest place I’ve worked. I think there is a drinking culture in the workplace. There is not much responsibility. The boys are boys. And that behavior is celebrated.”

  • “Young women, especially media consultants who came in, especially the younger women who came in, were like fresh meat and challenges.”

The report describes a toxic work culture driven by power imbalances between MPs and their staff. In this pressure cooker environment, sexual harassment was normalized and offenders acted with impunity because there were few opportunities for redress, the review said.

“Parliament is naturally about power, and that power goes in multiple directions,” Ms Jenkins said at a news conference shortly after the review was released. “We have heard that power inequality and abuse of power is one of the leading causes of bullying, sexual harassment and assault.”

The “fly in, fly out” nature of Parliament – most lawmakers and staffers do not live in the country’s capital, Canberra, and only stay there during the weeks it is in session – created a sense of isolation, it said. report.

One person interviewed for the report compared the culture to high school students in the camp: “There’s a bunch of naughty schoolboys on a school trip, and they think everyone’s fair, and whatever happens in Canberra stays in Canberra, and It’s kind of a free-for-all.”

Because they couldn’t go home when Parliament sat, “many people prefer to stay late for work or drink with their colleagues, increasing the risk of misconduct,” the review said.

Alcohol was sometimes present during parliamentary work – “MPs have taken to the floor of parliament to vote under the influence of alcohol,” according to a review entry. And in the evenings, drinking was an important feature of networking and social events.

A work environment characterized by “intense loyalty, the prioritization of ‘optics’ and, in political office, intense media scrutiny and public interest,” discouraged staffers from speaking out. That can be risky, they said.

“I have been sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, bullied and terrorized several times,” one person told investigators. “And I was told that if I ever sought help or talked about what had happened to me, my professional reputation and personal life would be destroyed.”

Because MPs have no direct employer, it is difficult to punish those who commit misconduct, the review found. Lawmakers are also responsible for hiring and managing their own staffers and have broad powers to fire them, creating an unsafe workplace.

Susan Harris Rimmer, a law professor at Griffith University and a former parliamentary assistant, called the report’s findings “an embarrassing picture, but an accurate picture.”

The review found that Parliament “has not been a safe workplace for women or any minority,” she said, “and there was no recourse; bad behavior was seemingly uncontrollable.”

The report’s recommendations are similar to those in Britain, the United States and Canada in recent years, and implemented in Australian workplaces 20 years ago, she said. Calls for fundamental reforms in other democratic legislatures, such as a grievance system independent of the major parties, have been ignored for years.

“The recommendations are just standard practice for a modern workplace, most of them, and it still shocks me that it took this level of pain and suffering to get to a place where Parliament can tell the rest of Australia and the rest of the world,” she said.

Since she went public with her report of rape in parliament, Ms. Higgins has become an advocate for victims of sexual abuse and harassment. The man she accused of raping her, Bruce Lehrmann, 26, is on trial in Canberra. He has pleaded not guilty.

In a statement, Ms Higgins said of the new report: “I hope all political parties not only commit to these recommendations, but fully implement them.”

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