SYDNEY, Australia – After two months of sexual assault scandals, including alleged rape in Parliament, Australia’s Conservative government on Thursday agreed to accept a series of recommendations aimed at preventing gender-based abuse and increasing accountability for misconduct in the workplace.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison called his response to the country’s gender discrimination commissioner report a “roadmap to respect” that would improve workplace culture in both the public and private sectors. It includes more education in schools and the promise of new legislation to end exemptions for judges and members of parliament from the National Gender Discrimination Act, and allows victims to file complaints for a period of up to up to two years.
Mr Morrison’s announcement was his most comprehensive effort yet to tackle a problem that has plagued Australian politics for years, with women being abused, demeaned or sexually harassed, usually without recourse.
A culture-focused federal review of Parliament’s workplace has also just started, under the leadership of the same official, Kate Jenkins, and it could produce further calls for reform as the demand for demonstrable change has continued to grow. intensify.
Critics have questioned whether the government’s latest move would be enough. Noting that the initial report was released in March 2020, with much of its findings ignored by Mr Morrison’s government so far, many women have demanded more details and a clear timeline.
“It will take more than words from this government to correct the impression that it does not care about these issues,” said Louise Chappell, professor of political science at the University of New South Wales. “It’s not going to go away.”
Emma Husar, a former opposition Labor Party MP, said the government is still delivering “the bare minimum”.
Polls have shown Australian women in particular have lost faith in the government since a former Liberal staff member said in February that she was raped in a ministerial office in 2019, with marches for justice that have attracted tens of thousands of women to the streets of Australian cities.
Mr Morrison appeared on Thursday to give himself and his Liberal Party some leeway. He said his government had accepted the 55 suggestions presented in the report “in whole, in part or in principle”, leading critics to question what measures would be put in place at the federal level, or passed on to states or hardly more. only lip service.
Many of the recommendations – from creating a national sexual harassment research program to training in “respectful relationships” in schools – could take years to develop. And some of the changes announced on Thursday would simply bring Australia closer to other developed democracies – such as Britain, Canada and the United States – which have also passed legislation in recent years strengthening labor standards for lawmakers.
Professor Chappell said the exemption for members of parliament, for example – an exception in the sex discrimination law also granted to religious organizations – seemed particularly outdated. Like many others, she welcomed the Prime Minister’s promise to ensure that lawmakers and the legal profession no longer receive special treatment.
“With all the cases that we have seen so far, they have been able to act with impunity because they are not accountable in the same way as people outside Parliament,” she said. “There has been pressure to change this for many years.”
But the complaints process is still unclear. When asked what the consequences of a sexual harassment complaint against a lawmaker would be, he replied that it had not yet been decided.
“There are many issues that we will still be working on as we draft this bill,” he said.
Professor Chappell said Mr Morrison always seemed to be struggling with how far to go with politics and how to talk about the issue. In his press conference on Thursday, he stressed that in order to change the culture of disrespect in the workplace, all Australians need to take responsibility, but not “in a way that puts Australians against each other. other”.
“What does he mean here?” Asked Professor Chappell. “That women are too strident?” Is it possible to tackle sexual harassment without some level of confrontation? I do not think so.