‘Like Fresh Meat’: Detailing Rampant Sex Harassment in Australia’s Parliament

MELBOURNE, Australia — Men strutting down corridors looking women up and down. Women carrying fake binders to block unwanted advances. Forcible touches, kisses, comments about appearance. Fears of speaking out.

A sweeping review of the workplace culture in Australia’s Parliament paints a damning picture of widespread sexual harassment, with employees sharing harrowing stories of an alcohol-soaked atmosphere where powerful men blurred lines and crossed boundaries with impunity.

The report, released on Tuesday, was commissioned by the Australian government in March, shortly after a former staffer’s account of being raped in Parliament House sent shock waves through Australia’s halls of power. It found that one-third of parliamentary employees — 40 percent of women — had experienced sexual harassment. About 1 percent of the more than 1,700 people who participated in the review said they had been the victim of attempted or actual sexual assault.

In response, Australia’s sex discrimination commissioner, Kate Jenkins, who conducted the study, proposed a series of measures to address the power imbalances, gender inequality and lack of accountability that she said had made Parliament a hostile workplace for many employees, especially young female staffers.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the findings of rampant sexual harassment “appalling” and added, “I wish I found them more surprising.” He said the government would review the report’s recommendations — including the creation of an independent central complaints body, a code of conduct and alcohol policies — but did not commit to accepting them.

The Australian Parliament has long had a reputation as a testosterone-fueled bunker, a place that lagged the rest of society as the country’s corporations and other institutions made gradual moves toward gender equality. In the past 20 years, Australia has fallen from 15th to 50th in the world for parliamentary gender diversity.

After Brittany Higgins, a former parliamentary staff member, said early this year that she had been raped by a more senior colleague in the defense minister’s office, thousands of women marched in cities across Australia to demand change.

Brittany Higgins, a former parliamentary staff member, during a rally against sexual violence in Canberra in March, after she said she had been raped by a more senior colleague in the defense minister’s office.Credit…Saeed Khan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Women in politics who had never felt they had an outlet to share their experiences have come forward with accounts of the misogyny and sexual assault and harassment they endured: stories of being groped, demeaned, insulted, ignored, interrupted. Several federal female lawmakers have quit in recent years, in part because of the disrespect and abuse.

The new report tried to both put numbers on the breadth of the problems in Australian politics and add, in sometimes painful detail, to the stories that have emerged. Among the comments that participants shared anonymously with investigators:

  • “The M.P. sitting beside me leaned over. Also thinking he wanted to tell me something, I leaned in. He grabbed me and stuck his tongue down my throat. The others all laughed. It was revolting and humiliating.”

  • “Aspiring male politicians who thought nothing of, in one case, picking you up, kissing you on the lips, lifting you up, touching you, pats on the bottom, comments about appearance, you know, the usual.”

  • “It is a man’s world and you are reminded of it every day thanks to the looks up and down you get, to the representation in the parliamentary chambers, to the preferential treatment politicians give senior male journalists.”

  • “I thought it was normal to tell people that they should avoid certain people at events. I thought it was normal to tell people how to take alcohol to remain safe. Now that I look back on it, that is insane.”

  • “I do often describe Parliament House as the most sexist place I’ve worked. I guess there is a workplace culture of drinking. There’s not a lot of accountability. The boys are lads. And that behavior is celebrated.”

  • “Young women, particularly media advisers coming in, particularly the younger women coming in, were like fresh meat and challenges.”

The report describes a toxic work culture driven by power imbalances between members of Parliament and their staffs. In this pressure-cooker environment, sexual harassment was normalized and offenders acted with impunity because there were few avenues for recourse, the review says.

“Parliament is inherently about power, and that power runs in multiple directions,” Ms. Jenkins said at a news conference shortly after the review was released. “We heard that power imbalances and the misuse of power is one of the primary drivers of bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the findings of rampant sexual harassment “appalling,” adding, “I wish I found them more surprising.”Credit…Lukas Coch/EPA, via Shutterstock

The “fly in, fly out” nature of Parliament — most lawmakers and staffers do not live in the nation’s capital, Canberra, and stay there only during the weeks when it is in session — created a sense of isolation, the report said.

One person interviewed for the report likened the culture to high schoolers at camp: “There’s a bunch of naughty schoolboys on a school trip, and they think everyone’s fair game, and whatever happens in Canberra stays in Canberra, and it’s a kind of free-for-all.”

Unable to go home when Parliament was sitting, “many people preferred to stay late at work or to drink with their colleagues, heightening the risk of misconduct,” the review found.

Alcohol was sometimes present during parliamentary business — “members of Parliament have gone onto the floor of Parliament to vote under the influence of alcohol,” one submission to the review said. And at night, drinking was a key feature of networking and socializing events.

A workplace environment characterized by “intense loyalty, the prioritization of ‘optics’ and, in political offices, intense media scrutiny and public interest,” discouraged staffers from speaking out. Doing so could be risky, they said.

“I was sexually harassed multiple times, sexually assaulted, bullied and terrorized,” one person told the investigators. “And I was told that if I ever sought help or spoke about what happened to me my professional reputation and personal life would be destroyed.”

Australian members of Parliament protesting lawmakers’ treatment of women earlier this year. The report found that one-third of parliamentary employees had experienced sexual harassment.Credit…Sam Mooy/Getty Images

Because members of Parliament do not have a direct employer, it is difficult to penalize those who engage in misconduct, the review found. Lawmakers are also responsible for hiring and managing their own staffers and have broad powers to fire them, creating an insecure workplace.

Susan Harris Rimmer, a law professor at Griffith University and a former parliamentary staff member, called the report’s findings “a shameful picture but an accurate picture.”

The review shows that Parliament has “not been a safe workplace for women or any minority,” she said, “and that there was no recourse; bad behavior was seemingly unable to be regulated.”

The report’s recommendations are similar to those put in place in Britain, the United States and Canada in years past, and implemented across Australian workplaces 20 years ago, she said. Calls for basic reforms found in other democratic legislatures, such as a complaint system independent of the major parties, have been ignored for years.

“The recommendations are just straight stock practice for a modern workplace, most of them, and it’s still shocking to me that it’s taken this level of pain and suffering to come to a place where Parliament catches up to the rest of Australia and the rest of the world,” she said.

Since going public with her account of being raped inside Parliament, Ms. Higgins has become an advocate for victims of sexual abuse and harassment. The man she accused of raping her, Bruce Lehrmann, 26, is set to stand trial in Canberra. He has pleaded not guilty.

In a statement, Ms. Higgins said of the new report: “I hope all sides of politics not only commit to but implement these recommendations in full.”

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