Back in June 2018, in the heady days after #MeToo first went viral following explosive allegations against Harvey Weinstein, the Coalition government launched a “world-first” sexual harassment inquiry.
“The spotlight on sexual harassment has turned the tide and created a clear and unprecedented appetite for change,” said Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins.
“Sexual harassment in the workplace is an issue of economic security and it needs to be examined in that way,” said the then Minister for Women, Kelly O’Dwyer. “International and national coverage of the #MeToo movement and related cases have highlighted the prevalence and detrimental impact of sexual harassment on individuals and organisations.”
That’s a lot of big talk. But did it translate into action? The short answer is no. Even worse, the Morrison government has been quietly crab walking away from the inquiry’s recommendations — and hoping no one would notice.
I’ll get to that, but first a bit of context: it’s worth remembering that when the inquiry was first commissioned, then, as now, the Coalition government was reeling from a series of #MeToo related scandals as the movement first arrived on Australian shores.
Among the issues that buffeted the Coalition at the time: it was revealed that Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce was expecting a baby with his former staffer and he was the subject of a separate, unrelated sexual harassment complaint.
Those two events prompted the then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to convene a now infamous press conference where he announced the so-called “bonk ban”, preventing Ministers from having sexual relationships with their staff. “We all know what goes on in this place,” said Turnbull, alluding to the fact that the Joyce allegations were, most likely, just the tip of the Parliamentary #MeToo iceberg.
A month later, Liberal MP Julia Banks confirmed that suspicion when she announced that she would not recontest her marginal seat of Chisholm. In an incendiary statement, Banks blasted the “cultural and gender bias, bullying and intimidation” of women in politics.
So, it’s fair to conclude that it was not an entirely benevolent desire to stamp out sexual harassment that motivated the Coalition government to take some long overdue action in commissioning the inquiry.
Fast forward 21 months to March 2020, and Kate Jenkins delivered her final report, Respect@Work, which included 55 recommendations aimed at shifting the responsibility from victims to create change by coming forward and bringing a claim (a costly and emotionally gruelling process), to placing a responsibility on others, in particular employers, to prevent sexual harassment from happening in the first place. The central recommendation called for a “positive duty” on employers to take active steps to prevent sexual harassment.
The report and its recommendations were described as “paradigm shifting” and “radical”….just “paradigm shifting” and “radical” enough, it would seem, to warrant getting shoved in then Attorney General Christian Porters drawer for 13 months until another wave of #MeToo related stories, including the alleged rape of former political staffer Brittany Higgins in then Defence Minister Linda Reynolds office, prompted renewed calls for action earlier this year.
The fact that the very Attorney General, Christian Porter, who was sitting on the Respect@Work report was himself accused of historical rape (an allegation he denies) probably didn’t help. Nor did the historic March 4 Justice, where thousands of women across the country gathered to protest sexual violence.
So, it was against this backdrop that Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his new Attorney General Michaelia Cash gathered the media in April 2021, thirteen months after the final Respect@Work report was handed down, to deliver the Morrison government’s long overdue response.
This series of events is, in my humble opinion, is the very definition of being dragged kicking and screaming. But there’s more. There’s always a but, isn’t there?
While Morrison and Cash led the media to conclude that the Morrison government had accepted all 55 recommendations “in part or in principle”, a copy of the full response wasn’t made available for another two hours, meaning journalists couldn’t interrogate that claim.
It later emerged that the Morrison government had not accepted many recommendations, including the central, most important recommendation of a “positive duty” for employers to prevent sexual harassment. And that was just the start. The Morrison government has been cynically crab walking away from the report’s most important recommendations ever since — and hoping no one would notice.
Now the situation is at crisis point.
Among the report’s other important recommendations, Jenkins called on the Federal government to properly fund Working Women’s Centres to provide a “holistic” response service to women experiencing sexual harassment – and to reinstate the centres in the states and territories where they no longer exist.
Why was that considered necessary?
The 2018 Australian Human Rights Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces
Survey indicated that rates of sexual harassment had increased from 1 in 4 people when the survey was last conducted in 2012 to 1 in 3 people in 2018. That increase in rates of sexual harassment, curiously, maps almost directly onto the period of national Coalition leadership.
What’s more, only 17 percent of those who said they experienced sexual harassment made a formal complaint, a decrease from 20 percent in the previous survey. And the most common negative consequence of workplace harassment was an impact on the victim’s mental health or stress, with 36 percent of respondents reporting it had most affected them in this way.
“This holistic approach may involve smooth and speedy referrals between services or access to an all-inclusive support, advice and advocacy service. Working women’s centres are not-for-profit community organisations that are well placed to provide those services,” said the Respect@Work report.
Now, despite presiding over a government during which rates of sexual harassment have increased, the Working Women’s Centres have not received any certainty from the Morrison government that they will receive the recommended funding. And, as a result, the Northern Territory Working Women’s Centre is just weeks away from closing.
That would be a devastating blow for the women in that part of the country who rely on the service — and it will be a devastating blow for the women of Australia if the few remaining working women’s centres in South Australia and Queensland if they are forced to follow suit.
If the Morrison government thinks the women of Australia won’t notice, that we’ll fall for the cynical bait and switch tactics so clearly on display at the Respect@Work response press conference, it’s time to remind them that we’re paying attention…. very close attention.
Kristine Ziwica is a regular contributor. She tweets @KZiwica