What Australia can learn from other Parliaments about sexual harassment and assaults

Brittany Higgins alleges that she was raped in her employer’s office by a work colleague after a night of drinking. Since mid-February 2021, other women have claimed to have been sexually assaulted in Parliament. The Attorney-General, Christian Porter, is taking some leave after revealing himself to be the person behind historical rape allegations. At the moment, Australian politics is wrapped up in itself over these scandals. Still, similar scandals have happened in other Parliaments, and the responses to these may provide guidance for Australia.

A small survey of female parliamentarians and staff in Europe in 2018 found the following

▪ 85.2 per cent of female MPs who took part in the study said that they had suffered psychological violence in the course of their term of office.
▪ 46.9 per cent had received death threats or threats of rape or beating.
▪ 58.2 per cent had been the target of online sexist attacks on social networks.
▪ 67.9 per cent had been the target of comments relating to their physical appearance or based on gender stereotypes.
▪ 24.7 per cent had suffered sexual violence.
▪ 14.8 per cent had suffered physical violence.

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Parliamentary culture must change

Australia is in the midst of a murky investigation into an alleged rape that occurred out-of-hours in an office of a Federal Minister in Australia’s Parliament House. The incident has raised discussions and debates about workplace culture, the reporting of crimes, the uniqueness (?) of the parliamentary workplace, the rights of women, the role of the media in reporting the allegations or in being complicit in the workplace culture…….

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has got himself into a pickle about how to respond, how to investigate and what he should have known and what he was expected to do. One of the actions that he and his government could do, and should have done, was to accept, and act on, the findings of the National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) early last year. The relevance of this report is obvious:

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Sexual misconduct research – Interview with Professor Marie Bismark

A lot of recent attention has been given to incidents of sexual harassment in Australian legal and finance corporations, in particular, and how these are being (mis)managed. COVID19 has thrown a big focus on the working conditions of health care workers. Last month, Australian research on sexual misconduct was released that is, essentially, a Venn diagram of the issues of sexual harassment and misconduct with health practitioners.

The lead author of the study, Associate Professor Marie Bismark, professor of Public Law at the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, spoke exclusively with SafetyAtWorkBlog about the research findings.

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The concept of “Coercive Control” should be applied to workplace violence

“Coercive control” is getting attention in New South Wales in relation to domestic violence but there are similarities to workplace behaviours such as sexual harassment and bullying.

The Chief Psychiatrist of Victoria’s “guideline and practice resource: family violence” says

“Family violence is understood as a pattern of repeated and
coercive control, aiming to control another person’s thoughts, feelings and actions.”

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Family violence at work, looking at trees instead of forest

Victoria’s Minister for Workplace Safety, Jill Hennessy, has released a media statement about the occupational health and safety (OHS) context of family violence, referencing a WorkSafe Victoria guidance note from January 2018.

Hennessy is quoted saying:

“Employers have a legal obligation to provide a safe workplace for their employees – and that includes doing whatever they can to support workers experiencing family violence.”

But what level or type of support is expected from employers? Family violence is damaging and insidious but also a crime. It is also a subset, or maybe a special type, of workplace violence as is evident by WorkSafe’s reference to its broader violence publication at the end of the family violence guidance note. The publication, A guide for employers Preventing and responding to work-related violence, outlines the employers duty of care, which includes prevention.

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Steady as she goes in Victoria

The annual Safety Institute of Australia (SIA) breakfast was held at the Melbourne offices of Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF). As has become a tradition, a spokesperson for WorkSafe Victoria was the feature presenter and this year that was the very recently appointed Executive Director of Health and Safety, Julie Nielsen. HSF’s Steve Bell also provided an update on OHS laws and national Work Health and Safety (WHS) changes.

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