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Opposition calls for police inquiry into SA Parliament harassment

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Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas has called for a police investigation into sexual harassment and assault in State Parliament in the wake of a damning report – saying police officers should be granted “all the access they need” to investigate alleged “criminal” behaviour.

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It follows yesterday’s release of the Equal Opportunity Commission’s report into harassment in State Parliament, which revealed allegations of male MPs crossing the chamber to rub their legs against female MPs, a male MP putting his hand “really far up” a staffer’s skirt and a man exposing himself in front of his co-workers.

The review found over 27 per cent of South Australian MPs or their staffers who responded to a survey experienced sexual harassment at least once at work.

Acting Equal Opportunity Commissioner Emily Strickland claimed six alleged incidents of sexual harassment reported to her “might otherwise be considered assault”.

Malinauskas told reporters this afternoon that the allegations “speak to criminal conduct occurring in the Parliament of this state” and the review “demands further action”.

“We believe there should be an investigation from South Australian Police to get to the bottom of this,” he said.

“I am certainly supportive of Police being provided all the access they need so as to establish the veracity of these allegations, but most importantly, weed out any perpetrators should they exist within the Parliament.”

The experiences of MPs and their staffers outlined in the Strickland’s review were provided on the basis of anonymity.

Malinauskas said for a police investigation to have “any practical effect”, it would require victims to speak to police.

“I think there is an obligation upon everybody within the Parliament to make sure that is actively facilitated should individuals want to go down that path,” he said.

“If there is a MP in this office who has partaken in putting their hands up the skirt of a female employee, then that should be known about.

“That person should feel the full force of the law – that is a criminal offence – and I think that collectively everybody in the Parliament should be ensuring that should a police inquiry want to be pursued it should be actively facilitated.”

Malinauskas and his deputy, Susan Close, called a meeting this morning with Labor MPs and staffers to remind them of the party’s harassment policies.

Neither said they had witnessed harassment in Parliament or heard from victims about alleged incidents.

Malinauskas said he would be willing to expel a member of the Labor Party if the police investigation found them guilty of an offence.

Attorney-General Vickie Chapman, whose motion in the House of Assembly sparked the review, said it was up to victims of sexual harassment and assault to make complaints to police when and if they felt comfortable.

“I think it should be very clear that the research in relation to this as to the anecdotal information was obtained via survey with an expectation of confidentiality,” she said.

“That is a matter, in fact, for the complainant if they wish to take it further.

“I’ve made it very clear and I maintain today that my door is always open – not only as Attorney-General but as a Member of the Parliament – for any colleague or staff employed here at Parliament House to have support and to have the referral support services to assist someone who’s in this position to be able to feel confident and strong enough to be able to take up the issue.

“Whether that’s referral to Police or whether it’s to seek the support, or mediation confidentially through the Equal Opportunity Commission’s office, or any other action, that is a matter for the victim in these circumstances.”

Chapman has already signed documentation to start implementing some of the 16 recommendations made in Strickland’s review.

She told ABC Radio Adelaide this morning that “one can’t be blind” to sexual harassment occurring in and around Parliament House.

She said since becoming a MP, multiple people had come to her “who were unsure about approaches made to them”.

“Just yesterday I spoke to someone who I know has been through a shocking situation and I think it was some time ago and I’ve maintained some contact and I happened to see her yesterday and asked how she was getting on,” she said.

“Frequently you get a situation of someone saying I don’t necessarily want to take this further myself but I want it to stop and I don’t want anyone else to be hurt.

“I’ve maintained very publicly during the time of my office that my door is always open for anyone who feels that they’ve been compromised in any way in the workplace.”

Chapman said she had the power as Attorney-General to implement three of the 16 recommendations made in Strickland’s report, but the 13 other recommendations were matters which a joint parliamentary committee would need to address.

The recommendations include developing new reporting policies and strategies to handle sexual harassment complaints, training MPs and staff about sexual harassment awareness and seeking White Ribbon accreditation for Parliament.

It is likely the joint parliamentary committee would comprise MPs, some of whom Strickland said were unwilling to provide information to the Commission and expressed views akin to victim-blaming.

In her report, Strickland wrote that one MP replied to correspondence from the Commission stating they had “no interest in participating in the review and should be removed from the review’s mailing list”.

She wrote that two male MPs, in referring to an allegation of sexual harassment at a 2019 Parliament Christmas party, “expressed views that attempted to shift blame and responsibility onto the alleged victim”.

“Sentiments that reflect the social norm of condoning violence against women (including sexual harassment) were expressed during interviews, with statements made such as ‘it takes two to tango’, the victim should have spoken up at the time, and a delay in reporting must mean there was an ulterior motive to reporting,” she wrote.

Respondents to the Commission’s survey wrote that women were often told that their clothing or consumption of alcohol was the reason for them experiencing harassment.

“The culture in the parliamentary workplace is to blame the victim and to harass and bully anyone who raises issues of harassment or bullying,” one respondent said.

Another said: “It eats at me that when I told someone about [sexual harassment] it was suggested to have occurred because I was too polite.”

Strickland wrote that as the Commission for Equal Opportunity does not have “systemic investigative powers”, including  the power to request documents or information, the review was “limited… to using the information voluntarily made available by participants”.

Of the 850 MPs and staffers who qualified to take part in the review’s survey, only a quarter chose to do so.

Only 16 submissions were received – 13 of which came from MPs – while a further six MPs and eight parliamentary staffers participated in interviews.

Strickland wrote that some MPs or staffers were concerned that their views or complaints would not be kept private.

“The grapevine in this, it’s a very, I don’t like using the word, it’s a very incestuous environment,” one respondent told her.

“The jungle drums of parliament beat loudly,” another said.

Greens MLC Tammy Franks, who lodged a motion in the Legislative Council calling for the review, told InDaily the Commission’s findings were just “the tip of the iceberg”.

“The interviews and the experiences that have been shared, there are many more similar stories that could have been told for this report,” she said.

Asked what those stories entailed, Franks said: “a boys’ club culture, a culture of entitlement, a culture where, once you’re a MP, everyone knows your name, knows who you are and some people take that as permission to do what they like”.

“Reading the report I thought of some stories that I could have added myself that I probably supressed and I’m sure others have as well, because of course with sexist culture and sexual harassment – particularly women – we acclimatise to it, we push it down, we move on and it’s only when we have conversations like this that we remember further incidents, issues,” she said.

“The Parliament is actually replete with war stories of bad behaviour.

“There’s every chance that this report could produce some brief flurry of activity and then be shelved and forgotten.

“I hope that this time we don’t see that happen.”

Franks said the SA Greens were “not immune from these issues” and the party had “a lot of work to do internally”.

She said a recommendation to set up a centralised human resources unit within parliament for MPs and staffers from all parties to raise concerns would go “a long way to changing the culture”.

Several respondents to the Commission’s review suggested a centralised HR unit could help improve complaint-handling practices at parliament.

“There is no one to report harassment to if it’s your bosses doing the harassment,” one respondent said.

Franks said she hoped that the “archaic” culture at Parliament changed soon, but she was not holding her breath “for what is inground, institutionalised sexism to be solved overnight”.

“That’s not going to happen but what we can do is do better,” she said.

Premier Steven Marshall told reporters this morning that the issues raised in the review were “not new problems – they’ve been around for a long period of time”.

“I think there has generally been an improvement in behaviour in Parliament House over the 11 years that I’ve been in parliament, but this report makes it clear that there’s much more work to be done and that’s what we’ll be doing,” he said.

“The Government will be working with the Parliament to make sure that we can implement these recommendations.

“Obviously it takes some time to just digest them, but we will be wanting to do those as quickly as possible.”

If this story has raised issues for you, you can call 1800 RESPECT, which provides support for people impacted by sexual assault or abuse.

You can also call Lifeline on 13 11 14. 

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