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Parliament needs a Code of Conduct with sanctions, not more inquiries into sexual harassment

Lachlan Gilbert (UNSW)

Australian politics doesn’t need another report on what needs to be done to fix the problems of bullying and sexual harassment of women in the workplace, argues UNSW Law & Justice’s Scientia Professor Louise Chappell.

Sexual Harassment
Sexual Harassment

“We know what the problems are. And we also know what the solutions are,” she says.

Responding to the news that has engulfed federal politics in recent weeks about former staffer Brittany Higgins’ allegations of sexual assault and more recently, the historical allegations of rape against a sitting federal cabinet minister, Prof. Chappell says there is already a dearth of reports and guidelines on sexual discrimination and harassment in the workplace, not to mention examples of codes of conduct in overseas jurisdictions that address these issues head on.

‘Serious deflection’

“Having not one, but four inquiries on the go is a serious deflection,” Prof. Chappell says in relation to Prime Minister Scott Morrison's decision to initiate four inquiries into the way parliament handles sexual harassment claims.

“What it demonstrates to us is that there's no clear pathway, because if there was, we would only need one inquiry, or we wouldn’t need an inquiry at all because it would have been handled correctly in the first place and sent to the Australian Federal Police.

“Twelve months ago, Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins handed down the Respect@Work report about sexual harassment in the workplace with very clear, sensible guidelines that should apply everywhere. So far, the Minister for Women has done nothing to implement those recommendations, adding more questions about the value of these additional inquiries.

“We don’t need more royal commissions, inquiries and reviews. What we need is a Code of Conduct with strong sanctions that covers sexual harassment and gender disparities, and we need structural change.”

See how it’s done

Prof. Chappell says she has been looking into how other liberal democracies address sexual harassment in the buildings of its law-making institutions. She points to the example of the Parliament of Canada which in 2018 introduced a Code of Conduct for parliamentarians that specifically addressed sexual harassment.

“Canada looks way out in front here in terms of introducing a code of conduct that applies to parliamentarians themselves, but it does not apply more broadly to staffers, and disciplinary procedures are still dealt with by party whips.

“But the fact that there are some sanctions to be applied when these codes are broken is really important.”

And if the Australian government needed any inspiration from overseas, there are also what Prof. Chappell describes as very strong and clear codes of conduct outlined by the United Nations and the Inter-Parliamentary Union – a global organisation of national parliaments to which Australia is a signatory.


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