Amid harassment scandals, Australia plots a ‘road map for respect’

Prime Minister Scott Morrison's plan includes more education in schools and the promise of new legislation to end exemptions for judges and members of Parliament from the country’s sex discrimination law.

After two months of sexual harassment and assault scandals, including a claim of a rape inside Parliament House, Australia’s conservative government agreed Thursday to accept a series of recommendations that aim to prevent gender-based abuse and increase accountability for misbehavior in the workplace.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison unveiled what he called a “road map for respect” in response to the recommendations from the country’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner that would improve workplace culture in the public and private sectors.

His plan includes more education in schools and the promise of new legislation to end exemptions for judges and members of Parliament from the country’s sex discrimination law. It would also allow victims to file complaints for up to two years after an attack.

Morrison’s announcement comprises his most comprehensive effort so far to tackle a problem that has been festering for years in Australian politics, with women mistreated, demeaned or sexually harassed, usually without recourse.

A federal review focusing on Parliament’s workplace culture has also just begun and may produce additional calls for reform as the demand for demonstrable change has continued to intensify.

Critics questioned whether the government’s latest move would be enough. Noting that the initial report was published in March 2020, with much of its findings overlooked by Morrison’s government until now, many women demanded more details and a clear timeline.

“It’s going to take more than just words from this government to correct the impression that they don’t care about these issues,” said Louise Chappell, a political science professor at the University of New South Wales. “This is not going to go away.”

Emma Husar, a former member of Parliament with the opposition Labor Party, said the government was still delivering only “the bare minimum.”

Polls have shown that Australian women in particular have lost trust in the government since a former Liberal staff member said in February that she was raped in a ministerial office in 2019. A flood of accusations against members of Parliament and employees at every level followed, along with marches for justice that drew tens of thousands of women to the streets of Australian cities.

Morrison appeared Thursday to leave some wiggle room for himself and his Liberal Party. He said his government accepted all 55 suggestions laid out in the report “in whole, in part or in principle,” leading his critics to question which measures would be put in place at the federal level, passed on to states or given little more than lip service.

Many of the recommendations, including the creation of a national sexual harassment research agenda and “respectful relationship” training in schools, could take years to develop. And some of the changes announced Thursday would simply bring Australia in line with other developed democracies — such as Britain, Canada and the United States — that have passed legislation in the past few years tightening workplace standards for lawmakers.

Chappell said the exemption for members of Parliament, for example — a carve-out in the sex-discrimination law also given to religious organizations — seemed especially outdated. She welcomed the prime minister’s promise to ensure that lawmakers and the legal profession would no longer get special treatment.

“With all the cases we’ve seen so far, they have been able to act with impunity because they are not accountable in the same way that people outside Parliament are,” she said. “There’s been pressure to change that for many years.”

But the complaint process is still not clear. When Morrison was asked what the consequences would be for a sexual harassment complaint against a lawmaker, he said that was not yet decided.

“There are many issues that we’re still going to work through as we draft this legislation,” he said.

Chappell said Morrison still seemed to be struggling with how far to go with policy and how to talk about the issue. In his news conference Thursday, he emphasized that to change the culture of disrespect in the workplace, all Australians needed to take responsibility, but not “in a way that sets Australians against each other.”

“What does he mean here?” Chappell asked. “That women are being too strident? Is it possible to address sexual harassment without some level of confrontation? I don’t think so.”

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