SYDNEY, Australia – After two months of sexual harassment and sexual assault scandals, including a rape claim in Parliament House, Australia’s conservative government agreed on Thursday to accept a series of recommendations aimed at preventing gender-based abuse and reducing accountability for misconduct in the workplace.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison unveiled what he called a “roadmap for respect” in response to the recommendations of the National Commissioner on Sexual Discrimination that would improve work 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 MPs from the country’s sex discrimination law. It would also allow victims to file complaints up to two years after an attack.
Mr Morrison’s announcement includes his most comprehensive effort to date to address a problem that has been going on in Australian politics for years, involving assaulting, humiliating or sexually harassing women, usually without recourse.
A federal overhaul targeting Parliament’s working culture has also just begun and may trigger additional calls for reform as the demand for demonstrable change has continued to grow.
Critics wondered if the government’s latest move would be enough. While they noted that the first report was published in March 2020, with many of the findings thus far overlooked by Mr Morrison’s administration, many women demanded more detail and a clear timeline.
“It takes more than just words from this administration to correct the impression that they don’t care about these issues,” said Louise Chappell, professor of political science at the University of New South Wales. “This is not going away.”
Emma Husar, a former opposition Labor Party MP, said the government is still only delivering “the bare minimum”.
Polls have shown that Australian women, in particular, have lost faith in the government since a former Liberal staff member said in February that she had been raped in a ministerial office in 2019. with marches for justice that drew tens of thousands of women to the streets of Australian cities.
Mr Morrison appeared on Thursday to leave some leeway for himself and his liberal party. He said his government accepted all 55 suggestions in the report “ in whole, in part, or in principle, ” leaving his critics wondering what measures would be taken at the federal level, passed on to states, or little more than lip service.
Many of the recommendations, including the creation of a national research agenda on sexual harassment and training in “respectful relationships” in schools, could take years. And some of the changes announced Thursday would simply align Australia with other developed democracies – such as Britain, Canada and the United States – that have passed legislation in recent years to tighten workplace standards for legislators.
Professor Chappell said the exemption for, say, MPs – a carve-out in the sex discrimination law that is also given to religious organizations – seems mostly outdated. She welcomed the Prime Minister’s pledge to ensure that lawmakers and lawyers would no longer receive special treatment.
“With all the cases we have seen so far, they have been able to act with impunity because they are not responsible in the same way as people outside the Parliament,” she said. “There has been pressure to change that for years.”
But the complaints process is still unclear. When asked about the consequences of a sexual harassment complaint against a legislator, Mr. Morrison said that no decision had been made yet.
“There are many issues that we still have to work on while we draft this legislation,” he said.
Professor Chappell said Mr Morrison still seems to be struggling with how far the policy should go and how to talk about the matter. In his press conference on Thursday, he stressed that to change the culture of disrespect in the workplace, all Australians must take responsibility, but not “in a way that pits Australians against each other”.
“What does he mean here?” Professor Chappell asked. ‘That women are too shrill? Is it possible to deal with sexual harassment without any degree of confrontation? I do not think so. “