Australia: more immunity for parliamentarians regarding sexual harassment

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Australian parliamentarians will now be subject to workplace sexual harassment regulations, the Conservative government said Thursday, which is trying to allay public anger over sexual assault charges in Parliament.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has indicated that his government will revise gender discrimination legislation so that parliamentarians, magistrates and civil servants are held accountable for harassing their colleagues in the workplace.

“It’s about putting everyone on an equal footing, as much as possible,” Morrison told reporters from Canberra.

Parliamentarians, judges and civil servants currently enjoy immunity from harassment in the workplace even though they may be subject to criminal prosecution for sexual assault.

The move follows a report titled “Respect @ Work” released last year following an investigation into sexual harassment. It also comes a few weeks after two resounding cases involving two ministers and which weakened the executive.

A former government employee claimed she was raped in 2019 by a colleague in a minister’s parliamentary office, while the government’s senior legal adviser was revealed to be the minister accused of the 1988 rape of a teenage girl with whom he studied.

Many voices have long denounced the sexist culture of Australia’s political class.

Michaelia Cash, who replaced the government’s top legal official last week, said the legislative changes would include making sexual harassment at work “serious misconduct” and a valid reason for dismissal.

The government also plans to extend the period during which a victim can report an incident from six months to two years, she added.

Mr Morrison has come under heavy criticism for failing to act on the 55 recommendations made in January 2020 in the report Respect @ Work.

The prime minister dismissed the criticism on Thursday, saying his government had already pledged to fund several recommendations it deemed high priority.

“Last year, we focused on these very urgent needs to protect women at a time when they were very vulnerable during the Covid,” he said, welcoming that he can now “tackle these problems more long term”.