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"He put his hand up my skirt": Report lifts lid on harassment in SA Parliament

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State Parliament has a “rotten” and “toxic” workplace culture where women are routinely made to feel like “second class citizens” and feel pressured to remain silent when they experience sexual harassment and assault, a damning independent review has found.

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The review, led by acting Equal Opportunity Commissioner Emily Strickland and tabled in Parliament on Tuesday afternoon, found that over 27 per cent of South Australian MPs or their staffers – the majority of whom are women – who responded to a survey have experienced sexual harassment at least once at work.

Eight people reported being victims of sexual harassment in the last five years, with all the alleged incidents being perpetrated by either MPs or their staff.

According to Strickland, six alleged incidents of sexual harassment reported to her “might otherwise be considered assault”.

Allegations ranged in seriousness and included sexually suggestive and unwelcome comments, indecent exposure and physical assault.

Strickland also slammed what she described as a “systems failure” at Parliament, where harassment and assault victims are “often left to develop their own protective strategies in the workplace”, leaving them feeling “isolated and vulnerable with continuing health impacts”.

The review, which was supposed to be handed down in August last year but delayed several months due to stalling in the House of Assembly, made 16 recommendations to State Parliament to improve its response to complaints about harassment in the parliamentary workplace.

They include developing new reporting policies and strategies, training MPs and staff about sexual harassment awareness and seeking White Ribbon accreditation for Parliament.

Attorney-General Vickie Chapman told Parliament this afternoon that the Government and Parliament would consider Strickland’s recommendations and provide a response.

I’ve seen male MPs from the other side cross the chamber and sit next to female MPs in the chamber with their legs up against them

As part of Strickland’s inquiry, Members of Parliament and their staff who work at Parliament House, ministerial offices or electorate offices were asked to complete a survey, or provide written or oral evidence about their experiences of harassment at work.

“The Review confirmed that sexual and discriminatory harassment is prevalent in the parliamentary workplace,” Strickland wrote.

Words used by MPs and their staff to describe Parliament’s workplace culture included “toxic” and “rotten”.

According to the review, sexually suggestive comments or jokes were the most common types of unwelcome sexual behaviour followed by inappropriate staring, leering or repeated physical proximity.

“I’ve seen male MPs from the other side cross the chamber and sit next to female MPs in the chamber with their legs up against them several times but in a jokey kind of way that you really couldn’t say anything about it,” one respondent told Strickland.

Another reportedly said: “I’ve seen it at social events where, you know, [young female staff] are not comfortable that they have got a male, usually MP, lurking over them.

Strickland wrote that one respondent told her they repeatedly overheard inappropriate comments made by MPs about women, including “Oh, they have got their tits out” and “Oh, they’re always really wearing a bit skanky outfits”.

People say things they shouldn’t say, touch people in ways they shouldn’t touch people

Strickland said she was also made aware of physical intimidation and sexual assault occurring in Parliament, with 23 respondents reporting they experienced “unwelcome touching such as hugging, kissing or placing a hand on your knee”.

“Respondents reported feeling uncomfortable in various situations at work, including while a colleague rubbed their back, being kissed as a greeting and having their ‘backsides’ touched,” Strickland wrote.

“One respondent commented generally on behaviour ‘being more friendly than you would expect your employer to be’.

“The Review also heard of an instance of a male exposing himself in front of co-workers.”

Strickland wrote that female staff felt vulnerable to advances from male MPs, including when travelling for work or attending work events, “leading female staff and their supporters to self-manage their movements and attendances to avoid interactions with certain Members, or avoid potentially compromising situations, and ensure their safety”.

Women are just second class citizens at parliament

One respondent told Strickland: “In terms of comments at social events, where there’s excessive alcohol consumption … people say things they shouldn’t say, touch people in ways they shouldn’t touch people. That happens.

Another said: “You don’t want to be sitting next to him when he has had some drinks. And I learnt that one, never again… he put his hand up my skirt, really far up my skirt.”

According to the review, female staff are informed that are required to wear skirts in the chambers of the Houses of Parliament – an informal direction Strickland said likely constituted unlawful discrimination.

“Parliament House, you know, there’s ways that things have been done there for decades and it is, it’s the old establishment, it’s the boys’ club, and you don’t disrupt that,” one respondent told her.

“Women are just second class citizens at parliament,” another said.

Strickland wrote that there was “some fundamental gaps in policy, training and complaints practices” at Parliament.

I appreciate your efforts, but I doubt you will be able to change anything

She wrote that she was advised of two instances where allegations of sexual harassment were dealt with by management within the parliamentary workplace ostensibly through “investigation”.

“In one instance, the victim reported the behaviour informally to a leader for advice and support,” she wrote.

“On the available information, the Commission understands this matter was dealt with by another leader in the workplace who spoke with the alleged harasser (who denied the conduct) and another person not present at the time of the incident (who could not confirm the incident).

“The Review was told that witnesses were not approached. The claim was found to be unsubstantiated.”

Strickland wrote that in another case, the “investigation” simply involved talking with the alleged harasser.

“The Review was told witnesses were not consulted and, despite having offered documentation to illustrate aspects of the complaint, the victim was not asked to produce this evidence for consideration,” she wrote.

“The Review was told it was concluded that there was no evidence of bullying or harassment.”

According to Strickland, the “systems failures” have caused people to resign from their roles, with speaking up viewed as “career suicide”.

She wrote that a culture exists in Parliament of “minimising, normalising and keeping quiet instances of harassment”.

“Participants reported that inadequate support was provided to them – some reported feeling like politics was prioritised over their welfare, she wrote.

One respondent reportedly said: “Presently the only way to escape bullying and harassment in the parliamentary workplace is for victims of harassment to resign from the organisation.”

Another stated: “I’ve spoken to people who were impacted by behaviour, worse than the behaviour I would say than I had, and they’ve said to me “If I do anything, everybody is going to know in a heartbeat, and I’m never going to work in Adelaide again”. And that’s the bottom line for them.”

Allegations of what has occurred in this Parliament are distressing to many

The findings come as ex-Liberal MP Sam Duluk faces a basic assault charge over an alleged incident at a Parliament Christmas party last year.

The review also comes as rape allegations rock Federal Parliament, with both major federal parties now facing sexual assault allegations against a man in their ranks, including a sitting cabinet minister.

Recommendations made by Strickland include:

However, one respondent told Strickland that the recommendations would not change Parliament’s culture.

“The powerful will remain powerful. I appreciate your efforts, but I doubt you will be able to change anything,” they said.

Chapman told Parliament this afternoon the Government and Parliament would consider Strickland’s recommendations and provide a response in the “near future”

“Everyone has a right to be safe and be treated with respect in their workplace, whether it’s in the Parliament or on a building site,” she said.

“Allegations in recent weeks in Canberra have been profoundly disturbing.

“Allegations of what has occurred in this Parliament are distressing to many.

“While this review and the Government’s response to the review cannot traverse these allegations, what we as a government and as a parliament can do is put in place measures to ensure the South Australian Parliament is a safer workplace for everyone.”

Chapman said her door was “always open to those who wish to confidentially discuss any matters of misbehaviour or misconduct in this Parliament”.

Premier Steven Marshall told reporters this morning that he was yet to read the review.

Treasurer Rob Lucas in August said that funding the investigation – originally costed at $152,873 but which actually came in at $60,000 – would pose an “issue” for the budgets of the House of Assembly and Legislative Council.

A similar inquiry has also been launched into prevalence of harassment within South Australia’s legal profession.

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