Aussie politicians no longer exempt from sexual harassment rules

SYDNEY • Australian politicians will no longer be exempt from rules against sexual harassment at work, the conservative government has announced as it tries to quell public anger over parliamentary sex abuse scandals.

Prime Minister Scott 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.

"It's about getting everyone on as much of a playing field as possible," he said yesterday.

MPs, judges and public servants are currently exempt from anti-harassment rules that apply to other Australian workplaces, though they can still face criminal prosecution for sexual assault.

The latest move was in response to a "Respect@Work" report - handed down more than a year ago following a national inquiry into sexual harassment - and comes just weeks after sexual abuse allegations rocked Australia's halls of power.

A young former staff member in Mr Morrison's Liberal Party recently went public with allegations that she was raped by a colleague in Parliament in 2019, while a senior minister was forced to deny raping a 16-year-old when they were both students in the 1980s.

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 Christian Porter 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.

Mr Morrison said yesterday that he would adopt all 55 of Australia's sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins' recommendations in the Respect@Work report.

In recent weeks, Mr Morrison'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 MP being accused of raping a sex worker, to another lawmaker apologising for harassing women online.

A media blitz aimed at showing Mr Morrison's empathy with women has only added to the furore through a series of missteps, and he eventually demoted two top ministers in an attempt to draw a line under the scandals.

The government says it hopes to introduce the amended legislation to Parliament by June.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 09, 2021, with the headline 'Aussie politicians no longer exempt from sexual harassment rules'. Subscribe