Is this Australia’s turning point on sexual harassment, assault?

Australian politics appears set to face a reckoning after a wave of allegations of sexual assault and harassment committed by multiple politicians and staff at Parliament House in the country’s capital.

Allegations have so far been made against a male political staffer, alleged to have raped a female colleague in 2019, against Attorney-General Christian Porter, accused of sexually assaulting a female acquaintance when both were teenagers in 1988; and against a senior aide of a member of parliament, alleged to have sexually harassed several teenage girls.

“The 1990s saw a sudden rise in women in parliament, but even now, only a quarter of politicians are women,” Blair Williams, a research fellow at The Australian National University’s Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, told Al Jazeera.

“Our parliaments are about representation for men, by men. It is a toxic culture that excludes women, resulting in the enabling of what we’ve seen recently.”

Just weeks after child sexual abuse survivor Grace Tame was named Australian of the Year, former Liberal Party staffer Brittany Higgins went public with allegations that she was raped in Parliament House in March 2019.

Higgins had just begun working for minister Linda Reynolds at the time. Less than a month into her role, Higgins says a senior male staffer assaulted her on a couch in Reynolds’ ministerial office late at night. The man was fired the following week for what Reynolds, who is now defence minister, described as a security breach.

Two issues are at the heart of this initial scandal: first, how a young woman could be raped inside Parliament House itself, and second, how the ruling Liberal Party handled the incident.

Higgins said she received little support and was made to feel that reporting the incident to the police would end her career and negatively affect the election that was just a few months away.

Three other women have since come forward with allegations against the same man.

Attorney-general faces questions

Barely a fortnight after Higgins made her allegations, Parliament House was rocked again. This time, a senior minister was accused of raping a 16-year-old woman during a debating competition trip in 1988.

The man was initially not named in the media due to Australia’s strong defamation laws, but after days of rumour, Attorney-General Christian Porter identified himself as the accused. Porter would have been 17 years old at the time of the incident.

Both Porter and Prime Minister Scott Morrison have repeatedly rejected the allegations. Morrison has also so far refused to hold an independent inquiry into whether Porter is a fit and proper person to hold the position of attorney-general, the nation’s first law officer.

“[Porter] is a fine attorney-general,” Morrison told the media on Wednesday. “He is an innocent man under the law.”

Porter’s accuser committed suicide in June 2019, meaning the allegations cannot be taken to a criminal court. Similar problems were encountered during the trial of former Melbourne Archbishop George Pell for child sexual abuse, in which one of two alleged victims had also taken their own life.

Meanwhile, allegations have also emerged against Frank Zumbo, a senior aide to Craig Kelly, an MP for the Liberals. Six young women have made formal police complaints against Zumbo, saying he was physically and verbally inappropriate with them.

One woman, Anna Hobson, was just 16 years old when she interned in Zumbo’s office. Hobson told ABC Australia that young female interns were required to greet Zumbo with hugs and kisses, and that he inappropriately touched her on multiple occasions.

Parliament’s working culture

Zumbo has denied all allegations but has been under police investigation since April 2019. An apprehended violence order that forbids him from going within 100 metres of one former intern has already been granted.

The Morrison government has now appointed Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins to lead a review into parliament’s working culture. She is expected to file a preliminary report by July and the full findings by November.

“In my time working in this area and particularly looking in workplaces over the 30 years, I’ve never seen any moment like this,” Jenkins said in an interview with the ABC.

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