Australian politicians and judges will no longer be exempt from workplace sexual harassment rules, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said as he tried to calm 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 revise the country’s gender discrimination laws to make parliamentarians, judges and public officials responsible for harassing their colleagues in the workplace.
“Sexual harassment is unacceptable,” Morrison said in Canberra.
“This is not only immoral and despicable and even criminal, but… it robs Australians, especially women, of not only their personal safety but also their economic security by not being safe at work.”
Currently, lawmakers, judges and public officials are exempt from complaints of gender discrimination in the workplace, as are some employers of volunteers, due to a legal loophole that means they do not. are technically not the complainant’s employer.
However, they can still face criminal charges for sexual assault.
Morrison said the legal change proposed Thursday was to “put everyone on a playing field as much as possible.”
He said employers will now have to take a proactive approach to ending gender discrimination, while complainants will have a longer time frame to file their complaints.
The action followed a “Respect @ Work” report – issued over a year ago following a national investigation into sexual harassment – and came just weeks after allegations of sexual abuse rocked Australia’s corridors of power.
In February, a former Morrison Liberal Party employee went public with allegations she was raped by a colleague in parliament in 2019, while in March, the then country’s attorney general identified himself as being the subject of an unrelated historic rape allegation in 1988, which he strongly denied.
Critics said the cases, and the government’s apparent reluctance to act initially, highlighted a “toxic” and sexist culture in the Australian 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 Government Gender Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, and Morrison has come under increasing criticism for failing to act on its recommendations since its submission in January 2020.
The prime minister dismissed the criticism on Thursday, saying he would adopt the commissioner’s 55 recommendations, including a blanket ban on gender discrimination in the workplace, mandatory training for business leaders and reporting by listed companies, as well as better coordination between complaint handling agencies. .
Morrison said his government has already pledged to fund several recommendations that it sees as high priorities.
“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 glad we can do that today.”
The government says it hopes to present the amended law to parliament by June.
Zali Steggall, an independent MP who has advocated for reforms to sexual harassment laws, said the move was “a victory for all who called on the government to act against sexual harassment.”
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.
Morrison is at least a year into his current term, but has seen the crisis erode some popularity derived from Australia’s strong handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
In recent weeks, the Prime Minister’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 lawmaker from the state accused of raping a sex worker, to another lawmaker. apologize for harassing women online.
Morrison has since retrograde the attorney general accused of rape, as well as the minister accused of having mismanaged the alleged rape in the ministerial cabinet.
He also berated the lawmaker for intimidating voters and ordering an investigation into the work culture of parliament.