Australian sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins said she believed Australia was now “at a turning point” in public conversations about sexual harassment and assault, stressing the need for a “victim-centered” approach and response.
Jenkins has been appointed by the Morrison government to lead an overview of workplace culture in parliament, the review is triggered by rape charges leveled by former government staffer Brittany Higgins against coworkers.
The sex discrimination commissioner told the ABC on Sunday that the situation was changing. “While I’ve worked in this field and specifically looking at work for 30 years, I’ve never seen a moment like this,” Jenkins said.
He said that cultural change was happening “all over the place”.
“I think our community is changing, so we are at a turning point – that’s how I feel.”
In response to the lingering furor sparked by Higgins’ accusations, Jenkins has been asked to consider legislative, cultural, structural or other barriers to reporting incidents at parliamentary work, as well as examining current responses and reporting mechanisms in the parliamentary workplace.
In addition, he will consider the implementation of the Laws on Members of Parliament – laws under which political staff are employed – and “assess the extent to which current laws, policies, processes and practices promote or impede a safe and respectful workplace”.
Higgins originally filed a police complaint following the alleged assault in March 2019, but he dropped the move a month later as the government prepared to go to elections. He said he felt that pursuing a complaint would end his career as a political officer.
In television interview in mid-FebruaryHiggins said the handling of her complaint by her then employer Linda Reynolds and senior staff, including some in Scott Morrison’s office, made her feel as though she was creating political problems for the government.
“There’s a strange culture of silence at parties and you don’t … the idea of talking about this kind of problem, especially around [an election] campaign, just like disappointing the team, you are not a team player, “said Higgins Ten.
Jenkins hinted at a possible end point of his investigation – which will be reported publicly in November – is a new, “more independent” complaints mechanism for parliamentary staff to deal with human resource issues.
The sex discrimination commissioner said he was not in a position to say for sure what the outcome of his investigation would be, but based on the comparative work he saw internationally, more independence seemed a logical direction to help change the dynamics of power in parliamentary workplaces. .
Jenkins said it was important to examine labor instruments that regulate parliamentary staff because their conditions do not match the human resource norms that exist in the company.
“We often hear MPs say [the workplace is] unique and everyone thinks they are unique, but I think there are some unique things, “said Jenkins.
“One is the layer of job regulation because it’s very unusual who has the power to hire and fire – all of that is a little different from society in general, so I think that’s relevant.”
Jenkins was asked on Sunday if there should be mandatory reporting of sexual harassment allegations to the police. Australia’s federal police commissioner, Reece Kershaw, has done it urge lawmakers to report on any allegations to the authorities immediately, “with regard to the rights and privacy of the victim, and regardless of the jurisdiction in which the alleged behavior occurred”.
In a recent letter to lawmakers, Kershaw said any delay in reporting a crime could “result in loss of key evidence, continuation of violations and / or re-attack by the alleged perpetrator” and also had “very real potential for compromising rights. victims and other parties suspected of committing violations ”.
Jenkins says the approach should be victim-centered. “It has to be an individual decision,” he said.
But he said his review would look into the matter. Jenkins said reporting “shouldn’t be taken out of the victim’s hands, but, again, I think our investigation will look primarily at that question because I think it’s a very sinister matter for ministers about what they should do”.
He said his review would pick up submissions from interested parties, which could be kept confidential. He said harassment complaints filed during the process would not be examined “to find an outcome of justice” but to consider what systemic changes are needed to improve the workplace environment.
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