Following more than month of fallout from accusations of sexual assault and harassment by men against women – including massive public demonstrations involving tens of thousands of people across the country – Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been forced into a cabinet reshuffle resulting in the relocation of former Attorney-General Christian Porter to the Science and Industry ministry.
In statement made public on 15 February by former Liberal Party staffer Brittany Higgins, who said she was raped by a male colleague in ministerial office located inside Parliament House in 2019, ignited a firestorm of criticism and sparked further charges of Government cover-up.
Then Minister Porter (while denying the charges) outed himself as the subject of historical rape allegations from 1988; levelled by a posthumous complainant in an extensive dossier sent to senior politicians and press gallery journalists.
Resisting calls for an independent investigation, Government support for the West Australian MP came under more pressure when Minister Porter announced a period of sick leave – only then to launch privately funded defamation suit against the ABC for reporting conducted by the Four Corners program.
On 15 March – coinciding with the beginning of a Parliamentary sitting week – tens of thousands of protesters rallied in more than forty cities and towns across Australia in a self-styled March for Justice against sexism and gendered violence.
The Government came under more pressure when questions from Labor Senator Jenny McAllister in Senate Estimates revealed that Attorney-General Porter had not met once with his own Departmental staff to discuss the Government’s response to the landmark Human Rights Commission investigation into sexual harassment; despite being in receipt of the Respect at Work report for more than a year.
However, fresh evidence of sexual misbehaviour in Parliament House – including video of a male Coalition staffer masturbating on the desk of a female MP – prompted a mea-culpa from the Prime Minister and accelerated plans to reshuffle the cabinet in a desperate attempt to achieve a political reset.
In addition to the creation of a Cabinet taskforce focusing on women’s equality, safety and economic wellbeing, the new Morrison Ministry featured promotions for key women; including Science Minister Karen Andrews who was moved into the all-important Home Affairs portfolio.
Claiming advice from the Solicitor-General regarding the potential conflict of interest between the imminent defamation action and the return from leave of the Attorney-General, Prime Minister Morrison justified the decision to remove Minister Porter from his former portfolio in favour of a new assignment in Science and Industry.
Both Science and Technology Australia (STA) and the Academy of Sciences damned the appointment of Minister Porter with faint praise, preferring instead to laud the contributions and achievements of outgoing Minister Andrews.
Government hopes for respite before the Federal Budget in May might prove forlorn; with the Higgins allegations the subject of a police investigation and no fewer than four inquiries, including an independent review into Commonwealth Parliamentary workplaces conducted by Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins.
Of course, Commissioner Jenkins’s Respect at Work report – the outcome of the National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission and delivered to the Feds in January 2020 – has still to receive a formal response from the Government.
An STA submission to that inquiry included survey results revealing that nearly half of female participants had experienced sexual harassment in Australian science workplaces.
Following the significant public debate around issues of sexual harassment, the CPSU has launched a Safe and Respectful Workplaces survey.
The survey calls for participants to share experiences of relevant policies, procedures, including actions to minimise risk, training and complaint handling processes for sexual harassment in federal public sector workplaces.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732. If you require mental health support, please contact CSIRO EAP on 1300 687 327 or call LifeLine on 131 114.