Trigger Warning: this article deals with sexual assault and may be triggering to some readers.
One-third of parliamentary staff in Australia have experienced some form of sexual harassment, a new report has shockingly revealed.
Earlier this year, rape allegations made by former liberal staffer Brittany Higgins against a co-worker sparked an investigation into the government’s workplace culture, with the findings of the review revealed today.
Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins carried out the review, which also found that more than half of those working in Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces have experienced bullying, sexual harassment or actual or attempted sexual assault at least once.
The report stated that these workplaces are “not safe environments for many people within them,” adding that they are “largely driven by power imbalances, gender inequality and exclusion and a lack of accountability”.
What else did the workplace culture review find?
While sexual harassment was reported by both men and women, the latter experienced it at a significantly higher rate at 40 per cent, compared to 26 per cent for men.
Some people voluntarily shared personal stories for the review—one particularly disturbing recount described: “The MP sitting beside me leaned over. Also thinking he wanted to tell me something, I leaned in. He grabbed me and stuck his tongue down my throat. The others all laughed. It was revolting and humiliating.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison held a press conference to share his thoughts on the findings, telling media he was “appalled”.
He added, “I wish I found it more surprising”.
Morrison explained that while the working environment of the government can be stressful, “This is no excuse to normalise inappropriate, unhealthy and unprofessional behaviour.”
Morrison also commended Higgins, whose allegations against a former liberal staffer will go to trail in the ACT Supreme Court, for her bravery in speaking up about her experience.
“I do thank her standing up and speaking up. Her voice has been listened to… Her voice has spoken for many as this report shows.”
But are his comments enough?
Earlier this year Higgins called for more action, telling the Prime Minister that the current culture of silence in the government, “Has allowed workplace bullying, harassment and other inappropriate conduct to go unchecked,” her meeting notes read.
“Too often, a toxic workplace culture can emerge that enables inappropriate conduct and this is exacerbated by the disparity in the power dynamics. The onus is now on the government to show leadership on this issue and act to ensure what I endured is not allowed to happen again.”
In the wake of these comments in April, Morrison gave the green light for a workplace culture review to go ahead, which has now delivered several key recommendations, including setting targets to achieve gender balance among parliamentarians and parliamentary staff. It also recommends for governmental progress to be publicly reported.
With the troubling results from the review now in his pocket, Morrison said at his press conference that the recommendations cover “all the right territory”, and that the government will be putting the infrastructure in place to meet them.
But as for how he’ll go about that remains unclear.
For now, we watch and hope for affirmative change so that people with experiences like those described by Brittany can get the justice and support they need.
If you are experiencing sexual abuse or other unwanted behaviour, please contact Full Stop Australia.