Australia’s politicians and judges will no longer be exempt from rules against sexual harassment at work, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced, as he tried to quell public anger over his conservative government’s handling of a series of sexual abuse scandals.
Speaking to reporters in the Australian capital on Thursday, Morrison said his government would overhaul the country’s sexual discrimination laws to make members of parliament, judges and public servants accountable for harassing colleagues in the workplace.
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“Sexual harassment is unacceptable,” Morrison said in Canberra.
“It’s not only immoral and despicable and even criminal, but … it denies Australians, especially women, not just their personal security but their economic security by not being safe at work.”
At present, legislators, judges and public servants are exempt from complaints about workplace gender discrimination, as are some employers of volunteers, because of a legal loophole that means they are technically not the complainant’s employer.
However, they can still face criminal prosecution for sexual assault.
Morrison said the legal change proposed on Thursday was “about getting everyone on as much of a playing field as possible”.
He said employers will also now be required to take a proactive approach to stop gender discrimination, while complainants will get a longer period of time to lodge their complaint.
The moves were in response to a “Respect@Work” report – handed down more than a year ago following a national inquiry into sexual harassment – and came just weeks after sexual abuse allegations rocked Australia’s halls of power.
In February, a female former staffer in Morrison’s Liberal Party went public with allegations she was raped by a colleague in parliament in 2019, while in March, the country’s then-attorney general identified himself as the subject of an unrelated historical rape allegation in 1988, which he has strongly denied.
Critics said the cases, and the government’s apparent initial reluctance to act, have highlighted a “toxic” and sexist culture in Australia’s Parliament.
Attorney General Michaelia Cash – who last week replaced the rape accused minister in the government’s top legal role – said other proposed legislative changes would include classifying sexual harassment at work as “serious misconduct” and making it valid grounds for dismissal.
The government also plans to extend the period in which a victim can report an incident from six months to two years, she added.
The Respect@Work report was drawn up by the government’s sex discrimination commissioner, Kate Jenkins, and Morrison has been under growing criticism for failing to act on its recommendations since it was first submitted in January 2020.
The prime minister rejected the criticism on Thursday, saying he will adopt all 55 of the commissioner’s recommendations which include a blanket ban on workplace gender discrimination, mandatory training of company directors and reporting by listed companies, as well as improved coordination between complaint-handling agencies.
Morrison said his government has already committed to funding several recommendations it felt were a high priority.
“Last year, we were very focused on those very urgent needs to protect women at a time when they were very vulnerable during COVID,” he said. “We put the additional resources in and now we’re in a position to address these more systemic and longer-term issues which are very important and I’m pleased we’re able to do that today.”
The government says it hopes to introduce the amended legislation to parliament by June.
Zali Steggall, an independent member of parliament who has advocated for reforms to sexual harassment laws, said the move was “a win for everyone who has been calling on the government to act on sexual harassment”.
The rape allegations had sparked nationwide protests, with tens of thousands of women taking to the streets to call for gender equality and an end to sexual violence.
Morrison has at least a year left in his current term but has seen the crisis erode some popularity garnered from Australia’s solid handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
In recent weeks, the prime minister’s coalition government has been rocked by a litany of new sexual abuse and harassment complaints – from a staff member photographed masturbating on a female politician’s desk, to a state legislator being accused of raping a sex worker, to another legislator apologising for harassing women online.
Morrison has since demoted the attorney general accused of rape, as well as the minister accused of mishandling the alleged rape in the ministerial office.
He has also reprimanded the legislator who bullied constituents and ordered a probe into parliament’s workplace culture.