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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Interesting? Yeah. Useful? Nah.

The last six months have seen a spate of marketing surveys about the impact of COVID19 on workplaces as well as the secondary consequences, such as mental health. On 18 January 2021, The Australian Financial Review (AFR) published an article based on one of these types of surveys conducted by the “work management platform Asana” which claimed:

“Almost three-quarters of Australians suffered burnout last year and the average office worker’s overtime nearly doubled from 236 hours in 2019 to 436 hours, a global study of more than 13,000 office workers reveals.”

This is inaccurate.

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Suicide statistics could benefit from a different analysis

Regular readers of this blog would be aware that I feel that the prevention of suicide gains less attention than early intervention and that mental health has dominated suicide discussions to the point that suicides without a mental health context are largely ignored. This situation is starting to change with non-psychological pressures gaining some acknowledgement, if not examination. Mental health still dominates but the pool of contributory factors is expanding.

On 30 November 2020, the Medical Journal of Australia published the best recent example of this change, an article called “Suicide by young Australians, 2006-20415: a cross-sectional analysis of national coronial data.” The most useful statement in the research report, and the media release, is:

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COVID19 checklist used by NOPSEMA

It has been assumed that Australian businesses that have continued to operate during the COVID19 pandemic have been maintaining their occupational health and safety (OHS) audits and assessment; and that the safety regulators have been inspecting workplaces. On May 6 2020, the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) released the findings of

“…a series of remote COVID-19 specific inspections, confirming operators of offshore facilities are equipped with adequate arrangements for protecting workers from infectious diseases such as COVID-19.”

The findings are interesting but perhaps of more interest is the questions that were asked and how the answers were verified.

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Workers and COVID19 survey

Last week the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) released some research into workers and COVID19. It is not peer-reviewed and there will certainly be much more research into the disruption and personal and occupational responses to the coronavirus disruption over the next few months. The survey results do not specifically analyse occupational health and safety (OHS) issues but there are clues to future considerations.

The media release, understandably, discusses the changed employment status or arrangements. The OHS hazards associated with precarious work are well-established and the survey illustrates the extent of precarity in Australian workplace, so mental health issues are going to come to the fore as government-imposed isolation continues and/or businesses reopen.

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Business COVID19 survey could have been clearer and more useful

On April 14, 2020, the Australian Industry Group revealed, in a media release, some details of how its members were responding to the COVID19 pandemic. The survey was described as economic research and, as occupational health and safety (OHS) is mentioned, SafetyAtWorkBlog asked from more details on the OHS-related findings.

The survey found:

“There has been a steep rise in workload as a result of new OH&S policies and procedures around hygiene (34%) and working from home (25%).”

“Employees are also anxious, with 31% of businesses saying there is increased anxiety levels within their workforce.”

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Look closely at the camel rather than the straw

There are strong parallels between the National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces and others addressing workplace issues, such as the Victorian Royal Commission into Mental and the Productivity Commission’s mental health inquiry, but there is also a connection to the Royal Commission into Banking and Financial Services which has focused the minds of some of Australia’s corporation s and leaders into examining their own workplace cultures and, for some, to reassess the role and application of capitalism.

This is going to become even more of a critical activity as the National Sexual Harassment Inquiry completes its report prior to its release in the first month or two of 2020.

Cultural analysis, and change, is often best undertaken first in a microcosm or specific social context. The experiences of sexual harassment of rural women in Australia is one such context, a context examined in detail by Dr Skye Saunders in her book “Whispers from the Bush“.

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