Sexual Harassment Allegations within Parliament House Walls

A recent sexual harassment allegation made against a former Liberal party member has mounted debate with respect to the efficacy of existing workplace complaints procedures in handling this pervasive issue. Former federal government staffer Brittany Higgins has broken her 2-year silence alleging that the sexual harassment against her took place within the walls of Parliament House back in 2019. This has raised serious concerns about how many employees in a range of industries feel their voices are inevitably stifled when it comes to reporting complaints about workplace sexual harassment.

Amid the sexual harassment allegations ignited by the media, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has sought advice from the Australian Federal Police to which AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw APM has stressed the importance of reporting allegations of criminal activity, including sexual assault, “without delay”. In addition, and prompted by Commissioner Kershaw’s recent advice, historical rape allegations against a Cabinet Minister have also surfaced, bringing a spotlight upon the need for policy discussion on the targeting and formal reporting of sexual harassment and/or assault in the workplace when, or soon after, it occurs.

Following Ms. Higgins recent allegation, 3 other women who previously worked within the government in varying capacities have since come forward with complaints of sexual harassment against the same alleged perpetrator. Although sexual harassment in political circles particularly against women is not a new phenomenon, clearly there are inherent factors preventing the effective use of the complaints process that many Australian workplaces have to offer.

According to a recent survey on sexual harassment in the workplace released by the Australian Human Rights Commission[1] almost 2 in 5 women (39%) and 1 in 4 men (26%) reported experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace.[2] However, more alarmingly and the reason why many victims do not come forward, the survey revealed that one in 5 people who made a formal complaint were labelled as a troublemaker (19%), were ostracised, victimised, or ignored by colleagues (18%) or resigned (17%).[3]

The recent media frenzy concerning sexual harassment allegations within the government should be considered a helpful reminder for workplaces to possibly revitalise sexual harassment complaints handling procedures, to target and manage incidents earlier before they worsen, but more importantly to implement fortified safeguards in accordance with existing Australian workplace protection laws.

If you have any questions relating to sexual harassment in the workplace please do not hesitate to contact Nick StevensLuke Maroney or Daphne Klianis.

[1] Australian Human Rights Commission, Everyone’s Business: Fourth National Survey on Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces (2018).

[2] Ibid 8.

[3] Ibid 9.


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