Sydney – Australian politicians will no longer be exempt from workplace sexual harassment rules, the Conservative government said Thursday as it tries to allay public anger over parliamentary sexual abuse scandals.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said his government will revise the nation’s sex discrimination laws to hold MPs, judges and officials accountable for harassing their colleagues in the workplace.
“It’s about getting everyone on the playing field as much as possible,” he told reporters in Canberra.
MPs, judges and civil servants are currently exempt from the anti-harassment rules that apply to other Australian workplaces, although they may still face criminal charges for sexual assault.
The move followed a “Respect @ Work” report – released over a year ago following a national investigation into sexual harassment – and comes just weeks after allegations of sexual abuse surfaced. rocked Australia’s corridors of power.
A young ex-Morrison Liberal Party staff member recently went public with allegations she was raped by a colleague in Parliament in 2019, while a senior minister was forced to deny raping a 16-year-old while they were both students in the 1980s.
Critics said the cases and the government’s apparent reluctance to act initially highlighted a “toxic” and sexist culture in parliament.
Attorney General Michaelia Cash – who last week replaced the minister accused of rape in the government’s top legal role – said other proposed legislative changes would include the classification of workplace sexual harassment as “serious misconduct” and make them valid grounds for dismissal.
The government also plans to extend the period during which a victim can report an incident from six months to two years, she added.
The Respect @ Work report was written by the government’s own gender discrimination commissioner, Kate Jenkins, and Morrison has come under increasing criticism for failing to act on its 55 recommendations since its submission in January 2020.
The prime minister dismissed the criticism on Thursday, saying his government has already pledged to fund several recommendations it deemed high priority.
“Last year we were very focused on these very urgent needs to protect women at a time when they were very vulnerable during COVID,” he said.
“We have invested additional resources and are now in a position to tackle these more systemic and longer term issues which are very important and I am happy that we can do that today.
Rape allegations sparked protests across the country, with tens of thousands of women taking to the streets to call for gender equality and an end to sexual violence.
In recent weeks, Morrison’s coalition government has been rocked by a litany of new complaints of sexual abuse and harassment – from a staff member pictured masturbating on a politician’s desk, to a state member accused of raping a sex worker, to another lawmaker apologizing for harassing women online.
A media blitz aimed at showing Morrison’s empathy for women only added to the fury through a series of missteps, and he ultimately demoted two top ministers in an attempt to draw a line under the scandals .
The government says it hopes to present the amended law to Parliament by June.
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